Internet – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Report from GeekyCon, Orlando, July 30-August 2: The Challenges of Rebranding a Feminist Con Wed, 05 Aug 2015 13:26:38 +0000 geekycon2015

Post by Allison McCracken and Jennifer Kelly, DePaul University

This summer, we have been presenting our research regarding the ways that many small, niche fan conventions have constructed feminine/feminist and queer safe spaces for young women and queer youth, providing alternatives to larger, more corporate cons that are dominated by white men and often lacking in the intense sense of community fostered by the smaller cons. The cons we analyzed were DashCon, GeekGirlCon, and LeakyCon. Of these cons, LeakyCon was the biggest (at 5,000). At the end of last year’s con, its organizers announced a brand change from “LeakyCon” (which began as a Harry Potter-themed con, but had become multi-fandom) to “GeekyCon.” It was clear from last year’s LeakyCon that more obvious corporate sponsorship and alliances were developing (particularly with Tumblr, whose signage dominated the main hall last year), and in our recent conference presentations, we wondered how this change in branding might affect the kind of feminist community feeling of previous LeakyCons.

Tumblr at LeakyCon2c 2014

The answer is, quite a lot. This GeekyCon was notably conflicted in a number of ways, the result, we think, of its organizers’ attempts to address feminist concerns within the larger fandom world and maintain a sense of safe and “positive” community space while, at the same time, also expanding its brand to include more commercial content by showcasing white, male panelists and performers (presumably cis and straight) and attracting audience members who reflected these same identity characteristics. The tensions between commerce and community, avowed feminism and queer inclusion in a con environment more inviting to men and boys, and a focus on “positivity” while lacking diverse representation among guests and attendees resulted in con that, despite some laudable progressive actions, generally felt lacking in the critical edge, community feeling, and affective resonance of past LeakyCons.

LeakyCon’s organizers, mostly women who are all self-identified feminists, have long taken a leading role in con inclusivity and participant safety. This year, GeekyCon took steps to validate its many transgender, genderqueer, and/or non-binary identified attendees, including providing gender-neutral bathrooms for the first time. In addition, transgender participants were actively involved in many con panels, not only those related to LGBTQ issues. The body positivity panel notably included a fat body positive activist for the first time. In addition, the con’s well-known policy against sexual harassment was affirmed and expanded this year through the con’s inclusion and support of the newly-formed “Uplift” organization. Uplift was founded last year by three female college students to combat sexual abuse in online communities and in direct response to a series of recent testimonials by many young women of such abuse by male performers in the Doctor Who and Harry Potter fandoms. Finally, GeekyCon has also become one of the sponsors of the “Positive Fandom” movement that focuses on creating safe and constructive fan spaces.

GeekyCon SponsorsSuch welcome developments at GeekyCon, however, were often overshadowed and at times undermined by the con’s more commercial turn and its reduced female voices and participants, particularly in the big mainstage events. Panels were sponsored by corporations such as Wattpad, PenguinTeen, and Tumblr; although these commercial groups are reflective of and popular with GeekyCon’s participants (indeed, their representatives identify as fangirls and feminists), their increased presence in “safe” venues at times undercut the sense of intimacy and community GeekyCon has long fostered. For example, one popular group meet up during the con’s first session began with a message from a Wattpad representative.

More troubling was the commercial branding of GeekyCon with an adaptation of Missy Elliott’s song “Get Ur Freak On” called instead “Get Your Geek On,” which was performed both in promotional materials and during the con’s opening ceremonies and other events by majority white, largely male participants (the one black male could not help but seem like a token). This kind of cultural appropriation at a con already lacking in racial diversity was disconcerting, and the song’s dance club feel was also out of step with GeekyCon’s audience, who affiliate themselves more with pop and Broadway musical genres and aesthetics. GeekyCon is not lacking for songwriters among its performers; a more organic theme song would better encourage community building and affective response, which was notably lacking.

We can simply take away your stress and offer you a very interesting option – think of ‘do my essay for me online’ and get it done by professional writers. What do you think of it?

This sense of the con being literally out of tune with its audience was most obvious in its first-time use of an outside DJ at the annual Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball. Instead of focusing on current pop songs and fan favorites, the DJ offered often undanceable club music that this audience didn’t know. The ball’s finale also skipped the annual tribute to the staff that has been an important affective moment of community in past years. There were many complaining fan tweets during the ball about the music and, as a result, less participation and emotional involvement overall.

In addition, although organization leaders used the term “positive fandom” in relation to safe space, there was a distinct disconnect between their use of the term and panel presenters generally, who defined “positivity” primarily as a lack of negativity. This shift resulted in silencing rather than enabling the kind of social critique that has characterized past cons and was particularly detrimental in relation to the marked increase in white, presumably cis and straight men at this con. Therefore, the invocation of “positive fandom” often rang hollow because it primarily came from people who inhabit a position of privilege (it is easier to be positive when you are not under attack) and was often accompanied by their professed unwillingness to speak about issues such as rape/racism in fan texts because they “don’t have the authority” to do so. Thus, the con’s focus on “positivity” and lack of diversity often worked in tandem to enable the marginalization of representational and community concerns vitally important to these fans.

Although GeekyCon’s organizers never planned to be primarily a female space, they have embraced and benefited from the “girl power” ethos. Certainly, we have always found the con’s radical potential linked to its privileging of women and queer people. Although GeekyCon is currently experiencing the understandable growing pains of rebranding, we very much hope it won’t lose those elements that have made it such a valuable feminist space.


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WWE Network’s 1-Year Anniversary: A Conversation (Part 2) Fri, 27 Feb 2015 15:00:51 +0000 WWENetworkWhiteContinuing their conversation from earlier this week Cory Barker & Drew Zolides discuss the 1-year anniversary of the WWE Network and its future legacy.

DREW: What do you make of the financial state of WWE? The Network’s introduction certainly led to an unstable 2014, so do you see these concerns as indicative of a rocky transition period that will right itself soon or are the effects more long-lasting?

CORY: Similar to our critiques of the company’s creative output, it appears that the Network has only exacerbated WWE’s scattershot business strategies. The Network was a long-gestating idea that was initially thought of (and promoted on TV as) a cable channel, but WWE also partnered with ION TV and the CW to add C-level Main Event and Saturday Morning Slam, let USA talk them into bumping Raw to three hours a week, and put NXT programming behind the Hulu paywall. For a company priming consumers for a one-stop-shop experience, WWE did an amazing job of spreading its content in as many random places as possible.

That’s just in the US. The initial Network offering in Canada outraged consumers, various issues kept the Network out of the UK for longer than expected, and then pre-existing contracts abroad forced Main Event off the Network in the states. To top it all off, WWE has given free monthly access to the Network multiple times over the year, just to reach that 1 million number you noted.

WWE promised to revolutionize its business model, but doesn’t seem to have a coherent strategy to accomplish that. Although the stock price has stabilized since the big drop early in the year, the company’s lingering issues seem to be mounting. Frustration with storylines (from both fans and talent) are piling on top of disappointment with the Network’s lack of original content, and you have to wonder if WWE is simply overextended itself. Growing pains are expected, is this something more? What do you think other networks or companies looking to go the standalone OTT service can learn from WWE?

DREW: We’ve been pretty hard on WWE, so I’ll start with a compliment: they produce a lot of content. Debate its quality all day long, but as you just proved the WWE produces several hours of cable television every week in addition to the programming on the Network (and that’s not counting output for home video and WWE Studios). The Network represents the company’s first big push into distribution, and if it teaches us anything it is that producing content and distributing it require entirely different business acumen that WWE is woefully lacking. In many ways WWE is taking the opposite path of companies like Netflix and Amazon, moving from production into distribution which is proving a much more difficult path than the reverse.

The result is burning bridges with their distribution partnerships. Introducing the Network meant pissing off cable/satellite providers like DirecTV over lost PPV revenue, settling for less on television renegotiation with USA, and cutting into the home video market. New OTT services can learn from this and shore up their existing partnerships in the process of building their own platforms. This won’t be a problem for most networks since they are already part of large media conglomerates (something Vince McMahon resents ever since fighting TimeWarner and WCW). For most OTT services, the Network’s troubles simply won’t be much of an issue due to conglomeration and deeper corporate partnerships.

I sometimes wonder if the WWE Network will become an odd media artifact—bizarrely prescient but ultimately forgotten. What do you see for the WWE Network’s future? What will be its legacy in Internet-delivered television?

StreamingMediaCORY: I’ve criticized WWE because I’m a frustrated viewer—but I’m still a viewer. I’ve watched something on the Network at least twice a week for a year. The problem is that we can imagine all the great things WWE could do with the platform that they haven’t done just yet. That utopian vision you mentioned hasn’t been fulfilled. If there are lessons that HBO, Sling, and anyone else can learn from WWE it’s to launch with a real plan and to modulate expectations.

In the future, I suspect that the HBOs of the world get credit for the OTT revolution, not WWE. The Network will never appeal to general consumers in the way a TV network’s service can, and once major sports league full embrace cost-effective OTT distribution, WWE’s early move will be forgotten. It doesn’t even get enough attention now when it’s one of the only games in town. The harder question to answer is how the Network fits into WWE’s future. Do you see improvements coming sooner rather than later?

DREW: For all our negativity, WWE is actually looking pretty good a year-out from the Network’s launch. Subscriber numbers are still under comfortable profitability range but not by much, and their stock performance has rebounded after a disastrous summer. That means WWE will either rest on its laurels and not make improvements or will feel emboldened to double their efforts into Network viability. I’ll hedge my bets by saying I think the Network will improve but not enough for massive success. Ultimately the Network will avoid an XFL disaster (it has already lasted longer) and will be a mainstay for WWE, meaning the company will continue to invest time and money into its development. I still believe the Network was and is a positive move for WWE as long as they can remain viable in live sales and television deals. The Network will never uproot WWE’s core business practices, but it can certainly provide support.

WWE may never be the powerhouse pop culture phenomenon Vince McMahon desperately desires, but his willingness to take risks like the Network has made professional wrestling an exciting laboratory for television development—even if they rarely get the credit.


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WWE Network’s 1-Year Anniversary: A Conversation (Part 1) Tue, 24 Feb 2015 14:36:52 +0000 WwenetworklogoOn February 24, 2014, WWE launched the WWE Network, an over-the-top (OTT) Internet-only channel that included a continuous stream of programming as well as on-demand content. For the Network’s 1-year anniversary, Cory Barker & Drew Zolides reflect on the Network and what it means for the OTT landscape of tomorrow. In part one Cory and Drew discuss the Network’s impact on WWE’s storytelling and its financials.

CORY: With the introduction of Sling TV and CBS’s All-Access and HBO’s solo version of Go on the way, OTT services are likely the future of television. But one of the world’s largest entertainment companies was ahead of this curve: WWE. With the sports entertainment goliath’s WWE Network about to enter its second year of operations, there’s no better time to assess how Vince McMahon’s latest pet project has fared, and to consider how other companies can learn from the Network.

For the uninitiated, the Network gives fans access to WWE’s immense content library, including hundreds of PPV events and old episodes of various TV programs, as well as live streaming of current PPVs, all for $9.99 a month. For long-time wrestling fans like us, the Network often feels like a dream come true and for younger members of WWE’s audience, it’s a great opportunity to learn the history of the business—or at least WWE’s version of it. But this first year hasn’t simply been pure euphoria. Drew, what’s been the most surprising and/or the most disappointing thing about the Network thus far?

DREW: Although original content was a major part of the original announcement of the WWE Network at CES 2014, WWE has since emphasized two major selling points in their marketing: cheaper PPVs and nostalgia programming. WrestleMania 30 may have been the first PPV to appear on the Network that April, but the Network truly seemed revolutionary when it aired its first live wrestling special just three days after launch: NXT Arrival.

Despite being WWE’s developmental brand and producing from a 400-person ‘arena’ at Full Sail University in Orlando, FL, NXT is an exciting, progressive, and I’d argue better wrestling product that has emerged as a compliment and an alternative to the ‘main roster’ shows. NXT has yet to put on a bad special (aired every 2-4 months) and is the most complete program WWE produces. In fact some critics argue NXT has made ‘main brand’ WWE programming look worse in comparison, an unexpected detriment of the Network. NXT and new original shows are rarely pushed as selling points yet seem much more necessary to retain long-term subscribers who may quickly lose interest in or simply exhaust the historical library (like Netflix & Amazon’s pushes for original content).

Looking back at that initial announcement makes me wonder just how much the Network altered WWE’s business practices as well as its current narratives. How has the Network changed your understanding of WWE programming, both creatively and economically?

CORY: It’s funny that you ask that, because a year in, I’m not sure WWE understands exactly how the Network has changed its storytelling. While giving away all the PPVs as part of the monthly subscription is a great deal for fans, WWE now treats its less essential PPVs as less essential. WWE storytelling is built on the foundation of the monthly calendar: three to five weeks of TV that builds to a PPV event, rinse, and repeat. But most PPVs now feel like episodes of Monday Night Raw—itself now stretched to 3 hours a week—in that they’re full of comedy spots, rudderless match-ups, and a lack of forward momentum.

WWEpreshowMeanwhile, the ‘new’ elements introduced into WWE’s stories with the Network haven’t paid dividends either. TV and PPV events are now bracketed with Sportscenter-like pre- and post-shows, except for when they’re randomly not. Occasional ‘breaking news’ segments further blur the lines between reality and ‘reality’, but are few and far between, despite the fact that WWE spent millions building a TV studio for such telecasts.

Of course, these creative issues aren’t just symptomatic of the Network’s rise; they stem from WWE’s overextended nature that sees them produce seven hours of TV each week, along with various web shows, and an E! reality show. Unlike Amazon and Netflix, who learned that the best way to succeed today is in a building small but dedicated fan base, the Network further signals that WWE is trying too hard to be something to everyone. Do you have a more positive outlook on the company’s recent creative output?

DREW: Although playing the face to your heel would make better use of our conversation format, I’m afraid I cannot disagree (beyond the aforementioned NXT). Over-exhaustion and ‘broadcasting’ seem to be the primary issues. WWE simply isn’t big enough to produce the variety of original content a network requires, hence the reliance on cheap studio shows and repackaged library content—Countdown, Rivalries, Monday Night Wars. The Network’s original slate is basically the same historical ‘moments’ reframed over and over again. WWE Groundhog Day.

While creative exhaustion is reason for fans to be concerned, it is the economic impact on WWE and its performers that seems more up-in-the-air. WWE introduced the Network with incredibly high goals that were not met, hurting their stock profile as well as their renegotiations with cable channels for Raw and Smackdown. It wasn’t until this past month—after expanding to both Canada and the UK—that WWE was able to hit the precious 1 million subscriber count. That news boosted stocks, but the WWE performers might not be fairing as well. It is unclear how they are being compensated for a loss of PPV bonuses usually paid out based on PPV buys (at the significantly higher rate). Uncertainty over the Network played a role in star CM Punk’s notable departure early last year while talent cuts last summer seemed a direct response to low-subscriber counts and fledgling stock performance.

The conversation continues in Part 2 where Cory & Drew talk about the Network’s future and influence on other OTT services.


Vemödalen and The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows Tue, 02 Dec 2014 15:00:03 +0000 flightI was lured to the video Vemödalen through well-placed Buzzfeed clickbait on my Facebook feed. The algorithmic humming of social media’s shadow market for user profiles probably had me pegged as a wispy expressive type. And in the throes of late night dissertation writing, I did identify with the 327,464 online others who’ve Ever Felt Like You’re Not Unique Or Original, and watched this video. The video is part of a web series illustrating words made up by John Koenig to evoke, describe, and define unnamed feelings that haunt the modern psyche. The web series is part of a book project called the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Vemödalen is defined by Koenig as “the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist … which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap.” The video opens with the comforting statement that all of us are unique. Set to the beat of melancholic piano music, 465 photographic frames of similar subject matter, shot from similar angles, by 465 different individuals unfold over 2 minutes. As I witnessed the photographic pulsation of airplane wings, beach POV leg shots, coffee art, sunsets, snow angels, and iris close-ups, I was overcome by a silent and intense embarrassment. I too had taken such photographs to express myself, to preserve memories, and to show off. Perhaps I was embarrassed because these photos overlapped so much with The 25 Pictures Girls Need to Stop Posting in Social Media. Mostly, I was embarrassed that I had the audacity to imagine – in this ranked, tagged, and filtered insta-age of social everything – that I was capable of photographic novelty.

Like most emotions kindled by late night clickbait, this embarrassment quickly abated – mollified by the video’s denouement that artists of Instagram be comforted by the knowledge that we’re not so different, that our perspectives so neatly align. Quoting Walt Whitman, Koenig elegantly concludes that expressive novelty lies between repetition and revolution – in recursion. “The powerful play goes on,” the narrator rhythmically restates, ending with the invitation (or consolation) that we “may contribute a verse.” Framing a tireless gif of various coffee art, Buzzfeed’s video recap paraphrases that “perhaps it’s just a collective unconscious thing.” The structure of feeling denoted by Vemödalen is therefore a paralysis of self-expression that is suspended between art and craft, as well as between innovation and continuity. Koenig himself describes Vemödalen as the photographic equivalent of assembling Ikea furniture – a “kind of prefabricated piece of art that you happened to have assembled yourself.” Cradled in the rounded authority of Koenig’s white male narration, I am reassured that Art is dead – long live the worldly craftspeople of Instagram!

antenna2Vemödalen is also a paralysis of self-expression suspended between Romantic Individualism and pop culture collectivism. Today’s insta-subjectivity is trapped in this reflexive hall of mirrors – between Tyler Durden’s Ikea-fied apartment and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Like Tyler Durden, we know that we are not beautiful or unique snowflakes, yet we long to be loved for who we really are. Like Werner Herzog, we know that everything that has been done before will be done again, yet we are desperate to experience everything like it is the first time. And who can blame us? At the end of Vemödalen, my humiliation does not dissipate into a transcendent affective communion with humanity, which is part of the filmmaker’s personal definition of the obscure sorrow that thematizes his dictionary. Instead, I remain unsettled by the comforting symmetry of the video’s beginning and ending – of humankind’s existential and expressive uniqueness. Like the prefabricated Ikea assemblages that Koenig deems hollow and pulpy, the tumbling power of his artfully edited slideshow is somehow cheapened by this narrative enclosure.

antenna3In the end, however, Vemödalen does live up to its creator’s intentions as an entry in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. A dictionary’s purpose is after all to pin down meanings that flit in and out of conversations and consciousnesses. Keonig’s Dictionary uses the linguistic power of naming to successfully transform affect into emotion. In the end, however, too many of us remain trapped in social media’s hall of mirrors, seeking ambivalently to differentiate ourselves amid the undifferentiated recursion of uncountable airplane wings, sunsets, snow angels, and irises. If Anthony Gidden’s postmodern self is still engaged in its reflexive project, what kinds of stories can it tell from within this hall of mirrors? Are these stories about the self clouded by the corresponding characters, settings, and events of others? Or are the outlines of self emboldened by the stories traced by corresponding others? As for my personal collection of sunsets, snowflakes, plane wings, and cryptic closeups – they remain offline, locked in a cave in the recesses of my mind (and hard drive) waiting to be discovered. Time will tell if the linguistic exercise of naming Vemödalen will entrench it in, or exorcise it from our collectively mediated unconscious.



Why is My Kid Watching That Lady Fondle Eggs? Fri, 21 Nov 2014 14:52:35 +0000 ImpreriaToys

If this isn’t as articulate as I’d like, I blame it on both the exhaustion of raising two and a half year old twins and the ethical and emotional struggle I personally experience on this topic daily. Let’s just put my cards on the table. Two and a half years ago I would have spouted forth about how the quantity of age-appropriate(ish) media consumption shouldn’t really be a concern. Like many media scholars, I was a child of television. I did a solid version of binge watching in the context of a 1970s/1980s household without cable, and my feelings about kids and media consumption emerged from a childhood love of The Joker’s Wild, Match Game, and The Brady Bunch and in complete avoidance of actual research. Then I had kids. I now function, like many scholar/parents I’m sure, in an ambiguous space between a belief in the medium I love and a fear of melting the tiny brains of the actual humans for whom I’m responsible. Every morning I try to fight the good fight, when my son wakes up, immediately looks for an iPad, and proclaims “want watch ‘big TV’.” And the struggle continues.

The environment in which I’m raising my tiny 21st century viewers brings the best and the worst that technological advancements have to offer. Along with providing a wealth of totally watchable age-appropriate content, new delivery systems and interfaces instill awful behavioral patterns that transcend mere viewing habits. Although this new media landscape allows haggard parents a tremendous sense of ease with content location and selection—constantly leading my partner and I to wonder how our ancestors or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s parents survived child-rearing sans television—we should also be concerned with what it’s teaching our kids about expectations and task completion.

mashupLike many kids of the 21st century, mine live in a house with cord-cutters. Their electronic media comes primarily in the form of DVDs, cartoons on Hulu and Netflix, or videos on YouTube viewed on an iPad. Unlike their foremothers (well, just the two), they never had to wait for their shows to air. Every time-slot belongs to them. There’s no waiting around for Sesame Street or The Electric Company. They’re never forced to begrudgingly watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood because it’s that or Donahue. Daniel Tiger, Rabbids Invasion, and Wild Kratts are never more than a click away. Their “now” and “just what I wanted” style of viewership encourages them to be tiny, impatient content bullies. My twins are exceedingly annoyed with advertisements when watching linear television. FBI warnings on DVDs have enraged them since infancy.  If they can’t watch the episode they want when they want it, they’re incredibly frustrated, and we’re now watching this demand for personalization translate into other activities. Why won’t Target replay “Happy” over their loudspeaker now? Why doesn’t everyone have our applesauce? How dare the radio not know what we want to hear at this second? Our reliance on the ease of contemporary media delivery has only aided them—even more than the previous generation’s DVD players and VCRs—in becoming part of a pushy generation of playlist demanders.

BigUnboxingAside from instilling kids with a high degree of impatience and need for immediate satisfaction and customization—and a belief that these expectations are reasonable—contemporary media has further enabled what was once one of the main evils of children’s entertainment. Far from the days of Congress and the FCC debating the scourge of the program-length commercial (damn you Strawberry Shortcake), YouTube has wrought a range of toy videos that function as nothing short of toddler crack. An entire genre of toy unboxing videos shares with kids the wonders of consumer products (and notably, my kids have an uncanny ability to find them). New York Times Magazine recently addressed this genre in “A Mother’s Journey Through the Unnerving Universe of ‘Unboxing’ Videos,” a piece that details user DisneyCollector’s 90million-plus hits—and potential millions in ad revenue—for a video of her opening plastic eggs to reveal small hidden toys inside. DisneyCollector’s contributions, as well as videos with porn-y underscoring showing manicured hands seductively peeling Play-Doh from plastic eggs and endless videos that show kids playing with toys or toy mash-ups, simultaneously (even if as collateral damage) advertise to the very young and reinforce—through their brevity, inanity, and rewindabilty—both compulsive viewing and a tenuous attention span. My household recently deleted YouTube from some and password protected all of our tablets, as the kids were disappearing and our son shouting, “you stay in there ma!” with the hopes that we would not discover them obsessively watching other “kids” play with toys.

I love the ease of 21st century media and it’s a wonderland for kids. They can hold it in their hands and demand it play at their tiny command. For my two cents, we need to be thinking about how today’s media interactions—not just content—are helping to shape our kids’ interactions outside of the box. I’m not going to take away our TV or iPads—the iPad is, after all, the only way to keep them from puking in the car—but as a parent/scholar, I need to keep my eye on the potential residual behavioral impact of these new forms and increased levels of control. After all, it’s all happening on my watch.


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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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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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Downloading Serial (part 2) Fri, 24 Oct 2014 12:57:24 +0000 Serial episodes, let's explore the podcast's use of temporality.]]> serial1

Previously on “Downloading Serial

I raised the concern that information was being withheld from us listeners to make for a more engaging narrative, and suggested that such withholding makes for great storytelling, but problematic journalism. After two more episodes, I’ve found that the question of withholding information has receded in my thoughts about Serial, replaced by another more complex (and I think interesting) question: when are we?

Before diving into the “when” of this question and tackling the topic of temporality, let me first ruminate on the “we”—who is being situated in Serial’s complex timeframes? Recent episodes have cemented my sense that Sarah Koenig is our protagonist and first-person narrator, and she is hailing us to join her in this story. Early in episode 4, Koenig makes this address clear: “If you want to figure out this case with me, now is the time to start paying close attention because we have arrived, along with the detectives, at the heart of the thing.” This moment stood out for me, evoking the kind of direct address common to 19th century literature, the first golden age of seriality—it is Koenig saying “Dear Reader” to us, a phrase that Garrett Stewart frames as “the conscripted audience,” taking us into her confidence and accessing her subjectivity.

So Koenig is a surrogate for “we,” and like with most first-person narrators, we have access to her perspectives and experience, and lack access to anything beyond her knowledge. But she is also the text’s author, possessing a broader knowledge of the case than she is sharing with us—Koenig asks for our trust, assuring us that the details she leaves out (like the late night cell phone timeline) are irrelevant, and that loose threads (like the call to Nisha) will be addressed in due time. And still I cannot stop from wondering what she knows and isn’t sharing with us (yet). This tension is productive in fiction, as we wonder about the knowledge and perspective between narrator and author; in documentary, we are to assume there is none, or at least it is irrelevant.

But Serial relies on the tropes and styles of serialized fiction enough that I did start to think actively about that gap at one moment in episode 5: Koenig is driving and monologuing, deep in the weeds about reconstructing the post-murder timeline, and her fellow producer Dana Chivvis says, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib”; Koenig deadpans in reply, “Sometimes I think that Dana isn’t listening to me.” If this were fiction, I would seize this moment to explore the possibility of an unreliable narrator, where the investigator’s obsessions start overtaking her rationality and sense of perspective on the case, coloring our own attitudes and perceptions, with Chivvis signaling that we maybe shouldn’t listen to her so intently. Maybe that is what is happening, and the narration is clueing us in to Koenig’s growing immersion and personal involvement, but as of yet, her presentation seems to clearly earn our trust and confidence more than our doubts and reservations.

So if “we” are Koenig’s conscripted audience, riding alongside her as she works the case, when are we as the podcast unfurls? Temporality is central to any medium with a fixed presentational timeframe, as filmmakers, radio and television producers, and game designers all work to manage the temporal experience of audiences more than writers can do with the more variable process of reading. But serial structure is wholly defined by its timeframe, constituted by the gaps between installments that generate anticipation and insist on patience, where that time is used to think about, discuss, and participate in the web of textuality that seriality encourages—see for instance the robust Reddit thread about Serial, complete with fan-generated transcripts and timelines evocative of the “forensic fandom” I have studied concerning television serial fiction. So the consumption of a serial always foregrounds its “when” to some degree.

A listener-created timeline shows forensic fandom at work, but in the realm of actual forensics

A listener-created timeline shows forensic fandom at work, but in the realm of actual forensics

Serial explicitly foregrounded its “when” this last episode, as Koenig works to walk us through the presumed timeline of Hae’s death and the alleged actions of Jay and Adnan. As she does this, the podcast constantly toggles between multiple timeframes: the possible events of January 13, 1999, the testimonies and interviews recorded throughout 1999 and 2000 as part of the investigation and trial, Koenig’s interviews with Adnan and others over the course of the last year, and the current weekly production of the podcast. This question of temporality is clearly on the mind of many listeners—Chivvis responds to listeners wanting to binge listen to the whole season by noting that they are still producing each week’s episode, thus “when you listen each week, the truth is that you’re actually not all that far behind us.” So we are situated at a similar “when” to the producers in terms of final product, but they are clearly far ahead of us in terms of the process of reporting, researching, and knowledge. (Chivvis’s post also highlights a dangling thread that I may pick up in a future installment, as I believe the rise of binge-watching in television via Netflix-style full-season releases actually removes the seriality from serial television, whereas Serial aggressively foregrounds its seriality. But that’s for another when…)

While I raised the question in my last post about the lack of clear structure, I feel like that structure is now becoming clearer. Each episode, aside from the first which has a more sprawling focus, takes a step forward in the basic timetable of the case: the relationship between Hae and Adnan before the murder, the discovery of Hae’s body, the police arresting Adnan, and now the reconstruction of the alleged events per the police’s case—next week is called “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” suggesting that the prosecution will soon rest. But the storytelling is not limited to this 1999 progression, as Koenig interweaves her own contemporary reporting, interviews, and reconstructions into the recordings and documents from the past. So we are always in multiple timelines, even as the core case unwinds with some structuring chronology. But given that we are left to live in the contemporary serial gaps each week, our anticipation becomes restless, knowing that the producers have more of the past spooled up to reveal, even if we are “actually not all that far behind” them in the present. I, for one, grow impatient to know what is already known about the past, even if we are not too far behind the process of audio reconstruction.**

So as I wait out another week to try in vain to catch up to the producers, one thing I will be ruminating on is the role of characters beyond Koenig. We are invested in learning the events of the murder and trial, but perhaps even more so, in trying to get a sense of who these people are and why they did what they did. Obviously we’ve learned a lot about Adnan, even without a definitive sense of what we know is true or not, but what about Jay? We still don’t know much about who he was before the events (not even his last name), and unlike nearly everyone else we’ve encountered, we know absolutely nothing about what has happened to him after the trial. Why haven’t they revealed that part of the story? Are they trying to protect potential twists in the story still to come, or to protect an innocent person who might be wrongly attacked by an angry listenership? Has Koenig talked to him, or has he not consented to this story? And what do we have the right to know as listeners riding alongside Koenig’s journey?

Next time, on “Downloading Serial”…


** And in a clear case of dueling authorial “whens,” after I finished the first draft of this post, I read Hanna Rosin’s excellent post about the latest episode, which raises many points similar to mine concerning Koenig’s role as narrator and journalist, as well as her timeframe in relation to the reporting process. But I assure you, Dear Reader, I wrote the above before reading Rosin, even as I write this addendum after.




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America’s Funniest Home Fundraiser Mon, 08 Sep 2014 21:46:17 +0000 Orlando-Jones-takes-Bullet-Bucket-Challenge-for-Ferguson

A few weeks ago my friend Bruce asked me what I thought about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (hereafter called IBC). I recounted many of the dominant critiques. He pushed me, “Yeah, but what do you think?” My response: “It feels like an America’s Funniest Home Video approach to raising money and awareness.” What I meant is that there is a schadenfreude involved in watching these videos. I certainly laughed when Gayle dumped ice water on Oprah. It feels ok to laugh, because no one really got hurt. And it’s for a charity, so it makes people feel good. The phrasing struck a chord with my friend and as coverage of the campaign and debates around it have proliferated it seems to be an increasingly good lens for explaining why the IBC became viral. Moreover, I think it offers a useful starting point for understanding some of the core problems with using this type of humor to raise money.

There are, of course, many critiques of the ALS IBC. The most obvious one: you do not need to dump icy water on your head to donate money to a cause. Also critiqued: the rules of the challenge were originally that if you dump water on your head you actually do not donate money, but as this article demonstrates many people did both. The campaign raised an astounding amount of money for the ALS Association, but some claim that the campaign results in “funding cannibalism,” pulling potential donations away from other causes. This critique assumes that people would indeed donate elsewhere were they not donating to the ALS charity. As with any high profile non-profit, there were concerns over where money sent to the campaign actually goes; though further research indicates it is spent largely as advertised. Related to this, Catholic organizations have protested the challenge, claiming that the ALS Association funds stem cell research (though not embryonic stem cells as was claimed). Other critics have decried animal testing involved in ALS research.

ice-bucket-challengeIn addition to concerns over the money, the water in the buckets has been a major concern for critics of the campaign (one journalist even calculated how much water has been used so far). Many have critiqued the implications of wasting water in the fundraising campaign (see here for example). Water is a precious commodity and not universally accessible. Just focusing on the U.S., there is natural scarcity in the Western regions of the country (people in California are even being fined for participating in the IBC) and corporate-produced scarcity in Detroit. The challenge itself reportedly led to a water shortage on Colonsay Island in Scotland.

Moving from the utilitarian concerns of money and water, there is a group of reviews that focus on the effects of the IBC dominating mainstream discourse. The disconnect between online sharing of police brutality in Ferguson and Bucket challenge videos, for example, demonstrates the impact social network algorithms have on what information we see.  Harsh critiques have been levied by several commentators against celebrities, particularly Black celebrities, who took part in the IBC but made no statements about the attacks on protestors in Ferguson (see here and here). These pieces often cite the fact ALS is a disease that primarily affects older, white men.

Most, but certainly not all, of these condemnations tend to disparage those making bucket videos as dupes or slacktivists. I can’t help but think of these critiques as a Frankfurt School approach, treating participants as passive recipients of the campaign’s message and ignorant of the deeper implications of their participation. As with media studies, this shaming of participants does not get us very far in understanding how the campaign taps into bigger cultural logics; it also isn’t really fair because it refuses to understand participants’ own reasons for making and posting videos. I think there are more interesting things to be said about this campaign. We can do this in part by looking at how people have reworked the IBC.

Some adaptations have focused on the water itself. Some Iranians, for example, made modifications to the bucket challenge given the scarcity of water in the region. In a nuanced critique of IBC actor Orlando Jones replaced water with bullets, highlighting a cause of death that disproportionality affects Black men in the U.S. Similarly, soldiers in Gaza replaced the ice water in the challenge with rubble, to raise awareness of living conditions in the region. Tying together the resource and ideological concerns, there is a campaign circulating to “hack the ice bucket challenge.” It relies on many of the same conventions of the ALS challenge, but encourages people to use their water responsibly and raising awareness of racism in America.  The taco or beer challenge, started to raise awareness and funds for abortion-rights organizations, points out the absurdity of the connection between the challenge and the cause by offering a tastier alternative to dumping water on yourself.

The ways people have appropriated and redeployed the campaign tell us much more about how it “worked” than critiques of people who participated. In making more critically engaged videos, these hacks of the campaign have actually zeroed in on what it was that drew so many people to the campaigned in the first place: the prank. Buckets of bullets or rubble and standing in planters while outlining the global impact of structural racism aren’t funny (nor are they supposed to be). As the interviewee at the end of the BBC news segment on the bucket challenge in Iran says of the water-responsible approaches, “It’s not fun anymore.” The taco and beer challenge is funny, but not in the same way. It takes out the schadenfreude. This is why, while horrified, I was not that surprised by the attack on an autistic teen who thought he was going to be part of a IBC video. When altruism becomes enmeshed in laughing at the expense of others, we get a little more insight into what our culture values and promotes.


AT&T’s Branded Entertainment, Present and Past Mon, 07 Jul 2014 13:30:36 +0000 AT&T’s teen reality program, @summerbreak, is back for a second season. It’s not on TV and if you’re not subscribing to its Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, or YouTube feeds, or if you’re not already following key social media “influencers” who are “seeding”  material about the summer adventures of a group of Southern Californian teens, you may not have heard of it. AT&T is not concerned about audience members who are over the age of 25. Teens are the targeted audience; why “waste” program exposure on older audiences?

@summerbreak Instagram

Rather than interrupt the program with commercials extolling AT&T’s mobile phone services, @summerbreak simply integrates mobile phone usage into its scenes. The teen performers talk, text, photograph, and take selfies. They use video, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and so on. Not only do they model ideal device usage, they also comment on each other’s usage: “You’re such a social media diva!” exclaims one teen to another who is tweeting their shopping expedition.

All this stands in stark contrast to AT&T’s past branded entertainment programs. From 1940 to 1958 on radio, from 1959 to 1968 on television, The Bell Telephone Hour offered classical music and musical theater performances. AT&T’s film Rehearsal (ca. 1947) simulates the program’s rehearsal process for a live radio performance of excerpts from operas such as Don Giovanni by the Bell Telephone Orchestra and guest singers. As the conductor stops and instructs the orchestra and the director in the control booth prompts the announcers, the film shows the hard work that goes into successful performances of highbrow culture.

However, despite the radical differences in style, content, and substance in AT&T’s branded entertainment past and present, @summerbreak and The Bell Telephone Hour share some goals.

In the past, advertisers assumed that media like radio had direct and powerful effects. They used radio to educate consumers either about products or about a corporation itself, assuming a powerful tool like radio should be used for the public good. In sponsoring programs of classical music, opera, and legitimate theater (instead of popular music, say), some radio advertisers hoped to instill gratitude in audiences and to polish an image of themselves as models of good taste, beneficent patrons, and technological innovators.

Rehearsal Bell Telephone HourIn the middle of the Rehearsal (at about 15:50) an announcer explains how AT&T has improved on long distance communication through a short history, beginning with bonfires on hilltops, proceeding to audion tubes and radio relays, and culminating in a couple’s earnest long distance phone call. Cultural uplift and technological progress dovetail so beautifully we may forget about the corporation’s monopoly profits.

Today, advertisers like AT&T have come to doubt the power of a direct pitch; they believe instead in associational messages and images. AT&T, no longer a paternalistic monopolist, is now only one of many companies competing in emerging media, and its success with youth markets will most likely shape its future. Brands like AT&T no longer use advertising as a business form of “education,” which might alienate their teenage audience. Instead, they seek to integrate their brand messages smoothly and subtly into youth culture.

Nonetheless, @summerbreak arguably retains the overall educational goal of The Bell Telephone Hour: by featuring attractive Southern Californian teens modeling mobile service usage, the program implicitly educates viewers on current cool teen behaviors, lingos, and social media trends. And it retains the goal of association with aspirational culture—not highbrow music but cool teen behavior. AT&T hopes its teen audience feels validated by the representations of cool teens doing cool things with their phones. By reminding teens that AT&T knows teens are cool, AT&T can hope teens will reciprocate the validation and believe AT&T is cool too.


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