Tape Trading Professional Wrestling and the History of TV Distribution
Eleanor Patterson / Auburn University


@roylucier‘s (Roy Lucier) tweet on August 27th, 2018.

On August 27, 2018, wrestling fan Roy Lucier of Southern California, posted the above photo of his pro-wrestling VHS tape collection to his Twitter account @roylucier, explaining that this was his “WWE Network and Highspots and NJPW World and everything else back in the 90’s…” Highspots is an online retailer of wrestling merchandise, including DVDs of classic matches, New Japan Pro-Wrestling World (NJPW) is a subscription-based streaming service with live and on-demand Japanese wrestling matches. WWE Network is the subscription-based streaming service of the World Wrestling Entertainment company, and offers both original WWE wrestling matches and reality shows as well as an archive of wrestling content it has bought up from now defunct competitors. Lucier’s Twitter post gets at the role of VHS tapes in the unofficial distribution of televised professional wrestling matches in the 1980s and ‘90s, before online platforms provided access to wrestling TV.

This short essay for Flow is based on research for my book project about the cultural history of the unofficial distribution of radio and television in the twentieth century. It is fitting that I write this for a platform titled after Raymond Williams’ term “flow,” because my research challenges the way that Williams’ concept of flow has structured our understanding of broadcast history. Williams’ framework of broadcasting as “scheduled flow” has been a controlling paradigm for broadcast scholars since its publication in 1974.[ ((Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, (London: Fontana, 1974). ))] The Sony Betamax was released one year after Williams outlined his argument that scheduled flow was the defining characteristic of broadcasting. And yet, audiences’ ability to record, circulate and replay broadcast content with home recording technologies has largely been ignored in academic broadcast histories.

Histories
of network era television almost exclusively assume that television content was
consumed during initial broadcast, and takes on the industrial imagination of
the audience as docile adherents to schedule regimes. In contrast, my research
demonstrates that moment of broadcast
distribution is not an end point in a predetermined encoding/decoding model,
but rather, the beginning of a much more nuanced process of media consumption,
circulation and ongoing re-production. Here in this post, I use
professional wrestling as a case study to demonstrate the significant role that
tape trading played in wrestling television circulation, as well as in the
formation of pro-wrestling fan communities.

The history of tape trading wrestling is indicative of professional wrestling’s distinct relationship with television in the United States. As an athletic endeavor, wrestling dates back to the Greek empire and was considered a serious and legitimate sport in the U.S. when was popularized by soldiers in Civil War training camps.[ (( Scott Beekman, Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America, (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing, 2006). ))] However, as wrestling became a prevalent sport during the gilded age, increased promotion and touring occurred during the same time that carnivals and vaudeville circuits emerged, and wrestling soon became integrated into these other forms of public entertainment. The emphasis on planned out theatrical performances, ongoing feuds and storylines, as well as matches that end with unexpected outcomes are all aspects of professional wrestling that can be traced back to the gilded age. This is also the point in which competing associations were formed and regions divided up among different promoters, a territorialism that defined televised wrestling until Ted Turner began airing Georgia Championship Wrestling to the country via satellite on WTCG (later WTBS) in 1976.

Professional wrestling has had an uneven relationship with television, tied to its perceived usefulness to TV producers.[ (( Chad Dell, The Revenge of Hatpin Mary: Women, Professional Wrestling and Fan Culture in the 1950s, (New York: Peter Lang, 2006); F. Steven Beverly, A History of Professional Wrestling as Television Programming Form: 1941 – 1989, ( Unpublished Masters Thesis, Auburn University, 1989). ))] Wrestling came to be a popular form of network programming in the late 1940s and early 1950s on both the DuMont network and NBC. Wrestling’s arena setting and mapped out theatricality made it an ideal sport for early television technology. However, NBC executives cancelled the wrestling programming in 1950, despite high ratings and a sponsor, in order to align the network brand with the quality of expensive dramatic anthologies.[ (( Chad Dell, “Wrestling with Corporate Identity: Defining Television Programming Strategy at NBC, 1945 – 1950,” in J. Emmett Winn and Susan Brinson (Eds.), Transmitting the Past: Historical and Cultural Perspectives on Broadcasting, (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2005). ))] DuMont would air wrestling until the collapse of the network in 1955. Once wrestling matches ceased to be aired on national television schedules, content shifted dramatically. Regional promoters started using taped studio matches, intercut with interviews, to hype up rivalries and publicize live events at large arenas. Wrestling promoters believed that airing matches held at large venues would decrease ticket revenue. Thus, televised wrestling became a decentralized, regional form of programming that varied not just by professional organization, such as the National Wrestling Association or World Wide Wrestling Federation, but even within these associations, from affiliated promoter to promoter.


Newspaper Ad, Louisville Courier-Journal, December 3, 1978
Newspaper Ad, Louisville Courier-Journal, December 3, 1978.

The newspaper ad above for a wrestling match in December 1978 demonstrates both the different players involved in wrestling events, as well as the complimentary role assigned to television during this period to promote attendance at the live event. I found this ad in the Louisville Courier-Journal, the local promoter was former wrestler Jerry Jarrett, he was, at this time, affiliated with the National Wrestling Association (NWA), and thus, we should assume that the wrestlers listed were either contracted with the NWA or had been loaned out by whatever organization they had a contract with. The NWA promotional TV studio matches are listed at the bottom, airing on local channel WDRS-TV Channel 41. Television’s complimentary role is perhaps evident here in the relatively small size of the viewing information.

The fractured and regionalized nature of US wrestling in the late 1950s through to the 1970s hindered fans ability to follow the ongoing narratives and outcomes of wrestling outside their locale, an obstacle exacerbated by the fact that most newspapers did not cover wrestling in their sports section. Wrestling magazines and fan newsletters attempted to bridge this gap by reporting match outcomes to subscriber. However, with the advent of home recording technology that used video tape cassette cartridges like Betamax and VHS, wrestling fans were able to form a network of tape traders who would record, duplicate and share televised studio matches. One of the first newsletters to facilitate this was Wrestling Observer. Today, Wrestling Observer is one of the most respected wrestling news platforms online. Editor Dave Meltzer first began to publish and share his rankings of wrestling matches as part of his tape trading catalog in the late 1970s, and his impetus for Wresting Observer sprang from his tape trading practices. Wrestling Observer, as well as a host of other wrestling fanzines, such as Pro Wrestling Torch  or Canadian Championship Wrestling, came to function as a forum for fans to connect and trade wrestling match tapes with each other, as well as get updates on wrestling matches from around the world, as several participants, such as Meltzer, had contacts in Japan or Mexico, and would trade with other fans to get regional US matches on tape in exchange for international matches.


Cover from the Wrestling Observer 1983 Yearbook, published January 1983
Cover from the Wrestling Observer 1983 Yearbook, published January 1984.

Excavating the history of tape trading professional wrestling demonstrates the ways in which tape trading came to specifically function as a distribution mechanism for televised wrestling beyond the region it was broadcast, especially prior to the rise of the WWF and WCW as national programming in the mid-1980s. Additionally, the materiality of video tape as distribution form is also significant. Fans connected through their network of newsletters, conventions, matches and word-of-mouth, and some of my interviewees shared that they would call each other after matches to report the outcome. While newsletters would publish weekly or bi-weekly result lists for the different associations and regions in the US, Canada, Mexico and Japan, fans still found it important to obtain and view matches so fans could have the sort of knowledge only available to television viewers. These aspects include interview segments, color commentary, visual performance of specific wrestling moves, verbal declarations, announcer commentary and audience engagement. There has long been a general acceptance and understanding within wrestling that outcomes are usually predetermined. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, wrestling organizations in the US came to define themselves with official athletic oversight bodies as sports entertainment, not competition. However, fans still judged and ranked wrestlers based on skill, athleticism, performance and charisma, knowledge best obtained by watching matches. One interviewee I spoke with confessed he did not feel he had enough time to view all the tapes he got, but he felt he needed to see what had happened, even after knowing the results, and would watch the matches using fast forward on his VHS remote. Indeed, many of the debates within wrestling communities rely on accumulated knowledge and historical awareness of wrestling matches, which is why you can still find VHS tapes of wrestling matches from the 1980s and 1990s on eBay or at specific collectors’ websites, like this one. This gets at the ways in which tape trading facilitated fan performance of knowledge and ability to legitimate their arguments and position about wrestling in debates within the fandom. The fact that tape trading now coexists with content posted on YouTube and available through subscriptions to digital platforms like the WWE Network speaks to the perceived value of historical play-by-play knowledge, and the perceived pleasure of watching and rewatching wrestling matches where the outcome is already known. In this sense, the history of tape trading wrestling TV also illuminates how audiences actually engaged with and formed affective relationships with televised wrestling and other fans in their everyday lives.



Image Credits:

  1. @roylucier‘s (Roy Lucier) tweet on August 27th, 2018.
  2. Newspaper Ad, Louisville Courier-Journal, December 3, 1978. (Artefact from author’s archival research)
  3. Cover from the Wrestling Observer 1983 Yearbook, published January 1984. (Artefact from author’s archival research)


References:




Syndication 203: A Waxy Queer Buildup
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


The title character of 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' sits at her kitchen table writing in her journal

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

Mary Hartman sits at her kitchen table grasping a notebook of pink paper. She dons her iconic prairie minidress with its Peter Pan collar and optimistic shoulders, but her hair falls unraveled from its signature braids offering hints that something is undone. “Dear Journal: What I’ve been thinking about lately is being bisexual. Bi, as in bicentennial, only, a little dirtier.” Probably the most common refrain conjured for TV historians and journalists about Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is that the 1976-77 syndicated serial was ahead of its time. But its star Louise Lasser always echoes the same retort: “Mary Hartman wasn’t ahead of its time; it was its time.” And perhaps the show never proves that sentiment better than by inviting us to join her at the kitchen table as she records these thoughts on culture, feminism, and sexuality in the 1970s.[ (( Mary is writing these journal entries for a memoir by Gore Vidal, no less. ))]

In this installment of my series, I discuss the potential that television syndication has offered queerness over the years through a case study of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Whereas the TV history canon we tend to cling to emphasizes the networks and their practice of least objectionable programming, a turn toward histories of local or first-run syndication exposes a very different picture of television’s past. And while there are plenty of decidedly normative syndie shows, queer sexuality, gender, and genre often epitomized the practice of first-run syndication like in hit daytime talk shows where queer people first spoke for themselves as well as in queer darlings like Xena, He-Man, and Jem. While scholars have written sporadically about the queerness of such TV, the unexamined element throughout each that I bridge here is an introduction to how the syndicatedness of those shows encouraged their queerest aspects.


San Antonio Express review of Mary Hartman
San Antonio Express‘s review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship.

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman focuses on the eponymous blue-collar housewife, a mother enduring a reality of failed promises—everything from the floor polish that accretes a waxy yellow buildup beneath her feet to a lifetime of unrequited sexual desire and unfulfilled happiness. Piercing through her continuous struggle to reproduce the perfectly gendered life she watches on her kitchen television set, Mary’s ennui bubbles up in involuntary vocalized gasps so heartbreaking and familiar to me as a queer person, it feels like they expose my darkest secrets while shredding me down to the bone. She’s at odds with everything, yet trying not to be.

Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps

Mary Hartman started life as a failure. At the time he pitched the show, creator Norman Lear was producing five of the top ten highest-rated network shows on television. Despite his recorded successes, however, all three networks passed because Mary Hartman was “too weird” with its unstable genre that mixed conventions of the sitcom, drama, and soap opera with Lear’s frank depictions of social issues, specifically here, those related to sexuality. So Lear took it to television’s last refuge of failure, syndication, and there it became a phenomenal success for the mostly independent stations that picked it up. Newsweek called it a “sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience”[ (( Waters and Kasindorf, “The Mary Hartman Craze.” Newsweek, May 3, 1976. ))] while Ms. Magazine’s review said that its “melodramatic pileup of calamities is outrageous.”[ (( Harrington, Stephanie.“Mary Hartman: The Unedited, All-American Unconscious.” Ms. Magazine, May 1976. ))]

Lear’s network shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude certainly pushed the cultural boundaries of television with “very special episodes,” but his syndicated shows serialized taboo stories into more comprehensive characterizations. Whereas “very special episodes” engender a patriarchal tradition of capturing and restraining potentially subversive content that could challenge a heteronormative order, the serial rarely finishes and a return to sitcom stasis is indefinitely deferred. Mary Hartman’s director Joan Darling once hilariously described this delayed gratification and extended queer time saying “it’s like screwing forever and never being able to come.”[ (( McCormack, Ed.“BB Shot Wounds, Whiplash, Storms of Weeping, Traumas That Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog! They’re All Part of the Real-Life Story of Mary Hartman’s Secret Recipe for Mock Cornball Surprise.” Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976. ))] Without network brass to contend with, in syndication Lear and his writers could really explore experimentation, genre, and identity play.


Magazine cover with Linda Murkland
After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man.

Over the course of dozens of episodes, Mary Hartman alone serializes the coming-out stories of a gay couple, a throuple, and at least three different bisexual characters all eventually leading up to a same-sex kiss shared by Mary and another woman—17 years before Roseanne did it with great fanfare in a “very special episode” on ABC. Lear’s second syndie serial All That Glitters (most often paired with Mary Hartman), meanwhile, featured a trans character in a leading role—an achievement American television would not reproduce for nearly 40 years—granting her 15 episodes to serialize her struggles against the cultural norms of gender identity and sexual liberation in the 1970s with an additional 36 episodes dedicated to her subsequent relationship and eventual marriage.

But for Lear, going for it was as much about strategic programming as it was creative expression. Like the syndie tabloid talk shows before him learned, the easiest way to compete with network budgets was to venture into the kind of programming they never would. Headwriter Ann Marcus even recorded in her autobiography that Lear’s most common direction for them was to “be as outrageous as possible.”[ (( Marcus, Ann. Whistling Girl: A Memoir. Los Angeles: Mulholland Pacific Publishing. 1998. ))] Mary Kay Place, who plays Loretta Haggers on the show, had previously worked with Lear in the writers’ room of his network shows and was struck by the difference between the productions. “Because we were syndicated, we didn’t have the box of Standards and Practices that the networks had … We had freedom to create. We were bad. We were good. But we did amazing stuff.”[ (( Wszalek, Arlene. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman: Inside the Funhouse Mirror. Documentary. Authorized Pictures, 2008. ))]

Out from under the watchful eye of a centralized network, its stifling censors, and typical S&P advertisers (as a syndie show filled by local commercial time), the writers answered only to themselves and the syndicating stations, which both Lear and Lasser told me only requested one edit in a 325-episode run. Queer issues and explicit stories about feminism and sexuality became dependable go-tos for garnering more viewers in the 1970s, be they fans or hate-watchers. One station manager reportedly called Lear to cheerfully report, “I’ve got 75 people marching on my station this afternoon to protest Mary Hartman. I love it!” [ (( O’Hallaren, Bill. “A Cute Tomato, A Couple Slices of Baloney, Some Sour Grapes, A Few Nuts …” TV Guide, June 19, 1976. ))]

Every bit as much as the show flourishes in the liminal spaces between traditional television genres, its syndicatedness freed producers and station managers from bearing the network burden of audience ubiquity in television’s famously gendered programming line-up. Although Mary Hartman is typically described as a late-night show, its original local listings don’t exactly bear that out and illustrate how different stations experimented with different kinds of audiences in a television schedule that has always been highly gendered.


Syndicated TV listings for the show
Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

In many markets, it counter-programmed the news or late-night talk shows. But in New Hampshire and San Francisco, it ran opposite Porky Pig, in North Carolina opposite Sesame Street, in Orlando against reruns of Hopalong Cassidy, and in Des Moines it originally took The Mickey Mouse Club’s spot. Mostly missing primetime, syndicated programming like Mary Hartman has to be flexible enough to succeed in a variety of time slots—to function both as narrowcasting and as broader-casting—which make it prime for queer audiences and latchkey kids watching television without parental supervision. As a result, producers of syndie programming commonly explore different kinds of identities and genres for their shows and characters. Xena: Warrior Princess, for instance (which I watched as a teenager on Saturdays after Soul Train) featured a silly parody of the movie Clue in one episode and in the following week, Romans crucified Xena and her ambiguously lesbian partner Gabrielle. Battle on, Xena![ (( Xena: Warrior Princess parodies many different films besides Clue, like Footloose, Groundhog Day, and Indiana Jones). It plays with various genres (dramas, serials, westerns, Kung Fu films, screwball comedies, talk shows, religious, and musicals) and subversively revises important cultural events such that Xena becomes their central figure, including David’s defeat of Goliath, the fall of Julius Caesar, the Trojan War, the wild west, the unchaining of Prometheus, the story of Pandora, the discovery of electricity, the rise of Christianity, and the events of A Christmas Carol, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Odyssey. ))]


image description
Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel.

In serving the marginalized schedule and the oddball audience, syndication itself has been analogous to queerness in many ways. It is liminal, flexible, on the outskirts, in between, bordering, surrounding, apart from, and peripheral. It can seem silly, forgettable, unworthy, but also scandalizing and debased. It can and does transgress or subvert ideologies and intervene in cultural discourses. It can defy categories even as it can also cement them. While neither Mary Hartman nor All That Glitters were the first scripted syndies, they did beget a number of genre-bending, glittery, and excessively provocative programming that characterized much of the syndie offerings proliferating in the 1980s and early ‘90s. And while we are quick to herald the queer pioneering of streaming television today, a cultural history of syndication reveals a kind of synergy between syndication and queerness that streamers are really borrowing—from their numerous reboots to pick-ups of network rejects and even based-ons like Glow. Syndie TV was not so much ahead of its time but of its time and like regular television, only, “a little dirtier.”



Image Credits:

  1. “Episode 177” from DVD boxset of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s screengrab)
  2. San Antonio Express’ review of Mary Hartman notes how the syndie serial skirted traditional network censorship. (author’s personal collection)
  3. Author’s Instagram compilation video of Mary Hartman’s gasps
  4. After Mary Hartman’s quick success in first-run syndication, Norman Lear and Ann Marcus created a new show called All That Glitters in which the cultural power of the sexes was always already inverted and women ruled the world. It featured Linda Gray in the role of Linda Murkland, a trans woman and model for the diegetic ultra-feminine Wilmington Woman Ale campaign, the show’s upside down version of our ultra-masculine Marlboro Man. Cover of the author’s copy of TV Showtime from The Cleveland Press, Apr. 29-May 6, 1977. (author’s personal collection)
  5. Syndicated TV listings for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (author’s graphic)
  6. Xena: Warrior Princess is mostly an episodic series, but it serializes a storyline of the characters’ growing relationship as subtextual lovers. Pictured is their child, immaculately conceived by Xena and a female angel. Picture from https://xenagateguard.tumblr.com/post/75102795836/xena-gabrielle-baby-eve


References:




The Future of the Ratings Panel
Jennifer Hessler / Bucknell University


Nielsen-comScore
At stake in Nielsen and comScore’s rivalry is the very future of the ratings panel.

A defining feature of the Nielsen ratings has always been that they derive from a statistically sampled panel of real viewers. In his 1966 promotional speech titled “If Not the People…Who?” A.C. Nielsen Jr. described audience measurement as akin to a democratic election, the ratings constituting “the voice of the people” and a “mirror of public taste.”[ (( Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., “If Not the People…Who?” An Address to the Oklahoma City Advertising Club. A.C Nielsen Company. Chicago, 1966. (Edgar Kobak papers, Library of Congress) ))] Eileen Meehan argues that in its early days Nielsen strategically employed this rhetoric to characterize the ratings as quintessentially American and good for free market economic prosperity, while also absolving itself of any responsibility for the ratings’ negative affect on program quality.[ (( Eileen Meehan analyzes this speech to demonstrate how Nielsen drew on Cold War rhetoric to characterize the ratings as quintessentially American and good for economic prosperity; the implication being that to critique the ratings methodology or their results was unpatriotic. Why TV Is Not Our Fault: Television Programming, Viewers, and Who’s Really in Control (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 16. ))] Even though media scholars have debunked the idea that television ratings are an accurate reflection of public taste,[ (( Scholars like Eileen Meehan, Robert McChesney, Ien Ang, and Todd Gitlin have debunked this idea that TV ratings are a mirrored reflection of public taste by pointing out that, on the one hand, audiences are choosing among a relative narrow selection of commercially motivated choices in the first place, and on the other hand, sampling practices tend to over-represent some viewing groups and underrepresent others. Eileen Meehan, Why TV Is Not Our Fault: Television Programming, Viewers, and Who’s Really in Control (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Robert W. McChesney, “The Market Uber Alles,” The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 175-209; Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (London: Routledge, 1991); Todd Gitlin, “By the Numbers,” Inside Prime Time (London: University of California Press,1983), 41-48. ))] the ratings’ reliance on a viewer panel has still shaped their epistemological value: one the one hand, making them (somewhat problematically) dependent on panelists’ cooperation, and on the other hand, accruing them the credential of direct “audience intelligence.”


BC cover new world of audience measurement
A central part of evolving digital markets, audience measurement has been reconceptualized through the capabilities of big data.

As the age of big data reimagines audience analytics, the ratings panel is at the center of industry debates about how to define audience intelligence. Nielsen itself is turning toward new forms of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to create and interpret viewing data. Essentially machine learning and AI endeavor to “objectify” audience data while also supposedly “individualizing” it at large scales. For proponents, these mechanisms beg the question: if machines can supposedly replicate human decision-making processes, is the direct input of real viewers necessary for the production of “audience intelligence”? But on the other hand, Nielsen also argues that their ratings being derived from a panel of real viewers has advantages over their competitors’ data sets. In the disarray that currently characterizes the digital data market, Nielsen says that their viewer panel gives them the ability to bind and re-embody data, resulting in a more accurate capture of real media engagement.


ComScore HQ
ComScore Headquarters

The ratings panel has been at the
center of the methodological rivalry between Nielsen and one of its main competitors,
comScore. ComScore was founded in 1999 by Gian Fulgoni and Magid Abraham,
formerly of Information Resources Inc. (IRI), an integrated big data and
predictive analytics firm. In 2002 comScore partnered with Media Metrix, which
utilized a PC meter to measure internet traffic, somewhat similar to the method
used by Net Ratings (acquired by Nielsen in 2007). And in September 2015, comScore
acquired Rentrak, a company that specialized in box office data and in
aggregating television audience data from set-top boxes and Digital Video
Recorders. With the merger, comScore became an industry leader in digital
audience metrics.

Being born of the digital age, everything from comScore’s tracking technologies to their panel recruitment practices are created for an online environment. ComScore places beacons and trackable tags throughout the online content they monitor. When internet users/viewers visit the tagged websites, the beacons store a tracking cookie in the user’s computer memory. Meanwhile, comScore also has a panel of around two million people, who they recruit through a combination of randomized digital dialing and volunteer surveys. Panelists agree to run comScore’s background monitoring software package on their devices, which tracks everything they do online. ComScore then compares the data it collects on total web traffic to the tracking data from its panel to decipher more specific demographic information. In an interview with Digiday, former CEO Bryan Wiener stated, “We believe in panels. The biggest difference between us and [Nielsen] is we believe that we’re data-first and the panel is used to inform the data set versus the panel being at the crux and using the data at the outskirts.” Rather than being the source of its data (like it is for Nielsen), comScore’s panel serves a secondary referential function.

While often thought of as Nielsen’s more digitally competent brother, comScore has its own shortcomings. Privacy advocacy groups criticize the firm’s practice of storing tracking cookies in the computers of users who have not agreed to be a part of their panel, many of which are likely incognizant of their involvement. ComScore’s panel is also criticized for not being demographically representative, and the obscurity around its sampling means it’s difficult to know how fairly the firm is measuring underrepresented populations. And lastly, comScore’s metrics emphasize viewing that occurs through the internet or connected devices; the only audience data they collect for broadcasting comes from set-top-boxes, which makes it unrepresentative of the linear audience as a whole.


Nielsen promo
Nielsen’s ratings panel, a remnant of broadcast history, is still the foundation of Nielsen’s metrics.

On the other hand, Nielsen’s ratings, remnant of the broadcast era, use the live broadcast as the base of their viewing metric before adding on digital viewing, and they rely more centrally on a panel of real viewers. Nielsen argues that this “tried and true” method allows them to more productively ground the disarray of digital data, to connect the gaps that code and algorithms leave in understanding viewers’ engagement with media. In an interview, former Nielsen Senior VP Jessica Hogue explained, “As Nielsen continues to move into cross-platform measurement, working with a greater abundance of data, the panel will become increasingly important. Large sets of household data make the panel an invaluable tool for personification.”[ (( Jessica Hogue, Nielsen Senior Vice President of Digital Client Sales and Services, Personal interview with the author, 27 April 2018. ))] The term “personification” alludes to a unique epistemological value in the subjectivity of the viewer panel. Nielsen’s former Executive VP Megan Clarken elaborates on this when she says that set-top boxes and web-trackers are, to a certain degree, dumb devices that represent the machine’s footprint, not necessarily the viewer’s engagement. She says, “Until a [set-top box or smart TV] can identify itself and give you a data set that identifies its relationship to everybody in the home,” it will not provide the same value as a ratings panel.[ (( Jon Lafayette, “7 Things You Need to Know About Nielsen’s New Tool,” Broadcasting & Cable, 16 March 2018. ))]

Nielsen continually emphasizes the advantages of panel-based measurement over big-data sets for understanding demographic differences. In a study focusing on Fox’s Empire (2015-), Nielsen found that while Empire ranked 16th in viewership using data from Nielsen’s nationally representative panel, in which “there’s a focus on race and ethnicity as well as making sure that we’re representing across the geography,” when using return path data or the big data sets from the same period (December 2018), Empire moved down to 38th in viewership. Nielsen’s Senior VP, Kelly Abcarian further explains that 75% of Empire’s audience is multicultural, and those audiences drive the show’s ratings. She argues, “If you’re not ensuring that the representation is there, it can drastically change the on-screen talent, it can change the programming lineup, and it can change the way advertisers think about that content.”[ (( Discussed (at 29:00) in “The Database: How Addressable Advertising is Personalizing the TV Experience,” Nielsen podcast episode 31, October 8, 2019, https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/podcast/2019/the-database-how-addressable-advertising-is-personalizing-the-tv-experience/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=organicsocial&utm_content=nielsen&utm_campaign=Global+Media. ))] While one must be weary of the bias of Nielsen’s own study, it nonetheless demonstrates the stakes of how the industry conceptualizes audience intelligence for the future of diverse representation.[ (( Michael LaSardo, Vice President of Katz Television’s Station Solutions, offers an in-depth explanation of how Nielsen and comScore account for viewer demographics in local markets. Nielsen’s ability to supplement census-level data with demographic information provided by their viewing panels enables them to account for the demographics of individuals, opposed to comScore’s practice of placing whole households into single demographics groups. “Spot the Differences: Nielsen and Comscore,” Katz Media Group, 6 January 2020, https://blog.katzmedia.com/on-measurement/nielsen-comscore-spot-the-differences-series1. ))]

At the Coalition for Innovative Media Management’s 5th Annual Cross-platform Media Measurement & Data Summit, the final day’s discussion ended on the topic of the ratings panel, with comScore Chief Product Officer, Manish Bhatia, and Nielsen’s Abcarian each summarizing their firm’s stance. ComScore’s Bhatia argued, “As good as a panel is, there is a limit to how finely you can slice that panel… There’s only so much juice you can take out of a lemon.” And Abcarian countered: “While comScore’s tunnel vision is scale, Nielsen’s focus is also on quality.”[ (( “Summary of 2.7.19 CIMM Cross-Platform Video Measurement & Data Summit,” Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, 9 April 2016. ))]

The vastly different logics underpinning Nielsen’s and comScore’s methods is perhaps why so many media companies have found value in subscribing to both firms during this period of digital transition. Currently, the companies are each working to address their metrics’ limitations. As reporter Tim Peterson characterizes it, “Both companies are racing to establish strengths in each other’s domain. ComScore is pressed to provide the in-depth person-based measurement that Nielsen’s panels provide, while Nielsen must aggregate more data to augment its panels and provide more minute measurement at the device level.”[ (( Tim Peterson, “Comscore and Nielsen are Racing to become the One True Cross-platform Measurement Provider,” Digiday 2 January 2019, digiday.com/marketing/comscore-nielsen-racing-become-one-true-cross-platform-measurement-provider/. ))] As the two companies work from different directions, toward cross-platform measurement, it is likely that they will collide in the middle, and it will be left to the industry to decide which audience metric suits their needs. But beyond industry utility, how the digital television market comes to conceptualize the scientific notion of audience intelligence will have lasting implications for the future of audience surveillance, demographic representation, and television programming.



Image Credits:

  1. At stake in Nielsen and comScore’s rivalry is the very future of the ratings panel.
  2. A central part of evolving digital markets, audience measurement has been reconceptualized through the capabilities of big data.
  3. ComScore Headquarters
  4. Nielsen’s ratings panel, a remnant of broadcast history, is still the foundation of Nielsen’s metrics.


References:




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


watching tv
Gay disruption on Chicago TV, 1971

Consider the following quote:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

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



Image Credits:

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


References:




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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



Image Credits:

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


References:




Syndication 202: Make Reruns Great Again
Taylor Cole Miller / University of Georgia


Edited still from Home Alone 2
The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

This column is part of an ongoing series. The previous installment of this series can be viewed here.

As Father Time dragged his cold, atrophied body across the finish line of 2019, shriveled by a year of crippling political scandals, the news cycle found one final story to bludgeon him dead: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation viciously cut Donald J. Trump’s 7-second cameo from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Don, Jr. called the edit “pathetic,” Fox News accused the network of “censorship,” and a former member of the Canadian parliament labeled it “politically charged bias,” tweeting “DEFUND. CBC. NOW.

In response, the network released a statement attempting to explain what is really a standard industry practice for second-run syndication or rerunning: editing or post-post production and the importance of version specificity, which is the topic of this column. Snipping a joke here and there, cutting down audience applause, or even slightly speeding up the playback all add up to make more time for commercials, and the art form of this editing work is to make as many changes as possible without gaining attention. The CBC said Trump’s casualty was part of 8 total minutes eliminated in 2014. Another example from my recent research is a Viacom version of Bewitched finding a way to add more than five full minutes of commercial time to a 1966 episode, clocking 10 minutes and 37 seconds of total commercial time in a 30-minute episode – that’s talent.

Channel executives need that extra commercial revenue to pay for their leased rerun programs, which in turn generate enough money and brand identity to support their original productions. Thus, while the study of a “quality” cable drama might be important in its own right, an added consideration of its channel’s second-run syndie fare would enrich the analysis since those reruns both helped pay for the original programming and carved out the channel’s identity for viewers in the first place.

The post-post-production practices of the syndication industry are an invisible labor that hopes to hide its tracks well enough most people never notice. In that way, it is also a creative labor with meaningful implications for text and authorship that we should account for when identifying our actual objects of study (e.g. “In this piece, I am using a TBS rerun of the Sex and the City episode “Four Women and a Funeral” that aired on …”). Academic publishing styles that ostensibly assure responsible citations really demand imprecise ones. When citing a TV text, the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance, requests original director, writer, and “year of original air date” regardless of which version of an episode one is actually analyzing, while MLA format requires the original network and the original broadcast date in its citations.


The Golden Girls on Hulu
On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card.

Be careful, though, because even with these very general details, the industry will try to trick you. Disney, for instance, originally produced The Golden Girls under its Touchstone Television label renamed ABC Television Studios more than two decades later. It wants you to forget that The Golden Girls originally aired on NBC. Now, all officially licensed Golden Girls merchandise includes the ABC TV logo. An unskippable title card featuring the ABC logo plays before each episode on Disney majority-owned Hulu (the thumbnails for which are also stamped with the ABC logo). The show’s Comic Con presence was called ABC’s The Golden Girls. And if you go to Amazon to purchase downloads for the show, the network listed in the official details? ABC.


Images of the Twin Towers removed from reruns of Sex and the City and The Simpsons after 9/11
After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages.

Beyond the number of extra- or paratextual elements surrounding an episode in its second and successive lives (that we have come to theorize as part of the total televisual text), there can be and often are numerous changes to the content of that episode which are made by more and more authors all snowballing into our selected objects of study, which is why I recommend instituting different citational guidelines for our field. They include editors, cultural/content analysts, timers, colorists, music supervisors, mixers/ADR specialists, foreign language voice actors, and censor experts who all make numerous edits including medium changes (pan and scan, tilt and scan, telecine, music licensing issues), technological changes (advent of color TV, prepping for streaming, remastering for HD and 4k), cultural changes (erasing/censoring sensitive content, removing offensive episodes from packages), etc. The post-post production process also offers new commercial possibilities. How I Met Your Mother reruns, for instance, recently included new product placements opportunities in already aired episodes


The promotional poster for FXX's marathon of The Simpsons
FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes.

Between the original airing of the aforementioned Bewitched and Viacom’s, what changed? Among other things, they removed the only role played by a black actor — an early African American representation on television consigned to syndication’s dustbin. If you think DVDs are a safe backup, consider that the syndie prints of both Roseanne and Alf were unwittingly used for home video release, while fans have noted that Hulu’s recent acquisition of Designing Women appears to use some syndie versions of episodes as well. I Love Lucy’s famous satin heart? Added later for syndication. And that’s not to say anything of music licensing issues created for shows like Daria and The Wonder Years that viewers argue changes their textual value. Dawson’s Creek even lost its iconic theme song for a run on Netflix. Doo doo doo do doo.


The cast of Dawson’s Creek tries to remember the show’s opening title song.

Speaking of streaming, watching Home Alone 2 is something of a new tradition in my family. This year, I braced extra hard for a cameo Canadians might have been expecting, but that never came. Sad. Who scratched Donald J. Trump from Home Alone 2? Who approved that edit? Did viewers notice? How did that impact their experience of it? Did its absence create or prevent any uncomfortable conversations? My goal in this piece is not to fetishize the “original” of anything. Rather, my interest in investigating reruns as new texts stems from such infinite and exciting research possibilities that such an understanding opens up for new analyses in textuality, industry/production practices, and particularly audiences and their pleasures. For a more thorough discussion of this televisual phenomenon I’ve called retextuality, see my chapter on Roseanne in the second edition of How to Watch Television.

As television’s grout, both reruns and first-run syndie fare take up devalued time on the TV schedule, fill it, and try to fashion something out of nothing. In serving the marginalized schedule, they often serve the marginalized audience and thus create new infinite textual meanings and research paths. In the next and final installment, I’ll discuss the creative and progressive possibilities in terms of content afforded by first-run syndication.



Image Credits:

  1. The CBC came under fire recently for cutting Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. (Author’s photo illustration from a screengrab of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.)
  2. On Hulu, every episode of The Golden Girls is stamped with an ABC TV logo and begins with an unskippable ABC TV title card. (Author’s screengrab from Hulu.com)
  3. After 9/11, numerous syndicators of New York shows like Sex and the City and Will & Grace chose to temporarily erase the Twin Towers from the opening credits and establishing shots of the city to preserve the watchability of their material. The Simpsons, meanwhile, for a number of years removed its World Trade Center themed episode “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” from its packages. (Author’s composite. A screengrab from the opening credits of Sex and the City and an animation cel for the 1997 episode of The Simpsons, both from here.)
  4. FXX came under fire for its remastered edits of The Simpsons. The cable channel tilt-and-scanned early episodes to fit a widescreen aspect ratio, cropping out several of the show’s visual jokes. Art for the FXX marathon of The Simpsons from FX’s website, here.




Insecure, Issa Rae, and The Interstitial Space of Black Female Friendships
Daelena Tinnin / University of Texas at Austin




Promotional poster for Insecure's third season



Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3.

In the penultimate episode of Insecure’s (HBO, 2016-) first season, “Real as F**k,” the argument between Issa and Molly rivals the heartbreaking blowups viewers counted on between Toni and Joan in the dynamic early aughts sitcom, Girlfriends (UPN, The CW, 2000-08). Issa is doing her best to escape the truth of her infidelity and Molly is doing her best to escape the realization that therapy might be the missing link in her seemingly perfect life. When Issa awkwardly nudges Molly in this direction, not even a lighthearted “Bitch, you mad now?” can prevent the building tension from spilling out amidst the shiny veneer of the We Got Y’all, a white savior non-profit and Issa’s employer, fundraiser.

Individually, they are hurling toward a rock bottom brought on by an astounding number of questionable decisions, so when Molly throws the argument’s final dagger — a gutsy “Fuck you, Issa” — the terrifying possibilities of loveless and friendless life linger in the frame. Nothing cuts like the knife hurled with good intentions, an arsenal of deep personal knowledge and a chip of exasperation from your best friend. This moment is illustrative of what pools the magic in Insecure: the backdrop of the ache of romance, professional growing pains, and general late 20s anxiety is all there, but the gut punch is the connective flesh of the show’s most enduring and complex relationship — the friendship between Issa and Molly.


Issa Rae Promotional poster for season 1



Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 1 poster.

Premiering in the fall of 2016, Insecure, a successor to Issa Rae’s popular web series Awkward Black Girl (YouTube, iamOther, 2011-13), entered into a television landscape where Black women could be seen on Scandal (ABC, 2012-18), How To Get Away With Murder (ABC, 2014-), Being Mary Jane (BET, 2013-17), Empire (Fox, 2015-), Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-), Underground (WGN, 2016-17), Black-ish (ABC, 2014-), and a host of reality series. Before Olivia Pope, acted by Kerry Washington and created by Shonda Rhimes, broadcast television had not seen a Black female lead in forty years. It was and remains a frustrating, but not all that surprising, reminder of television’s historic ambivalence around narratives that center Black women. While all of the network broadcast shows mentioned have complicated and clever roles for their Black female leads, most of them also have their Black female leads siphoned off from one necessarily intimate component of Black womanhood — Black girlfriends. This narrative strategy effectively flattens blackness and removes specificity in such a way that acknowledging the intersection of race and gender can become clumsy, if not wholly absent altogether. Gently setting reality series aside, Black female friendships seemingly disappear as a focal point on scripted television series after the cancellation of Mark Brock Akil’s Girlfriends in 2008. When we consider the litany of contemporary white female friendships on television shows, the absence is palpable and, frankly, exhausting. What we miss when we refuse a creative seat at the table for the specificity the interstitial space of Black female friendships allows is not only a particular representative power, but also a more generative space from which to theorize the intersections of race, gender, and the machinations of visibility. In other words, Insecure can be seen as bridging a narrative divide that may sacrifice race for gender or vice versa. Like Kristal Brent Zook said of Living Single and its feminist-minded narrative, Insecure presents an “unprecedented opportunity to experiment with black female subjectivity on a weekly basis.” [ (( Kristal Brent Zook, Color By Fox (Oxford University Press,1999): 67.))]


Season 2 Trailer Screenshot



Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer.

Throughout Insecure‘s three seasons, Issa Rae, co-creator, writer and star, and her creative team have set out to intentionally treat friendship as a site through which to explore Black womanhood and the attendant politics of joy, desire, sexuality and how those politics might shift according to space and time. Some moments like “Hella Great” in season two slice into subjectivity in such a way that the interiority of Black women feels devastatingly human. Others, like “Hella Blows” in season three, fail to locate the specificity of sexual exploration and boundaries without awkward recitations of dialogue that feels out of time and step with the show’s radical politics. Still, I find that the challenge that swirls around the cultural, industrial, and theoretical analysis of Insecure is one of paradox. Some of the most visible analytical options stall when they encounter the space of Black female subjectivity — a space that should necessarily disrupt any equation that might incorrectly connect being visible to being seen.

Kristen J. Warner’s scholarship often challenges the analytic binaries and offers analytic alternatives to the ways in which Black women, specifically, experience their media representation. She argues that “we should seek out the nuanced space that is located in the interstices between positive and negative.” [ ((Kristen Warner, “They Gon’ Think You Loud Regardless: Ratchetness, Reality Television, and Black Womanhood,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, no. 30:1 88 (2015): 137.))] Importantly, Warner ask what recourses Black women have in the face of the structural logics of racism and misogyny that cannot be recalibrated by respectable images in the regime of representation? Warner posits “that envisioning black womanhood as a mosaic of the self can generate possibilities that are not available offhand in currently dominant media and political discourses.” [ ((Warner, p. 139 ))] Thus, engaging or creating Black women on television requires a liminal space of negotiation where resonance can affectively register in various ways. To this end, Warner proposes “a third option: an ethics of care that prioritizes identificatory pleasures over pedagogy.” [ ((Warner, p. 140 ))] This is not to suggest that we conclude the conversation about the power of representation, especially in a critical media moment, and acquiesce to characterizations that value shock over substance. For Warner, this means pausing to ask, “at what point do black women acknowledge that mediated representation is as much about pleasure and community as it is about respectability?” [ ((Warner, p.140 ))] Warner’s interrogation lead me back to Hortense Spillers and her deft conceptualization of the interstice as symbolic of the space, or non-space, of Black female subjectivity. [ ((Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003).))] That is, an analytic opening through which we might understand the paradox of invisibility that accompanies Black women and the limiting pursuit of access to recognition. It is through Warner’s third interrogation space and Spillers’ interstice that I continue to wrestle what Insecure’s Black female friendships “do” more so than what they “mean.”

In parts of her 2014 book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine brilliantly captures the apparatus Black women are propelled into by manifestations of the paradox of invisibility and hyper visibility. [ ((Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2014).))] This apparatus multiplies its meaning through the language that ruptures, sutures, and insists upon Black women a knowing of the emotional and bodily costs of the very human desire to be seen. Further, Rankine’s lyrical exploration of reality, race, and imagination, traces the intimacy and subtly of the ways in which Black women support each other through the relentless clutches of racial-sexual violence. The grotesque is made bearable through collective deliberation. Positing television as the apparatus Rankine conjures, the presence of Black women on the small screen, then, is often running against a hill of conjecture awaiting a moment exhaustive enough to speak to those intimate, subtle, and collective experiences. In the midst of shifting discourse on the precarious politics of representation, images of Black women exist in a liminal space of imperfect subjectivity; beings of marvel seeking enough precision to be both buoyant and grounded. Insecure is set to return for its fourth season in 2020 and as we anticipate the creative growth of Insecure let us also rethink the interstice of Black womanhood.

Image Credits:

1. Stars of HBO’s Insecure, Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji, promote season 3
2. Issa Rae on the official Insecure season 2 poster
3. Insecure Season 2 Official HBO Trailer

Please feel free to comment.




OVER*FLOW: Dynasty, Reproduction, Coalition: Why the Game of Thrones Finale Was Queerly Satisfying
Alexander Cho / UC Irvine


Drogon torches the throne
Drogon torches the throne.

A lot of folks are upset with the final season, and the final episode, of Game of Thrones. I don’t blame them. Characters’ essences seemed to veer at right angles, a lot of loose threads weren’t tied up, and Arya is all set to be Westeros’s very own Christopher Columbus.

However, some of the online vitriol has made me wonder if we have been watching the same show. As Kristen Warner points out, thinking through gendered modes of reception is vital to unpacking this show and its fandom. Here, I offer a take: the show (and its source text, but more on that later), has always been fundamentally queer. And the finale was oddly, queerly, satisfying.

From day one in Game of Thrones, anyone who tried to assert power in the traditional masculinist patriarchal manner—war, birthright, honor, chivalry, overpowering your enemy by force—simply died, was a shit ruler, clueless to soft power, or all of the above. Because patriarchy is a violent, closed system and heteronormativity specializes in its reproduction, from day one it was always the queers/disabled/kids/social outcasts (read: those who can’t rely on the system to ratify their genital agency) in Westeros who have known what’s up. They have rarely if ever been invited to the table, they have to move in the wings in order to get what they need, and as such they have a clearer sense of power and injustice, unclouded by masculine ego and dickly posturing (Varys, anyone?). They’re better at the game precisely because they have never known the dull safety of state-sponsored patriarchy. This is a powerful social critique that is embedded in George R.R. Martin’s text. It resonates with the late media scholar Alexander Doty’s famous argument in his book, Making Things Perfectly Queer: it is not enough to “read” some media “queerly”; in fact, shows such as Designing Women or Laverne & Shirley are literally queer, in their politics of relation, their eschewing of norms, their baked-in values.

What viewers may have missed in their rightful rage against this season’s clumsy plotting and its especially poor exposition of Dany’s sudden, so-called “descent” was the subtext hidden in the ostensible way forward in Westeros—specifically, the makeup of those who wind up on Bran’s Small Council as the series ends. If Dany wanted to “break the wheel,” she did so inadvertently, and via her death, for she would never have picked this strange assortment herself. But their specific selection is anything but random. The Small Council is really where ruling power resides in Westeros, though this may be emphasized in the novels more than the show, and thus easier to miss. This is the sly redemption built in to the finale, and begins to make sense if we consider the figures specifically:

  • Brienne, a gender outlaw whose influential father unsuccessfully tried to betroth her to proper suitors many times, and who describes herself in the novels as “The only child the gods let [my father] keep. The freakish one, one not fit to be son or daughter”
  • Sam, ruthlessly disowned by his influential family for being a gender outlaw (guess what happened to his normative brother—whose name is Dickon—and dad)
  • Bronn, not only a former working class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a mercenary), and who is unconcerned with reproduction, honor, and lineage in favor of sex work
  • Davos, not only a former working-class commoner, but an especially despicable one who did the dirty work of the powerful (a smuggler), whose son was killed
  • Tyrion, who begs a whole slew of analyses, and has always been positioned as an outcast with an unusual perspective due to his stature and his toxic relationship to his golden, gorgeous family
  • Even Podrick makes an appearance, a lowly, lumpy squire who apparently upends all expectations of virility, leaving normative bro-types utterly perplexed
  • And then Bran, perhaps the queerest of them all, if we mean “queer” as in not invested in any “normal” regimes of bodily comportment, diversion, sex, or even temporality (!)

The show’s final Small Council
The show’s final Small Council.

All of these folks would have been laughed out of the room (and most were) because they didn’t “belong” there, or ever fit the mold of who could be in charge—think the Lannister council or even Ned’s. And now they’re the ones repairing Westeros. The show has offered us a vision of queer coalition politics that we are too busy raging about Dany to see.

So where does this leave our heroine? Unfortunately, by series’ end (but really all the way throughout) Dany falls into the former category, of slash and burn, of womb and birthright—whenever she’s in a pinch, she torches everyone in sight. As one friend of mine said, incredulous at the Daenerys fan outpour: she basically turned out to be a fascist. If this thesis holds, are we really that surprised with what happened to her? You can’t dismantle the master’s house with his tools; the show may be reminding us, as decades of queer and feminist scholars such as Lorde have, that even heroic (white) women can be agents of patriarchy. Instead, by series end, we have the disabled, the disowned, genderqueer, working class, the “criminals,” and the geeks running the (six) kingdoms. To boot, we have a wise and practical Sansa, wanting nothing to do with the cursed chair, hardened by her own experiences with patriarchal trauma, ruling her own independent nation (historically the bro-iest of them all) without killing scores of her own people, OK, thank you.

Daenerys, dragon mom
Daenerys, dragon mom.

Even the notion of the “wheel” that needs to be broken has a famous antecedent in queer theory. The queer and feminist scholar Gayle Rubin’s concept of the “charmed circle” resonates here: the idea that a certain, narrow constellation of gendered sexual practices lines up nicely inside what any given social moment deems acceptable, while those outside it—non-reproductive sex, swapped sexual power roles, sex with unsanctioned organs and orifices—are anathema to our social order. Could this be the true subtext of the broken wheel?

On the subject of organs, what seemed like a Sansa non sequitur about Bran’s kingly impotence during the final episode’s makeshift continental referendum is actually crucially important to this narrative: he’ll never be able to dick his way into prolonging his power through the tried, true, and horrible mechanisms of patriarchal dynastic tyranny via favored progeny. “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell—they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins,” as Dany laments early on, can be read in this way at show’s end—not simply as an eye-roll at the same old rotating cast of characters, but also as an indictment of something so taken-for-granted as the assumptive security-via-futurity of reproduction and lineage, in an echo of Lee Edelman’s provocative thesis. In a way, this is also what Cersei wrestled with throughout her arc, painfully straining against the system to recraft her womb as phallus over and over again in search of agency, ultimately leaving herself bereft, glum, and childless.

All along, there has been a problem of race in Game of Thrones, and admittedly, the final Small Council’s composition doesn’t address this foundational aspect of intersectional coalition head-on, in favor of other axes. But they didn’t have much to work with on this front, and that is one of the show’s (and novels’) persistent failings. Dorne, in the novels, is the only racially diverse part of Westeros, with its own problematic colorist hierarchy, but that barely registered on the show, to the disappointment of many. (In fact, Dorne is given several significant storylines in the novels that have been condensed or completely erased in the show.) Though it is a fantasy, and on another planet, Martin’s world-building has always mapped uncomfortably onto Euro-medieval conceptions of “race” and geography: most of Westeros is England/Scotland, complete with “first men” and ensuing Roman and Norman conquests; swarthy Dorne could be Spain; fallen Valyria is a call-out to ancient Rome. And then there’s the land of “Yi Ti” to the East, across the “Jade Sea” with its inhabitants who sport rat-tail hair queues, and the jet-black skin of the people of the “Summer Isles,” to the tropical South. In light of all this, who can blame Grey Worm and the Unsullied for wanting to get the eff out of Dodge at the end?

But what I find more interesting is the possibility that Martin, knowing how it would turn out, may have been clucking to himself while we all uncomfortably cringed during Season 3’s “Mhysa,” with its incredibly bad optics of throngs of enslaved people of color holding up an alabaster foreigner as their savior, which we went along with anyway because we wanted to. D’oh! Maybe Martin tricked us into this misplacement—pinning our hopes on one woman is never the answer, and the mere fact that we thought a “hero” who needed to win a “throne” to right wrongs would even be one person at all reveals our deep-set conditioning to gaze in the patriarchal mode, especially if that patriarchal hero is platinum blonde, gorgeous, and female. Maybe heroically violent white women conquerors are simply a prettier iteration of racialized patriarchy.

Unfortunately, Dany, by series end, fails to realize to herself that she is the last spoke holding the wheel together. The throne room scene is telling (not because Drogon apparently understands symbolism), but because a delusional Dany tries to clutch at the cogs of the machine she had wanted to destroy, lusting at the possibility of security in the progression of almighty family alongside Jon in a new (old) dynasty for a new (old) era. The actress Emilia Clarke purposely played it this way. In regards to her final scene, she told the New Yorker, “I wanted to play a game with what the scene was about. It’s not that I wanted to show her as ‘mad,’ because I really don’t like that word. I don’t enjoy fans calling me ‘the Mad Queen.’ But she is so far gone in grief, in trauma, and in pain. And yet our brains are fascinating in the way that they find a fast route to feel O.K., whether you’re relying on a substance or you’re mildly deluded.” For a blip, we kind of wanted it too; that’s the way these stories are supposed to go.

There is a radical point gurgling under the surface here, for those interested in the potential of progressive, intersectional politics: it turns out that a power-hungry entitled woman may not be our feminist savior after all, and in fact may end up reproducing the very politics she wanted to dismantle. Maybe truly breaking the wheel—and an exercise in intersectional queer world-building—looks more like a motley bunch of social outcasts, gender misfits, and former “criminals” at the council table doing the boring but important work of rethinking old-boy givens (State-funded brothels? Haha, no. Feeding the poor? Yes) instead of flying in on dragons or slaying kings.

Image Credits:
1. Drogon torches the throne.
2. The show’s final Small Council.
3. Daenerys, dragon mom.




Punk, Disco, Porn—The Deuce ’77—Part 2
Matthew Tchepikova-Treon / University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

The Deuce Season Two Poster Art

Disco. The sound of a revved engine opens season two of The Deuce, followed by a car horn and scattered voices in the distance, along with a mid-tempo hi-hat over distressed white text against a black screen that reads 1977. These sounds all belong to Barry White’s classic “Let the Music Play,” but the show supplements sonic detail with additional street noise before we see its establishing shot: well-worn concrete. Then a lovelorn White delivers his peripatetic exegesis on loneliness, music, and the redemptive power of a discotheque at night.


With sonic verisimilitude representing a hallmark of David Simon & Co.’s audiovisual world-building techniques,[ (( Outside opening titles and season-closing montages, music is always diegetically sourced. See: Linda Williams, On The Wire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 111-114, for the narrative effects of this steadfast aesthetic choice. ))] this moment stands out as a rare instance of extradiegetic music in The Deuce. What’s more, through this song’s transformation into diegetic sound in this opening scene, we hear the historical conditions of disco’s transmogrification from physical space to musical form and back again. The camera tilts up to Candy—former streetwalker turned pornographic film director—walking down 42nd Street, draped in style, embodying the song’s strengthening groove. She opens an inconspicuous door marked 366 and we hear the song’s monologist enter a nightclub. Candy waves at a security camera for admittance, then the music tumefies, while also taking on new acoustic properties, as her strut picks up the driving four-on-the-floor beat. Barry White’s voiceover suddenly soars—“Let the music play / I just want to dance the night away”—as the music folds back on itself, filling the room, while also fulfilling its gimmicky premise, and the sonic space of the song and this opening sequence fully collapse.[ ((Following this moment is the second season’s get-the-gang-back-together scene, with intricate tracking, sound design, and choreography that immediately calls up the iconic opening of P.T. Anderson’s porno-chic Boogie Nights, also set in 1977.))]

the deuce season 2 opening 1

season 2 opening 2

season 2 opening 3

Candy walks the Deuce, enters Club 366, then cuts across the dance floor with no little amount of grace.

As with punk, The Deuce engages disco music as a means of both historiography and immanent critique, and this sequence makes legible the coterminous relationship between its genre-fication and the gentrification of downtown New York City through the 1970s.

From Empire to Underground

Rewind to 1971 (Season 1, Ep. 5). Paul attends the invite-only party Love Saves the Day in a warehouse at 645-647 Broadway. Known as “the Loft,” David Mancuso established this preeminent dance space in NYC’s former manufacturing district where the city had utilized the low-wage workforce of its immigrant population after WWII before both work and half a million laborers relocated a quarter-century later.[ ((For precise employment numbers in particular manufacturing sectors, see: “New York City’s Decline in Manufacturing Gained Momentum in 1980,” New York Times, March 22, 1981. And for a fine history of NYC’s urban decay and renewal programs during the global political drama of the Cold War leading up to the 1970s, when Manhattan became a symbol of American power, see: Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).))] Out of these post-industrial ruins, Mancuso’s indie-discotheque emerged as underground dance music’s bleeding edge.

Tim Lawrence’s study of the Loft—a sociologically rich text with a slight hagiographic slant—demonstrates how Mancuso’s audiophilic approach to music prioritized electric sound amplification as a means of producing social space—and altered subjectivities therein—by treating listening as a full-bodied haptic experience.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 88.))] Drawing on Jamaican dance hall culture, emergent turntable techniques, and state-of-the-art technologies, Mancuso worked with sound specialist Alex Rosner to customize the Loft’s system, adding an array of tweeters that hung chandelier-like from the ceiling, and additional subwoofers for intense bass propagation, which Mancuso considered the new beating heart of his perception-altering playlists.

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The Loft’s inaugural party, David Mancuso spinning through the night, and the only instance (to date) where The Deuce employs time-shifting visuals or temporal disjunction between sound and image, underscoring Paul’s affective response to Mancuso’s curated sensorium.

However, sound amplification also served as a threat. Throughout the 1970s, Kai Fikentscher tells us, “many city agencies sought to limit nightclubs, or at least subject them to a higher level of scrutiny,” [ ((Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!”: Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 70.))] and NYPD often did so under the guise of regulating the sale of liquor or illegal dancing. At this time, New York state law still prohibited all-male dancing and mandated a ratio of at least one woman for every three men in a public venue.[ (( Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 31. The relationship between Seventies New York’s underground dance scene and gay culture, as well as the historical links to the Harlem Renaissance, are well documented. In addition to Fikentscher and Lawrence, see: Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), Vince Aletti, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground, Week by Week (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2018), and Richard Dyer’s classic essay, “In Defense of Disco,” published by the socialist journal Gay Left, 1979, 20-23: “Both in how it is produced and in what it expresses, disco is held to be irredeemably capitalistic [but] this mode of cultural production has produced a commodity [that] has subversive potential as well as reactionary impulses.” ))] But noise control offered NYPD yet another means of surveillance and suppression. Plainclothes police raided the Loft for the first time in 1972.[ ((Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 83. NYPD arrested Mancuso and charged him with running an unlicensed cabaret, but a judge threw the case out on account of Mancuso not selling liquor on the premises.))]

That same year, following extensive politically-charged acoustical research, Mayor John Lindsay put into effect comprehensive noise-control legislation aimed at abatement throughout the city.[ ((“The New York City Noise Control Code: Not with a Bang, but a Whisper,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, Article 4 (1973).))] Largely a revamping of laws from 1936, the updated ordinances—part of Lindsay’s ongoing, multifaceted efforts to “clean up” Manhattan, but also in anticipation of running for president—coincided with large-scale focus on noise pollution in urban areas.[ ((Including Nixon’s federal Noise Control Act of 1972.))] Electronically reproduced music and discos were of interest. One trade article published that year details potential health risks associated with excessive noise with a list of decibel readings from various street construction instruments (96 dB), subway trains (98 dB), and other “unpleasant—even inhuman” sounds, citing a particular discotheque that created “a sound level as astonishingly high as the dancers’ hemlines” as the loudest source of noise in the city. The disco measured 103-105 decibels. The following year, commercial music in excess of 103 dB was deemed illegal.[ ((“Noise Code,” New York City Department of Environmental Protection.))]

Mayor Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign during the 1990s was based on many of these same ordinances, though enforced with increased vigor. And if disco’s quietus in The Deuce heralded the death knell of Times Square’s gentrification in the 1970s, Giuliani orchestrated its coda.

The Deuce & Disco’s Aesthetic Economy

As an extension of the Loft’s post-industrial origins, when disco began flowing through the circuits of late-capitalism’s culture industries, many anxieties surrounding the postindustrial obsolescence of labor[ ((I’m borrowing this term from Joel Burges’ Out of Sync & Out of Work: History and the Obsolescence of Labor in Contemporary Culture, wherein Burges explores automation, labor, and obsolescence through complex representations of historical time.))] in the U.S. and other global cities were mapped onto the music and its attendant amalgam of styles and aesthetic sensibilities. Comparing disco music and the repetitive marketing techniques found everywhere in post-1950s mass-mediated consumer society, Robert Fink identifies a relentless rhythm that underlies what he calls “the ‘Empire of the Beat,’ where communal consumption and solipsistic desire, rigid control and apocalyptic excess are simultaneously, dialectically in tension.”[ ((Robert Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) 30. Fink further compares disco and Seventies “pulse-pattern” minimalism (distinct from drone and microtonal minimalism à la La Monte Young et al.), the decade’s other paradigmatic musical shift epitomized by the music of Philip Glass.))] We hear this in the sequenced rhythms, synthesized sounds, and vocoder-fused voices employed in the machine music of Germany’s Kraftwerk and especially Italo disco’s Giorgio Moroder (whose “From Here to Eternity” plays when The Deuce S2 finds Paul now operating his own bar).[ ((Both Kraftwerk and Moroder released iconic electro-dance albums in 1977.))] Critics heard in this sound and its assembly-line production an analog to machine automation and the deskilling of labor responsible for emptying NYC’s factories. As the work of Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld shows, these critiques were well rehearsed—from player pianos and analog synths, mechanical instrument innovations have long been linked to anxieties over work displacement.[ ((Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, “Instruments and Innovation,” eds. John Shepherd and Kyle Devine, The Routledge Reader on the Sociology of Music (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015), 301-308.))] Nonetheless, disco’s aesthetic economy shored the music industry’s financial success against global economic decline.

Disco Stu from The Simpsons with steadfast 1976 verve

Then the levees broke. Disco collapsed and between 1977 and 1980 the city lost another 40,000 manufacturing jobs while seeing steady gains in finance and real estate.

However, recalling The Deuce’s rendering of Love Saves the Day, we see Paul dance to Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Melting Pot,” showcasing underground dance music’s roots in 1960s soul as much as the synth-heavy “jet-propelled paganism of disco,” as critic Kristine McKenna put it.[ ((McKenna’s inspired description comes from an interview she conducted with Philip Glass originally published in Rolling Stone (March 8, 1979: 19) comparing the sounds and musical techniques shared between disco, “technorock,” and Seventies minimalism.))] Likewise, the secular spiritualism of Dorothy Morrison’s gospel-tinged “Rain” points to even deeper musical traditions while also invoking early Loft regular Frankie Knuckles’ eventual description of the Warehouse (est. 1977, Chicago) “as a church for the children fallen from grace.”[ ((Richard Smith, “The House that Frankie Built,” Seduced and Abandoned: Essays on Gay Men and Popular Music (London: Cassell, 1995), 92-99, originally published in Gay Times, August 1992. For more on the vernacular use of “children” as a common term for gay black men and “the discotheque as church,” see: William G. Hawkeswood, One of the Children: Gay Black Men in Harlem (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1996, and Kai Fikentscher, “You Better Work!” 93-106.))] Yet 1977 also saw the musical innovations put on offer by underground dance music’s subcultural base further reified in the Brooklyn-strut machismo of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero and the libidinal glitz-economy of Studio 54’s Midtown glitterati. And in typical postlapsarian fashion, The Deuce’s second season finale closes by mirroring its opening scene, with Vincent gazing out over the electric glamour of the 366 with a What hath god wrought? look on his face, his club’s posing and pulsing bodies now dancing to the reified sounds of a different politics of ephemerality—one night amidst one-thousand just like it with a custom soundtrack on repeat.

season 2 closing 1

season 2 closing 2

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On the eve of disco’s funeral rites leading into 1979, Paul’s LSD-gaze of transformative potential almost a decade prior is rendered mute through Vincent’s eyes. Such is the sum and substance of The Deuce and the cultural work it performs.

Image Credits:
1. The Deuce Season Two Poster Art (color altered by author).

2-4. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 1, “Our Raison d’Etre” (transferred to GIF format by author).

5-7. Scene from The Deuce, Season One, Episode 5, “What Kind of Bad?” (transferred to GIF format by author).

8-10. Scene from The Deuce, Season Two, Episode 9, “Inside the Pretend” (transferred to GIF format by author).

Please feel free to comment.




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

Oscars TV Ratings Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

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

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

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

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

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

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




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

PART I

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.’ NJ.com. 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)