To Watch a Predator

by: Eric Freedman / Florida Atlantic University

To Catch a Predator screenshot 1

Views from outside a Dateline house

This essay is not a defense of pedophilia. But on Tuesday nights I find myself pondering the plight of reality television’s latest celebrities — men who are the unsuspecting players in Dateline: To Catch a Predator, investigative journalism’s response to America’s Most Wanted and Big Brother. Their broadcast debut is always framed by a dramatic dialogic volley between co-anchors Ann Curry and Stone Phillips. On the February 13, 2007 episode their exchange opened with the remark, “Some have seen it, now they’re on it, and our hidden cameras are all over it,” before moving on to the provocative fragment, “The teacher, the oil man, the ex-cop.” NBC’s Tuesday night lineup has become the occasional home of To Catch a Predator, which periodically joins the evening’s legal drama pairing of Law & Order: CI and Law & Order: SVU. First aired in November 2004 as a Dateline segment titled “Dangerous Web,” and with an undercover operation located in New York City, To Catch a Predator has since traveled to Washington, D.C., California, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, and Texas in the first ten installments of the investigative series.

My fascination with the series stems from the obvious questions associated with the network’s collaboration with law enforcement, and the common legal questions posed about this liaison. Are these participants the victims of a multilayered plan of entrapment that leads from chat room decoys, to hired actors, to correspondent Chris Hansen? Do these suspects have any right to privacy, or can they be freely featured as part of the flow of network television? In light of the serious nature of the potential offense (the victimization of children), these questions are often assumed to be irrelevant. Yet the show’s popularity, borne out by its ratings (Predator installments peak the Dateline viewership) and its entrance into popular discourse (parodied on YouTube and quite recently by Conan O’Brien at the Emmy Awards, and now in a stage of self-aggrandized historicizing with Chris Hansen’s recent book culled from his experiences on the series), makes an analysis all the more pressing. What are the cultural implications of a program that circulates information about an assumed public crisis?

To Catch a Predator screenshot 2

Views from inside a Dateline house

In his discussion of epidemics — one form of crisis situation — Michel Foucault points out that the determination that a situation is epidemic is typically a political determination, one made by those with access to statistical data and the authority to make and circulate such determinations. Such an authoritative discourse governs NBC’s investigations of Internet predators, calling forth the dispensation of resources and the justification of tactics of surveillance and regulation as part of the broadcast serialization of pedophilia. Children are indeed being victimized, but the labeling of the situation as a crisis has depended upon the collection of data—tabulated and interpreted by “experts.” As part of this evidentiary process, visibility is simultaneously a problem and a solution. The show’s visibility has focused public concern on the crisis (in a sense bringing the crisis into existence by making it visible—though the program is certainly not responsible for the incidents themselves, and is only one flashpoint for its being called out) and allowed the authoritative discourse to take hold (made manifest in the mobilization of dollars and resources and the willful embrace of the network as protector of the public interest); indeed as part of this movement, citizens willingly surveil each other, and watch others being surveilled, perhaps part of the general neoliberalist spin down that once again turns the public interest over to private industry (consider, for example, the teen lingo cheat sheet on, written to help parents understand the acronyms their kids use on the Web), and the unsurprising result of a neoconservative turn that gives information technologies significant leeway as tools of surveillance and discipline in the name of national security — “no privacy, no problem!”

Perverted Justice thong

From the Perverted Justice gift shop

Concern about the online exploitation of children has created a new growth industry of its own, with a complete line of products related to helping parents monitor the activity of their children. For its part, Dateline calls on the services of Perverted Justice, an organization that exposes men who sexually target minors online. Perverted Justice works as a consultant for Dateline (and is paid a fee for its services), setting up computer profiles and populating chat rooms with volunteers pretending to be underage teens interested in sex. The dystopic and utopic discourses about new technology converge in the Dateline narrative, as we are once alerted to the dangers of cyberspace yet told a tale in which technology is deployed as a productive social instrument. The paranoia of online identity as deceptive role play is displaced by the positive yet parallel action of the Perverted Justice decoy that plays a part to lure the predator. Predator and savior use parallel tactics that have evolved in tandem, and are positioned as the yin and yang of the digital age.

Chris Hansen - To Catch a Predator book cover

Correspondent Chris Hansen as author

With such a paradigm in mind, we are asked to accept surveillance as the principle raison d’être of certain new technologies, though in this climate the technology must be read as not politically or ideologically neutral. Reflecting on Predator’s development over its ten investigative installments, Hansen recalls, “The first investigation was very slick. I mean we had five or six cameras. And they set up a mini control room in like a little back room in the house. And they’re all huddled in there with the monitors.” Tracing the show’s development, one of the volunteers with Perverted Justice adds, “… We went from Frag [Dennis Kerr, the group’s Director of Operations] and I being perched on a single desk in a hallway at the top of the staircase—to having an entire room set aside where we’ve got our Web cams up, and we’ve got our phone verifiers in position. And we’ve got all these new technologies that we’re using. And Frag has gone from having a hallway window to look out of, to having something like 7 monitors pyramided around him.” The show is a testament to visibility, both in its guiding mission (to put faces on sexual predators) and its aesthetics of technological oversaturation. The undercover house in Long Beach, California, the set of its February 6, 2007 episode, featured fifteen hidden cameras, while the program itself split the viewing screen repeatedly, at one point offering home viewers four vantage points, plus those additional screens within the televised screen of the surveillance room.

NBC and have expanded the Predator franchise to Catch an ID Thief and Catch a Con Man and package safety kits for each series. The Predator safety kit includes a family contract for online safety, culled from, asking parents to pledge, among other things, that they “not use a PC or the Internet as an electronic babysitter” and reminding kids to “be a good online citizen and not do anything that hurts other people or is against the law.”

Brian Massumi notes in his preface to The Politics of Everyday Fear, that “fear is a staple of popular culture and politics.” American social space has been saturated by mechanisms of fear production, a process perhaps hastened by the role mass media has come to assume in this country. Fear and the public sphere are illusive (and intimately bound to one another). But what Predator rather nonchalantly points out, as it produces “the teacher, the oil man, [and] the ex-cop,” is that fear is not simply outside the home, but down the hallway. These men are quite often (though not always) identified as family men, with wives and children. What public service is the network doing for their families? It is the very (virtual) nature of fear and of the public sphere that drives us toward empiricism, toward our need to know, to see, to find the sexual predators among us; yet what we may finally discover is that what we fear most is lying beside us.

Image Credits:

1. Dateline: To Catch a Predator aired 2-6-07

2. Dateline: To Catch a Predator episode aired 2-6-07

3. Perverted Justice


In a recent installment, Chris Hansen asks one subject, “Have you seen the show before?” “And what do you think of the stories?” “Did you ever think you’d be on one?”

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 23.

Brian Massumi, “Preface,” in The Politics of Everyday Fear, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), vii.

Please feel free to comment.

Seeing is Believing

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar

Britney Spears Toxic

Britney Spears – Toxic

Many years ago, I read several essays from the turn of the century in which the leading pundits of the day expressed their concern about photography and its potential impact on culture. The main point the authors consistently reiterated was a fear of what would occur when the surface of an object was separated from its physical beingness in the world. They envisioned a world where people had consumed the image and thought they had experienced the thing itself, confusing the virtual with the real. As I sit in the 21st Century and peer around San Francisco, I don’t think they were far off the mark.

Take Britney, for example. I bet you know who I mean instantly. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but you’ll rightly assume that there can only be one Britney I am referring to. I have never met her in person, never even heard her voice except in her highly mixed singer persona. I’ve seen her in videos and in print. But I feel like I know her, know her ups and downs with Kevin, her babies, shaving her head and rehab. But the key here is that I don’t. I only know an image, moments caught by cameras and beamed around the world.

Those video images are easy to identify: the coy, sexually budding schoolgirl in Baby, One More Time; the sexually assured temptress in I’m a Slave 4 U; the impossibly CGI’ed up vixen in Toxic. What do those images tell me about her? She’s young. She’s hot. She seems to like sex, or at the very least, understands that sex sells her records. I know she married young, and that she had babies right away, from the endless parade of photographs in People and Us magazine. If I google her, I find out other details: she is the only female vocal artist of all time to have four records debut at number one, and according to Forbes, in 2007 she was ranked 12th of The 20 Richest Women in Entertainment with a fortune estimated at $100 million. With each detail, the image grows more fleshed out, but it is still just that: an image.

When I watch TV and movies, I am surrounded by a different kind of virtual image: the location itself. If the screen says the story takes place in Africa, it is Africa I see in front of me. Even if I find out later it was actually Afghanistan or India, in my mind, in the place I surrendered to the storytellers, I saw Africa. If I try to adjust my perception to this new piece of information, I experience a kind of motion sickness, a sense of disorientation. I feel like a little kid whose been lied to about Santa Claus. I hold the two experiences—my first viewing of Africa and my second awareness of non-Africa—in an uneasy truce. What results for me is a simultaneous sense of seeing the world through other’s eyes and not trusting what I see. Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” I would paraphrase that in the TV age as “All the world’s a set, of which we will show whatever is most convenient for us.”

Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

It is not the false sense of having seen Africa or knowing Britney that is the problem. What is problematic is a lifetime of Britneys and false Africas building a slightly skewed map of reality in our nervous systems. The longer I look at it, the more I see a strange state that results, in which we are here and not here simultaneously. We see, but we don’t experience; we know, but we do not understand. I have watched many deserted tropical beaches on TV, but it wasn’t until I hiked through the jungle on my own to the ocean’s edge that I discovered a key detail: insects, and lots of them. I had bites from the moment I set foot on the beach until I left 3 weeks later. I laughed as I itched, amazed at how surface my understandings were of tropical beaches before I physically arrived at one. But what else could they be, having come only from the images?

Image Credits:
1. Britney Spears – Toxic
2. Tayrona Park image taken and provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.

Watching TV Poker

Watching TV Poker

a TV poker table

You may win, you may lose, but there’s always something you can learn.

— Former World Series of Poker Champion Greg Raymer, promoting

The current moment seems an appropriate one for the much-hyped mainstreaming of poker as popular pastime, endorsed by the electronic embrace of TV and the Internet. Gambling and the risk society make a natural pair. Our president wants us to bet our social security pensions on the stock market while legal gambling has become a redevelopment tool of choice, state lotteries rake in regressive taxes, and casino gambling lies at the heart of the latest political lobbying scandal.

The trade-off of the zero-sum wager: vicarious pleasure in the prospect of a large payoff for the few in exchange for the willing sacrifices of the many fits neatly with the current administration’s fiscal policy, its western swagger, and its bluff-and-guts political tactics.

While the pundits continue to ponder the question of whether poker counts as a legitimate sport or not, there is a reasonable case to be made for situating it within the recent reality TV trend. It features the unscripted interactions of real people – some of whom were only recently recruited from the viewer ranks – along with the unfolding of (admittedly truncated) interpersonal dramas, and the promise that a lucky random fan might capture a piece of the multi-million dollar prize pool.

By way of contrast, football and baseball fans don’t, for the most part, watch the games for tips that might help them join the NFL. Poker shows, on the other hand, lay claim to the zeitgeist of interactivity by highlighting the participatory character of the revamped poker tours and offering how-to instructions sandwiched between advertisements for Internet sites where viewers can practice what they’ve learned.

As the publisher of one poker magazine put it, “One of the reasons why poker has become so popular is that anyone can be a poker player, anyone might be the next millionaire…I’m never going to play right field for the San Francisco Giants, but I might be one tournament away” (King, 2005).

A recent episode of the World Poker Tour cited the New York Times claim that some 50 million people in the US play poker regularly, and the televised tournaments are reportedly the third most watched “sport” on cable TV after car racing and football.

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

The recent success of TV poker shows has been attributed to two developments: the “lipstick” spy-cams that provide behind-the-scenes access to players’ cards, and the proliferation of satellite games both online and off that offer amateurs and unknowns an inexpensive, long-shot bid for a tournament seat.

A recent episode of the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, for example, featured a segment about poker fans who parlayed their satellite buy-ins into lottery-sized cash prizes, prompting host Shana Hiatt to observe that, “Playing poker can be a dream come true for anyone.”

One of the staple narratives of the World Poker Tour is the back story of the amateur made good or the rags-to-riches pro. In this respect the show combines the appeal of big-prize game-docs like Survivor with the bootstrap narratives featured on celebrity reality shows like MTV’s Cribs.

Between edited segments of play, the World Poker Tour includes interview highlights with both amateurs and pro-players like Scotty Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant from an impoverished family who, as co-host Vince Van Patten put it, “went to help his family in the only way he knew how: he played poker in the street,” before coming to the United States and working his way up from busboy to poker pro with more than $2 million in winnings.

Poker shows hype the instant version of the American Dream even as its more prosaic version confronts the reality of increasing economic inequality and politicians hacking away at the social safety net. In this respect, the popularity of the spectacle of instant wealth continues the trend that saw the state lotteries work their way back into legality in the late 1960s and early 70s alongside the erosion of the post-war settlement and its attendant run of prosperity.

The current poker boom is also unmistakably a creature of its cultural moment – that of a generalized, reflexive savviness and a passion for debunkery that reduces every discursive claim to a ruse of power. The poker shows cater to the skepticism of those who seek to master the art of visceral literacy – ostensibly bypassing the manipulations of discourse to read the signs of the body. An instinctive “read” takes precedence over deliberation when everyone is assumed to be lying – and when the truth operates as one more ruse. The oft-repeated mantra that in poker “you play the people, not the cards” frames the commentators’ extemporaneous tutorials in mutual monitoring, detection and people-reading.

TV final table

TV final table

As in the case of many reality formats, the poker shows promise to entertain the viewer while educating them. Home viewers are schooled in the art of “the tell.” Slamming your chips into the pot aggressively, for example, is a tell. Leaning back is a tell, as is leaning forward; a show of strength means weakness, and vice versa. As Celebrity Poker Showdown host Phil Gordon, put it, “looking directly at your opponent is a sign of weakness. You’re trying to look at your opponent to look strong; but if I have a good hand, why would I want to intimidate my opponent?”

The goal is to learn the significance of signals that are supposedly harder to control than words – to believe only your own eyes, never the other players’ words.

“This is a lesson for the players at home,” is the repeated refrain of the show’s hosts, who understand that the TV episodes double as advertising for a booming ancillary market in learn-to-play products, and for the tournaments whose jackpots increase in proportion to the number of participants they draw from the audience ranks.

The promise of participation in this context serves the opposite function of that associated with risk sharing. Rather than cushioning the effects of misfortune, it pools loss to generate a large payoff for those who finish “in the money.” Its alibi for regressive wealth redistribution is the democratic character of chance: the fact that no amount of skill or training can dictate the fall of the cards – and even the longest shot sometimes defies the most carefully calculated odds.

Despite this irreducible uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), the message is not the irrelevance of training and preparedness, but rather the need for their cultivation.

The credo of the well-tempered poker player, invoked by World Poker Tour co-host Mike Sexton is “In poker, as in life, you make your own breaks.”

The absence of any guarantee serves as incitement to ongoing training – and helps to displace an undermined faith in communication and risk sharing onto the blind justice of chance.

King, Peter (2005) “Everyone’s a Player in Poker’s New Deal. The Los Angeles Times, July 17.

Image Credits:
1. TV Poker Table
2. “Lipstick” Cam Monitors
3. TV Final Table

Stripping (Part 2)



In my last column, I began to discuss the practice of stripping — placing reruns of a series in the same daily slot five times a week on a local station or cable channel. I argued that series that offer dollops of quotidian delights do particularly well when stripped, as their subtle qualities become more visible with the increased exposure of daily presentation. I would like to continue by discussing another source of heightened appreciation of stripped series, our changing views of characters and actors in reruns, before comparing stripping to DVD bingeing, and wrapping up with a programming note.

Watching a weekly show on a daily basis changes our exposure to actors and the characters they play. Secondary characters sometimes rise to the fore once syndication begins, as watching material that is already familiar affords us the chance to focus on less central elements of the show. Characters who may appear briefly on a weekly basis become more familiar when watched daily, and their cumulative impact intensifies once freed from the seven-day break between performances. Even important secondary characters can gain more attention in stripped series, as patterns of narrative become more obvious. A classic example comes from Taxi, the late ’70s-early ’80s sitcom that became a syndication favorite. When introduced in its first run, cast members Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Tony Danza, and Andy Kaufman attracted press attention, and their characters were certainly important to the show. In syndication, however, fan attention turned more toward Christopher Lloyd as Reverend Jim and Danny DeVito as Louie. Reverend Jim rarely had a large role in the narrative, but regularly offered one or two observations or scenes per episode that got big laughs. Daily viewing reduced the isolated quality of his non sequitur-based humor, and the details of his bizarre personality could be gathered by viewers trying to understand his hippie-burn-out-street-preacher persona. His cumulative impact was much greater in syndication than in the original run.

Watching the show on a daily (or nightly) basis also made clear the importance of Danny DeVito’s character to the series. Louie the dispatcher was often the main catalyst of story lines, despite the fact that he was usually stuck in a cage to the side of the main action. Louie also got some of the best dialogue in his role as the main comic foil on the show. The Taxi writers clearly fell in love with the characters of Reverend Jim and Louie, whose comic styles were more extreme than the rather mild tone that was sustained by most of the other regulars. (Carol Kane’s Simka, another outlandish personality, also benefited, but she was not featured as regularly). The writers may also have fallen in love with Lloyd and DeVito’s comic talents. It is no coincidence that these two actors have had the strongest film careers among the cast since the series ended. Did the two’s heightened visibility in syndication lead to better roles in later productions? Or did their success in film make them seem more important in the Taxi reruns? Probably both, but their impact in reruns preceded their leaps to major film success in the mid-1980s.

Views of primary characters can also change through stripping. In the last column, I mentioned the popularity of James Garner in The Rockford Files and Jerry Orbach in Law and Order as the product of daily exposure. Even a performer as attention-getting as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be seen in new ways once the series went into syndication. Personally, I became much more impressed with Gellar’s performance once stripping brought into relief her range in moving between comedy, romance, and action (once she learned how to stake with conviction). The series was already known for its mixture of modes, but the daily juxtaposition of episodes that required Gellar to constantly switch performative gears made her ability to do so seem more central to the success of the show.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Stripping became more prevalent with the proliferation of cable channels, but that may soon change. Syndicators once thought successful stripping required five or six seasons of an original run, but the great maw of the multichannel universe will now settle for fewer episodes, allowing more series to be stripped. The advent of DVD versions of television series, however, poses new questions for syndicators and programmers. Will the DVD market drive down demand for stripped series? Will the appeal of a ritualistic daily visitation of a series withstand the easy availability of the same material on demand? Will we see an era of DIY stripping, when viewers can schedule their own viewing preferences? Or do DVD box set owners skip DIY stripping and go straight to video bingeing, watching as many episodes as personal schedules will allow (and then some), in the shortest amount of time? Perhaps some genres, such as sitcoms, are amenable to DIY stripping, while others, such as thrillers with strong narrative arcs, lead to bingeing. Friends of mine who recently disappeared for nights and weekends at a time to obsessively watch 24 attest to the power of suspense, even when the show is “bad, but compelling,” as those in its clutches agreed. If once seen as a symbol of plenty compared to the weekly presentation schedule of an original run, the measured charms of stripping’s daily discipline may appear inadequate to a society bent toward bingeing. Does binge viewing offer different dynamics to the appreciation of small touches, secondary characters, and narrative patterns? Binge viewers of the FLOW community, what say ye?

Finally, I would like to end my cycle of articles this year by noting another sort of prevalence on cable television of late. I am referring to the David Mamet film Spartan, which plays repeatedly on HBO virtually every month, and pops up on TNT and other channels from time to time. Some Mamet-scripted films have been common cable fare before — Glengarry Glen Ross was often screened throughout the ’90s, and Ronin, which he co-wrote under a pseudonym, can still be seen regularly. The prevalence of Spartan, however, is astonishing, given its lack of success in its theatrical run in 2004. A cloak and dagger story of the search for the kidnapped daughter of a President, the film is replete with themes of the management of the news, White House sexual peccadilloes, duplicitous Presidential aides, the use of torture and other extralegal methods during a security emergency, Arab treatment of women, shadowy involvement by Israelis, and the protection of the powerful at the expense of working-class, African-American, and Latina populations. Has it become a cult favorite? Is this merely a case of the studio — Warner Bros. — milking its property by using its affiliated television channels? Or, given that the film is the clearest echo in contemporary American film of the hyperparanoiac thrillers of the Watergate era (The Parallax View, The Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation), is somebody (other than Mamet, who most assuredly is) trying to tell us something?

Image Credits:

1. DeVito

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Please feel free to comment.

Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Sundance 2006

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Overheard on a shuttle as I traveled from the Sundance Film Festival headquarters to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts: “the best film so far has been that midnight movie The Descent, you know the one with the chicks with ice picks versus CHUD.” CHUD, for those readers unfamiliar with the world of trashy eighties horror films, stands for “Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers.” Actually, The Descent was a pretty enjoyable film with its mildly feminist revision of the buddy film set against a plot that includes subterranean Appalachian piranha people who devour their victims while alive — a tonic against a schedule of Sundance festival films loaded with light romantic comedies and heavy-handed social issue documentaries (the second of which I like to watch, but this genre goes down a bit hard if it constitutes the bulk of one’s cinematic diet on a trip that averaged four films a day over four days). Out of the fifteen screenings that I attended, I saw several good serious films — 5 Days (a documentary detailing the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza), A Little Trip to Heaven (an Icelandic film noir with Forrest Whittaker as an insurance investigator), and Wordplay (a shaggy dog of a documentary about crossword puzzle makers and fans) were all stand outs.

But for this column I want to focus on another aspect of the Sundance Film Festival that most attendees know about but that doesn’t really rate entry into the fabled festival buzz: the coverage of Sundance by the local cable station, Park City Television (PCTV). Each day upon return to my hotel room, I unwound by watching PCTV’s fragmented, repetitious series of vignettes covering the big events of that day’s festival schedule. Modeled after the style and format of “Entertainment Tonight” or the E! cable channel — but aimed at the indie film crowd sensibility — PCTV featured segments entitled “In the Can,” “The Scene,” and “Big Mountain Adventure” (a segment that followed selected filmmakers as they ventured out to the Park City ski slopes). These PCTV segments were then packaged into a 30-minute program and aired on the Sundance Film Channel as a wrap up of the day’s events for those unfortunate enough not to have traveled to Park City, Utah in person.

Alternating with these canned-entertainment pieces were extended segments that featured video documentation of Sundance sponsored panel discussions and special events. The panel coverage that I found myself watching late Friday evening was entitled “Stay-at-Home Movies: The Home Theatre Experience and the Future of Exhibition.” While the panel was supposed to focus on changes in film exhibition and its consequences for independent film producers, the emphasis in the discussion was actually on new forms of distribution that generate new forms of exhibition. The panel, chaired by Bill Alpert senior editor at Barron’s Magazine, included key executives from, the Sundance Channel, Sony, and the Wall Street Journal.

While digital cinematography and postproduction has by now gained acceptance from film producers and audiences, large screen cinematic exhibition continues to be considered the gold standard of the movie-going experience, in contrast to the diminished experience (at least for those in the film community) of the small screens of television, the Internet, or mobile phones. However, perhaps because multiplex screens have for the most part shrunken to a size not much larger than plasma TVs, or perhaps simply in response to the increasing financial pressures of big screen distribution, indie filmmakers are becoming more accepting of small screen alternatives to the standard studio distribution model, based as it is on the high costs of multiple prints and multiple theaters. The panelists on “Stay-at-Home Movies” spent most of their allotted time addressing the needs of these filmmakers — a core creative class presumed to be different from those who make Hollywood studio product — and looking at the forms of distribution enabled by the Internet and small, portable screens such as the video iPod.

The question initially raised by Mr. Alpert was, “How do content providers get paid for their product?” As the studios routinely fudge accounting and fashion deals that favor corporate ledgers at the expense of creativity, conventional wisdom states that if independent filmmakers can control distribution, they will reap a larger portion of the rewards accrued by their productions. But if small screens are the vehicles, how will filmmakers collect the cash? Of course, the model used by Google Video — in effect a video search engine (or is it a video distribution engine?) — suggests that through advertising-supported web content (the foundation of Google’s economic success), filmmakers could make, in the words of Jennifer Feikin, director of Google’s video project, “seventy cents on the dollar as opposed to the pennies on the dollar that they receive from studio deals,” implying that, as Wall Street Journal writer Kara Swisher succinctly put it: “the studios are screwing the makers.”

In response, Chris Dorr of Sony flatly stated, “the nature of community is promotion.” Well, so be it. If we are discussing economies of scale and of promotion, then the economic model that is brought to the filmmaker by the Internet distribution model is one that simply reproduces the older studio model of production financing. While the artist hawking his productions on Google Video does reap much more of the proportional rewards than do his or her colleagues at Paramount, in the end the total amount of money earned through studio distribution still dictates that some, chosen by the financially secure agents of movie capitalism, reap disproportionate amounts of money for their efforts.

Bill Alpert noted this inequity in the studio system of production and distribution by bringing to the attention of his fellow panelists that filmmakers with studio support are allowed to spend considerable up-front money to make their creations, where truly indie producers potentially working within the Google Video model — which essentially pays after the fact of production — are much more constrained in their vision by the lack of up-front capital. So while the costs of production have declined significantly through the introduction and refinement of digital technology, the costs of distribution still depend on a large expensive media apparatus controlled by corporations that privilege certain ideas — those that generate the most revenue — over others — those that quaintly explore more complex and abrasive ideas. While the myth of Sundance continues to hoodwink filmmakers into believing that the odds of securing a distribution deal are in their favor, the reality is that only a small percentage of Sundance Festival filmmakers find these million-dollar deals coming their way.

As prophesied by the panelists, distribution through Internet Protocol (IP) systems — blogs using video, websites, sling boxes, and portable media players — does seem to be the future of the media industry, but this future, at least at this juncture, holds no more limitless horizons for independent media producers than the current structure, as the means of distribution, if not production, are still controlled by corporations and IP distribution is still a part of this corporate system. Discussing the business end of the indie scene, it is hard not to slip into a neo-Marxist analysis of the matters at hand. As Feikin from Google Video flatly stated, “70 percent of one dollar is better than nothing.” Is that really the best that indie media producers can expect? Or should we just expect to live in the “small monitor town” where we all carry screens (Dorr’s location free television) which are supplemented by large screen experiences as they transpire at home or at the digital multiplex while still relying on large scale capital to supply the majority of high visibility media content?

These are questions I had hoped the panelists would answer, but suddenly the PCTV’s coverage of the “Stay-at-Home” panel discussion was interrupted, cutting off Bill Alpert in mid-sentence, to switch to an in-progress commercial for a hip clothing store on Park City’s main street. What conclusions panelists drew regarding the future of exhibition remains a mystery. But given the rather bleak future forecast to that point by representatives of the Sundance Channel, Sony, and Google — a future where corporations rule IP distribution networks just as they have done in the world of film and television, where voices are limited to those whose ideas fit within the intellectual space of the media industry, and those who fail, or who are incapable of “fitting in,” are relegated to producing on a handful of pennies — it seems that the next stage of media distribution is on track to reproduce the inequities inherent in those that came before. It seems that indie producers are still just “chicks with ice picks” pitted against the CHUDs of corporate media culture.

2006 Sundance Festival
Google Video

Image Credits:

1. Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Please feel free to comment.

“Ad”ing by Subtraction

the cast of CSI

the cast of CSI


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

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

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

Law and Order

Law and Order

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

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

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

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

Image Credits:

1. the cast of CSI

2. Law and Order

Please feel free to comment.

Producers, Publics, and Podcasts: Where Does Television Happen?

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

The distance between television creators and television viewers has always seemed to me to be exaggerated, in mainstream as well as academic conceptions. “The industry,” that mysterious source of texts, is put over in one corner, and the “audience,” endlessly receiving (actively, passively, or otherwise), is parked in the other. We scholars look into each side fairly well, but rarely do we examine what happens when they meet. John Fiske once wrote about “moments of television,” where television “happens” in the interaction of text and audience.1 I’ve always liked this conception, but would suggest that we scale it back beyond only the text (which always matters, of course), to the institutions and people who made it. “Television” happens somewhere in this meeting of people, institutions, ideas, and technology.

Unfortunately, while the various parties of this relationship are generally analyzed on their own, they’re rarely brought together. The industry is all too often viewed as either a monolith or a set of fiefdoms, with transparent intents and machinations (i.e., to make lots of money). While this conception is valid, if banal, it lacks an analysis of the complex workings of the television industry, its components, and its people. The pursuit of profit alone doesn’t explain the prevalence of hand-held camerawork in single-camera shows, the explosion of procedural dramas, or even how Ashton Kutcher became a reality show mogul. Meanwhile, textual analysis, while invaluable, still separates process from product. This isn’t the place to ruminate on the interpretive role of the critic, but surely, as Keith Negus detailed in his study of genre in the music industry, the motivations, calculations, and judgments of creators and other industry personnel “matter,” at least in principle.2 Finally, while the audience has received the lion’s share of critical attention (whether categorized as viewers or fans), their documented encounters with television generally begin and end with the text, or with the texts they create. Television creative personnel rarely factor into such studies. However, many television creators today (writers in particular) consider themselves fans, and actively foster relationships with fans. These “fan-professionals,” including creators like Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Whedon, present significant opportunities for connecting the dots between producers, texts, and viewers.

While fans have long contacted series producers and writers (dating back to radio), the growth of organized fandom over the past forty years has provided producers of particular genres with ready-made, eager and receptive, if often difficult, audiences for their work. An array of media and fora, ranging from magazines to conventions, have developed over this period to facilitate (and, yes, exploit) this connection. Over the last dozen or so years, the internet has greatly expanded the range and volume of these creator-fan encounters. Engaged creators can now obtain instantaneous feedback on their work from their most enthusiastic viewers. Some writers and producers (and in a few rare cases, actors) even directly engage with fans on their own turf, posting on fan-run message boards and blogs. Most recently, however, creators have taken an even more active role in this relationship, offering up extensive online commentary and discussion about their work.3

The producers of the new Battlestar Galactica didn’t have to put blogs (text and video), galleries of production art, or weekly podcasts online, but they did. This material has gone beyond the usual staid promotional package you’d expect on official websites, to include frank discussions about the series’ production, and salty on-set actualities. In his unprecedented podcast episode commentaries, executive producer Ron Moore is mostly concerned with explaining the “whys” of televisual storytelling, justifying narrative elements, detailing rewrites, lamenting production difficulties, and even regretting some choices. As a grizzled veteran of the rise and fall of Star Trek in the 1990s, Moore is keenly aware of the demands of fans, of networks and studios, and of commercial television itself. He effectively communicates the exhausting process of pleasing all of these masters, and yet can still gush with unapologetic fannish glee at an actor’s performance, at a shot sequence, or at his series’ much-noted moral ambiguity.

Although Galactica’s official web presence is certainly robust, Lost arguably represents the most extensive online interaction between creators and fans on American television right now. As with Battlestar Galactica, a weekly podcast enables series producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to talk directly about their work, discussing that week’s episode, and answering a few fan questions about the narrative each week. Unlike Moore and Eick, however, Cuse and Lindelof focus primarily on teasing the narrative rather than explaining how things were done. This approach runs parallel with both the dominant treatment of the series (as unfolding puzzle) and the other components of its online footprint (e.g., cryptic websites for Oceanic Air and the Hanso Foundation). Their fannish enthusiasm comes across in anticipation of “what happens next,” rather than in Moore’s “here’s how we did it.” In addition, each Lost podcast also includes an interview with a cast member. Thus far, these interviews have served as fairly standard publicity fodder, although as the podcast form becomes more established, perhaps they will evolve into something more substantial as well.



Like their fan-produced counterparts (which number in the dozens), these official blogs and podcasts offer new spaces for analysis, interpretation, and creator-fan interaction. That said, these practices shouldn’t necessarily be taken at their face value. They still function primarily as promotion material, drawing fans not only to the programs, but to ad-supported websites and other media. Moreover, significant cultural and social power differentials still remain between creators and fans, no matter how sincere the formers’ intents may be. Still, though, creators like Moore and Lindelof are clearly enthusiastic about their work, and about talking about their work with other enthusiasts. There’s something in these exchanges that needs to be acknowledged and studied, rather than ignored or written off.

Thankfully, there are precedents in television studies for “connecting the dots.”4 These works trace the connections over time, revealing how creators sometimes rely upon viewers for creative acknowledgement and even political support, and how viewers communicate their perspectives and concerns to creators. What emerges in these accounts is an understanding of how television texts (and even institutions) are ongoing collaborations of expectations and possibilities between creators, networks, advertisers, viewers, fans, and technology. In other words, television isn’t just what happens in the proverbial living room between eyeballs and screens.

The mushrooming of content (online and otherwise) related to series — what used to be called “extratextual”–presents not only further avenues of interpretation, but also alternative conceptions of what “television” is, or can be, or was. Moreover, as discussed elsewhere in Flow, the rapidly shifting distribution of television adds to this redefinition, and arguably enhances the importance of creator-viewer interaction. The distance between the dots is shrinking, and has been for years. It’s high time to connect them.

1John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987).
2Keith Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1999).
3The prevalence of commentary tracks and other “behind-the-scenes” features on DVD releases is another signficant incarnation of this phenomenon.
4A few examples: Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham, NC: Duke, 2001), Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina, 1994), Laurie Ouellette’s Viewers Like You?: How Pulbic TV Failed the People (New York: Columbia, 2002), and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Methuen, 1983).

Image Credits
1. Battlestar Galactica

2. Lost

Please feel free to comment.

Why Accurate Audience Measurement is Worth the Trouble

Arbitron\'s Portable People Meter

Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas drove home a point that has been made repeatedly in the pages of Flow — the way we engage media is undergoing radical changes. The prospect of online distribution of programs created for TV has come to pass, with more portable video players and video downloading programs emerging to compete with the Video IPod and ITunes. These developments are likely to make the Nielsens, an already woefully inaccurate audience measurement system as detailed by Jason Mittell in the previous issue of Flow, even less accurate. It may no longer make sense to track an audience without looking across media — from television broadcasts, to video-on-demand, to downloads. But changing the method of audience measurement for TV programs won’t be easy. In fact, depending on whom you ask, it might not be possible at all.

What’s clear is that there is a lot at stake. As John Gertner noted in a New York Times article last April, changing the method of audience measurement could change the entire culture industry, an industry that, for reasons both economic and ideological, doesn’t like to be changed. Indeed, these statistics hold so much sway over those shaping the American collective consciousness that it’s easy to suspect their custodians of having something other than the accurate depiction of audience desire as their MO. However, if we adopt such a distrustful view of audience measurement, if any centralized system for the measurement of audience preference is inherently susceptible to corruption, then what would be the incentive to develop a more accurate system?

There is a certain amount of faith one must have to engage in the campaign for more accurate audience data. One has to acknowledge that what is being measured — the audience for certain programs — has social and political implications that go beyond dollars and cents. While every consumer decision made by citizens impacts these spheres, its easy to see how ratings for a progressive-minded talk show might be more indicative of its consumers’ values than, say, their decision to buy Crest toothpaste instead of Colgate. Creators, distributors, advertisers and audience researchers all have socio-political agendas of one sort or another. Nevertheless, they (particularly the distributors) are motivated foremost by profit, and if people are willing to pay for a certain program, or tolerate ten minutes of advertising to watch a show, then they would like to know about it. If it really is “all about the money,” then the networks would want to know exactly what the audience wants so that they don’t miss the boat on a series that ends up being a hit on DVD or, god forbid, another network.

We have to believe that while a totally accurate picture of audience desire may never be achievable, it is an ideal that can and should be aspired to, as much for the sake of the scholar seeking a greater knowledge of how individuals engage media as for the sake of the fan crusading to keep a soon-to-be-cancelled show from going under.

Assuming that the system is broken, and that it is worth fixing, is there anything outsiders like us can do to affect change? Individual arguments for a show’s potential, no matter how well founded or articulate, can only do so much. A financial catalyst is needed, and we might just have that in the form of a la carte availability of TV episodes courtesy of ITunes. If a show with horrible ratings gets downloaded enough times, the creators, distributors and advertisers will get the message — something is seriously wrong with the way audience desire is measured. The “tipping point” referred to by Derek Kompare in his response to Jason Mittell’s article may take this form.

Just how resistant is the current audience tracking system to change? Is this stubbornness due to an inability to keep up with new distribution technology? Is it part of a concerted attempt to marginalize certain values put forth in certain programs, or is it simply a case of a large system with many players that cannot change quickly? Perhaps we’ll never have totally accurate answers to any of these questions, but that doesn’t make the search for these answers any less worthwhile.

Image Credits:

1. Arbitron’s Portable People Meter

Please feel free to comment.

Speculation with Spoilers

by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University

Ana Lucia

Lost‘s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed
(on TV, 11/23/05; online 11/01/05)

As a result of the research conducted for this column, I now have super powers. I can see into the future of television, telling you who will win The Amazing Race, what will happen in January on Lost, and how Arrested Development plans to leave Fox in a blaze of self-reflexive glory. (I promise, though, not to divulge details).

In my last column, I wrote of the previews and hype about shows circulated by the television industry, discussing how we interact with programs before even watching them due to these industry-designed pre-texts. However, it’s not just Hollywood who gets to play this game, as viewers too are releasing information gleaned from leaks from cast or crew; reports from the set by passersby, fan pilgrimages, and sleuthing trips; and sheer textual detective work. This is the world of the “spoiler.”

Many fansites on the Internet have sections for spoilers. Usually carefully cordoned off with threats such as “Spoiler Warning!!!! Do NOT go further if you do not want to know what happens,” these areas grandiosely announce their Pandora’s Box nature. Meanwhile, standard etiquette dictates that outside of these sections, all spoilers must be gratuitously labeled, followed by numerous blank lines, so that the eye cannot betray its owner by glancing down the screen, hence “spoiling” the narrative to come. Indeed, there appears something very pornographic about spoilers, and such rules and etiquette show the degree to which they are similarly seen as holding significant power to corrupt on mere contact and the degree to which many consumers are still guiltily smitten by and drawn to spoilers.

Spoilers may not ultimately attract as many online viewers as does pornography, but spoiler discussion forms a major portion of many popular fan sites. Television Without Pity’s Lost board hosts a spoiler thread (from which I get my title) with, at last count, 316 pages of text; TWoP’s Amazing Race board has a 300-page spoiler thread; while other sites, such as Lost-TV, have literally thousands of posts and boast hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Certain programs attract more spoilers, notably, those that thrive on keeping their readers in the dark, such as Lost, Veronica Mars, and competition reality shows, but even sitcoms and quiz shows have their spoilers.

Part of the appeal behind the consumption and production of spoilers would seem to be play with the narrative delivery system. To put it simply, this system posits an Author who knows, and a group of readers who don’t. Those who hate being spoilt are quite often those who are happy with this relationship; but clearly the system irks the spoilt. Spoiling is all about knowing. To some spoilers, the experience would seem akin to the pleasures felt by video game players who find cheat codes that allow them, for instance, unlimited ammunition. Video games can be devilishly hard, their puzzles irritatingly addictive, and cheat codes allow early gratification, and a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing how to solve the problem. Similarly, spoilers offer a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing what will happen next, what the Hanso Foundation is, or who wins next week’s leg of the race. To know what happens is a small victory, and a pat on the back.

As the size of some spoiler sites suggests, there is clearly a huge social element to this knowing too. Rather than exploring the text alone, thumbing it on all sides for the secret latch, spoiler sites allow what Henry Jenkins, following, Levy, calls “collective knowledge” (2002). Moreover, cultural capital can be earned or lost by knowing more or less, whether online, or in the smug contentment of the living room. As such, this need to know is both collaborative and competitive.

Beyond analyzing their appeals, though, I am fascinated by what spoilers tell us about the individual’s or group’s interaction with the text. After all, spoilers effectively allow viewers to read, decode, and interpret a text before it’s even got to them. Spoilt viewers can experience a text’s effects before broadcast, and can also, therefore, profoundly muddle up the phenomenology of the text, especially a well-written serial text. Good writers often “trick” their audiences, calling on us to react in one way, then adding new information that changes the ground rules. Spoilt viewers, though, can immunize themselves to such strategies.

Meanwhile, there is also the case of the false spoiler. For example, last year, a poster by the name of Old Scooter Dude began leaking information about Lost‘s season finale at Lost‘s spoiler board. Old Scooter Dude became something of a cult figure for a while, with some posters even speculating as to whether he was Lost star Jorge Garcia. But come season finale, he was proven a sham (resulting in his immediate expulsion, per community rules, from the board). Pre-excommunication, though, Old Man Scooter managed to throw the narrative off significantly for his (truly) spoilt subjects: using his bogus facts, they decoded all manner of events, characters, and themes in the lead up to the fateful revelation, only to have these all thrown into disarray. Instead of being episodes ahead, then, they were episodes behind.

Or in another instance at the same site, it was revealed what the show’s mysterious “French Lady,” Rousseau, was on the island to study. By all accounts, the spoiler came from an actually shot scene, and thus was completely legit — but the scene was then cut, with no subsequent allusion to the research. How is the spoilt viewer to make sense of this? Does this mean simply that writers Abrams and Lindelof decided to withhold that information for the time being, or does it mean that they changed their minds? Clearly, such examples show how spoilers can confuse the viewer. But they also show how the text has truly moved beyond its textual body, existing across all sorts of media. John Fiske called such intertexts “secondary textuality” (1989), while Will Brooker (2001) dubs them “overflow,” and although both terms are helpful, spoilers such as this offer something quite primary, and would seem to start the flow as much as they continue it. This one cut scene potentially answers many of the island’s, and hence the show’s, mysteries, allowing us not only to go back and make sense of past episodes, but to make significant sense of episodes-to-come.

Spoilers, therefore, also suggest something not only about our capacities to interact with and interpret texts before we actually receive them, but also about the significant pleasures in doing so. Much work into textual pleasure (logically enough) focuses on pleasures during or after the encounter, but the pleasures of anticipation, and pre-decoding can prove themselves just as strong to many. Certainly, reading through spoiler sites, it is hard not to conclude that many spoilt fans enjoy the experience of the text at the level of the spoiler significantly more than they claim to enjoy it when it is actually on the television in front of them.

Personally, I prefer not to be spoilt. But (and frustratingly so), many of those close to me love to be spoilt. And it is sometimes odd, therefore, to watch an episode with such creatures. While I am entranced by the narrative, waiting to see what’s next, they are either watching me for their enjoyment, or searching the text for other things: for character complexity, for cinematography, for minutiae. Much the same way that a repeat viewing of Seinfeld or The Simpsons allows that layered reading, spoilt viewers can make end-runs, so as to experience those aspects of the text in the first reading, while covering the narrative in the pre-reading.

Perhaps it is ultimately fittingly ironic that with the industry saturating everyday life with hype and overflow, many viewers are interacting as (or more) meaningfully with rumors of the text as with the text itself.

Brooker, Will (2001). “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence and Television Overflow,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, 456-72.

Fiske, John (1989). Understanding Popular Culture, New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry (2002). “Interactive Viewers,” In Dan Harries (Ed.), The New Media Book. London: BFI.

Image Credits:

1. Lost’s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed


Please feel free to comment.

“You Got to Know When to Hold Em”: Notes Against the Academicization of Television

by: Walter Metz / University of Montana-Bozeman

November 28, 2005 From a sociological point of view, the most remarkable thing that happened to me, upon returning from living in Germany for a year, experiencing so-called “reverse culture shock,” was not the expected panic at grocery stores the size of football fields, but the discovery of how little I knew about poker. When I left the United States in September 2003, I knew how to play five card draw, and vaguely knew there was a version with seven cards, with the salacious moniker, “stud.”

When I returned in August 2004, my television was awash with every basic cable outlet branding its own version of “Texas Hold ’em.” Because you only get dealt two cards, hold ’em is a game of statistical simplicity, making its prospects as a televisual event seems unlikely indeed. However, within a few weeks, I was completely hooked on this odd sports reality programming. My TiVo is now loaded with its permutations: ESPN’s World Series of Poker, The Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown, and Game Show Network’s “Battle Royale,” whose various short series typically pit celebrities (example: the James Woods “gang”) againstpoker professionals (like Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber, so named because he hides his face behind a hooded sweatshirt after he makes an aggressive bet).

James Woods

James Woods

The aesthetic conventions of television coverage of hold ’em are remarkable. The presentation of the game allows you to see every player’s “hole cards,” the two cards that are dealt face down. Players then make five-card poker hands out of these cards, combined with five cards dealt face up in a community row. Next to each player’s hole cards, the monitor indicates the statistical probability that his or her hand will win. This practice constructs the television viewer as an omniscient guru who is encouraged to treat each gambler’s misstep with utter contempt. The viewer is almost never reminded by the off-camera analysts that the gamblers’ bets and folds are made in the dark, without benefit of knowing the other players’ cards.

Armed with this televisually-constructed superiority, I went to my local Target store and bought myself the paraphernalia necessary for my own hold ’em game. Despite watching some hundreds of hours of the game on television, in real life my seven-year old son proceeded to decimate my chip stacks with alarming regularity. He then went on to beat all of his friends at daycare in their own hold ’em tournament. I will leave the discussion of the morality of children playing poker at their daycare center for another occasion. I think it is wonderful, and would defend this against the inanities of the Montessori system to my dying day, but some other time.

Arrogantly assuming that my son was just some sort of hold ’em prodigy, I proceeded to buy the various hand-held and video game versions of hold ’em. My favorite is the World Series of Poker game for the X-Box because you get to play against (and lose to) the famous poker players (Chris Ferguson, Johnny Chan, etc.) that you see on the television coverage. Alas, I will not be selling my house and moving to Vegas any time soon: in the game, you are given $10,000 for the entry fee to the “Main Event” of the World Series of Poker, and I have never made it beyond the first table, leaving the tournament in 3,000th place or below (and thus not winning any money) each and every time I have played.

Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

I belabor this story of my television poker viewing because it indicates something crucial about spectatorship and academic life. I have learned absolutely nothing from watching television poker. I do not even remember the episodes that I have watched, such that I will watch some five or ten hands before it dawns on me that I have already seen this tournament, and know who is going to win. My wife leaves the room when I watch poker, finding it the most boring thing about me.

My wife and I have had this argument before. Before DVD sets of television shows were available, I would fill 8 hour VHS tapes with 20 episodes of The Simpsons and watch them again and again. She would berate me for watching the same thing ten times, but I would explain that sitting with the Simpsons all night was much better than crying myself to sleep. However, in the back of my mind was always the academic justification of my television viewing: somewhere down the line, I would be ready to write that great Simpsons essay, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the exact episode locations of all of the smart stuff. After all, this obsessive, compulsive textual analysis of The Simpsons at night was remarkably similar to my day job, where I use the same skills to teach students about the novels of Herman Melville and the films of Fritz Lang.

However, I can see no such defense for my watching the World Series of Poker. Even if there are academic articles to be written about hold ’em (a sociological understanding of the rise in popularity of the game and its televisual presence at this historical moment seems important), I certainly have no interest in writing them. And it would be incorrect to say that I am a “fan” of television poker. It is clear that there are fans (they come to the tournaments, both as players and as spectators in droves), and that television poker has a star system of professional players like any other sport, but this is not why I watch. In fact, I find most of these players, like the ill-behaved Phil Helmuth, just the sort of regressive, infantile character that I urge my students not to be like when they grow up.

Instead, I believe I am using poker in the classic sense which sees television as a piece of household furniture. The little statistical battles in television poker are soothing to look in on, and yet are fully disposable. Whether Robert Williamson III wins the hand that he is “all in” on or not, my life will continue, and in fact when I encounter this very same hand three months from now, I will not remember whether he won, and the five minutes of drama it provides will give me just as much pleasure then as it does now.

Calling television disposable is a cardinal sin in academic television studies. We fight to have our study of this medium respected by those who study William Faulkner professionally. I am not arguing that we should not wage this battle–I was just recently told that I did not get a university research stipend because my project was on Bewitched, and therefore self-evidently not serious–but I wonder if it is not time to write more honestly about the many facets of television. One such facet is absolutely academically defensible; for example, Lost is as important to the early 21st century as its equivalent, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, was to the 15th century. However, another facet is that we watch television to relax.

Relaxation is a crucial human emotion that is pretty far afield from academic life. When we relax, we feel guilty because we are not getting the writing done that we are supposed to, even when we are at home. So instead, we are encouraged to relax more productively than “just” watching television; I feel less guilty when I am at the health club exercising because that is productive. It turns out that such productivity–keeping my body healthy–is pretty annoying and not at all relaxing.

When I was a kid, my Aunt Eleanore used to refer to watching television as “looking at” television. I always thought that was a strange way of putting it, but now I think it completely appropriate. Academic television studies have tried to shift “watching television” toward connotations of “analyzing” and “thinking.” That is good, because it focuses attention on the active, intellectual engagements we make with television. However, I sometimes also just “look at” The Simpsons and the World Series of Poker, and that is just as important to who I am as is my analytical book on Bewitched. Here’s looking at you, Phil Gordon!

ESPN Poker
Travel channel World Poker Tour
Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown
Game Show Network

Image Credits:

1. James Woods

2. Phil Laak, a.k.a. The Unabomber

Please feel free to comment.

TV in the Season of Compassion Fatigue

The Astrodome

The Astrodome

On the fateful Monday that Hurricane Katrina was passing through New Orleans (before the levees broke, when the biggest question seemed to be whether the Superdome’s roof would blow off) some friends and I were in a Marriott Hotel in the Florida panhandle. Like thousands of other evacuees, we were tracking Katrina’s progress via television through the city we had left behind. The storm was so large that even in Florida it was very rainy and windy and groups of people spent the whole day more or less watching the large screen tv in the hotel lounge. In mid-afternoon a cable television meteorologist reporting live from a semi-sheltered Canal Street doorway dramatically announced that he was going to make his way to a mailbox out on the street. His announcement drew mixed cries of “No!” and “Yes!” from my viewing cohort as people set aside their drinks to devote their full attention to the screen. The meteorologist-stuntman combat crawled his way out to the edge of the sidewalk and gripped the mailbox, bits of which were blowing away, and it looked as if he might join them at any moment. He made a few observations to the camera then attempted to regain the safety of the doorway — nearly there, a fierce gust suddenly blew him off his feet leading him to perform an impromptu somersault into a wall, and with that it was back to the studio. As conversation resumed and a collectively held breath released in front of the tv, a teenage boy stood up to leave but as he did so he momentarily blocked the screen, turning to face our assembled group. “That,” he informed us, “was awesome!”

I had intended to cite this anecdote of spectacle and spectatorship as a reminder of how we used to watch cable news and weather broadcasts before the terrible aftermath of Katrina, supposing that things may be a little different now. Then again, perhaps they are not as different as we would think. In a year that began with the Asian tsunami and marked its midpoint with the London bombings, mainstream television’s coverage of disaster has intensified this season with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the earthquake in Pakistan. As I write, Wilma, another major storm, is massing in the gulf, a wooden dam in Taunton, Massachusetts is threatening to give way after record-setting rainfall and all the networks are hyping avian flu as an imminent pandemic. I suspect I am in the majority when I turn on the news in the morning, wondering what new disaster I will learn about.

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Television’s narratives of spectacular environmental disaster this season invite attention to climate change, car culture, overdevelopment and the perils of neglecting an underfunded and aging public infrastructure. They also provide a particular opportunity to examine our own emotional relationship to the medium and to reflect on the ways in which (non-fiction) television disaster narratives constitute epistemological evidence to a wide variety of social constituencies. Fringe groups interpreted the satellite shape of Hurricane Katrina’s vortex to resemble that of a giant fetus, a swirling reproach to a post Roe v. Wade America. Others with a residual investment in the Cold War saw significance in the names Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Katrina while anti-semitic groups claimed that Israel’s designs on the port of New Orleans for weapons smuggling had instigated a divine retribution. Many of these interpretations build an ideological barrier between the storm’s victims and other Americans, imagining a punishment of various causes but always with the same real-world consequence delivered against the predominantly black, urban underclass of a singular American city.

Watching television this autumn has made me wonder if it might be the right time to revisit the notion of “compassion fatigue,” a term explored by Susan Moeller in her eponymous 1999 book. Moeller largely focuses upon crises and catastrophes outside the U.S. and the factors in play that work to mute American public response, particularly as wars, famine, disease, etc. are represented in terms suggesting these problems are intractable and inevitable in societies other than our own. Yet her claims retain much of their currency in a season when the rapidity with which one disaster has displaced another in the public imagination is so great and threatens to overextend our attention span and emotional limits. Moeller’s arguments might also be re-cast for a time when the “elsewhere” of foreign disaster coverage is situated domestically — Katrina put terms previously associated with foreign disaster (“refugee” and “evacuee”) into the vocabulary of American experience.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century domestic disasters are emerging as staples of U.S. media coverage and some of the factors cited by Moeller are inapplicable to these news stories. However it is clear that sustained and systemic coverage of post-spectacle catastrophe is still deemed “difficult” within the broadcast media and the chicken and egg problem of whether audiences reject such reporting or news organizations reject it on our behalf remains largely unaddressed. Many of the neighborhoods in post-hurricane New Orleans are quiet places with vast areas of destroyed and damaged residential property, closed stores, and no electricity. In a sensationalist media culture they are perhaps particularly unrepresentable. It is significant, no doubt, that the most high-profile New Orleans story in October involved the on-camera beating of a black man by police in the French Quarter — not only did this story have clear precedents tracking back to Rodney King, it was also in compliance with the representational codes of sensation and violence that drive the news media. The case affectively substituted anger for despair and also matched our affinity for blunt problems of law and order rather than the more composite concerns of resource management and reconstruction.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the issue is less one of compassion fatigue than of simple compassion and there would be various elements in the reporting of Katrina to support that view. One might think of the desperate attempts of rooftop-bound hurricane victims using the U.S. flag to signal for attention from passing helicopters (thus effectively claiming their own citizenship status and symbolic integration with a nation that has reinforced its connections between citizenship and patriotic iconography since 9/11). At those moments, it seemed, the victims acted from the belief that a demonstration of their ideological worth would enhance their chance of rescue. One might also recall Barbara Bush’s comments at the Astrodome suggesting that many of those being sheltered there were probably content to be housed in a sports stadium since they lived impoverished lives anyway.

The regularization of catastrophe this autumn challenges us to sustain a compassionate relation to disaster even when television maintains an exploitative relationship to it. While several cable news outlets have slightly expanded their follow-up coverage of Hurricane Katrina and a few have produced hard-hitting investigative pieces, the focus this season remains on the terrible thrill of disasters in progress.

See Also:
Tara McPherson — “Feeling Blue: Katrina, The South and The Nation”
Douglas Kellner — “Hurricane Spectacles and the Crisis of the Bush Presidency”

Image Credits:

1. The Astrodome

2. Miami County, KS Emergency Management

Please feel free to comment.

Living Life in TiVo Time


Like most people, it usually bugs me when I am wrong. However, this time I draw some comfort from what I now think may have been an erroneous conclusion. You see, I was afraid that the world was slipping mindlessly into boorishness. Perhaps because I have now lived in the South for a quarter of a century, I set significant store by manners. You really do open doors for others male or female. You say “please” and “thank you” always. Someone may set every nerve in your body on edge, bless their heart, but you smile and ask how they are. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe that my adopted region of the country is any less intolerant than the rest of America. But here in North Carolina, when regrettable human inclinations do rear their ugly heads, they are usually expressed far more gently and with greater grace than I was accustomed to in my native Midwest, the brusque environs of the Northeast, or the rustic West. The New South gilds the rank lily of social discord.

So I was distressed to note, over the last few years, what seemed to be a decline in that tradition of gentility. I teach a large undergraduate class in Communication and Technology about two hundred students. At the beginning of each semester we talk about the fact that we don’t have much time together, and that disruptive behavior deprives their classmates of the opportunity to absorb content that is, a) of important to their education and will, b) in their eyes, more importantly, be on the test. I tell them if they cannot resist the urge to chat among themselves to just not come to class. I don’t want them there. It is a strategy that drops attendance, but increases the quality of my interaction with the students who show up ready to shut up and pay attention. This semester there seems to be a heightened disconnect between those instructions and class behavior. They come, but still chat among themselves with no semblance of restraint, let alone shame or remorse. They do not see their behavior as aberrant.

“Rude, foolish undergraduates,” I thought. And then I went to my graduate class. Seventeen students, most over thirty years old, most employed, adults, you know what I mean? Even in that group there are several that see nothing wrong with striking up “parallel conversations” during class. “Very weird,” I thought. And then I went to a faculty meeting — twenty or so PhDs, all of whom are deeply invested in the business being conducted. But they, too, feel entitled to address issues of concern with the colleague sitting next to them, regardless of whom actually “has the floor.” “What the hell is going on!?” I thought, “Is civility dead?”

Then I realized it may have nothing to do with manners, it is all about TiVo, technology, and the fracturing of interpersonal time and space. Think about it. TiVo is not about the digital recording of video. That is only part of it. TiVo commercials tell us that TiVo is all about being able to “pause live TV.” We can be watching something unfolding “in real life,” — a hurricane striking the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, or the Hurricanes playing hockey — and then a parallel real life” intrudes. Your spouse needs help, a child cries, the dog scratches at the door, the phone rings, whatever. No problem, you hit a button and the “live event” on the TV screen freezes. You then tend to the more immediate reality. Afterwards you return to the screen, hit a button, and resume the frozen reality.

It is an increasingly common scenario with very uncommon implications. The notion of the “here and now,” that usually seems so solid, just got a bit strange. The question of “Which ‘real life’ do you mean?” is no longer the sole property of philosophers or absurdist playwrights, it has wiggled its way into our living rooms and our classrooms, into the coffee shop and the faculty meeting.

Here is what I think is happening. Reality now flows around us in a variety of different streams. There is the physical reality of my location and the events unfolding in that location, but there are also the parallel realities outside that location that are now in accessible electronically, digitally. My computer, my cell phone, my pda, my Blackberry, my iPod, my Bluetooth prosthesis, all let me select a preferred experience from among those intertwining realities. And TiVo goes one step further, letting me choose which time to designate as “live.”

The power to select from a rack of potential realities makes the designation of “here and now” an idiosyncratic option. I choose my reality on the fly, and utilize the communication protocols appropriate to that choice. The results are not always polite. When varying individual realities share the same physical space there is inevitable friction.

Ipod Guy

Ipod Guy

Consider the person standing next to you at the metro stop who has chosen the reality of their hands-free, ear-bud cell phone. He cradles his hands in his face moaning, “Baby, how can you say that? She means nothing to me.” You sidle down the platform a bit and sit beside a suit enmeshed in Blackberry. Her fingers flicker over tiny keys while she mutters phrases that sound, at the very least, confrontational — in a language you do not understand. You move again, and find yourself the unwilling partner of an iPodded youngster, moving in what you can only hope is sympathetic rhythm to the music in his head. And, as Sonny and Cher asserted decades ago, the beat goes on.

It is, I believe, this phenomenon of the unthinking selection of incompatible social realities that results in what I initially interpreted as rude and boorish behavior — in my classes and among my peers. The problem, of course, is that rude and boorish behavior is always a matter of perception. If your behavior is perceived by those in your immediate physical environment as being rude and boorish, then it is — no matter what your intention — still rude and boorish.

Social norms and mores, of which manners are an irrefutable part, have one primary function in human society — to smooth the inevitable conflict between personal inclinations and the comfort of the group. The current 21st century technology-enabled environment gives us unparalleled personal power to pick and choose the reality of the moment. It advantages the unique reality of the individual. It inclines me to “suit myself.” That invites conflict with the more social, group-centered norms of the 20th century — norms that emphasize social cohesion and personal restraint, norms with which most folks over 30 were socialized. The resultant friction is both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

What we need is a conscious reconfiguration of communicative etiquette for the 21st century. Increasingly we focus on the mechanical efficiency of digital communication systems, but at the expense of human sensibilities. We need a set of guidelines for respectful interactive behavior in an increasingly complex — from both an existential and a technological perspective — world. We need new social conventions that will simultaneously acknowledge and employ the increasing communicative power of our interactive environment, while retaining the grace of softer times. I do not know what that should look like, but I strongly advocate one guideline: courtesy. Acceptable communication in the 21st century, mode notwithstanding, should attend to the comfort of the other, every bit as much as it champions the choices and expressions of the individual.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo

2. Ipod Guy

Please feel free to comment.