Chuck Tryon – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Aren’t We Such a Fun, Approachable Dynasty?”: Clinton’s Presidential Announcement, Cable News, and the Candidate Challenge Fri, 17 Apr 2015 12:35:00 +0000 Clinton's Announcement Video

Clinton’s Announcement Video

In case you missed it, Hillary Clinton is running for president. On Sunday, April 12, Clinton announced via YouTube video that she would be making a second run for the Oval Office after being narrowly defeated for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 by Barack Obama. Clinton’s announcement had been anticipated for a few days, once Clinton’s team signed a lease to rent office space for its campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, but on another level, her intentions to run again had been expected for years, a fact that essentially meant that a number of media outlets and political activists already had pre-existing narratives in which Clinton’s candidacy could be framed. In fact, Clinton’s decision to announce on Sunday via social media was so widely anticipated that Saturday Night Live actually managed to parody Clinton’s web video outreach during their cold open even before her video went online.

These narratives reflect what Lance Bennett has identified as a tendency to impose reality television frameworks onto election coverage. Specifically Bennett seems to be talking about the so-called “gamedocs” or competition reality shows, such as Survivor, Fear Factor, or Big Brother, in which contestants are forced to undergo challenges in order to demonstrate their worthiness of winning the competition. For Bennett, such “candidate challenges” actually obscure substantive policy considerations, instead focusing on more superficial storylines. Bennett’s framework, I’d argue, helps us to understand how Clinton can be depicted, from both the right and the left, through similar, but strikingly contradictory narratives as someone who is at once a “celebrity” and also, simultaneously, disdainful of the news media that seemingly create her celebrity status through fawning profiles, and also as someone who is simultaneously too controlling of her messaging and incapable of crafting an effective message about herself. Finally, critics made coded reference to her age, turning her experience as a Senator and Secretary of State into a liability. Thus, for Hillary Clinton, the “candidate challenge” created by different media outlets, is to assume a contradictory set of performances that will meet all of these goals.

It should come as no surprise that the most overt attacks on Clinton’s announcement video came from Fox News. It is no longer controversial to suggest that Fox News has crafted an explicitly conservative approach to narrating the news. Fox has successfully cultivated a large conservative audience in the era of what Natalie Jomani Stroud has called “niche news.” But what is significant about Fox News is what Jeffrey Jones refers to as the news channel’s use of performative language that actually produces a reality in the guise of reflecting on or analyzing it.

Fox News on Clinton's Announcement

Media Buzz on Clinton’s Announcement

This type of performativity functions powerfully in shows such as Howard Kurtz’s Media Buzz, which purports to analyze the media frames that are shaping politics. However, Kurtz’s segment openly reinforces several of the existing narratives used to shape Clinton’s persona independently of any political views she might have. The segment opens with Fox News contributor Mary Katharine Ham gleefully dismissing the announcement as a “snoozefest,” promoting the perception that Clinton is too boring to win the presidency. Similarly, Washington Examiner columnist Susan Ferrechio pushed the idea that the video was an example of Clinton “controlling the message” because she made the announcement via social media rather than during a live speech—despite the fact that most Republicans announced in a similar fashion. Further, by focusing on perceptions of Clinton’s personality, Ferrechio was able to deflect attention away from the actual content of the video, which emphasized (however vaguely) Clinton’s desire to fight for working families. Meanwhile Kurtz himself trotted out the frame (also imposed on Barack Obama) that Clinton might be “covered as a celebrity” even while suggesting, almost in the same breath that she had been “disdainful” of the media. Later that day, Brit Hume, again with little evidence to back up his argument, asserted that Americans were tired of the Clintons’ “weird marriage” and that their story was “old news” and therefore uninteresting to reporters seeking out the next bright, shiny object that  could distract them.

Notably, both Kurtz and Bill O’Reilly used the SNL sketch, in which Kate McKinnon, as a simultaneously naïve and controlling Hillary Clinton, attempts to make a selfie video announcement, to attach her to these existing media frames. A clip of Darryl Hammond as Bill Clinton joking about his sex life stands in as evidence of their “weird marriage.” Hillary stumbling repeatedly to be sympathetic reinforces the idea that she is controlling and out of touch. While I did find the SNL clip funny—and think it’s more subtle by far than Fox News’s use of it—it provided Fox with the shorthand to criticize Clinton, even while allowing the network to be in on the joke for a change when it comes to political satire.

That being said, even ostensibly liberal supporters of Clinton placed unrealistic obstacles on her announcement. Bruce Ackerman, among others, writing for The Huffington Post, blasted the video as a “capitulation” to Madison Avenue—i.e., controlling the narrative. Once again, we must turn to Jon Stewart to find a way to navigate the utterly absurd narratives that have been imposed on her. Stewart debunked many of these narratives for their absurd use of dystopian and apocalyptic imagery, pointing out that they vastly exaggerate Clinton’s center-left voting history, even while they also produce a reality for the Fox viewers who are the intended audience.  The reception of Clinton’s announcement video can tell us quite a bit, then, not just about perceptions of her as a candidate or the conservative efforts to derail her candidacy. It can also tell us quite a bit about the role of cable news in constructing artificial “candidate challenges” that do little to inform us about how that candidate will actually govern.


Keep it 100: The Nightly Show Flips the Script on “Fake” News Thu, 12 Feb 2015 15:00:20 +0000 nightlyshowAs an obsessive fan of the genre that has become known—somewhat inaccurately—as “fake news,” I was incredibly curious to see where Larry Wilmore, the host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, would take the genre. Wilmore faced the challenging task of replacing The Colbert Report, a show that had brilliantly satirized right-wing punditry. Colbert launched his character—and the show—at a moment of profound frustration for progressives, just a few months after George W. Bush had been reelected president despite the fact that his administration had used false evidence to justify an invasion of Iraq. Thus, Colbert’s sharply crafted persona could personify the excesses of political punditry as way of undermining it. As Colbert himself said in an interview for Slate, “I embody the bullshit.” Colbert, along with Jon Stewart, who announced that he is leaving The Daily Show while I was working on this blog post, provided a vital critique of  the failures of televised news in covering U.S. politics. Wilmore, of course, is entering a much different political climate, one in which a relatively popular Democratic president leads a country that is still highly polarized.  He has responded to this challenge by rejecting satire in favor of a commitment to “keeping it 100,” in which the host and his guests promise to keep it one hundred percent real through ostensibly honest conversation about relevant social and political issues. It’s an intriguing approach, but one that may not generate he heat that his fake news predecessors have.

Unlike Colbert and Stewart, Wilmore has explicitly defined his show in terms of conversation, rather than establishing himself as a singular voice about the day’s events. The show typically—although not always—opens with a seven-minute monologue on a specific issue (the state of public protests, money in politics, the tensions surrounding black fatherhood) that may not explicitly reference that day’s headlines. After this opening monologue, Wilmore will then orchestrate a conversation with four guests, including activists, authors, politicians, and comedians, some of whom are regular contributors to his show. The final major segment of The Nightly Show is—so far—its signature: the rapid-fire question-and-answer bit called “Keep it 100,” in which Wilmore asks his guests a provocative question, challenging them to answer completely honestly. Guests who are judged to have answered authentically, by both Wilmore and his studio audience, are awarded with a “Keep it 100” sticker. Guests who don’t are barraged with tea bags for offering a “weak tea” response, as when Senator Cory Booker demurred about his aspirations to run for president. While this segment initially felt gimmicky, it has in some cases provoked some remarkably candid responses, such as Zephyr Teachout’s admission that she would not reject support from the Koch Brothers if she thought it would ensure that she would win a race for governor.

Because of The Nightly Show’s hybrid format—a combination of political or topical monologues and the panel—it has been described as a cross between The Daily Show and Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. While such a description may capture the format of the show, it doesn’t quite convey the tone that Wilmore has cultivated. Unlike Maher, Wilmore has avoided strident commentary along the lines of Maher’s fierce critique of Islam. And, for the most part, Wilmore has dodged The Daily Show’s tone of righteous indignation at the failures of the U.S. political system and the cable news channels that cover it. Instead, Wilmore has sought to provide a forum around important issues. In fact, in one of his most successful episodes, Wilmore skipped the monologue entirely, devoting an entire episode to a forum on the state of black fatherhood, with guests including hip-hop artist Common and New York Times columnist Charles Blow. During this panel, Wilmore and his guests turned over the remarkable statistic that 72% of African-American children are born out of wedlock. What resulted was a complex dialogue, one that reflected Wilmore’s stated goal of creating a show that is about “the discovery of things.”  This approach may be more inclusive, but it also may not provide the sound bites that compel audiences to share clips on social media, an important avenue for circulating crucial forms of media criticism.

The Nightly Show has occasionally felt as if it has struggled to find its voice. Especially during the opening episode, the panel seemed tentative, but Wilmore has worked quickly to adapt to his role as a moderator. In some cases, the attempts to be provocative during the “Keep it 100” segment have misfired badly, as when Wilmore followed up a thoughtful panel on black fatherhood with a crass question for all four panelists about whether black women were “too bossy” to marry. The panels sometimes feel too superficial, especially when experts on key issues get crowded out by other guests. And while Wilmore has offered some sly political commentary (his link between anti-obesity biases and Peter King’s heartless comments about the death of Eric Garner is one example), his low-key style might not provide the sparks that have made The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight into potent sources of media and cultural criticism and, in some cases, political activism. The Nightly Show, appearing at moment of profound change, is taking news comedy in a new direction, but in a culture where “real” news remains woefully inadequate, we need the fake news to call out journalistic shortcomings. Hopefully, by keeping it 100, Wilmore can sustain the vital political force of fake news for a long time to come.


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Rethinking Media Distribution Wed, 20 Nov 2013 15:00:21 +0000 Tryon pic

The news that the subscription service Netflix now has more total subscribers than premium cable channel HBO further confirms that media industries are changing rapidly, especially when it comes to the practices of movie and TV distribution. Beyond altering the economics of media distribution, subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu have introduced a whole new vocabulary for both media consumers and industry professionals alike. Activities such as binge watching and “Netflix adultery” were unimaginable just a few short years ago, while more traditional practices—such as the weekly trip to the video store—have practically disappeared. With those changes in mind, Jeff Ulin, a media distribution expert who has worked at Lucasfilm, Paramount, and Universal, has substantially revised his 2009 book, The Business of Media Distribution, for the era of digital delivery, providing a fascinating and engaging road map for both media scholars and industry professionals.

The new edition of the book starts by spelling out how studios and networks manage media properties in order to create value—through managing intellectual property rights, for example—before tracing several different modes of distribution: theatrical, home video, television, and internet. The final sections of the book focus on aspects such as marketing and promotion, especially as those practices have been transformed by the emergence of social media tools. Ulin also reiterates one of the key observations discussed in his first book: the idea that studios are best understood as “financing and distributing machines” that seek to maximize value, in large part by managing the distribution “windows” when movies or TV shows are available through a specific platform. Ulin emphasizes the process by which studios carefully balance when movies are available theatrically, through VOD platforms, on DVD, and eventually through subscription services such as Netflix, in order to maximize the value of a given text.

In his map of the film distribution landscape, Ulin traces several of the key factors that drove the adoption of digital projectors, most notably the role of 3D in serving as a means for justifying surcharges to consumers. But another major factor identified by Ulin is the role of China as a major marketplace for Hollywood theatrical films. Specifically, Ulin points out that the U.S. government negotiated a deal to raise the limit on the number of international films screened annually in China from 20 to 34, with the stipulation that the additional movies be screened in 3D. While Ulin is less explicit on this matter, the clear implication is that China’s theatrical market will likely shape the choices studios make when it comes to picking projects for the foreseeable future.

But the strength of Ulin’s book is his thorough explanation of the changes in the home video marketplace, especially as online video sources are poised to upset DVD rental and sales. As Ulin points out, the conflicts between physical or bricks-and-mortar retailers and online sources including Amazon are often more complex than they appear, especially given incentives such as using DVDs as “loss-leaders” to draw shoppers into big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target. More crucially, however, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and Hulu and transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) retailers such as Amazon and iTunes have upset traditional revenue streams and the distribution windows that were designed to provide various platforms (theaters, pay cable, basic cable) with periods of exclusivity that allowed studios and exhibitors to protect the value of the movie being distributed. These conflicts have played out in the ongoing debates over day-and-date distribution, especially for independent and low-budget movies, or shorter theatrical windows for studio films. But they also inform how TV shows circulate, especially when the interests of production companies and SVOD services such as Netflix compete with the interests of cable TV channels such as TNT and FX that are currently negotiating to extend their “broadcast window” to encompass the most recent season of a show, rather than just the five most recent episodes. Such battles are likely to persist in our current on-demand culture

One of the challenges that faces any book that focuses on the media distribution landscape is that it changes so rapidly. As I was reading Ulin’s book, Blockbuster Video announced that it would be closing its last 300 stores, resulting in the loss of over 3.000 jobs and leaving Redbox as, perhaps, the primary option for DVD rental for most US consumers. However, Ulin’s book remains relevant, in large part because he offers several key principles to describe the ongoing evolution of the media industries. With that in mind, we can read all of the recent changes—Netflix’s competition with HBO, Blockbuster’s closure of its U.S. stores, and China’s emergence as a crucial theatrical market—as part of a larger system in which studios and other media institutions use windows in order to generate and retain value for the films and television shows they distribute, no matter how we access them.


“Depiction is not Endorsement”: Representing Torture in Zero Dark Thirty Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:00:24 +0000 Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite complaints that it justifies the use and effectiveness of torture, the film cannot be dismissed so easily.]]> Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.

In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.

The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure”  lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).

Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.

Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.


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Accessing the Cinematic Cloud Tue, 31 Jan 2012 19:07:11 +0000 The demise of Blockbuster Video has become a kind of shorthand for describing what might be called the end of the video store era. Video stores, we are told, can no longer compete with the many different forms of digital delivery, whether streaming videos or digital downloads. But as I informally survey my students, colleagues, and other avid consumers of movies, much less Hollywood trade publications, there is still quite a bit of uncertainty about what comes next. Part of this challenge entails the difficulty of finding, accessing, and paying for movies on digital platforms. For this reason, I have been fascinated by some recent discussion in film industry blogs and trade publications that sought to compare the experience of paying for digital access to a movie to the early experience of using an ATM, a metaphor that seems to offer quite a bit of potential for describing how we will be buying and watching movies and television shows in the near future.

The ATM metaphor seems to originate with a comment made by Lori McPherson, the executive vice president of global product management for Walt Disney Studios, during a panel at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2012. In her discussion of how consumers might grasp the idea of cloud storage, McPherson remarked that “The exciting thing for content in the cloud is any consumer who has used an ATM machine should intuitively understand what it is now.” McPherson, of course, is arguing that our familiarity with interfaces that enable us to conduct transactions also allow us to grasp how accessing movies and TV shows online might work. We know that we can go to virtually any ATM and obtain cash and conduct many other basic transactions.

Screenwriter John August expanded on this metaphor in a blog post that, in many ways, helped me to rethink some of my own assumptions about digital delivery. As August points out, this early experimental stage of cloud distribution might be compared to the first generation of ATMs, which introduced a number of “bugs” that banks and software writers needed to work out. August points out that initially some ATMs would take your card while others wouldn’t, and some demanded longer PINs than others, initially making it difficult to adjust for some consumers. I would add that we should also consider the degree to which consumers had to be “taught” to accept the practice of conducting transactions without the presence of a banker. Users had to be assured that an ATM transaction was as “real” as one completed by a person, which is probably why so many ATM networks were anthropomorphized (my bank featured Tillie the Teller). The issues of cloud ownership continue to be perplexing for many consumers who want the tangibility of physical media. But eventually consumers adjusted as ATM interfaces became more standardized, and Tillie was retired (and her bank has been swallowed up twice by even bigger banks).

August raises some other interesting complications. First, is the fact that money is “fungible.” All $20 bills are essentially equivalent, but movies are not identical, and one network or delivery service may have the movie you want, while other services don’t. As digital catalogs remain incomplete, I think this will be an ongoing problem. The backlash against Netflix over the last year has been due in large part because their streaming catalog features only a limited portion of our cinematic history and excludes most new releases. August describes this term as an industry need for differentiation. Each piece of hardware (or interface) needs to offer features that differentiate it from its competitors.

August goes on to argue that the ATM metaphor can help us to understand the ongoing struggle between the consumer’s desire for standardization and the industry’s need for differentiation and uses this conflict to illustrate why some early forms of digital delivery, including UltraViolet, seem likely to fail. As August implies, the confusion about digital copies leads consumers to feel uncertain about digital lockers and other unstable platforms like UltraViolet. These points all seem relevant to me, but I think that August’s exploration of the ATM metaphor could be taken even further, especially in light of some of the current complaints about banking. First, it’s not quite true that our ATM cards work “anywhere.” When my family was traveling abroad, some of our ATM cards didn’t work in Spain, forcing us to use others. Although there may have been other factors at play, it’s worth considering whether and how geography will matter in these new forms of cloud storage and distribution. More crucially, banks charge fees if you go outside of your “network” and, in at least one instance, sought to charge users a monthly fee just for using a debit card. Once we have paid for movies that are on the cloud, how will ownership of those movies be defined? Finally, what sorts of information are we providing to the media industries when we make these online rentals and purchases?

Mark Andrejevic’s recent Antenna post, in which he discusses the new regimes of privacy in the era of digital delivery, answers at least some of these questions. As Andrejevic points out, companies are allowed to collect vast amounts of data on these online purchases, and our digital trails–through tweets, Facebook updates, Netflix reviews, and purchases–often mean that consumers are doing much of the work of data compilation for these companies, practices that August associates with the term “targeted messaging.” Andrejevic acknowledges that users are, for the most part, voluntarily sacrificing their privacy.

The digital multiplex opens up any number of possibilities for distribution and storage models. As John Calkins of Sony observes, these delvery systems may provide a new home for special features and interactive media. But I think we are well served by thinking about the intersections between digital delivery of movies and ATMs, about the fantasies of personalization, convenience, and ubiquitous access, as well as the real costs of these new delivery models.


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Report from SCMS: Thursday Fri, 19 Mar 2010 17:19:43 +0000

In yesterday’s inaugural conference report, Derek Kompare described his ambivalence about existing academic conference structures, especially when there is not an “active online backchannel” perpetuating and extending some of the conversations beyond the walls of the seminar room.  Derek maps this observation onto some of the ongoing conversations we have been having for some time about the “future” of academic conferences, surmising correctly that what we are really talking about is our present moment.  In a similar vein, we have been discussing for some time similar questions about the future of academic publishing, in particular about the place of traditional scholarly forms–the monograph, the academic journal–in the age of blogs, Twitter, and YouTube.

These questions were fruitfully addressed in Jennifer Porst and John Bridge’s panel, “From Paper to Blog: The Past, Present, and Future of Cinema and Media Studies Publishing.”  The panel seemed especially productive because it seemed to take for granted the assumption that blogs and other online forms are already crucial forms through which scholarly ideas are shared and because of the focus on how newer publication forms might help us to reinvent scholarly publishing in potentially powerful ways.  Jason Mittell, reflecting on some of his recent scholarship on television and narrative complexity, offered some productive questions about whether some of our objects of study–contemporary practices in film, TV, and other media–lend themselves to the format of a book. Given the rapid pace of media change, there is incredible value in engaging with these changes in a short, timely manner.  Similarly, Eric Faden provocatively called for “bite-sized scholarship,” essentially asking scholars to think about their research production as “scalable,” as potentially fitting into a variety of media forms.

The ongoing debates about new textual models and modes of circulation seemed to inform all of the panels I attended on Thursday.  One morning panel looked at the particular challenges raised by adapting comic books into films.  Bob Rehak’s paper traced some of the reasons that the adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Watchmen was a “failed experiment,” noting not only the challenges of adapting a self-contained graphic novel (rather than the expansive universe of super heroes such as Batman and Spider-Man) but also director Zack Snyder’s status as a “functionary,” whose attempts at extreme fidelity made the film feel as if it was an exercise.  Most all of the papers on the comic book adaptation panel were attentive to the role of paratexts in helping to secure the authenticity of a given adaptation.

Similarly, an afternoon panel on “Making the Peripheral Central to Television Studies” focused on the ways in which “ancillary” texts–DVD extras, TV brands, and other material that might previously have been regarded as ephemera–play a crucial role in constructing the meaning of popular culture texts.  In particular, Jonathan Gray traced the ways in which DVD extras contribute to the revival of the aura of the text and the rebirth of the author.  Behind-the-scenes interviews on the Pushing Daisies DVD helped to illuminate the ways in which we are trained to see TV shows and movies as crafted by a wide range of creative personnel.

Finally, a panel on “Hollywood’s New Lease on Life” helped to illuminate how the “afterlife” of a film text, to use Barbara Klinger’s phrase, shapes the status of a film text.  As Klinger was careful to illustrate, there is a long history of recirculating films after their initial theatrical release.  Using the example of It’s a Wonderful Life, which became reinvented as a Christmas classic in the 1980s, Klinger showed that film is a “profoundly circulatory medium,” one that depends on and finds meaning in the reiteration of movies in a variety of a formats, a process that may have profound consequences thanks to the intense fascination with 3D exhibition, a point underscored by Kirsten Thompson, who suggested that 3D offers new opportunities to reboot moribund movie franchises.  In all cases, the panelists were attentive to what Jon Lewis called “an expansive film culture,” one that is fueled by the new distribution and exhibition formats.

This work on textual circulation serves as an important area of study, not only in terms of understanding industry practices but also how those practices shape the ways in which meanings are produced.  In particular, these panels point to the incredible material available to scholars engaged in creating a history of of the media present, while also reminding us of the importance of past precedents and potential future directions for media distribution.


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