Industry – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 DC Comics’ Halfhearted Appeal to an Alternate Readership Fri, 18 Sep 2015 16:41:55 +0000 gotham by midnight panel

A panel from Gotham By Midnight.

Post by Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

In recent years DC Comics has come under criticism for its monolithic publishing line – grim, violent books aimed at twenty- to fortysomething white men, drawn in a house style that hasn’t left the 1990s. While not every DC book fit this profile, it was clear that the publisher had little response to the more inclusive, nontraditional comics of independent competitor Image Comics (or even of archival Marvel, which has recently found success with books like Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye). In March, DC’s dollar share of the market was only 26 percent, mainly due to the extraordinary success of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, but also DC’s struggle to sell any comics that aren’t related to Batman. That month, only three of the top twenty bestselling books were published by DC.

In May, DC announced its new “DC YOU” initiative, described by the publisher as a “bold, new direction” with “a story for every kind of fan.” DC YOU seemed to be a direct response to the company’s critics: 17 new titles premiered in June, featuring a wide variety of storylines and art styles. New writers and artists from diverse backgrounds were enlisted, such as David F. Walker, Annie Wu, and Gene Luen Yang. These creators would be allowed to tell their stories without excessive editorial interference or continuity constraints; they were also reportedly guaranteed at least twelve issues before threat of cancellation.

With DC YOU underway, DC’s line is currently stronger than it has been in years. Standout titles include Prez, a sharp, funny satire of contemporary politics, supernatural police procedural Gotham by Midnight, smart and subtle space opera The Omega Men, and writer Genevieve Valentine’s re-envisioning of Catwoman as an intricate crime saga. However, initial DC YOU sales were lower than expected, and at the end of August it was rumored that DC would be largely returning to its “meat and potatoes” house style. DC denied these reports and asserted its commitment to diversity, but this week it confirmed the cancellation of six titles, including all the books just mentioned (except Catwoman, which remains, sans Valentine). Several more soft-selling new books are likely on the chopping block.

DC’s quick cancellation trigger and willingness to abruptly shift creative direction from month to month points not only to the publisher’s uncertainty about today’s comics market, but to larger problems in its business model. Specifically, DC’s emphasis on single-issue sales obstructs its plans to draw a wider, more diverse readership. DC may want to capture some of the audience for Image Comics, but it is not currently structured to effectively target those readers, or to successfully publish comics that diverge sharply from its traditional formula.

To be fair, sales for the canceled books were indeed low and dropping precipitously: Omega Men #3 received only 13,000 orders from retailers, for instance. At the same time, the canceled books were in the same sales vicinity as Image hits like Lazarus, Velvet, and The Manhattan Projects. Writer Kieron Gillen, who has worked for Marvel and Image, states that an indie book selling 10-12,000 copies “is a cause for celebration and joy.” But at DC and Marvel where sales targets are much higher, in part due to greater overhead costs, the same book would be canceled.

Panels from Omega Men.

Panels from The Omega Men.

While DC is known to cancel books before their first trade paperbacks are released, Image waits and fosters the sale of trades, which their readers tend to prefer. For instance, Sex Criminals #11 was the 119th bestselling single issue of July, but in February its second trade volume was the second bestselling graphic novel of the month. This preference for trades suggests that Image’s readership is different from the “Wednesday warriors” of Marvel and DC fans who buy a stack of floppies each week from their local shop.

Unlike the Big Two, Image is able to patiently wait for trade sales and word-of-mouth to build because in their publishing model, the creators bear most of the financial risk. While DC and Marvel pay a page rate, Image creators aren’t paid until Image has subtracted printing and distribution costs, and taken its cut. This can mean huge profits for the creators of Image bestsellers like Saga or The Walking Dead, but creators of lighter-selling books often must wait until trade publication (and sometimes not even then) to earn anything. By paying creators upfront, DC and Marvel are much less likely to nurture low-selling books.

Of course, it’s not feasible for DC and Marvel to scrap their current business model entirely. For one thing, many creators prefer the steady paychecks of the Big Two as opposed to the risk of the indie world. And parent corporations Time Warner and Disney would never allow creators to own the media rights to their work, as Image does. That said, if DC is serious about attempting to broaden its audience, it needs to allow its more offbeat, distinctive books time to build a readership, especially when readers who might enjoy those books prefer trade paperbacks and may be reluctant to purchase DC comics in the first place. Something like Omega Men would have probably sold better as an Image title, as it will read better as a trade, and Image’s core readership is better primed for its formal experimentation. But given a full twelve issues and time to build word-of-mouth from trade sales, the book might have found some measure of success at DC. Even if it didn’t, its very existence would have helped rebrand DC as a welcome home for innovative, nontraditional comics.

Perhaps small losses on a few unique books could be considered acceptable in the long run, if it makes the publisher more attractive to wider, different demographics. Instead DC seems shortsighted and fickle, too concerned with month-to-month fluctuations in sales and market shares. Quickly canceling low-selling books that were designed to run twelve issues leads to a vicious cycle in which readers are reluctant to sample new books, for fear of wasting their time and money. Co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee appear to be on a short leash; this may have to change if DC is going to effectively compete in a new marketplace where it is losing ground.


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Why NBC’s The Wiz Makes Sense Even As It Doesn’t Make Sense Fri, 10 Apr 2015 12:05:38 +0000 The Wiz over The Music Man as its next televised musical in this particular historical moment?]]> The Wiz Promotional PosterOn March 30, 2015, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of people making sure that I knew The Wiz had been selected as the NBC’s next live musical following The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Initially, The Wiz seems an odd choice. While the Broadway adaptation was a modest hit when it opened on Broadway in 1975 (initially propped up by seed money from 20th Century Fox, who had pre-purchased the film rights), it is not heralded as one of the great musicals of the 20th century, although it won seven 1975 Tony Awards. The film adaptation, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, is historically and industrially maligned. Many scholars, including Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin, Ed Guerrero and Christopher Sieving briefly mention The Wiz in their books and articles, but only within a conversation about the film’s box office failure (with respect to its budget) and the suggestion that The Wiz’s financial failure contributed directly to Hollywood’s refusal to greenlight black-cast films thereafter. So, why would NBC turn to The Wiz over The Music Man as its next televised musical? I suggest that there are three broad reasons that The Wiz makes sense in this particular historical moment.

The Wiz Musical SoundtrackFirst, as it did in the 1990s (and will likely do again in the 2030s), television has “discovered” that black people watch television and that white people will watch some television when there are black and brown bodies on the screen. Call it the Scandal/Empire effect. With the television industry scrambling to blacken/brown their landscapes for the 2015-2016 season, The Wiz largely follows this trend to help diversify NBC’s screen – a network that lags behind ABC and Fox with respect to the representation of black and brown actors in leading roles. This also marks a departure from NBC’s previous broadcasts The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, which featured largely white casts. Audra McDonald was the only major black/brown actor in The Sound of Music – and even she received criticism in some circles for being cast despite her credentials as a then-five-time Tony Award Winner. In this (re)turn to blackness, The Wiz at turns lets NBC have it both ways: it can broadcast a musical that will feature a predominantly black cast, thus jumping on the “diversity” bandwagon, while at the same time, The Wiz is one of the few Broadway texts (or at least soundtracks) that multicultural audiences embrace, without the lure of “stars” to make it attractive. The potential for a cross-section of multicultural viewers likely proved far too attractive for NBC to resist. Which brings me to my second point…

The Wiz BroadwayThe Wiz, like NBC’s previous live musicals, is family-friendly fare. It continues to be a go-to musical for elementary and middle/junior high schools across the country (even ill-advised all-white schools have been known to tackle productions of The Wiz). I was in two productions while in junior high school (shout out to Mrs. Rowe and Mr. Nelson!). In this way, NBC is likely banking on a segment of the audience who can draw on the nostalgia of performing (or preparing to perform) The Wiz. In addition, unlike Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, The Wiz does not delve into “adult content” that might make it touch and go for parents wanting to watch the broadcast with their children. Much like NBC’s The Voice, The Wiz presents the potential to be a cross-racial, cross-generational television-watching experience.

This version of The Wiz also has to serve two gods. First, it has to serve the ratings machine, as any television show does. But, second, and more importantly, it has to serve the more fickle Broadway god. In this way, in an attempt to make The Wiz relevant, the production team will attempt to use the success of the recent Broadway revival of Pippin as its template. Pippin, like The Wiz, is a period piece. Pippin got around that “problem” by turning the production into a Cirque de Soleil-style event. The score remains fundamentally 1970s, as does The Wiz‘s score, but this novelty worked for Pippin (it ran for almost two years, won four Tony Awards and recouped its $8.5 million investment in eight months). Presumably, the conflation of an industrial interest in black viewers/audiences and the circus theme is expected to deliver on both fronts for NBC and Broadway producers.

The Wiz HeadlinesHowever, the reasons The Wiz looks good on paper also could present problems for NBC. Importantly, the Broadway and film adaptations of The Wiz are often conflated. Many/most of the stories I read on NBC’s version of The Wiz talked about the 1975 Broadway adaptation, but used imagery from the 1978 film version. While that may seem like a nit pick on its face, the two versions are different. The Broadway iteration maintains much of what we know from the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland – Dorothy is still a little girl from Kansas – while it updates the language to hew closer to 1970s black cultural dialect. But most importantly in its Broadway iteration, The Wiz used a completely new score, which gave us the beloved “Ease on Down the Road.” The film adaptation “ages” Dorothy to a 24-year old kindergarten school teacher (likely because of casting Diana Ross as Dorothy) and moves her to Harlem in an attempt to make it something that “might pass for a ghetto fairy tale” as The New York Times’ Vincent Canby suggested. But the film version also plays with the score a bit, adding the Scarecrow song “You Can’t Win,” which replaces “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday.” In addition, because the DVD (and television syndication) functions as what Paul Grainge calls “markets of memory” (10-11), the preserved and re-circulated version of The Wiz will likely be vastly different than what NBC presents. Aside from the ways that the Broadway version (which NBC is presumably presenting) and film version are fundamentally different, this version of The Wiz will add “new material” provided by Harvey Weinstein. In this way, making this new version of The Wiz is akin to a person who has had one too many facelifts – there’s something familiar, but also fundamentally different.

Of course, the jury is still out with respect to how this new The Wiz will perform, but I predict that it will deliver the ratings NBC needs to continue its engagement with live, televised Broadway musicals (particularly because hate-watchers are gonna hate). But as the industrial infatuation with black viewers undoubtedly wanes, don’t hold your breath for NBC’s next musical to be Sophisticated Ladies, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Dreamgirls or any other black-cast musical. NBC selecting The Wiz as its next musical, I suggest, is not about its blackness per se, but about what televisual blackness means at this socio-historical moment.


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Mario is Mobile!: Or (Nintendo’s Platform Panic?) Fri, 20 Mar 2015 15:18:33 +0000 MarioIsMobileWithin the context of video game culture, Nintendo’s corporate identity has been clear: Nintendo makes games. Whereas competitors Sony and Microsoft represent larger global technology corporations in which gaming is but one portfolio among many, Nintendo has distinguished itself through its singular focus on its home and handheld gaming consoles and making games exclusively for them.

In recent years, part of this identity has become Nintendo’s resistance to the convergence of gaming and mobile technologies. Despite consistent analyst and investor pressure for Nintendo to take advantage of the explosion of gaming on phones and tablets to help offset a downturn in console performance, Nintendo resisted, with President and CEO Satoru Iwata going as far to suggest in 2013 that “If we think 20 years down the line, we may look back at the decision not to supply Nintendo games to smartphones and think that is the reason why the company is still here.”

It was therefore surprising when Nintendo announced a partnership with Japanese mobile platform developer DeNA to move into the mobile gaming space. There had been no warning that Nintendo’s philosophy on this issue had changed, even at a recent investor briefing in Tokyo. Suddenly, Nintendo has plans to have games available for mobile platforms by the end of the year, with Mario, Link, and other Nintendo characters in games competing with the likes of Clash of Clans and Game of War. While initial speculation questioned if Nintendo would play any type of development role, or if their biggest franchises would be involved, when the dust settled it was clear: developers at Nintendo are at work creating mobile games utilizing a limitless range of Nintendo IPs, which DeNA will make available across a wide range of platforms.


The gameplay of the Fire Emblem series—and other Strategy RPGs from developer Intelligent Systems—is a logical fit for touch-screen gaming.

There is no shortage of response to this news: indeed, the level of mainstream press engagement with Nintendo’s decision reveals the degree to which Nintendo franchises have the potential to do extremely well in the mobile space. Within the gaming enthusiast press, meanwhile, sites immediately began speculating on what franchises would be a great fit for mobile gaming, imagining games like the Strategy RPG Fire Emblem as perfect fits for the mobile space. However, at the same time, others—like WIRED’s Chris Kohler—pointed out that those imagining a game like Fire Emblem on mobile platforms are overlooking the realities of mobile gaming, and that Nintendo is more likely to develop streamlined F2P (Free to Play) games that cost less to make, have endless revenue potential, and don’t directly compete with Nintendo’s existing handheld games (like an upcoming Fire Emblem title set to release on Nintendo 3DS later this year).

Nintendo, for their part, is remaining vague. The announcement notably came without the reveal of a single mobile game, and in a feature interview with TIME Iwata offered little detail regarding Nintendo’s specific plans beyond the fact that “we believe that we will be able to use smart devices in a very unique way so that they can be a bridge to our dedicated game systems, and at the same time, that we will be able to deliver unique experiences to the users of smart devices.” When pushed on the types of payment models, Iwata was similarly cagey, leaving the door open for “free-to-start” games —a term less common than “free-to-play,” and most recently associated with “Full Game Demos” on consoles—while simultaneously noting that “it’s even more important for us to consider how we can get as many people around the world as possible to play Nintendo smart device apps, rather than to consider which payment system will earn the most money.”

Nintendo's relationship to licensed mobile gaming could be previewed by a Mario-themed version of iOS title Puzzle & Dragons, which developer GungHo is bringing to Nintendo's 3DS later this year.

Nintendo’s relationship to licensed mobile gaming could be previewed by a Mario-themed version of iOS title Puzzle & Dragons, which developer GungHo is bringing to Nintendo’s 3DS later this year.

Here, I would argue, we see the inherent tension in Nintendo’s announcement. The reason no games were announced is because this is a business decision as opposed to a gaming one. Nintendo is effectively licensing their IPs onto mobile devices as a way of extending their franchises to new audiences—Iwata’s emphasis on global reach makes clear that this decision is about using the proliferation of mobile devices as a new awareness platform, with no plans to port existing games onto the systems (which has been a pattern for other game creators like Final Fantasy developer Square Enix). In this way, it is framed similarly to an animated film deal Nintendo was allegedly pursuing with Sony (as revealed in the midst of 2014’s Sony Hack), with mobile devices less a new gaming platform—signaling Nintendo abandoning exclusively developing for its own hardware platforms—than a new way of leveraging and promoting existing IP. This business decision was well-received, with Nintendo stock leaping 27% following the announcement.

At the same time, though, Nintendo is still committed to games. And so while from a business perspective it would make sense for Nintendo to treat mobile as a space of licensing, with other developers creating games using its franchises, the company’s larger commitment to being a “game company” doesn’t allow them to do so. In addition to announcing Nintendo’s next piece of hardware—Project NX—to renew their commitment to their own platforms, Iwata is promising Nintendo’s innovation will extend to mobile gaming, telling TIME that “while we want more people to become familiar with Nintendo IP through Nintendo’s smart device game apps, at the same time, we aim to provide smart device consumers with unique experiences with our game apps.”

Whether or not Nintendo can transform licensed mobile gaming into a space of innovation remains to be seen, but for now discursive transformation is the next best thing. Nintendo needs to acknowledge the evolution of mobile gaming as a threat against their existing handheld gaming business, but they are doing so in ways that frame mobile gaming as a lesser space that Nintendo needs to elevate, and which exists to compliment—rather than threaten—existing distribution models. The long-term tenability of this position remains unclear, but the increased mobility of Mario and the rest of Nintendo’s brand is set to give us our answer.


On Tim Burton’s Dumbo Thu, 19 Mar 2015 14:00:57 +0000 Burton DumboLast week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tim Burton would direct a remake of Dumbo (1941) using a mix of CGI and live action. Of course, this isn’t the first time Burton has remade one of Disney’s animated “classics.” Alice in Wonderland was released in 2010 to critical indifference and a box office bonanza of $1 billion; a sequel is planned for 2016. While the Dumbo pairing thus makes obvious commercial sense, it has occasioned eye-rolling humor (the obvious joke, that Johnny Depp would play the titular elephant, was retold ad nauseam on Twitter) and reactionary outrage at the sullying of a beloved classic. It has also renewed a widely-expressed concern that Burton, the object of a fervent cult for his “dark, gothic, macabre, and quirky” films, has become terminally compromised by his association with Disney and his fixation on remakes. The A.V. Club lamented that a “director once known for his startlingly original vision” is “now known for his limp adaptations of existing properties.” But putting the question of creative decline aside, Burton’s “vision”—or more concretely, his three-decade career—is defined by a synergy of two broad trends: filmmakers’ devotion to pop-cultural allusions and media corporations’ equally obsessive recycling of intellectual property in an effort to create and sustain franchises.

For the past half-century, American directors have stuffed their films with citations of other films, television shows, and pop-culture artifacts. In his 1982 essay “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond),” Noël Carroll argued that allusion “has become a major expressive device” in American cinema, with many popular films employing a “two-tiered system of communication” in which a subset of the audience appreciates the work as much for its knowing references as for its more familiar “action/drama/fantasy” pleasures. While much American film and television continues to operate on these two levels, subsequent decades have seen a kind of democratizing of allusionism, such that a large portion of the contemporary audience has come to expect and appreciate a weave of cross-references in their popular media. The intricate interconnections of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” no less than Quentin Tarantino’s bricolage testify to this.

BurtonPriceOver the years, Tim Burton’s films have helped to tutor the mass audience in the pleasures of allusionism. His earliest works, even those with “original” premises, rely almost entirely on allusions for their meanings and effects. His stop-motion short Vincent (1982) concerns a boy’s fascination with Vincent Price, particularly the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for American International Pictures in the 1960s. The live-action Luau (also 1982) pastiches several genres of 1960s drive-in movies. Burton’s first features are less pure instances of allusionism, but only slightly. His breakthrough, Beetlejuice (1988), is a horror-comedy dense with references to The Wizard of Oz, The Fly, and The Exorcist. Edward Scissorhands (1990) might have been pitched as Frankenstein Meets Beauty and the Beast. Mars Attacks! (1997) is a parody of Cold War alien-invasion films.

Adaptations and remakes arguably represent one end-point of this reliance on allusion, and Burton took this short leap early in his career. His critical cachet and attraction to cultural recyclables made him an ideal director for studios’ efforts to revive valuable intellectual property. In 1986, for a rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burton re-filmed the 1964 teleplay adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Jar.” Warner Brothers’ Batman (1989) was a landmark in corporate synergy for its integrated marketing and merchandising and for its legacy of comic-book blockbusters. Fox’s Planet of the Apes (2001) was a failed effort to reboot a franchise. Even outside of a blockbuster context, Burton has been drawn to familiar stories with prominent cinematic or televisual intertexts, from Sleepy Hollow (2009; it owes as much to the 1949 Disney animation as to Washington Irving’s story) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

Skeleton DanceBurton’s association with Disney goes back 35 years, to his origins as an animator for the company in the late 1970s. Vincent was, in fact, a Walt Disney Production. His work has exhibited a scholarly devotion to Disney history, as in Corpse Bride‘s quotation of the 1929 Silly Symphony “Skeleton Dance.” The first feature Burton made for the company was Ed Wood (1994), distributed by Disney’s “adult” imprint Touchstone. Although the stuff of Ed Wood’s no-budget films would seem worlds away from Disney’s ethos, Burton’s biopic lightly sanitizes its subject, effecting a willfully ahistorical transformation of what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Wood’s “miserable, abject failure of a career” into a postmodern “celebration” whose affected innocence is paradoxically a function of the film’s (and tacitly the audience’s) knowingness. In other words, Burton Disney-fies Ed Wood. This operation is akin to the remaking of Uncle Walt himself in 2013’s relatively edgy—for Disney—Saving Mr. Banks, which engages its audience’s knowing skepticism about Disney only to revise and revive his myth, as Mike Budd argues in a recent essay for Jump Cut.

Alice in Wonderland was thus not just a joining of two bAlicerands but a reunion, one that Dumbo will extend. It was also an especially profitable instance of the ubiquitous corporate practice of recycling intellectual property. The Walt Disney Company helped to popularize this strategy in the mid-20th century and has relied upon it more than ever in the 21st; witness their recent acquisitions of the Muppets, Marvel Entertainment, and the Star Wars franchise. Within this broad program of recycled properties is a systematic campaign, often credited to Walt Disney Pictures’ Sean Bailey, to reinvigorate interest in their “legacy” films through a new series of high-profile features. In addition to remakes of Alice, Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Pete’s Dragon (2016), and Dumbo Disney has produced a “re-imagining” of Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent, 2014) and a fictionalized “making-of” Mary Poppins (Saving Mr. Banks). There are a host of other, slightly more ambiguous cases in the works. These films not only generate or promise huge profits. They also turn the settings and characters of discrete stories into franchise fodder. In this context, allusions allow intellectual properties to exfoliate: Sleeping Beauty spins off Maleficent, which spins off a Disney Channel series, and so on. Films like Saving Mr. Banks and Maleficent also serve as feature-length advertisements for Disney’s film library, which had historically been subject to carefully-spaced-out theatrical revivals and then limited DVD and Blu-Ray editions. This new cycle of remakes and other franchise-extenders is, among other things, Disney’s response to a stagnating home-video market.

Disney has sought to validate its remake of Dumbo by reference to Tim Burton’s body of work. The WSJ report, no doubt inspired by a Disney press release, made sure to note that “[c]ircus motifs have been a favorite of Mr. Burton . . . going back to the Red Triangle Circus Gang in his Batman Returns.” This tenuous association appears quaint in light of the deeper connection that Burton has to Disney and the process that has governed his career for at least a quarter of a century: the aesthetic logic of allusionism converging with the corporate logic of franchising.


What to Make of the Historic Net Neutrality Win Wed, 11 Mar 2015 14:20:19 +0000  

Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel, Jessica RosenworcelThe FCC has done what even a few months ago seemed to most totally unthinkable: they delivered real net neutrality policy, putting in place strong regulations to protect fairness in internet access. After a decade-long policy battle, net neutrality advocates got nearly everything we’ve been calling for: clear-cut Open Internet rules that prohibit broadband network operators from blocking, throttling, or prioritizing internet content and services, that apply to both wired and wireless networks, and— the most wonky, yet most important, point— are based in Title II of the Communications Act. In other words, the FCC can now stop broadband providers from restricting your internet traffic or charging extra for exclusive internet “fast lanes,” whether your connection is to a personal computer or a mobile device, all rooted in a long-standing regulatory tradition of “common carriage” that protects openness and equality for essential two-way communications infrastructure. (For more details, you can check out my previous coverage of net neutrality here on Antenna, where I’ve written about the importance of Title II and the politics of policy that led to this point. For more on what net neutrality even is, you can check out my explainer for the Media Industries Project.)

Overall, the FCC’s new Open Internet rules represent a major come-from-behind victory for net neutrality advocates and a significant achievement for more democratic communications in the US. So, what should we make of this landmark FCC decision? How in the world did this actually get done? And what exactly happens now? Let me mention a couple of quick points along these lines.

The first and perhaps most important point is that a resilient social movement succeeded in getting a meaningful progressive victory in communications policy— an affirmative victory to enact good policy, not a defensive victory to stop bad policy. This success came even on a seemingly arcane and technical regulatory issue of invisible infrastructure, within a policy arena where corporate discourse and dollars dominate. I’ve spent the last eight years following net neutrality and, while I remained cautiously (if, as many told me, irrationally) optimistic throughout that it could get successfully put into policy, even I have to admit that it was quite a long shot to get rules this good from the FCC. Net neutrality policy has a long history of half-steps forward and large tumbles backwards, on a policymaking playing field heavily tilted in favor of the large corporations that set the terms of engagement there. Nonetheless, a strong coalition of media reform and civil rights activists, legal and technologist advocates, and online creators and startups pushed net neutrality forward in the policy sphere and the public sphere. They mobilized millions of citizens to engage with the FCC in its Open Internet proceeding— a powerful popular force in support of net neutrality that made it more than good policy, but also good politics. Some cynical defeatists are content to ignore the real difference made by everyday people’s voices and actions, instead emphasizing the role of the tech industry in lobbying for net neutrality in service of its economic interests. This perspective is not only demeaning and disempowering in terms of activist strategy, but also not very accurate: Google, Amazon, and other tech heavy-hitters mostly sat it out this time around, while smaller outsider tech firms (the likes of Etsy and Kickstarter don’t exactly have much sway inside the Beltway) worked better with the activist coalition.

The second point is this: even though this is a historic victory that should be celebrated, the fight is far from over. This is true in an immediate sense of challenges to the Open Internet rules. Broadband network operators and their allies in Congress are already seeking to block the new rules. The FCC will also surely be sued as soon as the Open Internet rules go into effect, kicking off yet another long legal battle over the agency’s ability to regulate internet infrastructure. It’s worth noting, though, that Comcast and AT&T both have potential mergers being considered by the FCC currently and Verizon’s appeal of the much weaker 2010 Open Internet rules backfired pretty bad on them, making theses corporations perhaps a bit more lawsuit gun-shy than usual (the cable and wireless lobbies look most likely to sue). Regardless, because this time the Open Internet rules are built on the strong and appropriate statutory foundation of Title II, we can be confident that the rules will stand up in court.

But the fight is also not over in a bigger picture sense: as consequential a victory as this is, it is ultimately just one step on a longer journey toward more equitable media structures. On the internet infrastructure front alone, there is much more to be done to ensure faster, more affordable, more inclusive broadband network access (although the other FCC action that same day— to overrule state restrictions on municipal broadband networks— opens a door toward a more promising future of public internet infrastructure for more cities). Having net neutrality meaningfully enshrined in communications regulations, and having FCC policy moving toward treatment of internet access as an essential utility, is huge, but net neutrality has proven a resonant discourse that can speak to critical social justice goals and can be employed more widely. Net neutrality could ultimately end up most historically significant, then, for the powerful discourse and movement that advocates put together around it— if we can build on this success and use this momentum to push forward for more victories like this one.


The More You Know About Cross-Promotion Wed, 04 Feb 2015 15:00:11 +0000 I have a confession to make: I did not watch the Super Bowl.  But that didn’t keep me from knowing exactly what happened: the crazy last few minutes of the game, the best and worst of the commercials, and (of course) Katy Perry’s halftime show.

Imagine my delight when a friend & colleague posted a note to my Facebook wall alerting me to the fact that Katy Perry had appeared under what looked to be a replica of the classic “The More You Know” star, made famous in the NBC PSAs of our youth.

Below is an example, a 1990 Will Smith PSA on the benefits of staying in school.

And here is Katy Perry performing “Firework” during Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show:

And, because the internet is awesome, here’s a side-by-side comparison…

TMYK Comparison 

…and a mash-up:

 TMYK Mash-Up

As a scholar of media conglomerates and the logics that govern their operations, I have found the entire event immensely fun.  The question I got peppered with (well, if you count three friends’ comments as “peppering”) had to do with whether or not I thought Perry’s production was an example of planned cross-promotion, as the Super Bowl aired on NBC this year.

NBC TwitterThe short answer is that I don’t know.  I do know NBC was very quick to take advantage of the situation, tweeting out the “More You Know” logo at 7:23pm Eastern–a tweet that has been retweeted over 4000 times, typically with comments like “Nicely played, NBC!”  That tweet alone helped people make the connection between Perry’s performance, the PSA series, and NBC. Although many people of a certain age are likely to remember the PSAs, it’s quite likely that they would not remember them to be an NBC product.  NBC’s quick thinking (or advance knowledge and planning, perhaps) aided in closing the loop to take full advantage of the cross-promotional opportunity.

The long answer is that I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either—because NBC definitely doesn’t.  I’ve been grinning about this all week, because it beautifully illustrates something crucial to understanding the nature of cross-promotion: it doesn’t matter if it’s pre-planned or not, and it works better when it doesn’t appear to be arranged.

Like all forms of product integration, where advertisements are embedded within content, cross-promotion works by appearing “natural” and “organic” to that content.  When Jimmy Fallon has stars of NBC TV series on The Tonight Show, it’s an instance of cross-promotion, but it wouldn’t necessarily strike anyone as odd because Jimmy Fallon has lots of stars on The Tonight Show.  The star’s appearance on Fallon offers a potential double win for NBC; the star may draw fans to The Tonight Show, and the appearance might draw Fallon fans to the star’s series.  And that, of course, is the logic behind cross-promotion.  The risk NBC takes in engineering these opportunities is that if the audience feels duped, or like the network is trying to trick them, they might be turned off—but that sort of reaction is highly unlikely if the cross-promotion is thoughtfully conducted and unobtrusive.

And therein lies the beauty of Katy Perry’s ride on the “The More You Know” star at Super Bowl XLIX: it appeared to just happen with no forethought.  That sense of happenstance was a huge win for NBC, as audiences got to feel smart by noticing it, tweeting about it, commenting on Facebook, or saying something to their friends at the Super Bowl party.  That reward coupled with an accompanying nostalgia for an era when NBC was enjoying the height of their must-see-TV glory days imbues the entire incident with a rosy glow for audiences and, in turn, for the network.  Just as the appearance of an NBC star on Fallon offers a potential double win for NBC, so does a situation like this.

If it was pre-planned, it was an absolutely genius move made even better by no one from Perry’s camp or NBC stepping forward to claim credit for thinking of it.  If it wasn’t pre-planned, NBC got really lucky with Perry generating nostalgia for a PSA campaign that they could link to their network.  And whoever was manning the Twitter account on Sunday deserves a bonus.

I can hear the higher-ups at NBC now, gleefully counting up the many folks who ventured to YouTube to look up videos of 1990s PSAs, only to be flooded with warmth and affection for the bygone days of the network.  “Oh man…remember when NBC had Friends?  And ER?  And Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?”  NBC remembers, and they’re glad that now you do too.  And it’s all because Katy Perry rode a star around a football stadium on national TV.


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“Hope” for Net Neutrality? Thu, 13 Nov 2014 15:00:36 +0000 On Monday, one more voice was added to the millions that have already urged the FCC to protect net neutrality (the standard that all users and uses of the internet should receive equal treatment from network operators like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T). This comment was particularly notable, though: it came from President Obama.

“Hope” for Net Neutrality?

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

Obama’s statement calling on the FCC to implement the strongest possible net neutrality regulations in its Open Internet policy proceeding is significant for many reasons: how unusual it is for a sitting president to dive so deep into the weeds of communications regulation, the influence it can have on the policy the FCC actually adopts, and (amazingly) just how right on the President is in his plan. Obama’s net neutrality statement is also especially important, though, for what it signals about the politics of media policy: a legitimate social movement is pushing for fairness and equality in internet access by engaging in historically corporate-dominated policymaking processes and strategically “boring” regulatory discourses to successfully bring undoubtedly arcane yet crucially political media policy issues to the front and center of the national political stage. Simply put, the President wouldn’t jump this far into this fight with powerful phone and cable corporations and their allies in the incoming Republican-controlled Congress (and perhaps even the FCC Chairman he appointed) if it weren’t for wide public pressure to act boldly on net neutrality. The FCC is an independent agency that doesn’t have to answer to the President, so it remains to be seen if any of this is enough to shift the Commission’s current direction in Open Internet rule-making— right now toward a (likely untenable) attempt at compromise through a “hybrid approach”— but at the least it is heartening to see such prominent attention to obscure issues like paid prioritization (known as internet “fast lanes”) and Title II reclassification (somewhat misleadingly being called “utility regulation”).

15003287537_b16bdc6d26_zIn Obama’s statement, he surprised nearly everyone by laying out in unambiguous terms an Open Internet policy plan that would deliver pretty much exactly what most net neutrality advocates (myself included) have seen as what has been needed all along: a clear-cut set of rules against blocking and discrimination that apply to both wired and wireless broadband providers and prohibit paid prioritization “fast lane” deals with online content providers, all based in a “common carriage” regulatory framework with legal authority from Title II of the Communications Act. (Yes, this is the super nerdy, but now increasingly central, terrain on which this battle is being fought!) This is a stronger set of rules than those proposed by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this past spring and the rules that were previously adopted by the FCC in 2010 but struck down in court in January. As I explained in a post here in the aftermath of that case, the reason why the 2010 rules failed in court (and in enforcement) is that they were not implemented with appropriate legal authority to regulate openness and equal access and if the FCC wants to move forward with meaningful and sustainable net neutrality policy, it has to reclassify broadband. What the Commission needs to do— as called for by advocates for strong net neutrality, now including the President— is to implement Open Internet rules through Title II, where the Commission has authority to regulate essential infrastructure for two-way communications (which internet access clearly is).

This traction in the political debate around net neutrality comes as a result of a popular movement that has seen nearly 4 million public comments to the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding (a record-breaking total, of which up to 99% were in favor of net neutrality), protests and demonstrations both online (like the Internet Slowdown Day) and offline (like occupations of the FCC building and even Chairman Wheeler’s driveway), and John Oliver’s tour-de-force explanation and call to action. All of the public participation in the process (just like the President’s) may not even count for much to the FCC, but it has worked to shift the discursive terrain of the issue and, therefore, the range of possible policy action. Chairman Wheeler has backed away from his initial weak proposal and is now hinting toward wireless broadband regulations and at least partial reclassification.

Right now, though, the FCC is stalling while it decides what to do and its next move will come no sooner than 2015. For passing strong Open Internet protections, Wheeler has the votes at the Commission (with two pro-net-neutrality Democratic commissioners to make a majority with him) and now political support from President, but he may be waiting for more backup from the bigger tech industry players like Google and Facebook, which have been conspicuously quiet in this round of the fight. Strong public pressure will continue to be key to keep up this progress toward meaningful net neutrality policy.


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Report from NYTVF Digital Day 2014 Wed, 05 Nov 2014 15:00:52 +0000 NYTVF marqueeThe New York Television Festival describes itself as a “pioneer of the independent television movement.” It takes place every October and celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. I attended the panels on Digital Day, including “How A Show Gets Made,” “Incubate This: The Next Generation of Digital Content” and “Supply and Demand: Why Indie TV Will be the New Indie Film.”

Even though NYTVF bills itself as independent TV festival, more and more legacy media companies are present at the festival. In the case of this year’s Digital Day, digital studios or digital programming units that are part of established TV networks, channels, and studios were well represented on all panels. The majority of panelists were from legacy media companies, including the digital branches of Comedy Central, the CW, Starz, and Universal. Others represented established players in digital distribution, including My Damn Channel and Vimeo. While the panel make-up depends on who is willing and available to appear, there seemed to be a clear trend toward including legacy media representatives at NYTVF.

The audience—or at least the imagined audience evoked by panelists—consisted of content creators trying to break into the industry. Panel discussions and questions centered on how to catch the attention of the companies represented by panelists and get a pitch meeting. The discussion thus did not center on how to create a web series that one would self-finance and distribute on a platform like YouTube, at least not in the long run. This focus struck me as different from much of the usual discourse around web series and the conversation at least year’s Digital Day, which included panels about Kickstarter or other ways of self-financing and featured creators like Adam Goldman (creator of web series like The Outs and Whatever This Is), not executives.

Another marked shift from previous years resided in the panelists’ description of preconditions an independent creator needs to meet in order to get a development deal. Executives emphasized that they are looking for two things: one, a fully fleshed out show that has a few episodes under its belt and an “established social following”- or, in other words, a guaranteed loyal audience. Ideally, you should also have a marketing strategy. Simply pitching a great idea is no longer enough. As David Katz (VP of Digital Media at Starz) put it, “bring that entire eco-system to me.” Listening to these preconditions made me wonder just how independent the digital TV landscape is; all of the talk of pitches and development deals echoed pilot season rather strongly- except merely having a pilot is not enough to get picked up by Starz or My Damn Channel. Moreover, the financial prospects don’t seem to be that promising, either. As Jed Weintrop (VP, Head of Production, Condé Nast Entertainment) pointed out: “Nobody gets rich here,” which was echoed by other panelists throughout the day.

NYTVF panelFinally, the many callbacks to legacy media history surprised me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, one panel was called “Supply and Demand: Why Indie TV Will Be the New Indie Film.” Throughout all panels, executives evoked the history of film and cable TV to frame the current digital TV landscape. For example, Rob Barnett of My Damn Channel stated that digital TV was like “baby cable” and added that it feels like it’s “’80, ’81,” before the big players in cable had emerged. New Yorker columnist Adam Sternbergh described the discovery of exciting new digital content as “going to Sundance in 1988, ’89.”

Stray observations:

  • Panelists identified Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu original programming as “television,” not “digital content.” To panelists, the dividing line was budget and programming length. Aimee Carlson (VP, Digital Development and Production, Universal Cable Productions) defined “digital content” as short form, low-budget, episodic video that premieres exclusively on digital platforms. The half-hour and hour-long programs on Amazon et al do not fall under this umbrella even though they are also made exclusively for digital distribution.
  • Jennifer Titus (SVP, On Air Creative, CW Seed) pointed out that the average age of CW viewers for “linear” (i.e. primetime programming) is 38. For their digital content on CW Seed, the average age is 22.
  • Another common piece of advice across panels: connect to specific audiences; don’t throw your product at a broad audience. Sam Toles (VP of Content Acquisitions and Business Development at Vimeo) was particularly adamant about this strategy. He stated that millennials aren’t engaging with traditional media/advertising, which is why “indie TV” creators need to connect with them in a targeted way. As a strategy for cutting through the noise of digital content, he advised attaching content to a specific audience already invested in the genre/topic and “seeding a clip across social media so they notice it and start sharing it.”


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Bad Blood: “Taylor Swift” vs. Spotify Mon, 03 Nov 2014 18:15:27 +0000 Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 12.09.21 PMAs the number of release windows for media continues to expand, the “windowing” of a given media text has shifted accordingly. Although windowing has typically been a term reserved for motion pictures, in which a film goes through theatrical, home video, cable, and network distribution windows in roughly that order, the advent of streaming media has created similar patterns in television—where some Hulu series have week-long exclusivity for cable subscribers—and music, creating a broader “crisis” in distribution that the industry is working to solve.

Within music, where no such windowing has existed, streaming services like Spotify and Rdio have created a distribution problem that a number of labels have been pushing against. Whereas in film we see the challenging of existing windows through day-and-date streaming releases, with Spotify we see artists—such as Beyoncé and Coldplay—actively withholding their albums at release to force users (including those who subscribe to these services rather than streaming music for free) to acquire them through legal—or, depending on the user, illegal—means, creating selective windowing.

Spotify has value for artists and labels: on demand streaming has become a metric within the Billboard Hot 100 charts, for example, and the service’s 40 million users represent a cross-section of listeners that may not buy music now but could buy music in the future, making it a valuable promotional platform. However, the issue is that the infinitesimally small royalties paid by Spotify and other streaming services—which have drawn criticism from artists and labels—limit this value. Accordingly, while having your music on Spotify has promotional value, the remuneration is significantly less than if artists sell albums or singles on iTunes, or convince you to go out to a store to buy a deluxe version of the album featuring exclusive material.

Big Machine Records and Taylor Swift have been at the center of this conflict for some time. Swift’s album Red, which debuted in October 2012, was an early example of a label withholding a marquee album from streaming services—while each single from the album became available near its release, the full album was not made available for streaming until the summer of 2013. At the time, Billboard reported Big Marchine founder Scott Borchetta framing streaming as a “struggle,” arguing that “it doesn’t make sense to a small record company” compared to a larger conglomerate with thousands of albums to sell to Spotify.

The decision was controversial at the time, although there was no evidence that Spotify was fighting against it—the service simply did not have Red available, which Big Machine hoped would push users to go purchase the album. However, earlier this year Spotify went on the offensive, creating pages for albums that are being withheld from the service—including the latest albums from Coldplay and Beyoncé—that inform listeners that “the artist or their representatives have decided not to release this album on Spotify. We are working on it and hope they will change their mind soon.”

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Such a page has been in place for Swift’s 1989 since the album’s release last week, although as of this morning it is notably the only album page on Swift’s Spotify page. As widely reported, Big Machine has pulled all of Swift’s music—including “Shake It Off,” which had been the most streamed song on the service—in the midst of negotiations with Spotify, the most public move yet in the service’s battle with labels. In return, Spotify has begun using social media—including a blog post entitled “On Taylor Swift’s Decision to Remove Her Music form Spotify”—to call out Swift’s decision and incite her to “Stay Stay Stay,” a reference to a song from the now unavailable Red.

Spotify’s rhetoric is nearly identical to that of cable channels in the midst of carriage disputes—just last night, AMC used The Walking Dead to inform DirecTV subscribers that the channel’s contract with the satellite service is up soon, and that their provider is failing to negotiate in good faith. It’s a call to action, mirroring AMC’s conflict with Dish by asking the show’s large fanbase to become engaged in a public campaign to influence negotiations in their favor. In Spotify’s case, they are using social media to rally their 40 million users to spread the word using the #JustSayYes hashtag (itself taken from her song “Love Story”), and sharing a playlist of “What to Play While Taylor’s Away.”

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In part due to this messaging, most major news reports regarding the decision are framed in these terms: TIME suggests “Taylor Swift Just Removed Her Music From Spotify,” while Mashable—one of the first to report on the story, and who had reported on 1989’s absence from the service last week—implies that “Taylor Swift removes all music from Spotify after ‘1989’ bickering.” However, to frame this as Swift’s decision obscures the presence of the label, who Billboard reports—citing sources beyond conjecture and Spotify’s social media postings—is behind this decision as Big Machine asserts itself in the midst of an attempted sale. There is no evidence that Swift herself is behind this decision—while TIME cites a Wall Street Journal op-ed where Swift herself expresses concern regarding the streaming service, neither she nor Big Machine Records has made a public statement, meaning that any narrative has been created by Spotify to better position the company within ongoing negotiations.

Spotify’s choice to make this about the artist—never once acknowledging the existence of a label—highlights the challenge of getting users to invest in the full dimensions of why albums are held from Spotify. This is by all accounts not primarily a conflict with an artist whose principles are in opposition to streaming music, but rather a case where a label is leveraging the sales power of their biggest artist to challenge the economics of a still nascent, controversial distribution method, and where that artist—despite her ubiquity—is subject to their business decisions. But whereas Spotify vs. Scott Borchetta is a story for the trades, Spotify vs. Taylor Swift is a story for the masses, one Spotify hopes will create fewer blank spaces in their library.


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A National Icon Deficit: What the Ghomeshi Scandal Illustrates About the State of CBC Radio One Fri, 31 Oct 2014 16:31:53 +0000 QimageGlobe & Mail television critic John Doyle makes some incisive observations about the Ghomeshi scandal in a recent column. He writes that the episode illustrates “how much CBC Radio and its personalities matter. Whether the anti-CBC factions like it or not, CBC Radio personalities become iconic, representative figures. A portion of the public invests heavily in them.” This is the problem that the Ghomeshi situation lays bare: CBC Radio lacks compelling personalities with broad inter-generational and international appeal. Too few of its current personalities have evolved into ‘iconic, representative figures.’ Thus, in the context of the CBC’s myriad recent difficulties, the public downfall of one the few prominent individuals associated with the cherished information radio service has occasioned a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety.

In fact, a closer look reveals the broader problem: once-innovative formats now seem tired as their defining personalities have moved on and the medium has evolved. CBC has long been a leader in the public service information radio genre and its personalities have always been significant part of that. CBC Radio contributed much to the development of the phone-out, information magazine, and audio documentary program formats, but listeners valued its most popular programs primarily for their personalities.

Internal documents reveal that administrators recognized their importance as far back as the ’60s, when the onset of television and FM radio necessitated the renovation of the radio service. Personalities were the anchoring force that unified the disparate elements of the long-form program formats that would come to define the national information service. Longtime morning host Peter Gzowski’s popularity was such that he came to known as “Mr. Canada,” while Barbara Frum’s hard-hitting and irreverent interviewing style defined As It Happens’ most successful period. The host of Frum’s program, Alan ‘Fireside Al’ Maitland, was an avuncular presence for a devoted audience base. In more recent decades, individuals like Shelagh Rogers and Mary Lou Findlay continued the tradition of skillful interviewing and insightful commentary.

But while daily stalwarts like As It Happens (1968-) and Ideas (1965-) march on, their formats have come to seem tired and their most cherished personalities have moved on. Ghomeshi was one of the few contemporary CBC radio personalities with the ability to appeal to a large, inter-generational audience comprised of both the CBC’s established boomer audience and their offspring. After some early hosting gigs for CBC TV and radio, he moved to the afternoon to stabilize things in the wake of the disastrous Freestyle experiment (2005-2007). Q debuted there and enjoyed some success before moving to the crucial national late morning slot vacated by the conclusion of Rogers’ Sounds Like Canada program (2002-2008). In this morning slot, the program has established itself as a premier popular arts and culture program with a broad reach in Canada and internationally (roughly 180 stations carry the program). With the former indie musician Ghomeshi as its anchoring force, the program executed a partial pivot away from higher-brow arts and literature and towards the popular arts (especially indie rock) and culture. It also moved towards more of a modular approach to content production with a mix of shorter and longer features. This positioned the program to do an exemplary job of establishing a digital, on-demand presence through its website and YouTube channel. In its modification of the now-classic magazine program format and its digital endeavors, Ghomeshi’s Q established itself as both a valuable property and a bridge between CBC Radio’s still all-too-present past and its uncertain future.

All of this made Ghomeshi into one of CBC Radio’s few contemporary icons. And now, little more than a week after he delivered an audio essay about the recent events in Ottawa, he has been scrubbed from the CBC’s website and headquarters. As information emerges, the CBC’s decision looks increasingly wise and conscientious. And the show goes on with several capable interim hosts including CBC veteran Brent Bambury. But these are difficult times for the CBC. The television service is reeling from the loss of hockey and the Radio Two recently began to air commercials for the first time in more than three decades. Radio One lumbers on with reduced budgets and many repeats in the schedule.

The Ghomeshi incident lays bare the need for a bigger stable of core radio personalities with broad appeal, further modifications to the long-form magazine format, and more stability within the radio service. The CBC must do more to develop personalities if it is to retain its audience and its influence. They’re out there – or perhaps they’re already inside the building. I suspect that the CBC has an abundance of talented hosts and producers working at its regional outposts who could do a great deal to rejuvenate the broadcaster on a national level. How much more talent is there in the more peripheral parts of the country and the institution? Similarly, how many producers are there in the ranks with innovative program ideas waiting to be developed?

CBC Radio’s history tells us that personalities and formats make one another in a reciprocal manner just as they did with Q. My hope is that Ghomeshi’s departure serves as a wake-up call to CBC Radio to focus more attention on the development of more national radio talent both on the mic and behind the glass. This would position the CBC to play a larger role in shaping radio’s future as it evolves beyond the formats of national public radio’s heyday to meet the challenges posed by the digital convergence era.


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