Global – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Feeling Good About Feeling Bad About Aylan Kurdi Tue, 22 Sep 2015 18:33:37 +0000 aylan kurdi (cropped)

Post by Rebecca Adelman, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The day after the photos of Aylan Kurdi appeared online (and everywhere), I typed a “d” into my Google search bar and its first auto-complete suggestion was “drowned syrian boy.”  Coincidentally, or by the eerie prescience of the algorithm, that is actually what I was looking for.  The speed with which the search engine guessed my intention and the minimal effort subsequently required to access these photos—I didn’t even have to finish typing, just hit “Enter”—is representative of the simple spectatorial task that they set up.

I am not suggesting that the story the photographs tell isn’t wrenching (it is); but the difficulty of the image is the very thing that makes spectatorship of it easy.  Certainly, spectators far removed from the Kurdi family’s suffering might genuinely experience the photos as painful.  But the experience of feeling bad about the photos is accompanied by a range of sentimental rewards that ameliorate this discomfort.  In part, the hyper-visibility of Aylan Kurdi is a function of the vacuous efficacy of social media, but the clicktivism it inspired is more a symptom than a cause.

Compared to other images begotten by the ongoing war in Syria, the photos of Aylan Kurdi demand relatively little of their viewers, cognitively or emotionally.


This war has been illustrated by photos of dead and dying children from the outset.  In the autumn of 2013, activists uploaded scores of photos and videos documenting the casualties of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians.  Many of the victims were children, and many of them died in the presence of desperate parents and watchful cameras.  The resultant pictures, however, did not provide unequivocal evidence of atrocity to viewers expecting to see the bloodier forms of injury and dismemberment that dominate familiar depictions of wartime casualties.  Instead, the photos captured large-scale mortality caused by invisible trauma.  This is, of course, the signature of a chemical weapons attack, but in order to fulfill their documentary function, the photos required expert interpretation and credulous spectators.

Seeking to galvanize popular and legislative support for his plan to intervene militarily in Syria, President Obama implored Americans to view the images  and the Senate Intelligence Committee compiled 13 of the most explicit  for review by its members and, presumably, the public.  These images failed to persuade lawmakers or their constituents that the situation warranted U.S. involvement.  Of course, there were many reasons for this reluctance and we cannot know if different pictures would have garnered different results, but it remains significant that these photos never achieved the iconic status that Aylan Kurdi’s already have.


Two years later, the more abstract photos of the truck abandoned on an Austrian highway with the bodies of 71 refugees, Syrians among them, decomposing inside, pose a different spectatorial problem.  The photos do not show the corpses, so spectators can only peer at the truck and imagine its contents.  News coverage of the story has been largely forensic in its orientation; this perspective risks objectifying the victims, a temptation grimly heightened by the advertisements decorating the sides of the vehicle.  While European officials are compelled to infer the identities of the deceased from travel documents, mobile phones, and meager personal effects, curious spectators get only a hypothetical composite of anonymous dead.

The photographs of Aylan Kurdi, full of pathos and without gore, set up a more straightforward spectatorial project.  Unlike the photos from the chemical weapons attacks, these do not require speculation about the mechanics of his dying – there is no mystery to drowning.  And unlike the photos of the truck, these present a victim and a sanitized vision of death. Claims about the singular potency of the Aylan Kurdi photos rest on an implied comparison to the images that preceded them.  An article in the New York Times made an explicit distinction between these and those of the truck, asserting that the photo “personalized” the migrant crisis for a public that had merely been “shocked” by the previous story.

That comparison hinges on the presumed power of the Aylan Kurdi photos to disturb or inspire viewers, as does the editorial debate about whether or not to reprint them.  Framing the issue in this binary way, however, obscures the complexities—the emotional contradictions, the ethical instabilities—inherent in any act of looking at casualty photos.  Ultimately, the argument collapses a range of spectatorial positions down to two, apparently mutually exclusive, possibilities: ‘good’ spectators who look at the photos and feel outraged or sad, versus ‘bad’ spectators who look at the photos and do not.

Such ‘bad’ spectatorship is often attributed to emotional laziness, an inability or unwillingness to be moved.  But ‘good’ spectatorship here requires only minimal emotional ambition; it is largely a matter of channeling the cultural, historical, and political forces that instruct and condition our sentiments, predisposing us to grieve for deaths that look like this.  Adhering to those codes by feeling appropriately bad might feel automatic or right, but it can also feel good.

I am not suggesting that those feelings of sadness are untrue or unreal, only that ethical spectatorship of these photos requires candor about the costs, benefits, and gratifications of looking at them.  Aylan Kurdi’s small, carefully dressed body is poignant but also intelligible.  Less decipherable pictures might leave spectators confused or adrift.  His photos are frank documents of mortality, but characterizing them as ‘graphic’ overstates the difficulty of the spectatorial task they set up, and overshadows the extent to which the act of looking at them is facilitated and softened by its emotional rewards.  An affective auto-complete.


]]> 2
Popular Culture and Politics: The Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute in Thai Protests Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:52:07 +0000 On June 2, 2014, news about protesters in Thailand holding up the Hunger Games 3-finger salute began proliferating across news networks and websites like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Global Post, Quartz and others. Across the coverage, reporters and commenters seem unsure of what to make of political action that draws inspiration from a fictional story. Drawing from my research on popular culture, rhetoric, and fan-based civic engagement, I offer a contextualization for the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In a blog post over at Rhetorically Speaking, I examine how the protesters appropriate the 3-finger salute to signal resistance and critique. Here, I want to offer a framing of the Thai protester’s use of the 3-finger salute by articulating the relationship between popular culture and politics and by placing the Thai protests within a history of fan-based civic engagement.

blog post katniss 3-finger salute

Journalists covering this story have struggled to frame the protests within a broader relationship between popular culture and politics in the real world. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at says, “If I say the phrases Hunger Games and ‘life imitates art’ in the same sentence, you might start to worry. But this is actually an inspiring appropriation of the practices of Panem.” Ryan Gilbey at The Guardian points toward critics’ concerns that films inspire violent copy-cat behavior. Both Brown and Gilbey frame popular culture as a causal mechanism, but in doing so they undermine the agency of actors. This is particularly problematic when popular culture is connected to political action. In these cases, we ought to understand popular culture as resources. We must recognize that popular culture does not cause political action, while also recognizing the incredibly important role popular culture plays in offering up the choices we have for political resources.

The YouTube ID of hceO-SUoitk#t=35 is invalid.
Reporters also seemed to position the Thai protesters’ use of popular culture as relatively uncommon. Gilbey from The Guardian says, “You’d have to go back to the film adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, to find a comparable crossover between on-screen behaviour and widespread political iconography.” But the use of popular culture in politics is actually quite common. In fact, Thai protesters aren’t even the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In 2013, Senator Miriam Santiago from the Philippines used the 3-finger salute in a speech lambasting Senator Enrile in the Senate. The Harry Potter Alliance used the 3-finger salute in its Odds In Our Favor campaign, which critiqued economic inequality, particularly in the US.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 9.03.51 AMPopular culture has always functioned as resources for politics. For example, Nan Enstad describes how American women factory workers at the turn of the century used dime novels, films, and fashion to come to see themselves as both ladies and workers, and thus as deserving of fair working conditions. These women staged labor protests in unexpected numbers. Today, we see examples ranging from Harry Potter to football. In January 2014, Chinese diplomats used Harry Potter metaphors to make arguments about regional power in Asia. In the fall of 2013, the TeamMates’ Coaches Challenge campaign invited Nebraskan citizens to volunteer to mentor by connecting mentoring with being a Nebraska football fan, beating Kansas, and joining the Nebraskan team. During 2012 and 2013, DC Entertainment led a campaign named “We Can Be Heroes,” calling Justice League fans to donate money to charities working to end hunger in Africa. These are just three examples from this academic year alone. Indeed, there are many more.

What I hope this contextualization provides is a framing that enables us as audience members, reporters, and citizens to take seriously the Thai protesters’ Hunger Games salutes. While not all political appropriations of popular culture are necessarily ethical, desirable, or effective, we cannot dismiss such uses of popular culture out-of-hand. Jonathan Jones at The Guardian takes this problematic approach when he asserts that the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute “reveals something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century.” But Jones is missing the point because he’s got the context all wrong. The protesters aren’t claiming allegiance to the Hunger Games. They are using the symbol of resistance in the Hunger Games as their own, imbuing it with democratic meaning and critiques of the Thai government. Popular culture is a resource, combined and recombined with other resources, appropriated and changed through various performances. This framing is absolutely necessary to understanding the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute in a complex and full way.


]]> 2
Why Co-Produce? Elementary, Holmes. Tue, 11 Mar 2014 12:58:59 +0000 My last post argued for the existence of a unique televisual formation comprised by US/British co-production, which I jokingly dubbed “Trollywood.”  I am now dropping that rather silly term after criticism from all quarters, but want to say something further here about what I mean by “transnational television co-production,” the tensions that shape it, and why I think it’s worth studying.

images-1First, a definition: transnational television co-production is the practice through which a producer/distributor based in one nation agrees to contribute up-front funding to a program produced by a company based in another nation in exchange for distribution rights as well as for some degree of creative input into the production.  Often the subject matter of such a production reflects or refers to its transnational roots by self-consciously including elements of cultural negotiation within the narrative situation; other times transnational convergence can be seen in elements of style, structure, aesthetics, or address. It is specific to television, with its strong national basis and its unique serial form, as well as its semantic flexibility enabled by practices such as scheduling, presentation, and promotion.  It is a transcultural form.

Though much attention has been paid to the reality format in the scholarship on global television, my focus here is on prime-time drama and documentary, where issues of national culture, media policy, audience specificity, and authorial integrity are more difficult to negotiate and often become the subject of considerable debate.  This type of production also differs from the more traditional “international co-ventures” that scholars such as Serra Tinic, Barbara Selznick, and Timothy Havens have discussed.  There are important and interesting distinctions to be made here, between a co-venture and a co-production, between co-financing and off-the-shelf sales, between format and fiction, but I will skip over these for now to focus on why and how transnational co-productions come about.


Co-production screen credits for Sherlock.

Most explanations go right for the money: co-production is a way of bringing in another source of finance that can have an immediate effect on the production, enabling bigger stars, better locations, and a glossier production all around.  This usually comes with exclusive distribution rights in a specific territory; so, for instance, when WGBH/Masterpiece puts a million dollars or two into a BBC production it expects to have the first, sole window of distribution in the United States.  BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial sales arm, might be slightly miffed to miss out on chance to sell Sherlock more widely in the States (though in this case they participated as a co-production partner as well) but the existence of co-production funding can be the ticket to getting a high-cost production greenlighted when others are not.

Yet because success on the global market means an ability to address and attract broader- than-national audiences, another rationale for entering into transnational partnerships is precisely the opportunity to think trans-culturally.  Inclusion of characters or production teams from both countries (the easiest technique), narratives and subjects that span cultural locations, properties (like Sherlock) that already have transnational recognition and can work that imaginary identification into their narrative focus:  these are qualities that mark the most successful co-productions, and that draw together transnational publics.

Co-production can also help to support other forms of programming that are necessarily more nationally-specific and often of higher priority.  For WGBH, in this example, the investment of a relatively small amount of money in a co-produced prime-time drama, as opposed to sinking many more millions into an original production, means that scarce funding can go into news, public affairs, and children’s programs that are a more central part of PBS’s mandate.

Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece, with Benedict Cumberbatch at a season kick-off event in New York.

Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece, with Benedict Cumberbatch at a season kick-off event in New York.

However, given the strong national focus of television – particularly for public broadcasters, though commercial channels also have their home markets to please – this kind of cultural negotiation can have its drawbacks.  Most notably on the British side this has involved accusations of cultural dilution, of using the television license fee paid by all British TV viewers on programs made for Americans.  Implied here is that making programs that appeal to Americans somehow weakens their essential Britishness.  This has come out in criticism of the recent transnational hit Downton Abbey (an ITV/WGBH co-production) for its substitution of melodrama for historical accuracy, though it has proved very successful with British audiences as well.  More to the point, both the BBC and ITV (Britain’s two central broadcasters) are specifically charged with producing a high proportion of original British programming in all categories – how much co-producer influence can there be before this claim becomes weakened?

Yet co-production is on the rise.  Changing structures in the British TV industry since the 1990s – from the “outsourcing” mandate of the 1990s to the 2004 Code of Practice that acted something like the fin/syn rules in the US – have greatly increased the number of independent producers and strengthened their hold on program rights (Chalaby 2010).  How can the rise in global partnerships be reconciled with mandates for national specificity?  What kinds of creative practices have been employed on both sides of the British/US co-production nexus to work within these constraints?  I’ll pursue those questions in my next post.


Sucks to Be Ru: America’s new Russian Other Fri, 21 Feb 2014 21:49:20 +0000 0208-Sochi-opening-rings_full_600

For years, America has lacked a true constitutive “other”—the sort of competing entity that can represent everything we are not and thus help us agree on what we are. Yes, the Muslim world has played the role of Enemy of the State for the past decade, but the varied, decentralized and complex nature of that entity has prevented anything approaching a consensus among the American populace. What we have missed is the simple (and, of course, oversimplified) Soviet—a militarized, soulless Ivan Drago to our informal, scrappy Rocky Balboa.  And while that pre-millenial foil is gone forever, the Sochi Olympics has brought us something perhaps even better.  The unending string of hilarious #SochiProblems and daily stories of government gluttony filling our Facebook feeds have positioned Russia not so much as America’s polar opposite, but instead as a sort of shadow version of the American Way of Life.

In putting on the Sochi winter games, Russia has expended an absurd amount of resources—about $50 billion worth—with the expectation of fundamentally repositioning the country’s place in the global imagination.  And although much of the media coverage surrounding Sochi has focused on the tremendous amount of graft and waste it took to ring up such a bill, the Russian government is unlikely to view the event as anything but a success.  Above all, President Vladimir Putin wanted to use the Sochi spotlight to disrupt the unipolar, American-centric geopolitical map that has emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union.  And in some small way he has.  It takes a terribly powerful man to waste such a terrible sum of money.  The cost may have been surrealistically high, but for Putin it was a one-time-only opportunity to demonstrate that he has the surplus of power and the utter lack of conscience one needs to make a play for international hegemony.

The United States, however, has gotten a much better deal, at least in terms of buying an improved sense of national identity. Russia, in no small part due to Sochi, no longer embodies a set of virtues—extreme discipline, ideological orthodoxy, etc—that we choose to reject.  Instead it has come to stand in for all of those vices that we fear we may have but would rather not face.  No longer Drago, Russia has become America’s drunken Uncle Paulie, a bumbling, wasteful reminder of what we could become but never will.  Whenever Rocky is down, he can always look to Paulie’s blubbery ineptitude and realize he’s not in such bad shape.  And now, whenever Americans fear their government may be dolling out favors to corporations or spending money on all the wrong things, well, at least we don’t build Dadaist toilets when the whole world is watching.

This narrative received a wholly unexpected boost last Sunday with Michael Sam, a mid-level professional football prospect, announced that he is gay.  The reaction from the National Football League has been predictably tepid, with nearly every team echoing the standard neo-liberal take on gay rights.  Discrimination cannot be tolerated if it is going to get in the way of profits or, in the case of an NFL team, winning football games.  Of course, America in general and its sports culture in specific still have a long way it to go when it comes to eliminating discrimination over sexuality.  The discussion should be less the sports media’s preferred “where will Sam be drafted?” and more “why does only one player feel safe enough to be open about being gay?”  However, in comparison to our Other Russia, America looks positively enlightened.  When faced with the medieval anti-gay laws and mockable public statements (“We don’t have [gays] in our town”) on display in Sochi, it’s easy to give America a pass.  Russia’s backwardness on the issue provides the perfect backdrop against which to avoid asking truly tough questions about ourselves.

The Washington Post’s Max Fisher has called for Americans to avoid the temptation of Russophobia when engaging in discourse about Russia.  It can be all too easy to mock a population that has long been the target of so many stereotypes and Internet memes. In general this is good advice.  However, it by no means suggests that we should hesitate to condemn the authoritarianism and corruption that Putin’s Russia has put on display in its effort to make the world it seriously. Just as important, however, is that we use the opportunity as a means of interrogating the weaknesses of our society, not as an excuse to ignore them.


]]> 1
What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


From Henry VIII to Flash Mobs: Branding Britain at London 2012 Tue, 17 Jul 2012 12:00:43 +0000 In August, 2008, tuned into NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games, I notice a strangely familiar name scrolling across the screen. Joining Matt Lauer in front of the Gate of Supreme Harmony is Joshua Cooper Ramo, introduced as NBC’s official China Analyst. As Ramo launches into a superlative description of China’s sense of optimism and opportunity and its commitment to egalitarian, environmentally conscious economic growth, I remember where I’ve heard the name. A year earlier, he’d written a report called Brand China for the Foreign Policy Centre (UK). China has an “image emergency,” Ramo warned in the report, a major strategic threat that the country’s leaders ignored at their peril. China was seen as unstable, unapproachable, and untrustworthy, according to Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset® Valuator. Unless China’s leaders could align foreign perceptions of the country with its current “reality,” it risked slowing reform and limiting international investment. What China needed was a “white brand,” he wrote, an image “onto which we can project our hopes and dreams and desires in the same way you would project an image onto a movie screen” (p. 26).

Watching him hold forth on The Today Show, I realized that Ramo was the one making and marketing China’s white brand. It helps to know that Ramo is managing director and vice chair of Kissinger Associates, a “geostrategic advisory firm” whose CEO is the former U.S. secretary of state (yes, that Kissinger), and that the Brand China report was funded by the multinational PR firm Hill & Knowlton.

I mention all this not only because I write a lot about nation branding and this is an interesting case for critique, but because with the London Games approaching, I wondered if we’d see the same thing. Would NBC feature a Britain Analyst to help viewers make sense of the country’s geostrategic role? Which erudite figure would grab the media spotlight provided by the Olympics to sell Britain’s brand as still-powerful empire and deserving host of the greatest sporting event in the world? NBC announced their choice in April. The network’s Special Correspondent of the Games of the XXX Olympiad would be … Ryan Seacrest. Hm. While this may say a great deal about NBC’s brand (rumor has it that Seacrest is in line to replace Lauer on The Today Show), it helps us little to understand what image Britain is out to portray on the international stage.

As it turns out, that task fell to none other than British Prime Minister David Cameron, who, in September 2011, launched a “Britain is GREAT” promotional campaign. Coordinated by multiple government departments and foreign consulates, with events in 17 cities worldwide, the £37 million image project is designed to use the Games to jumpstart tourism and increase inward investment and job opportunities in the UK. At a speech for business elites in New York during the launch, the PM explained all the ways that Britain was GREAT, inviting the world to “re-discover the unique qualities that make Britain such a compelling destination – for business and tourism, for innovation and entrepreneurship, for world-class creativity and culture.”

I can feel your eyebrows rising into your hairline. Is this the same country whose 2011 yearbook includes phone hacking scandals, banking crises, looting, and riots? The same government that, upon coming to power in 2010, introduced dramatic austerity measures affecting millions of academics, culture workers, and civil servants? The same Prime Minister whose election campaign was built on fixing “broken Britain”? Such was the tone of incredulity seeping from the domestic media as well as international coverage of the campaign from southern India to Vancouver. All of them questioned how portraits of Henry VIII on billboards, flash mobs with dancers dressed as the Spice Girls and Austin Powers, and double-decker buses wrapped in the Union Jack rolling through Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo could possibly paper over the country’s realities. Or perhaps, critics mused, the version of Britain presented abroad was supposed to be entirely different from the domestic version, in hopes that the aspirational image might serve to pull Britain’s “real” self up by its bootstraps? Or is it, as one journalist put it, a sign that Britons face an “identity crisis,” lost as to “what it means to be British in the world”?

One of the problems with nation branding is that it’s easy to make fun of but hard to take seriously. By this I mean that these media critiques miss the ways in which these national image campaigns are even more problematic than they initially appear. There are a thousand things wrong with the “Britain is GREAT” and China’s white brand campaign. It doesn’t take much to poke holes in these overinflated efforts at aligning image with something called reality. My concern, though, is with the ways this and other branding campaigns express not a renewed national image but a renewed national reality.

In “branding” Britain for the world, Cameron and his cohorts are redrawing the boundaries of the nation as an apolitical, anachronistic space for consumers and investors, while reforming its citizens as stateless, entrepreneurial, business-minded, corporate-creative workers. To say that Britain is GREAT at this world-historical juncture is to dismiss out of hand the current crises bred of political and fiscal hypocrisy, mismanagement, and corruption, to deny the abject failure of our economic growth models, and to subtly shift responsibility for getting us out of this mess away from those most deeply responsible for getting us into it. Turning a country into a brand may give the world flash mobs and circuses. But brand value isn’t the same as moral values, and this campaign won’t do anything to reinstate confidence in Britain’s leaders. Buyer beware.


Mascot Media: Framing the London Olympics Mon, 25 Jun 2012 13:00:42 +0000 2012 Olympics MascotsAfter the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, the Antenna editors called for reflections on the memorable events and news frames from the Winter Games (March 5, 2010). Starting the ball rolling, a “pet peeve” for Jonathan Gray was the savaging that the organization of the Games received from the British press, what seemed at the time “a desperate attempt to set the bar as low as possible for the upcoming London Games.” In the spirit of equity, it should be noted that the British press has been just as happy to savage the organization of the London Games, a journalistic sport that pre-dates Vancouver and has been particularly acute in discussions of LOCOG’s branding efforts.

As we approach the London 2012 Games, it is worth reflecting on the promotional paratexts that surround the Games, as these are often, too easily, mocked or dismissed in ways that do not sufficiently account for the complexities of promotional design work, or the way that texts such as logos and mascot films amplify clusters of meaning and expectation around media events. The London mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, have been a particular subject of press criticism since their unveiling in 2010 – two sleek CGI characters distinguished by a huge cyclopean camera-eye.  Generating revenue through toy licensing deals, the mascots have also been designed to embody the digital address of the Olympics, inviting children to interact with their “Olympic journey” through virtual encounters on Twitter, Facebook, and an interactive website. While their alien look has led to some very un-childlike descriptions within international media coverage – Vanity Fair calling Wenlock a “ghoulish cycloptic phallus,” the Toronto Sun describing the mascots as “walking penis monsters,” and Twitter postings labelling them “terror sperm” – Wenlock and Mandeville are a deliberate departure from the history of cuddly Olympic mascots first embodied by the cartoon bear Misha at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and carried through to Beijing’s Fuwa mascots. Phallic fears notwithstanding, they assume the appearance of high-tech toys born from – and for – a digital world.

Like the graffiti design of the London 2012 logo, which also received a press drubbing when unveiled in 2007, Wenlock and Mandeville have been given a deliberate multimedia inscription. This is captured in a series of animated mascot films released periodically in the UK leading up to the Games. Viewable online, on British children’s channels such as CBBC, as well as in film theatres, the film shorts began with Out of a Rainbowin May 2010 and have been followed by Adventures on a Rainbow (March 2011), Rainbow Rescue (December 2011), and Rainbow to the Games (May 2012). Animated by the Chinese digital media firm Crystal CG, these films reveal interesting networks of production. In industry terms, the mascot films are the result of multi-level collaboration taking place between British and Chinese creative personnel. While the shorts were written, produced, directed, narrated, and scored by British artists, much of the animation production was completed in Crystal’s offices in London and Beijing, highlighting the rise of Chinese digital expertise in the media  industry sub-sector of promotional design. 

Textually, the animated shorts serve a particular brand function in the UK, selling the Games as a participatory national event and identifying a diverse and youth-friendly selection of British Olympians as its sporting face.  The shorts also, importantly, develop a narrative of media engagement, anticipating the Olympics through mobile screens and social networking sites aimed specifically at children. The liquid design of Wenlock and Mandeville and the use of mobile phones and SMS messaging within the narrative arc of the mascot films both reinforce the digital identity of the London Olympics. While UK factories are figured in the mascot films as central to building the physical infrastructure of the Games, the meaning of the Olympics is vested in the mobile, data-driven world of the mascots. While the new media aesthetic of the logo and mascots has come under fire – one media critic labelling Wenlock and Mandeville “appalling computerised smurfs for the iPhone generation” – the entryway paratexts of London 2012 are more interesting than these sniffy descriptions suggest. Not least, they reveal the changing way that media brands, including the Olympics, are seeking to reconstruct themselves for the converged digital media environment. To what extent the London Games lives up to aspirations of being the first digital Olympics, and whether the mascot films become mere fig-leaves for impending organizational pratfalls, remains to be seen.  


]]> 1
Convergent Media Policy: The Australian Case Thu, 31 May 2012 14:00:14 +0000 2012 has proved to be a remarkably busy year in Australian media policy. There have been three reports released that address the future of media policy and regulation in the context of convergent media: the Convergence Review; the Independent Media Inquiry (Finkelstein Review); and the Review of the National Classification Scheme undertaken by the Australian Law Reform Commission.

It has been the most significant moment in Australian media policy since the early 1990s, when the Broadcasting Services Act and the Telecommunications Act, as well as the Classification Act, were legislated. While these were major initiatives at the time, they were pre-Internet forms of media law that did not anticipate the tsunami of change associated with digitalization, convergence and the globalization of media content.

While other countries are considering changes to adapt their media laws for convergence, Australia has been a world leader in commissioning such major studies that address these challenges head on. A common theme of these reports is that incremental change and policy “muddling through” are no longer sufficient.

In particular, media regulation continues to be primarily based upon the platform of delivery (print, radio, television, telephony, the Internet), whereas media convergence has dislodged the technological bases that tied content to platforms. The Australian Communications and Media Authority has referred to a resulting series of “broken concepts”, ranging from the truly anachronistic, such as the ban on live hypnosis on television, to those which addressed a once-important concept that has been overwhelmed by new developments, such as the separation of carriage and content.

The Convergence Review identified three areas where continued government intervention is justified. First, there is the need to maintain a degree of diversity in media ownership and control. Second, there is the question of content standards, both in terms of news standards and classification of media content in line with community standards. Finally, there are expectations that Australians have around the continued availability of locally produced content that is broadly reflective of Australian culture, identity and diversity.

The question of who should be regulated has become much more complex in a convergent media environment. In discussions of media influence, a distinction is commonly made between “big media” on the one hand who should be regulated more – the name “Rupert Murdoch” will often appear at this juncture – and the Internet on the other, which should not be regulated at all.

But “the Internet” is as much The Guardian Online, BBC World or as it is blogging, citizen journalism, or online mash-ups. The commercial mass media and non-commercial user-created content co-exist in the online digital space, so questions of media influence return in a different form.

The Convergence Review sought to address that question of when a media organization becomes “big”—and hence appropriately subject to regulations based on its potential for influence—with the concept of a “Content Service Enterprise” (CSE). The Review defined a CSE as a media content provider that has over 500,000 Australian users per month, and $50m per annum of revenues from Australian-sourced professional content. Interestingly, the 15 companies that met these guidelines are all conventional media businesses, but the CSE label could in principle be extended to companies such as Google and Apple.

If the CSE concept were extended to global media companies, the question would arise of Australian jurisdictional authority over these businesses. At present, there is a regulatory stand-off, but it may be that future jurisdictional authority will be shared and brokered between Australian agencies and other authorities. In the ALRC Review, this was referred to as deeming, where the classifications given to media content by online “stores” such as Apple ITunes or the Google Android platform could be recognized under Australian media law, subject to approval by the Australian regulators.

Much attention has been given to the question of “who regulates”. One of the difficulties with these discussions is that we think of regulation in terms of how much, rather than in terms of the relationship between its instruments and its outcomes. One message that came through from the ALRC Review was that Australians were less concerned with who classified different media than with the question of trusting those doing it to have an appropriate professional distance from corporate self-interest.

Another difficulty is that convergent media policy brings together different organizational cultures and traditions of regulation. Whereas it is still pretty clear who constitutes the television industry or the newspaper industry, it is less clear what constitutes the Internet, digital content or social media industries.

Meeting with Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft introduces you to very different corporate entities, with very different organizational cultures, business models, and relationships to their consumers. Establishing a new regulatory framework for convergent media raises not only the challenges of established media operating across different platforms, but the ever-growing fluidity attached to the concept of “media” itself.


Still late to the party? TV adaptation modes for foreign audiences Mon, 03 Oct 2011 13:00:00 +0000 With the new TV season already under way in the US, I can’t help but recall the years when living in Italy meant not having direct access to new (usually American) shows until months or sometimes even years after they first aired in the States. Apart from the negotiation of distribution rights, shows had to undergo the painstaking process of dubbing, by which dialogues had to be translated, adapted to the lip movements on screen and finally acted out by professional dubbing actors. Dubbing a TV episode could very well take weeks, considering also the difficulty involved in scheduling shifts for multiple, busy dubbing actors having to act in the same scenes.

However, things are starting to change now, with FOX Italia (a subscription-based channel) leading a small “revolution” by airing some of the most popular or anticipated shows on American TV within a much shorter time frame. The second part of Glee’s second season (episodes 2.11 to 2.22), for example, was aired in Italy between January and the beginning of June 2011 in two separate versions: subtitled and dubbed. The subtitled version – much faster and inexpensive to produce than the dubbed one – was aired just a couple of days after it aired in the States (on the Thursday of the same week), while the dubbed version was made available to viewers only one week later. The experiment must have gone well, since FOX Italia is offering the same format again with the third season of the show, which, as the ad campaign once again boasts, is being aired “in contemporanea con gli Stati Uniti” (“simultaneously with the US”) as of September 28th. On that day viewers were able to watch the dubbed version of episode 3.01 and the subtitled version of episode 3.02, only a week and one day after the US airing dates, respectively. According to the FOX Italia web site, the next episodes will be aired in the subtitled version just one day after the States.

While the idea is not completely new (the Late Show with David Letterman has been regularly subtitled and aired within 24 hours for some years now), FOX was the first network to try this with serial TV – in 2010 with Lost and Flash Forward – perhaps realizing their viewership’s increasing need for up-to-date programming. Apart from more specific considerations relating to translation and adaptation, I can think of a number of issues that may in the long run be impacted by this new approach to TV’s international distribution. For example, can a good linguistic and cultural transposition really be achieved for this kind of product in less than 24 hours?

What I find most interesting, though, are the changes that are clearly occurring in the audiovisual translation industry in Italy – and most likely in other non-English-speaking countries that use dubbing as well – and specifically the gradation of different modes of consumption of audiovisual products that are now available to viewers as a consequence of these changes. Viewers in Italy who enjoy Glee, for example, now have a number of different available options to watch the show: they can watch it online or illegally download it in English; they can watch it with the help of amateur, often fan-created subtitles, or fansubs, also available online from different web sites; they can watch it on FOX Italia in the subtitled or dubbed version; or they can watch the dubbed version on Italia Uno, one of the national channels owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Of course, different delivery modes are also related to, among other things, how soon you want to or can watch a given show. This ranges from watching a new episode of a series a few hours after US viewers with the help of fansubs to viewing the dubbed version a few months later on national TV. Considering the fact that some TV series are aired on national networks in the States but on subscription-based channels in Italy and elsewhere in the world, how does this staggering of consumption affect the viewing experience outside the US? While I personally welcome this much-needed diversification in the adaptation options available to Italian viewers, does this imply that audiences will become more fragmented depending on, for example, how much English they know or whether they can afford to pay for cable subscriptions? More broadly, are Italian audiences different from American audiences because they are culturally and linguistically dissimilar or because local distribution choices affect their consumption of a given audiovisual product?


]]> 2
The Materiality of Media Thu, 08 Sep 2011 14:37:20 +0000

As culture becomes increasingly digitized— from downloading and streaming videos and music to digital film production and cloud computing— arguments for the “dematerialization” of media are becoming commonplace. However, media have always been, and remain, embedded in and structured by material objects, networks, and practices that delimit their uses and meanings. Any cultural artifact bears traces and consequences of the material conditions of its production, distribution, and reception, whether the size and weight of the camera that shot a film’s images, the geography of the shipping or cable network through which a program was transported or transmitted, or the spaces occupied by physical record or DVD collections. Even ostensibly “dematerialized” digital media find material existence in hard disks, server farms, and wires— as well as in the proliferation of new media devices, from smart phones to iPads.

We should take this perception of the diminished materiality of media as an opportunity to reconsider and reaffirm the material dimensions of media, both in terms of the present moment and from an historical perspective. Considering the materiality of media means paying attention to the mutual relationship between technology and culture as shaping influences on each other. Media are, after all, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, both technology and cultural form. Media are not, of course, reducible to their technological or material dimensions, but these remain inescapable factors in what media mean in all manner of contexts. Scholars like Vicki Mayer, Lisa Parks, and Barbara Klinger have led the way in approaches to the production, distribution, and reception of media as inextricably material. In emerging concerns with media infrastructures and cultural geography, growing interest in the nine lives of VHS and cassette tapes, and calls like Max Dawson’s to “put the TV back in television studies,” we can see materiality coming into play in media studies more and more.

Engaging with media as material objects, processes, and experiences opens up a wide variety of topics for exploration. Not only are the physical formats of media important for how they shape the content they hold, but media commodities are themselves aesthetic objects that deserve study. Technological and other material factors have effects on textual production, craft practices, and style. Changing screen technologies and interfaces on exhibition devices old and new change the way we see media. Understanding the logics and operations of physical networks of media distribution and transmission is important to understanding the circulation of media texts. From labor conditions to e-waste, the manufacture and disposal of media objects and devices brings up many important political economic issues. The materiality of media objects, collections, and archives is central to historiography, fandom, memory, nostalgia, cultural capital, and taste.

These are the issues the editors of The Velvet Light Trap are interested in exploring in its latest issue. If you are also interested in the materiality of media, from film stock to network servers to TV screensand everywhere in between, we encourage you to submit a paper. We are accepting anonymous electronic submissions between 6,000 and 7,500 words in MLA style until October 15, 2011. To submit a paper or to learn more, send an email to