Kids and Cable: Teaching Regulatory Circumvention
Kit Hughes / Colorado State University

Promotional guide produced by the cable industry to promote their quality kids’ programming. CC75 folder 6. The Cable Center, Denver, CO.
Promotional guide produced by the cable industry to promote their quality kids’ programming.

Controversy over television violence’s impact on children seems quaint—a relic of a pre-internet age when the broadcast networks dominated discussion of the mediated public sphere. And yet, the effects of these discussions remain crucial for understanding far more than whether watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (syndication, 1987-90; CBS, 1990-96) turned me, a civilian in the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, into an antisocial weirdo.

The advocacy and legislative work that positioned quality children’s programming as a public good paved the way for the cable industry to position itself as a public service leader in the 1990s—at the very the same time cable pushed to maintain the deregulatory/anti-equity environment fostered by Ronald Reagan’s FCC appointee Mark Fowler.

The Failures of Broadcasting

If we look at the primary targets of pressure groups and federal legislation from the 1970s to the 1990s, the debate over children’s television seems confined to the networks. Responding to longstanding fears over TV violence and its effects, the Surgeon General’s 1972 study of television violence focused the attention of disparate groups that found common cause in reforming the content of what the industry called “Kidvid.” Whether pushing against ads during children’s programming (Action for Children’s Television) or fighting indecency and the existence of gay and lesbian people on television (Parents Television Council, the Coalition for Better Television), Kidvid campaigns gained wide press attention for their sponsor boycotts and calls for broadcaster self-regulation.[ (( For thorough analysis of these campaigns, which often differed in their aims and strategy, see Heather Hendershot, Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), especially chapters 1-3 and Allison Perlman, Public Interests: Media Advocacy and Struggles over U.S. Television (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016): 123-150. ))]

Legislatively, one of the key victories of children’s television advocates was the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (CTA), which asserted for the record that licensees “should provide programming that serves the special needs of children” as part of their public service duties. The CTA required stations to limit commercials during kids’ shows and established a (short-lived) fund to provide grants for quality educational programming (the rather ambitiously titled National Endowment for Children’s Educational Television). The final provision of CTA was the “consideration of children’s television service in broadcast license renewal.” While refraining from mandating a specific amount of children’s television (in its early years), the Act suggested that quality children’s programming would factor in to the license renewal process.

Broadcasters’ unwillingness to comply to the spirit of the law resulted in licensees’ acrobatic refashioning of the purpose and content of their existing programming. Suddenly, according to broadcaster’s license renewal applications, Yogi Bear (syndicated, 1961-62) teaches kids not to steal, the Flintstones (ABC, 1960-66) teaches history, and Biker Mice from Mars (syndicated, 1993-96) teaches caring for others (after all, the Biker Mice routinely defend their home planet from destructive invaders). Following the CTA’s impact provides entertaining reading; the obvious subterfuge of licensees made for good copy in extensive news coverage criticizing the excesses of television (see below for more). Indeed, the early failure of the Act to compel quality television was more of a story than the act itself, transforming broadcasting into an ideal foil for cable’s Kidvid campaigns.

Table depicting program titles of regularly scheduled standard-length educational programming not specifically designed for children
All of the above programs were cited by at least one broadcaster as part of their “educational” offerings during license renewal. While researching policy can be dry, one way to work against the tedium in this case is to play “what educational value, this?” Perfect Strangers (how to engage cultural differences), Beverly Hills 90210 (class inequality), Ten O’Clock News (if it bleeds, it leads).

Ultimately, while it concerned the television content of my own youth, I’m not terribly interested in material changes made (or not) to Kidvid in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, I want to begin to trace how these large-scale debates over broadcast children’s television provided the ground on which the cable industry staged a bid to become the public interest standard-bearer in the same period it pushed vigorously for deregulation.

And Cable’s Response

In short, I argue that children’s “quality” television was the ideal public interest issue for an industry that built its appeal to consumers on programming distinction while pitching narrowcast audiences to advertisers. But how did the cable industry mobilize these fundamental characteristics of U.S. cable in public campaigns?

One initiative of the National Cable Television Association
(NCTA)—the industry’s major trade association—was the National Television
Violence Study (NTVS). A 3-year, 4-university project commencing in 1993, the
NTVS performed an extensive content analysis of broadcast and cable programming
to track violence on television and explore its potential effects on children.
Underwritten by NCTA to the tune of $3 million, the study provided the cable
industry a mechanism to respond to increasing public anxiety over television violence
(legislators introduced seven different proposals to curb television violence
in 1993 alone) without directly threatening programmers’ use of edgier content
to attract subscribers.

I certainly don’t disparage either the quality of work or sincere dedication of the researchers involved in the study, which was undertaken independently of NCTA. However, I do suggest that NCTA likely saw a “violence and children’s television” study as an ideal mechanism to showcase cable’s “public interest” value relative to the broadcast networks. As a function of narrowcasting and a larger stable of national programming distributors, cable boasted C-SPAN, Nickelodeon, A&E, and CNN (among others). Despite its share of programming violence, cable was always going to look good in comparison to broadcast television when it came to children-specific programming. Indeed, yet another study from 1993, the Violence Index compiled by George Gerbner and others, indicated there was “substantially less” violence in children’s programming on cable—though cable hosted more violence overall.[ (( These studies were routinely invoked in popular and academic discussions of television violence. See, for example, Stephen J. Kim’s “‘Viewer Discretion Is Advised’: A Structural Approach to the Issue of Television Violence,” Pennsylvania Law Review 142, no 4 (1994): 1383-1441, which also gives a nice overview of the legislative activity surrounding the issue of television violence. ))]

All of this talk of television violence—and quality cable television—supported the NCTA’s second major “public service” offering, Cable in the Classroom. Founded in 1989 amid growing public dissatisfaction with the impacts of the deregulatory 1984 Cable Act, CIC allowed educators to tape commercial-free programming aired before the regular programming day freed of copyright claims.

The opening and closing bumpers of CIC, which indicated educational content available for taping and classroom use.

CIC provided the cable industry with a means to offload their own “public service” onto schools. There, critiques of cable’s handling of violence and discrimination could be addressed through educational programming for middle and high school students, rather than structural changes in ownership or greater franchisee investment in in public access, educational, and government channels. As the president of the New York Cable Association put it in a letter to Jones Intercable:

image description
Letter to Greg Liptak, May 25, 1990. CC124, Box 4, folder 30. The Cable Center, Denver, CO.

The stakes of CIC—which extend beyond increased control of media infrastructure—coincide with those I discussed in my previous column. Despite lacking the overt commercialization of Channel One, CIC (which continued until 2014) nevertheless helped redefine educational television as the province of private media companies. Here, yet another bit of context is crucial: the same pro-corporate austerity administration that passed the deregulatory 1984 Cable Act also starved public schools of funding, leading to a widely-covered “crisis” in education. CIC, a public-private partnership, was perfectly pitched to solve a crisis with the seeds of its own making (a state that takes money from public coffers to subsidize private business interests). Old hat by now, the idea that businesses should have any say in the process of education has been repeated so many times that watching some nationally-distributed A&E documentary on the space race seems rather benign compared to charter schools, careerism in higher ed, and for-profit universities. However, like the friendly “Market Commentary” and NYSE films of last time, these initiatives fit capital’s attempts to cloak itself as disinterested teacher. Whether to develop our faculties to serve the interests of financialization or to short-circuit regulatory attempts to create a more equitable media landscape, this is not education for the public interest.

Image Credits:

  1. Promotional guide produced by the cable industry to promote their quality kids’ programming. CC75 folder 6. The Cable Center, Denver, CO. (Author’s personal collection)
  2. All of the above programs were cited by at least one broadcaster as part of their “educational” offerings during license renewal. While researching policy can be dry, one way to work against the tedium in this case is to play “what educational value, this?”  Perfect Strangers (how to engage cultural differences), Beverly Hills 90210 (class inequality), Ten O’Clock News (if it bleeds, it leads).
  3. Letter to Greg Liptak, May 25, 1990. CC124, Box 4, folder 30. The Cable Center, Denver, CO. (Author’s personal collection)


From Crazy Rich Asians to Netflix: The “Rebirth” of Romantic Comedies, pt. 2
Katherine E. Morrissey / San Francisco State University

Author's screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix
Screenshot of the Romantic Comedy category on Netflix

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

In 2018, the media conversation about romantic comedies shifted. That summer, one Thrillist headline declared, “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre” (Zuckerman). In August 2018, Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) was number one at the domestic box office for three weeks (“Crazy Rich Asians”). An adaptation of a 2013 Kevin Kwan novel, the film grossed $174.5 million at the domestic box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). That same week, Netflix released their To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018), an adaptation of a 2014 Jenny Han novel. While exact numbers on Netflix content are hard to come by, the company reports the film is “one of our most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing” (Netflix).

Both of these films feature Asian-American heroines, an important step away from the rom-com’s traditionally white protagonists. However, both films are clearly aligned with the more conservative neo-traditional approach I discussed in my previous column. More than anything else, these films intrigue me because of how and where they were successful. Crazy Rich Asians did well domestically but disappointed overseas. To All the Boys was a success on Netflix, not in movie theaters. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys indicate two new distribution strategies rom-com creators are experimenting with: rom-com as global media franchise and rom-com as a digital streaming genre. These films remind us of the genre’s ongoing struggles: Efforts to decouple romance from its white heterosexual defaults and efforts to construct romantic comedy films which work as global products with long-term digital lives.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians struggled overseas, earning $64 million at the international box office (“Crazy Rich Asians”). This is significant given the initial bidding war surrounding the project. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, book author Kevin Kwan explains the project was seen as an opportunity to reach the Chinese market (Sun and Ford). As the first book in a trilogy, the story also had potential as a larger franchise. However, when the film eventually made to China it did terribly there, earning only $1.6 million (“Crazy Rich Asians”). Numerous reasons have been cited for this: The film’s Chinese premiere was delayed until late November. There was a disconnect between the film’s pan-Asian cast and the story’s Singaporean characters. Finally, the film celebrated the “crazy rich” during a time when the Chinese economy was slowing (McGregor). These are just some of the reasons why the film may not have done well in China. Ultimately, however, the film’s struggles overseas raises questions about the viability of romantic comedies in Hollywood given the current focus on film franchises that promise international box office success.

Still from Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)

Don’t get me wrong, Crazy Rich Asians did important work in the North American market, disproving the tired industry claim that a film with a predominantly Asian cast won’t sell. However, Crazy Rich Asians was a test, it was an experiment in selling a rom-com across a range of global markets. In that sense, the experiment failed.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Netflix reports To All the Boys was one of their “most viewed original films ever” (Netflix). A sequel, P.S. I Love You (Fimognari, 2020), will be released in February 2020 and a third film is anticipated (Takeuchi). Netflix launched To All the Boys as part of their “summer of love” campaign (Andrews; Feldman; Fern et al.; Grady). This set of roughly 11 different films included Set it Up (2018) directed by Claire Scanlon, Catching Feelings (2018), a South African romantic comedy written and directed by Kagiso Lediga, and the Chinese romantic drama Us and Them (2018) directed by Rene Liu. These films featured celebrities well-known to American audiences (for example, Taye Diggs and Lucy Lui in Set it Up), but also included less familiar international actors and directors. The overall mix of stories encompassed conventional romantic comedies, serious romantic dramas, and films like Like Father (Miller, 2018) which focus more on the relationship between a woman and her estranged father.

One of the most interesting features of To All the Boys is the larger range of Netflix content it’s a part of. Rather than relying on one individual film to draw viewers into theaters, Netflix relies on a database populated with many different films to attract many different subscribers from around the world. Since 2018, the number of romantic comedies on Netflix has continued to proliferate. However, when you consider the mix of titles included in summer of love or look at the mix of films included in Netflix’s romantic comedy category, it is clear that Netflix constructs and understands genre taxonomies differently than media scholars might. When the Netflix database loads its list of romantic comedies, international boundaries and time periods are ignored. Here, strict adherence to the “meet, lose, get” plotline is not required.

Still from To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)

One of genre’s traditional cultural functions has been to mediate cultural tensions. Popular genres air social grievances, then work to resolve these frictions and lead their characters towards compromise. Traditionally, this cultural conversation happened en masse as large audiences engaged with individual stories. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys represent two ways contemporary media enters a broader cultural conversation. The Netflix version of romantic comedy, as a malleable category that can be personalized to mean many things to many people, is the version of romantic comedy that fits more cleanly within emerging media distribution and consumption patterns.

I’d love to point to the version of romance on Netflix and say, “Look! We’re diversifying romance!” However, it’s important to be careful here. To All the Boys represents another experiment with selling romantic comedy. It’s part of Netflix’s efforts to make its content feel personalized, to market itself in a range of different countries, and to offer the illusion of endless choice and variety. In actuality, Netflix has a limited set of products to offer its subscribers. Part of the genius of Netflix is the way the interface is designed to offer a seemingly infinite array of products while also appearing tailor-made for each individual customer.

Media industry demands for globally market-safe franchises signal long-term problems for the romantic comedy in movie theaters. However, the success of To All the Boys suggests an important move for romantic comedy, one away from movie theaters and onto smaller screens. In my next column, I will discuss another recent rebirth of romantic comedy: the rom-com film retold as a streaming series. Specifically, Hulu’s 2019 adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral (2019–).

Image Credits:

  1. The Romantic Comedy category on Netflix. (author’s screenshot)
  2. Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018)
  3. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Johnson, 2018)


Andrews, Jared. “What Netflix’s ‘Summer of Love’ Does Right.” Vox Magazine, 29 Aug. 2018,

“Crazy Rich Asians.” Box Office Mojo, Accessed 25 Jan. 2020.

Feldman, Dana. “It’s The Summer Of Love: Netflix Releases 6 New Original RomComs.” Forbes, 20 June 2018,

Fern, Marriska, et al. “Netflix’s Summer of Love Movies to Binge-Watch.” Tribute.Ca, Accessed 5 July 2019.

Grady, Constance. “Netflix Bet on the Long-Ignored Romantic Comedy This Summer. It Paid Off.” Vox, 17 Oct. 2018,

McGregor, Tom. “Commentary: Why Crazy Rich Asians Was the Last Movie China Wanted to Watch.” CNA, 7 Dec. 2018,

Netflix. October 16, 2018 Shareholder Letter. Accessed 10 July 2019.

Sun, Rebecca, and Rebecca Ford. “The Stakes Are High for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — And That’s the Point.” The Hollywood Reporter, 1 Aug. 2018,

Takeuchi, Craig. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 3 to Start Shooting in Vancouver in July.” The Georgia Straight, 24 June 2019,

Zuckerman, Esther. “The Rom-Com Returns: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and Netflix Revived a Beloved Movie Genre.” Thrillist, 23 Aug. 2018,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Other” Rom-Coms

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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


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

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

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

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

“Runaway Bride (1999).” Box Office Mojo, Accessed 19 Oct. 2019.

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

In Toon with the Times: Diversity in American Commercial Animation
Mihaela Mihailova / University of Michigan

Diversity in new animation
Contemporary series bringing diversity to animation.

In December 2016, The Hollywood Reporter published a roundtable on the topic of “avoiding ethnic stereotypes and how to ‘break the mold’ of princesses” in the animation industry featuring seven White men. The backlash was instantaneous, addressing the inherent absurdity of inviting this particular group of “top toon creators” to reflect on questions of diversity and highlighting the glaring omission of obvious candidates such as Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) and co-directed its sequel, or Gina Shay, who produced Trolls (2016). While this animation “manel” is part of a larger problem, it is directly indicative of systemic issues in the American animation industry, wherein women make up only 20% of animation creatives, despite comprising 60% of animation students.

While demographic data on animation labor equality remains undeniably grim, questions of diversity and inclusion in animated productions — often conspicuously absent from broader cultural discourse on media representation — are worth a closer look. Firstly, because even though contemporary commercial animation often features more diverse casts than live-action films, this tends to fly under the radar of most critics. And secondly, because common misconceptions about the medium — from outdated notions of its target audiences to a narrow understanding of the scope of its content — often preclude a serious consideration of animation’s potential as a platform for inclusivity.[ ((There are, of course, exceptions. See, for example, Johnson Cheu, ed., Diversity in Disney Films: Critical Essays on Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality and Disability (McFarland & Company, 2013).))]

Even animation critics are not immune to this tendency to marginalize the artform by overstating the implications of its otherness. Take, for instance, this response to the aforementioned roundtable debacle, which describes diversity in animation as a “tough concept to nail down.” According to the author, animated films are a “different matter altogether” because their “marked separation from reality” ensures that “any traits of diversity are capable of going unnoticed unless they either made explicit [sic] or designed that way to begin with.”

Let us put aside the fact that animation’s relationship to reality is the subject of an entire disciplinary subfield, animated documentary studies[ (( Annabelle Honness Roe, Animated Documentary (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).))]; the use of medium specificity in an attempt to render one of the most pervasive media forms of our time immune to pressing social justice concerns begs the question — is diversity in animation really such a complicated matter? Or can toons — in all their colorful, kinetic, sometimes anthropomorphic glory — reflect the experiences of underrepresented groups and celebrate marginalized identities just as meaningfully as live action?

Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated example of marginalized experiences and identities finding screen space.

A little Bertie told me that they can. Lisa Hanawalt’s Tuca & Bertie (2019), an adult-oriented Netflix show that centers on the friendship between a toucan and a song thrush, has recently made waves for being a rare breed — a female-centric, woman-led show in an animated TV landscape dominated by men. Voiced by stars of color (Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, and Steven Yeun), and celebrated as an “ode to female friendship, healing, and survival,” Tuca & Bertie has simultaneously modelled animation’s potential to feature diverse acting talent and its capacity to tackle topics commonly sidelined in mainstream productions, or else rarely presented from a feminist perspective (as sexual harassment and trauma are, in this case). While this particular show is addressed to grown-up viewers, a number of recent kid-friendly animated programs have contributed enormously to gender and LGBTQ representation in children’s media, highlighting the ways in which animation’s broad reach can bring inclusivity and diversity to the forefront of youth culture. Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix, 2018-present), which features a predominantly female cast, offers a family-oriented take on female empowerment and sisterhood, while also depicting the loving relationship of a main character’s two dads. Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013-present) has been praised for continuously dismantling gender norms, celebrating non-binary identities and queer icons of color, and depicting the first same-sex wedding in a mainstream children’s show. Finally, Amazon’s kids-oriented Danger & Eggs (2015-17), broke ground as a queer-inclusive cartoon co-created by Shadi Petosky, the only openly trans showrunner in American animation. The series, which features several queer characters voiced by LGBTQ talent, culminates in a season finale set at a Pride celebration, during which a young girl (voiced by trans rights activist Jazz Jennings) sings a song about her first day attending school “as her authentic self,” marking a milestone for trans inclusivity in animated TV.

Danger & Eggs's Pride Parade finale
Amazon’s Danger & Eggs Celebrates Pride.

While these shows are all produced by streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon or TV channels such as Cartoon Network, in the past decade, online crowdfunding platforms have enabled independent animation creators — women and people of color in particular — to directly respond to fans’ desire for a greater variety of diverse content in the medium. In 2013, Natasha Allegri’s Kickstarter campaign for Bee and PuppyCat (2013-present), her manga-influenced show about a young woman and her magical four-legged companion, raised almost $900,000, demonstrating the need for adult-oriented animation which “puts [women], their experiences, and their tastes first.” More recently, Hair Love (2019), an animated short about a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair, attracted nearly $300,000 on Kickstarter, exceeding its original funding target fourfold. Despite being conceived as a festival short, the film has since been picked up for distribution for Sony Animation, playing in theaters ahead of The Angry Birds Movie 2 (Van Orman, 2019). Creator Matthew A. Cherry has explicitly linked the overwhelmingly positive response to his project to the importance of representation, specifically the film’s positive portrayal of Black fatherhood.

The Kickstarter-funded Hair Love (2019) exponentially exceeded its funding goal.

Despite this recent push for more inclusive content, animation is not immune to many of the issues that have plagued commercial American media’s approaches to diversity and representation, including queerbaiting, tokenism, and other half-hearted, superficial gestures towards representation. The recent fan outcry against botched LGBTQ representation attempts in Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender (2016-18) productively illustrates the intensity and breadth of impact (both positive and negative) that a TV-Y7 cartoon can have on marginalized audiences of all ages. During a much-publicized San Diego Comic Con panel ahead of the show’s seventh season, showrunners Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery revealed that Takashi “Shiro” Shirogane, one of the show’s central characters, is gay, and teased a storyline involving his former partner, Adam. This news was greeted with an outpouring of fan enthusiasm, which quickly turned to accusations of queerbaiting and references to the “bury your gays” trope as soon as the season aired, never exploring their relationship and revealing that Adam had died while Shiro was away. To make matters worse, in an attempt to smooth things over through what has been aptly described as an instance of “epilogue representation,” the series finale’s post-script features a tacked-on wedding between Shiro and an extremely minor male character. This insensitive, perfunctory approach to queer representation ultimately sparked important discussions of authenticity and pandering, becoming a warning to creators to “stop preemptively outing their characters” in a manipulative attempt to generate positive buzz.

Whether drawn or filmed, representation matters — and its absence can be keenly felt. After Netflix unexpectedly (and inexplicably) cancelled Tuca & Bertie after its first season, fans of Hanawalt’s cartoon quickly took to twitter to express their dismay and outrage on behalf of a show that focuses — with a notable degree of honesty and compassion — on women’s experiences in a way that remains rare to see on the small screen. In particular, tweets by women, such as the one pictured below,

Tweet supporting Tuca & Bertie
An example of the strong social media outrage at Tuca & Bertie‘s cancellation.

commonly noted the dearth of female-oriented content available to them, while highlighting the show’s importance from the perspective of representation. At the same time, Tuca & Bertie’s cancellation brought renewed attention to a larger Netflix trend of prematurely “axing shows led by people of color and women,” serving as a sobering reminder that, in the broader context of diversity in contemporary TV, one bird show does not a summer make. Still, as even a relatively cursory overview of feminist, queer-inclusive, and race-conscious animated content can demonstrate, diversity in animation is not a tough concept to nail down. Women, people of color, and queer creators have been nailing it.

Image Credits:

  1. New series bringing diversity to animation. (Bee and PuppyCat image from Polygon; Steven Universe from The New York Times; She-Ra and the Princesses of Power from Decider; Tuca & Bertie from Deadline)
  2. Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie, an animated example of marginalized experiences and identities finding screen space.
  3. Amazon’s Danger & Eggs‘s Pride Parade Finale.
  4. The Kickstarter-funded Hair Love (2019) exponentially exceeded its funding goal.
  5. An example of the strong social media outrage at Tuca & Bertie‘s cancellation.


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

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

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

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

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

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

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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

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

McDormand and Streep at the 2018 Academy Awards


A young woman’s life is cut short by violence and trauma. Her strong, attractive, middle-aged white mother, unable to set aside her grief, cannot forget this tragedy that their small midwestern town seems to have forgotten. The mother uses all of her savings and the help of a young black man to confront the local sheriff. The plot weaves in an untimely cancer diagnosis, a fire that destroys evidence, alcoholism, and an abusive ex-husband. Sound like a Lifetime movie? Perhaps. But it’s actually the stuff of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and for her performance, the actress who played this grief-stricken mother, Frances McDormand, won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Actress.

In her acceptance speech, McDormand called not just for the voices of women in Hollywood to be heard, but for their projects to be financially optioned. “Look around ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed. Don’t talk to us about it at the parties, invite us into your office in a couple days or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.” She ended her speech with a rallying cry—two words that threw some executives into a tizzy and sent most people to Google: “inclusion rider.”

McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider

A rider, a stipulation sometimes placed within an artist’s contract with a media company, puts a particular demand on the legal agreement that, if violated, allows the artist legal recourse to walk away from a deal. Top creative talent—whether actors, musicians, or directors—have invoked riders, in part, as a way to demand respect (or claim diva status) and feel less like employees and more like artists. Common or outrageous examples of such demands include private chefs, no brown M&Ms in the candy bowl, time off to golf during the workweek, or an endless supply of premium cigars.[ (( Desta, J. 2017. “8 Movie Stars with Unbelievable Contract Clauses.” Vanity Fair. August 10, 2017.))] In contrast, McDormand’s applied a rider to ensure justice—financial and professional justice for her cast and crew. McDormand called on the top-tier industry insiders assembled at the Academy Awards ceremony to establish contractually-mandated inclusivity and equity.

McDormand’s call for inclusion riders excited a conversation in the industry, the press, and popular culture about inclusivity and about the potential for powerful individuals to make transformative change within work cultures and communities. We believe wholeheartedly that every individual working within the media industries—actually, every individual—should do everything in their power to make workplaces more equitable. But seeing inclusion riders as an answer to Hollywood’s problems leads to further questions. All riders will not be written the same way—and the fine print is vital to their impact. So, how inclusive will these contracts be? Will they demand 50-50 gender hiring of cast and crew–or be progressive enough to think beyond gender binaries? Will they look for sustainable equity or just, as the Time Up X2 movement suggests, doubling numbers this year? Will they consider race or ethnicity? Will they consider what roles or leadership positions those who are traditionally underrepresented will take in these productions? What else is in the fine print?[ (( One scholar tweeted out an easily downloadable inclusion rider, but the document stipulated that signers give that particular scholar unique access to their production data for research purposes This addition of a third party to a contract could mislead signers or impede adoption.

Kalpana Kotagal, a class action litigator and co-developer of the inclusion rider that MacDormand referenced, called a rider “an important piece of getting justice” and “a crucial tool for corporate accountability.”[ ((Dishman, L. 2018. “This Is One Of The Women Behind Hollywood’s Inclusion Rider.” Fast Company. March 22, 2018.))] A rider, as Kotagal says, is a compelling and powerful instrument, but in isolation, it is not a solution. Hollywood’s gender problems cannot be solved solely by individuals who use their star power to effect change on a project-by-project basis.[ ((Dvorak, P. 2018. “She wrote Hollywood’s ‘inclusion rider.’ But she fights for women at Walmart, chicken plants and hospitals, too.” Washington Post Blogs, March 8, 2018.))] Helen Wood and Heather Savigny recently noted in a shared keynote address at the University of Greenwich, there are deeply troubling neoliberal assumptions that underpin the idea that individuals can make a real-world impact and meaningfully transform systemic institutional sexism, racism, or classism.[ ((Wood, H. and H. Savigny. 2018. “Troubling Trailblazing: A Politics of Care.” Trailblazing Women On and Off Screen Conference. University of Greenwich, UK. June 19, 2018.))] One individual cannot unmoor a neoliberal meritocracy that systematically privileges white, able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, upper-middle class, college-educated men and disadvantages everyone else. Using feminist moral philosophy, Wood and Savigny instead called for a politics of care that would harness teams, groups, and organizations to work collectively to bring real and lasting change to companies, institutions, and systems.

With this politics of care in mind, individuals and companies must think beyond hiring practices noted in riders to consider how riders still might exclude those who do not have the access to apply for positions on production crews. Could a rider ever go so far as to demand reconsideration of how creative labor is organized and structured so that the culture of work is more equitable and inclusive? Wood and Savigny rephrase economist Milton Friedman’s famous quotation that “before there can be equity there must be freedom” to assert that “before there can be freedom, there must be care.” Care has been systematically undervalued—and without care for the well-being of others, Wood and Savigny state, true equity cannot be achieved. Using this logic, an inclusion rider forces a conversation and some action, but it must work in conjunction with a politics of care—or, at the very least within the current neoliberal economies of the media industries, to build or facilitate a semblance of corporate responsibility. Unless a vision for change is both action-oriented and has financial support—backed not only by powerful individuals within the organization but also by institutional policy—its chance for lasting impact is profoundly compromised.

Within the context of the highly conglomerated, capitalist system of television production that dominates the American market, what actions on screen and behind the scenes (from the corporate office to the set) highlight equity, justice, and care? In thinking about a company best positioned to implement these ideals, we arrived at Lifetime, the television network that has the for last 30 years branded itself as the dedicated network for women. In this two part series, we map how the network has found its way to an increasingly inclusive and compelling model of media made by and for diverse women. This first article follows Lifetime’s early history up to 2015. The second article, coming out next month, will explore how Lifetime’s Broad Focus initiative has transformed the network and how recent series, from UnREAL to Surviving R. Kelly, represent examples of how the network is reimagining what women—and others—who are increasingly interested in watching nuanced, representative, and engaging stories about women—want and/or need to see in 2019 and beyond.

The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have placed gender equity and justice at the center of many cultural, political, economic, academic, and pop cultural discussions about gender in the United States. These conversations have expanded cultural understandings of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, and served to let women of all ages, races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, professions, and political affiliations know that they are far from alone in navigating these harrowing experiences. Lifetime is advantageously positioned to advocate for women in all the ways a powerful, women-centric television network should, by considering its practices around employment—on screen and behind the scenes—in its offices, and in its boardrooms.

At this time in Lifetime’s trajectory, its brand is well-known, but not particularly well-respected; in order to have the market influence it desires, Lifetime must invest in making the brand as well regarded as it is recognizable. By embracing the cultural moment and investing more deeply in developing systems of care, creative autonomy, and equity that have already been applied at various moments in its history, Lifetime could have a stable platform from which to enact meaningful change, reflect more nuanced and inclusive explorations of “women’s stories,” and recast its brand as one to be enjoyed by audiences and emulated by peers.

The Lifetime Television Network, which grew to prominence as “the network for women,”[ ((Meehan, E.R. and J. Byars. 2000. “Telefeminism: How Lifetime Got Its Groove, 1984–1997.” Television and New Media 1:1: 33–51.))] sold itself to audiences as a safe space for women to see and hear their own stories. Lifetime’s broadly constructed target market—women of all ages, races, classes and geographies—created a difficult executional conundrum: how to appeal to all women. Network executives resolved the dilemma by focusing on 18 to 49 year-old-women, a well-known and profitable segment that was easy to sell to advertisers.

As the Lifetime Network bolstered its brand identity and developed signature offerings, it seized upon the winning formula of the Lifetime Movie. These movies were regularly criticized—often for being overwrought, unbelievable melodramas. But audiences tuned in. On the level of plot, Lifetime’s movies were delivering pablum, but between the lines, they were offering something Lifetime’s target market couldn’t resist: justice for women. Justice they weren’t getting at home, at school, at work, or from the legal system. Any wild tale that culminated in some semblance of justice was vindicating, validating, and thrilling. And while its heroines were often brutally victimized, its movies gave viewers access to a world in which justice could, and would, prevail. The formula worked. As Heather Hundley observed: “Ten years after it began, Lifetime was in 59 million households and was the eighth­ most-watched basic cable network in prime time, but most importantly, it was first in one of its key demographics: 18- to 49-year-old women.”[ ((Hundley, H. “The Evolution of Gendercasting: The Lifetime Television Network—‘Television for Women.’” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 29.4: 174–181.))]

Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.

Lifetime, like most television networks, has mainly focused on external branding efforts—to cable carriers, advertisers, and audiences. But during its history, a few powerful and well-intentioned individuals have made compelling efforts to change the brand from within. In 2007, Andrea Wong’s first act as the network’s new president was to meet and listen to all 500 of her employees as they talked about perceived opportunities and challenges at Lifetime.[ ((Chang, C., W Guttentag, and R. Kramer. 2008. “Lifetime Networks: Andrea Wong” Stanford Graduate School of Business, EM5.))] In engaging these extended conversations with employees across the network, Wong learned that most felt they did not have the authority to make decisions. In response, she encouraged them to act, arguing that, from her perspective, making mistakes was preferable to inaction. As Wong worked to change the programming of “the women in peril network,” she noticed the women behind the scenes were also in peril and sought to give them agency.[ ((Ibid.))] Wong captured something vital about how women in the media industries were experiencing the workplace and took compassionate action to build care into daily corporate life. Sadly, her efforts were short-lived for a number of reasons, including that she was just one individual trying to fix an ingrained, elaborate process problem. But her management approach to corporate climate was a thoughtful and compelling way of making her employees feel seen, heard, and valued. Wong’s approach may have also encouraged Lifetime employees to, in marketing terms, “live the brand” and see the network more completely as both for and about women.

Wong, who had earned an MBA at Stanford prior to joining Lifetime,[ ((Ibid.))] appreciated the depth and the value of internal (or employee) branding—whereby companies regularly articulate their brand mission and values to employees to create better alignment between corporate mission and employee action.[ ((A recent example of a company trying to realign with its mission and action would be Starbucks’ decision to close its stores on May 29 2018, for emergency training about racial bias .))] One company that has done this particularly well is Southwest Airlines. A Harvard Business Review article,[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] and a business case study of the company,[ ((Miles, S.J. and W.G. Mangold. 2005. “Positioning Southwest Airlines through employee branding” Business Horizons. 48: 535—545.))] explore Southwest’s commitment to engineering the brand from the inside out, sending clear and consistent messages to both internal and external audiences about the brand’s mission and values. The article notes that Southwest goes so far as to screen job candidates not only for their professional skills, but also “on a scale of one to five on seven traits corresponding to the brand’s core values.”[ ((Mitchell, Colin. “Selling the Brand Inside” Harvard Business Review January 2002.))] By interviewing with its mission in mind, Southwest is able to recruit and hire employees whose personal values and personalities align with Southwest’s systematic and progressive way of doing business. Lifetime could consider hiring this carefully and deliberately to achieve its own organizational goals.

As Lifetime has struggled to be more inclusive on screen and behind the scenes, it has succeeded in some ways and faltered in others. In 2012, Lifetime began phasing out “Television For Women” to make way for its new slogan, “Your Life. Your Time.” This move was designed to make the network more inviting to those not yet interested in or committed to the brand. Part of this meant expanding its focus beyond white women.[ ((Amanda Lotz’s (2004) study of the early Lifetime original series, I’ll Fly Away, argues that in part because of creative differences between writers and network executives, the representation of women of color on the series, only went skin-deep. The authenticity the series sought faltered in its execution.))] As Newman notes “what often went unsaid in previous discussions of their brand was that Lifetime’s generic woman was actually a white woman.”[ ((Newman, E.L. 2016. “Conclusion–Lifetime at Thirty: Leading the Way for Women and Television.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 171-192.))] At some level, the network itself realized the myopic whiteness of its brand and started actively recruiting women of color as creative talent to help the network cultivate inclusion and creative autonomy throughout its ranks in recent years.

In 2012, the network remade the film Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, drawing in 6.5 million viewers and strong reviews,[ ((Andreeva, N. 2012. “Steel Magnolias Remake Posts Ratings Records For Lifetime, Draws 6.5 Million.” Deadline. October 8. 2012.))] but this was a continuation of a superficial approach to representation. In 2013, Devious Maids, an original series created by Marc Cherry, resonated with many viewers by providing representation of Latina characters that pushed the envelope, just not too far. Jillian Baez argues the program captures “multiple segments of the female audience through postfeminist and postracial content that is intentionally polysemic.”[ ((Báez, J. 2015. “Television for all women?: Watching Lifetime’s Devious Maids.” Cupcakes, Pinterest, Ladyporn: Feminized popular culture in the early 21st century. Ed. E. Levine. 51-70.))] The series predictably positions these Latina heroines as hyper-sexualized members of the service economy but also presents them as more ethical than their rich and often white employers. This is a form of bounded transgression, which upholds televisual conventions around gender, race, class, and sexuality while subverting these norms and expectations just enough to court more progressive audiences searching for something newer and truer.

An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Savvy viewers of color—as well as some scholars–saw Lifetime’s patterned representational problems clearly. Crosby and Bartlow highlight the contradictions in the original series Girlfriend Intervention, showing how it problematized white women’s behavior but expected Black women to do the labor of restoring “true” womanhood.

Extensively, the show advances white supremacy by helping white women; however, teaching white women to “embrace and celebrate their lives, speak their mind, lighten up and love themselves” (GI casting call) does not support the subservient role patriarchy demands of women of any color, especially if it is black women teaching even superficial empowerment.[ ((Crosby, S.L. and S. Bartlow. 2016. “‘What did we teach you?’ Racialized sisterhood in Girlfriend Intervention.The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 21-37.))]

Audiences used their own methods of speaking back, taking to social media to exact representational justice through biting humor and memes. Brandy Monk-Payton, writing about the 2014 hashtags #LifetimeBeLike and #LifetimeBiopics that poked fun at the network, articulates how “social networking becomes a crucial platform for generating humor as a form of protest against systemic anti-Blackness in the United States.”[ ((Monk-Payton, B. 2017. “#LaughingWhileBlack: Gender and the Comedy of Social Media Blackness.” Feminist Media Histories. 3. 2: 15-35.))]

Taking heed to criticisms of their continued missteps and failures in its racist and stereotypical depictions of women of color, the network chose a high-profile marketing campaign around their decision to greenlight a biopic about the talented and beloved singer Whitney Houston, from the esteemed actor and first-time director Angela Bassett. The Lifetime movie, Whitney (2015), garnered the network’s highest ratings in more than a year,[ ((Kissell, R. 2015. “‘Whitney Biopic, Specials Score Big for Lifetime on Saturday.” Variety. January 19, 2015.))] but infuriated those overseeing Houston’s estate, who fired back that Bassett’s choice to make the film was short-sighted and opportunistic.[ ((Houston’s family was deeply angered by this unauthorized biopic. In a press release, Pat Houston, President of the Whitney Houston Estate, directed some of her anger directly at Bassett: “This creative pursuit at the expense of the integrity of such an iconic woman, who is voiceless today, reeks of condemnation and deceit. It reeks of enslavement to an industry that will likely do the same to you one day.” Whether Houston’s Estate was more angry at her representation, or that the movie eclipsed the Estate-authorized biopics in the ratings, is somewhat unclear. See Hyman, V. 2015. “Whitney Houston’s family on Lifetime biopic: ‘Brace yourself for the worst.’ January 18, 2015.
))] What resonates from Steel Magnolias, Devious Maids, and Whitney as examples of the network’s more recent approach to inclusivity—from the stories of women of color inserted into originally white narratives, to stories created by white men that push the representational envelope ever so slightly, to stories directed by women of color about women of color—is the importance of making space for women of color, queer women, gender non-conforming women, and women with disabilities to craft their own narratives and to visualize their own representation.

In Part II, we address Lifetime’s Broad Focus Initiative which heralded employment policy changes that led to some of its most compelling content yet, including UnREAL, which flips the script on the fantasy of on-screen romance, to Surviving R Kelly, a six-part documentary series that takes an intersectional feminist approach to one of the worst-kept secrets of the #MeToo era: Kelly’s serial sexual predation of underage girls.

Image Credits:
1. Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep at the 2018 Oscars
2. McDormand calls for the Inclusion Rider
3. Typical Lifetime Movie Fare: My Stepson, My Lover (A.K.A. Love Murder and Deceit), circa 1997.
4. An example of bounded transgression, Devious Maids (ABC Studios/Lifetime)

Comics ⟷ Media: What’s a Comic Book Fan Worth?
Benjamin Woo / Carleton University

Sea Monkeys

Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina)

In our age of massively marketed transmedial mega-franchises, fans are routinely portrayed as holders of uniquely valuable symbolic capital. Entertainment reporters cover the Comic Con beat and trawl social media for some indication of whether “the fans” will bestow their blessing on the latest round of blockbusters. As both reliable consumers and enthusiastic brand ambassadors, they are no longer poachers stealing textual pleasures out from under producers’ noses: they are the quarry.

Given the vital role intellectual property derived from comic books plays in Hollywood today, we might well expect their fans to be the most prized game of all. But, while superhero characters are more central to popular culture than perhaps ever before, comic books themselves and the practices that make up comic-book fandom clearly haven’t been mainstream for a long time. As a result, it is not clear how valuable comics fans actually are to the media conglomerates.

When I returned to reading periodical comic books after a long time as a trade-waiter, I was struck by the advertising, which is routinely cut from collected editions. There was so much of it and to so little purpose. I perceived a contradiction between how we talk about the value of fans and how companies talk to us through these promotional paratexts.

According to surveys conducted when comic books were still “new media,” virtually all children read comic books regularly. [ ((Zorbaugh, Harvey. 1944. “The Comics—There They Stand!” Journal of Educational Sociology 18: 197-98.))] Sales peaked in 1952, the year when American comic-book publishers sold a billion issues, [ ((Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. 2010. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.))] and we know anecdotally that a single copy would likely circulate among multiple young readers. This was all prior to marketers’ recognition of children’s influence on household product choices, and now-classic ads for Charles Atlas’s physical culture program, x-ray glasses, and the like point towards an understanding of comic book readers as a massive audience of children who were able to exercise some agency in the marketplace but had very little individual purchasing power—the perfect consumers, in other words, for a packet of freeze-dried brine shrimp and a cheap, plastic aquarium.

Compared with the children of the 1940s and ’50s, the average comic book reader of today is older and has more disposable income. Internal research on DC Comics buyers conducted in 2011 found most were white men between the ages of 25 and 44 who made an above-average income. This ought to be a highly desirable demographic, but an exploratory examination of the ads in one year’s worth of an ordinary DC Comics series suggests otherwise.

New Super-Man

Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics

New Super-Man (re-titled New Super-Man and the Justice League of China with issue 20) was created and is written by the award-winning cartoonist, former Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and MacArthur “Genius,” Gene Luen Yang, who is best-known for the graphic novel American Born Chinese. The series stars Kong Kenan, a brash Shanghainese teenager who receives powers thanks to a qi-transplant from Superman. He and his compatriots in the Justice League of China eventually break with their government sponsors and strike out as independent heroes.

Although significant as an American comic series foregrounding Asian characters, New Super-Man is unremarkable in terms of sales. I just so happened to have a complete run to hand for this exercise. The January 2018 issue sold just over 10,000 copies to comic book stores according to John Jackson Miller’s monthly sales estimates at Thirteen other DC series were in that ten to nineteen thousand sales band that month. I counted the pages of advertising, including “editorial” paratexts that were obviously promotional in nature, over the series’ most recent twelve issues (nos. 11–22):


Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me)

There were, in total, 178 pages of advertising, or slightly less than fifteen pages per issue. For context, a typical DC comic book costs US$3.99 (I pay about $6 in Canada after taxes) and contains a twenty-page story. As we can see, the single largest category is the eighty pages of advertising (just over six per issue, on average) devoted to promoting other comic books and graphic novels. Of course, this is almost exclusively for comics published by DC and its imprints—the one exception being an all-ages graphic novel from Scholastic.

Just under two pages in the average issue were used to advertise adaptations of DC Comics characters and properties in other media, including films like Justice League, video games like Injustice 2, and even novelizations of the CW television series The Flash and Supergirl. Slightly less space was devoted to selling character merchandise, including action figures and statuettes produced by DC Collectibles and t-shirts produced under licence by Graffiti Designs. Slightly less again promoted comics-related goods and services such as back-issue dealers, conventions, and the Kubert School; these ads typically use a comic book–inspired aesthetic, and several actually feature art of DC characters.

The second-largest category is a catch-all for “other” products, which comprised forty pages of advertising. Notably, most were for Warner Bros. media products, including TV networks and programs, films, and video games produced by other units within the Warners family. A further nine ads (in red in the figure above) had some kind of tie-in to DC Comics, such as a Snickers campaign featuring an apparent attack by the homicidal Gorilla Grodd that turns out to just be a hangry teenager or a curious Green Lantern / Colonel Sanders team-up comic. Across the twelve issues of New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China I examined, only a handful—a campaign for Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin and a single page of advertising for Schick razors—weren’t to some extent in-house ads.


Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins

So, while comic book fans seem to be very useful subjects within the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate in much the way Eileen Meehan argued Star Trek fans served as backstop consumers for Paramount, DC does not seem able to convince advertisers of their value. [ ((Meehan, Eileen R. 2000. “Leisure or Labor?: Fan Ethnography and Political Economy.” In Consuming Audiences? Production and Reception in Media Research, edited by Ingunn Hagen and Janet Wasko, 71–92. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.))] Of course, advertising is in crisis across virtually all media, but it is nonetheless striking that comic book fans, constructed by so much industry discourse as the ideal consumer of convergence culture, garner so little attention from major retailers, car companies, telecommunications providers, and other top advertisers. While much more research is obviously needed on the financial arrangements that result in this situation, it seems to lend credence to the hypothesis that comic book publishers are principally “licence farms” for transmedia IP. [ ((Rogers, Mark C. 1999. “Licensing Farming and the American Comic Book Industry.” International Journal of Comic Art 1 (2): 132–42.))] The comic books themselves are, at the level of corporate strategy, almost an afterthought, and their readers are worth about $3.99.

As this is my final column for Flow this year, I want to take a moment to thank the editors for the invitation to contribute. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to bring comics studies and media studies into dialogue in this venue. In particular, Maggie Steinhauer has been helpful throughout the process, sending me due-date reminders, catching embarrassing typos, and running down alternate sources for images when they disappeared from the web. 🙏

Image Credits:
1. Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina),”
2. Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics
3. Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me) (author’s screen grab)
4. Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins scanned by the author (scan from author’s collection)

Please feel free to comment.

What is a Soundtrack Album? Or, Spot the Soundtrack Album
Paul N. Reinsch / Texas Tech University

If It Comes with a Soundtrack Album, Is It Innovative? Or Threatening?

Soundtrack albums are having a moment. A member of indie rock royalty has admitted to being a soundtrack album devotee. An article analyzed a 2002 iPod as a time capsule featuring the era’s soundtrack albums. 2017 saw soundtrack albums drive vinyl and cassette sales. The Black Panther soundtrack albums are receiving extensive praise (and some of this mentions Prince’s earlier interventions). Moulin Rouge! (2001) was the sound(track) of Olympic figure skating. Variety has declared a “soundtrack renaissance.” And a media analyst, while noting the robust sales of soundtrack albums, wrote: “Video kills radio stars, but it may well be the film industry that leads the way in preserving the album as an artistic medium.” [ (( Zach Fuller, “With Black Panther: The Album At Number One In The US, Are We Witnessing A Soundtrack Renaissance?” , February 20, 2018. ))]

If the soundtrack album can preserve anything, it is fair to ask: What is a soundtrack album? Last year the sacred definitions of “film” and “television” were under assault from scholars, critics and upstart media providers. SCMS moved to change the name of its journal (causing some bemusement). A TV show was called a (great) film. And a (less-than-great) made-for-TV movie threatened the very idea of cinema. Yet through it all, soundtrack albums continued to refuse to acknowledge any difference between “film” and “TV.”

Second Verse, Same as the First

At the end of 2017, major film journals anointed Twin Peaks: The Return among the best, if not the best, film of the year. [ (( Of course, the Twin Peaks property, long before it was rebooted / revived / picked-up by Showtime, already bridged the porous divide between film and television since it consisted of a TV series and a prequel film. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is also a hybrid text of material made for television and material made for cinema theaters. ))] And there was much gnashing of teeth. Rather than celebrating the text’s ascension to the mountaintop of transmedia [ (( Just when you thought The Matrix texts required homework, welcome to Twin Peaks. To process The Return apparently required reading The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town, screening Fire Walk with Me (1992) and studying that film’s extensive deleted scenes, and of course reading the two new David Frost books (The Secret History and The Final Dossier). The nostalgia for Twin Peaks season 1 is not unlike the nostalgia for the first Matrix film. Neither is an unreasonable response. ))], scholars fought over the text’s “home.” Twin Peakscute marketing wisely taps into the work’s always fascinating internet presence and embraces the era of streaming media. There are also two distinct soundtrack albums (including a Target “exclusive”). Whatever the preferred label—auteur TV, “peak” TV, or film—Twin Peaks pedaled music using conventional methods.

The Netflix movie Bright was also a flashpoint in media circles. The critical drubbing at times felt like a defense of traditional (theater-based) cinema. Bright first entered popular culture through “innovative” marketing, and unsurprisingly, with the release of singles and an album. Netflix clearly regards soundtrack albums as a useful, even essential, tool in their empire. Like Amazon, Netflix is in the music business, but we knew that already. Bright, like Twin Peaks, is an (expensive) advertisement for music.

Spot the Soundtrack (Album)

Soundtrack albums ignore and extend well beyond the film-TV binary. And if soundtrack albums are at, or near, the heart of audio-visual media, the parameters of the category should be defined. We might, therefore, play a brief game of “spot the soundtrack album.”

description of imagedescription of image
Spot the Soundtrack Album #1 (Answer: the left)

I use the term “soundtrack album” here, as in my first Flow column, to designate a grouping of songs, whether collected on a physical medium or not. This phrase risks redundancy because the term “soundtrack” is often used to describe these objects. But “soundtrack” is used just as often to describe the audio portion of audio-visual media.

On the left is (one) soundtrack album for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), a film that strove to bring “classical” music to the masses by turning movie theatres into concert halls (that still showcased Mickey Mouse). On the right is the character “soundtrack” within the film, described as “shy” and at times looking very much like an optical soundtrack. Both of these can be called a soundtrack, but only one is a soundtrack album. The advantage of “soundtrack album” is to formally—but not permanently—separate these texts from the audio address of audio-visual media.

Spot the Soundtrack Album #2 (Answer: the right?)

The 1978 Robert Stigwood production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and its soundtrack album, directly feed into the belief that the Beatles’ 1967 album of the same name is the first “concept” record, or even itself a soundtrack album, rather than (merely) an intricately produced collection of songs without a unifying idea or sound. An essay accompanying the fiftieth anniversary edition of the album states: “If Revolver is like a photo album—fourteen exquisite, self-contained vignettes showcasing the talents of each Beatle in under three minutes each—Sgt. Pepper is like a film: not a passive record of life, but a moving picture of it.” [ (( Howard Goodall, “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Box Set (2017): 97-98. ))]

The album on the right is clearly a soundtrack album. And a doozy. But might the film retroactively turn the Beatles’ release into a soundtrack album too?

Spot the Soundtrack Album #3 (Answer: both)

On the left is the West Side Story (1961) film soundtrack album, while on the right is the play’s 1957 soundtrack album, more commonly called the “original cast recording.” Both of these are soundtrack albums, and both sold very well. The latter allows us to acknowledge the importance of theatre soundtrack albums and their importance to the growth of the long-playing album as a format. Soundtrack albums helped create the medium they are now asked to preserve.

By some accounts, cast albums—first Oklahoma! (as a set of 78 rpm discs and later an LP) and then My Fair Lady—dominated early album sales. These audio versions of Broadway shows allowed audiences physically and/or temporally separated from the New York City run to experience these works. When South Pacific (1958) and The Sound of Music (1965) each became the top-selling album a few years after release, the film soundtrack album symbolically and economically replaced the Broadway album as the default soundtrack album. Of course, Broadway soundtrack albums continue to deliver sound outside theatres.

The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack (from LaserDisc)

There is one, or two, more variations on the term and concept of soundtrack album that deserve some brief discussion. The phrase “visual album” has seen a recent resurgence, most obviously in connection with work by Beyoncé, JAY-Z and Fergie. Using this term rejects the subordinate position that “soundtrack album” tends to impose on audio material vis-à-vis audio-visual media. This effort to rethink, and reframe, the relationship between these texts is fair and justified (if not exactly new). But “visual album” flirts with redundancy just as much as “soundtrack album” (see above where Revolver is labeled a photo album). And rather than signaling a different relationship between texts, it might simply reverse the hierarchy between audio-visual media and soundtrack album. At least it encourages a conscious address of terminology.

The “visual soundtrack” above is a fascinating iteration. Created for Japanese audiences (the subtitles are a feature and not a bug), the LaserDisc release joins new images with the show’s famous music. It is official but not undertaken by Twin Peaks’ creators. Unlike other “visual albums,” it appeared after, rather than alongside, the audio text. The work (re)visualizes the music, surveys the show’s locations, and functions as TV tourism (even revealing the inside of a certain train car).

What is a Soundtrack Album?

A workable definition of “soundtrack album” must encompass works connected to film, television, streaming content, video games, books, and perhaps even the diverse range of texts circulating as “visual albums.” A soundtrack album is not an adjunct text; a soundtrack album is a text whose relationship to one or more other texts is fluid and where meaning flows in all directions. These relationships are never simple.

For example, there are three Don Johnson texts called “Heartbeat”: a song, an album, and an album-length video. Which is the center? Johnny Thunders would likely vote for the song. [ (( Cheetah Chrome, A Dead Boy’s Tale from the Front Lines of Punk Rock (Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2010): 307. ))] Others would probably favor whichever text they encountered first (a frequent concern in adaptation studies). [ (( Peter Brooker, “Postmodern Adaptation: Pastiche, Intertextuality and Re-functioning,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, Eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2007): 107-120. ))]

Are these texts the soundtrack of Johnson’s career? (Kerouac may have one). Is the video a “visual album” or “visual soundtrack”? And does calling the album a soundtrack stifle Johnson’s vision or restrict our interpretive options? Not if we view soundtrack albums as always the center of their own universe of texts and whose meanings and relationships await consideration.

Image credits:
1. Twin Peaks: The Return soundtrack
2. Bright: The Album
3. Fantasia soundtrack
4. Author’s screengrab
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
6. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band soundtrack
7. West Side Story soundtrack
8. West Side Story (Original Broadway Cast)
9. Playlist for The Twin Peaks Visual Soundtrack

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.

Audiences as Subscribers and Netflix’s Notions of Success
Lane Mann / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix audience

Audiences as Netflix Subscribers

Exploring how mainstream subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) companies consider and construct their audiences is vital when researching how SVOD platforms – Netflix specifically – brand their popularity. Surveying Netflix’s public discourse reveals a few themes prioritized in the contemporary SVOD industry: engagement, a new understanding of ratings, and brand building techniques.

In Desperately Seeking the Audience, Ien Ang discusses two primary ways the TV industry – as of 1991 – imagines audiences: audience-as-market (connected to commercial service) and audience-as-public (connected to public service). [ (( Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1991), 28. ))] With changing cultures and technologies, legacy TV companies and premium cable channels have imagined audiences in other, distinct ways since Ang’s theorization. An understanding of how SVODs construct audiences both diverges from and overlaps with legacy TV and cable’s new imaginings. Through a focus of SVODs, I have targeted three ways dominant SVOD players imagine audiences: audiences as subscribers, as data, and as promotional partners.

SVOD industry’s interactions with these three imagined audience groups allows for an insight into larger business plans, brand strategies, and notions of ideal viewing practices. Further, these audience categories address culturally shifting ideas of audiences within the ever-changing TV industry. SVOD platforms carefully guard ratings data, thus audiences are constructed differently from network and cable TV audiences, which are inherently shrouded in Nielsen ratings rhetoric. SVOD-produced audience discourse can help divulge how these companies quantify people, imagine user actions, envision their platform, define success, and forecast how their programming is watched. While these are the strengths in examining SVOD audience constructions, it is important to remember that audiences are commodities. As Dallas Smythe theorized, “Audience power is produced, sold, purchased, and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity.” [ (( Dallas W. Smythe, “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” in Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981), 233. ))] The imagined audience employed by SVODs and their stakeholders is reductive, utilized for the perception of greater consumer choice and personalization.

Netflix subscribers

Netflix Subscription Data

For the sake of this post, I focus on just one of the SVOD imagined audience groups listed above: audiences as subscribers. Also, I use Netflix as a test case and example, since their subscription service is the most publicly known and utilized, with 83 million members in June 2016 – though most major SVODs employ similar rhetoric. Netflix uses subscriber statistics as a proxy for audiences. The company is interested in subscriber data because subscribers drive revenue and appease stakeholders, content creators, and advertisers. While subscriptions statistics do not figure prominently in mainstream press coverage or widespread marketing, the statistics are contained within quarterly reports. These statistics, however, do not give information about audience engagement and viewership (what people actually watch). Put simply, subscriber numbers only detail the amount sold rather than the amount used. [ (( Nielsen data is arguably trying to encompass viewership data (amount used/TV viewed). But, just because a TV is on a particular channel does not mean anyone is watching. Though, Nielsen ratings are more relevant to viewership than SVOD subscription numbers. ))] Comparatively, insights into Netflix algorithms and their data collection process convey more information about actual consumption patterns and usage, but Netflix relies on subscription figures in reports. Subscriber numbers are invoked, foremost, for intra-industry stakeholders. The idea of “audiences as subscribers” feeds into a larger, industry-held idea that a monthly monetary exchange – your automatic subscription payment – proves success. However, this data does not prove engagement, which is a key asset for modern media brand strategy. And, it doesn’t show how particular viewers regard the platform. Audiences as subscribers is primarily valuable within the industry itself.

Further defining SVOD success through subscribers is challenging. Without access to internal corporate documents or audience engagement data, their performance is difficult to assess. The only available option is raw subscription numbers and, as of 2015, Netflix dominated the market. To survive within the larger TV industry, streaming platforms must cultivate a sense of superiority and active audience engagement to remain competitive and relevant. Subscription numbers only go so far for the platforms, primarily circulating to tout income and challenge rivals.

Quantifying success

Netflix Brands Success

Netflix in particular, much like legacy TV channels, still relies on imagined audiences to promote and define their perceived success. But Netflix’s conception of ratings is different from legacy TV. As television scholar Jason Mittell writes in The Atlantic, “Netflix simply doesn’t care about ratings – at least not in the way other television providers do.” [ (( Jason Mittell, “Why Netflix Doesn’t Release Its Ratings,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2016, ))] Netflix still cares about ratings, to be sure, but this is a new conception of ratings. Such a new conception must be considered in future SVOD studies and by TV studies scholars more generally. The “new ratings,” or, the common ways Netflix has defined success without sharing ratings, have been disclosed through award nominations/wins (an appeal to taste cultures), occasional PR releases including viewer and subscriber data (quantifying success), and by marketing high levels of cultural relevance (success measured by engagement). Other TV companies frequently use these metrics too, though as a complement alongside Nielsen ratings.

From examples above, as Netflix shows off to the public in order to demonstrate success, it is clear that the company values people as both a mass of subscribers for monetary purposes and as a mass of engaged viewers, and these two ideas are symbiotic for the company. Building hype by remaining a relevant brand, winning awards, and being included on year-end lists potential creates a beneficial cycle for Netflix: subscribers that become engaged viewers that generate hype and continue subscribing. I agree with Mittell’s claim that, for Netflix, at least externally, “actual popularity is less important than perceived popularity.” [ (( Ibid. ))] Netflix’s marketing strategies strongly construct and promote perceived popularity. Nonetheless, actual popularity is still important when it comes to appeasing shareholders and content producers, because actual popularity translates into income (and loss of churn). Netflix envisions its product as more successful the more people that subscribe, tweet, and share Netflix experiences. This is a different type of popularity than tuning in at 8 p.m. on a Thursday for Nielsen ratings. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, outlines his criteria for success when he asks, “Is [the show] drawing an audience? … Is it getting positive reception from fans, from you guys, from the critical reception…Is the show positive to Netflix?” [ (( Alan Sepinwall, “Ted Talk: State of the Netflix Union Discussion with Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos,” Hitfix, January 26, 2016, ))] There is clearly a balance of numerical popularity, critical acclaim, and brand building happening in the company’s discussion of success – all emerging from Netflix’s imagined audience.

Image Credits:

1. Audiences as Netflix Subscribers
2. Netflix Subscription Data
3. Netflix Brands Success

Please feel free to comment.

Wicked Games, Part 2: Blood, Sex, and Pixels
Matthew Payne / University of Alabama
Peter Alilunas / University of Oregon


Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings

Case Study #2: The Birth of the ESRB
In our last column, we argued that Dungeons & Dragons became a convenient scapegoat in the 1980s for moralists seeking a ready-made crusade on which to pin their anxieties about children’s leisure time activities. Crucial to our argument was the notion of control: what happened to D&D when its creators no longer controlled how the game was perceived by the public? And, even more alarming, what happened once D&D was thought to be an actual danger to that public and therefore in need of juridical oversight?

In this column, we explore another crucial moment in the history of games and their control; namely, the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994. This story is a predictable one in many ways. It begins with relatively simple concerns about children’s play, which escalate to moral panic status replete with a legislative response, culminating with the formation of an industry’s self-regulation mechanism designed to keep the government away and the cash registers ringing and game machines chinging.

But what is often lost in popular tellings of the ESRB’s origin story is how this particular flashpoint was, in large part, a self-inflicted wound; a by-product of an industrial arms race that sought to capture players’ hearts and dollars. In their zeal to better identify and pitch their wares to an aging community of gamers for the fourth generation of home consoles (e.g., the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and Neo Geo) — to say nothing of trying to control that lucrative marketplace for themselves — Sega and Nintendo were blinded to how their games and marketing efforts were being perceived by an increasingly wary public. Game publishers knew their consumers were growing in numbers and aging in years. Gamers were not putting down controllers as they exited adolescence. The American public, however, was less cognizant of this demographic trend, and without a regulatory body that promised commercial transparency to parents and cultural watchdogs (or at least its veneer), the very idea of a video game containing sex and violence was anathema. After all, video games were still deemed to be children’s toys, and gameplay still unfolded primarily in private spaces, be they dimly-lit arcades at the local mall or a neighbor’s rec room. What follows is an all-too-brief historical narrative of the commercial battle for the 16-bit home console marketplace of the early 1990s and the controversy that followed. This flashpoint illustrates demonstrably that while the cocktail of blood, sex, and pixels made for good business, the resulting commercial success invited the sort of headlines and popular scrutiny that threatened a nascent but growing cultural industry with the real specter of censorship.

ROUND #1 (1985-1990)
The contentious console wars waged between Sega and Nintendo spanned three generations of home consoles (4th-6th), and lasted nearly two decades. Sega’s first entrant in the 8-bit console market, the Master System (known as the Sega Mark III in Japan), was released in North America in 1986, a year after its main competitor, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released in the United States. Although the Master System was armed with better hardware, Nintendo’s powerful marketing efforts, its expansive library of exclusive titles produced by third-party publishers, and its head-start in the marketplace ultimately proved too powerful. Sega never caught up to Nintendo during the 1980s, with sales of the NES far outpacing that of the Master System.[ (( Sega did have better success in Europe, where the Master System outsold the NES. ))] Indeed, at the height of its dominance, Nintendo controlled a whopping 83% of the home market.[ (( Douglas C. McGill, “Nintendo Scores Big,” New York Times, 4 December 1988. ))]


The Sega Master System, circa 1985


Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd

Nintendo’s dominance over Sega during the 1980s is evident even today in the comparative celebrity status of their respective 8-bit mascots. Sega’s monkey-like Alex Kidd, who saw his debut in 1986’s Miracle World, proved to be no competition for Nintendo’s mustachioed Mario. The plumber and his brother, Luigi, have since appeared on countless pieces of licensed merchandise while Alex Kidd has languished in relative obscurity. Sega was down but it was not out. More importantly, it learned its lessons quickly as it readied itself for the next round of competition.

ROUND #1 WINNER: Nintendo

ROUND #2 (1988-1998)
Sega wanted to beat Nintendo to the punch by being the first to release a 16-bit home console (5th generation). It also saw an opportunity to lay claim to an aging gamer demographic by appealing to teenage boys and young adults; the Genesis was something you graduated to after you were done with Nintendo’s “toys.” By specializing in sports titles (which included forging an important relationship with Electronic Arts) and by licensing popular culture properties, Sega differentiated itself from Nintendo’s more family-friendly fare. Or, as their marketing campaign memorably put it: “Sega does what Nintendon’t.” The following multi-page ad appearing in Sega Visions, the company’s response to the popular Nintendo Power magazine, illustrates the company’s thoroughgoing focus on sports and pop culture icons: Joe Montana, Buster Douglas, and Michael Jackson (to name a few).

Sega Does

What Nintendon't

Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign

Sega also cultivated the sense of a pronounced production culture divide between the firms. The following ad, for example, takes aim at Nintendo’s “nerdy” developers. (It is worth noting that the game being advertised is the controversial Night Trap, described in “Round #3” below).

Cool Guy

Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers

Also central to Sega’s re-branding effort for their 16-bit lineup was their new mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. This speedy blue critter was a far cry from Sega’s previous standard-bearer, Alex Kidd, or Nintendo’s more famous Mario brothers. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) was a platformer; but it was a platformer with an attitude.

Sonic Menu Screen

Sonic tapping his foot

Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.

Although the 16-bit Super NES sales figures would eventually crest and surpass that of the Sega Genesis (49 million to 29 million units sold, respectively[ (( IGN, “Genesis vs. SNES: By the Numbers,” 20 March 2009, ))]) no other company came close to dethroning the reigning video game giant during these years. Moreover, Sega’s steadfast effort to expand the content boundaries of home console titles put them in direct opposition to Nintendo in the marketplace and, eventually, in opposition in the halls of congress.


Older gamer

Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo

ROUND 3: Sega vs. Nintendo … vs. Congress
Hoping to press their momentary advantage, Sega released the Sega CD in 1992, a CD-Rom peripheral for the Genesis. With the CD’s additional storage space, game producers could package far more material into a game including full motion video (FMV) starring human actors. The pursuit of “realism” quickly became the center of attention. Among the early “interactive movie” games was Night Trap (1992), a schlocky horror title where players save young women at a slumber party from a group of fangless vampires. Of particular interest to panicked cultural critics was a scene depicting a woman in a nightgown being captured in a bathroom. Despite such apparently scandalous subject matter, the game, while moderately popular (especially in the UK), was not necessarily a smash hit. At least, not until it became the one half of an ensuing moral panic around sex, blood, and video games.


Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)


Night Trap’s preview complete with dripping blood

The other half of the panic was Midway Games’ Mortal Kombat, also released in 1992, which was designed to compete for gamers’ quarters against Capcom’s wildly successful 2D brawler, Street Fighter II (1991). But whereas Street Fighter II was stocked with cartoonish combatants, Mortal Kombat starred digitized human fighters who bled and did grave bodily injury to one another. The game was a smash hit, and both Nintendo and Sega desperately wanted the game for their 16-bit consoles and portable devices (i.e., the Nintendo Gameboy and Sega Game Gear). Following a tremendously successful “Mortal Monday” release event preceded by a $10 million marketing effort that included primetime TV spots, magazine advertisements, promotional trailers in 1,600 movie theaters, Mortal Kombat made millions of dollars and became a cultural phenomenon.[ (( Lindsey Gruson, “Video Violence: It’s Hot! It’s Mortal! It’s Kombat!; Teen-Agers Eagerly Await Electronic Carnage While Adults Debate Message Being Sent,” New York Times, 16 September 1993, B8. ))]


“Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release

Despite their different degrees of success, Mortal Kombat and Night Trap did share one common feature: the capacity of their increased “realism” to inspire cultural panic. In June 1993 Sega, sensing the rising anxiety surrounding the games, assembled experts in education, psychology, and sociology into a “Videogame Rating Council” (VRC). The company’s games were slotted into one of three categories: GA for general audiences, MA-13 for mature audiences, and MA-17 for adults. The move, which only rated Sega’s games, did little to quell the growing panic that the screen violence would somehow inspire worldly violence. By late in the year, Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) initiated legislation that would force the game industry to implement a ratings system within one year or face government intervention.

Hearings on the bill were ugly: Lieberman showed clips from Night Trap, wielded the plastic gun shipped with Sega’s Lethal Enforcers game, and played a Sega commercial that he claimed was targeting children to play Mortal Kombat. The assembled panel of industry executives surely could not have been pleased to hear Lieberman’s inflammatory rhetoric, particularly such statements as, “These games teach a child to enjoy inflicting torture.”[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1. ))] It was shades of D&D all over again: the fear of blurring the lines between children, adults, and games.


“Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny ” print ad for Mortal Kombat’s September 13, 1993 console release

By that point, though, the industry was already scrambling hard to ease the legislative pain and shift the discourse away from potential harm to one of self-control. Eighteen software companies and the Video Software Dealers Association formed a coalition in early December 1993 and announced they would create a ratings system. “Parents have every right to know and understand what their kids are getting,” said Electronic Arts executive Jeanne Golly in a press conference outside the hearings; such self-serving statements may have contradicted the narratives at play in commercials like the one for Sega shown by Lieberman, but they clearly fit the requirement that something was “being done” about the problem.[ (( John Burgess, “Video Game Firms Yield on Ratings,” Washington Post 10 December 1993: F1.))] It was certainly not a moment too soon for the industry: by mid-December, Toys ‘R’ Us and other retailers announced they would stop selling Night Trap, pouring fuel on the panic fire (and, of course, making the game even more taboo and thus desirable).[ (( Tom Redburn, “Toys ‘R’ Us Stops Selling a Violent Video Game,” New York Times 17 December 1993, B1.))] In early January, Sega threw in the towel and pulled the game from the market in order to “revise” it. Lieberman called the announcement a “small victory” on a larger road to a less violent society.[ (( John Burgess, “Sega to Withdraw, Revise ‘Night Trap,’” Washington Post 11 January 1994: D5.))]

The game industry didn’t wait for things to get worse. It was during meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was born. The self-regulatory agency, created and managed by a coalition of software companies, offers guidelines, ratings, and strategies to convey information to retailers and parents. Moreover, and most importantly, they also ensure nervous politicians stay out of game stores and living rooms. Ultimately, while Lieberman and Kohl might have declared some sort of victory, it was the game designers and retailers that survived the battles to emerge with deeper pockets and an “official” mechanism in place to placate those who feared adult games were encroaching on children’s play.

ROUND #3 WINNER: Sega, Nintendo, and the Industry itself…

Once the ESRB was established, Sega’s VRC folded and disappeared, as it had become an unnecessary redundancy. The result in the years since has been very nearly a replication of the ratings system overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which serves a similar purpose: maintain an “official,” internal mechanism to regulate content (one that promises to control the spectatorial and play behavior of children) and which will keep the threat of government interventions at a distance.[ (( For more on the history of movie regulation, see: Richard Maltby, “The Production Code and the Hays Office,” in Grand Design–Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, ed. Tino Balio (New York: Scribner, 1993).))] This regulatory moment was inevitable, perhaps even overdue, for the game industry. The combination of aging consumers, technological advancement, and creative and commercial investments meant boundaries of cultural acceptability would be pushed, eventually, into the ever-present and always on standby anxiety around “the children.”

While initially resistant, the game industry came to accept and embrace the economic necessity of creating a self-regulatory body. It was a strategy that the creators of D&D and other tabletop role-playing games certainly could have utilized to mitigate the moral panic that swept across the cultural landscape during a previous era. Despite their ability to keep politicians and anxious publics at bay, such bodies also inevitably have a creative chilling effect in that they lead first to distribution suppression. No major theater chains will play NC17-rated films, for example, just as no large-scale retailers will sell “Adults Only”-rated games, even though these are both “official” ratings categories. This means, obviously, that very few creators are willing to create content that will lead to such ratings. Even with such internal suppressions, though, the overall result for self-regulated industries is economic stability and discursive control, not to mention a mechanism for foreclosing episodes that might lead to public outcry, Congressional response, and moral panics. Ultimately, in exchange for imposing creative limitations, the ESRB helped guarantee a predictable marketplace and economic return on investment.

Despite the clear intentions of regulatory bodies such as the ESRB to contain the industry in a tidy, controversy-free package, ruptures are also predictable and unavoidable. The nature of regulation is that boundary-crossing is not only inevitable, but even, ironically, occasionally necessary. It allows regulators to keep the boundaries clearly defined and supported by a vigilant and wary public. In our third, and final, column, we will examine an example of just such a prominent and inevitable rupture: the “Hot Coffee” modification of the 2004 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that permitted users to see a sexually graphic sequence hidden by the game’s creators. The predictable panic that followed was rooted in anxieties about visibility, dependability, and trustworthiness: what happens when self-regulatory mechanisms designed to keep play transparent, such as the ESRB, fail to do their critical job? The fear of “dangerous play” is always lurking in the shadows, like the monsters in D&D’s mazes or the escalation of graphic content during the arms race of the fourth-generation console wars. In our concluding column, we continue to explore these tensions, and argue that the cycle of panics, regulations, and ruptures are an inevitable, predictable, and useful way of understanding how gameplay is produced and consumed.

Image Credits:
1. Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) Ratings
2. The Sega Master System, circa 1985
3. Sega’s first company mascot, Alex Kidd
4. Sega’s famous anti-Nintendo marketing campaign (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions Vol. 1, Issue 1. June/July 1990 pp. 25-27.)
5. Sega targets Nintendo’s nerdy designers (Author’s Screen grab from Sega Visions Nov/Dec 1992, pp 6-7.)
6. Sonic breaks the fourth-wall with his finger-wagging and toe-tapping attitude.
7. Sega promises catharsis to its aging core demo (Authors screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, pp. 20-21.)
8. Sega’s original cover art for Night Trap (1992)
9. Night Trap‘s preview complete with dripping blood (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Nov/Dec 1992, pp 38-39.)
10. “Mortal Monday” print ad for Mortal Kombat‘s September 1993 console release (Author’s screen grab from Sega Visions, Aug/Sept 1993, p. 3)
11. Lethal Enforcers was the target of congressional scrutiny (Author’s screen grab from Electronic Games, Vol. 2, Issue 4. Jan. 1994)