Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Goodbye to Antenna Thu, 04 Feb 2016 15:00:45 +0000 end

In the week of November 6, 2009, Antenna published its first posts, by Matt Sienkiewicz, Josh Jackson, Nick Marx, Sreya Mitra, myself, Erin Copple Smith, Liz Ellcessor, and Kyra Hunting. I was a new faculty member at UW-Madison, and all these other writers were grad students, as Antenna was an experiment in group-blogging by the Media and Cultural Studies graduate program here.

We had been inspired especially by UT-Austin’s Flow, the preeminent media studies group blog. However, where Flow had more of a schedule, and worked with a columnist model, we hoped to create a system wherein people could write when they wanted to do so, thereby enabling timely responses to current events. The hope was that if there were enough people involved, nobody would need to promise to write much, as the system would carry itself in aggregate. We’d thereby aim to join and complement Flow, not compete with it.

It worked, and quite beautifully so. Those listed above, alongside Germaine Halegoua, Lindsay Hogan, Megan Biddinger, and Megan Sapnar Ankerson kept it stocked with content for the first month. Then, a month later, we had our first post by a non-UW grad student or instructor, when Amanda Lotz wrote for us. Within the next few months, many more wrote for us. Just over six years later, we’ve posted the words of 320 authors, with comments from many more. This is the 1229th post, which means we’ve averaged 3.85 posts a week for our lifetime. And Google Analytics suggest we’ve had a healthy readership throughout, with readership from 222 countries (even one read from Antarctica!) and about 400-600 reads daily (spiking when Myles McNutt wrote something, when Avi Santo pissed off some Whedon fans, or when we apparently hit a deep nerve of the Internet, as with posts on River Monsters or Hit Girl).

A lot of invisible labor went into this. To readers, it may’ve seemed as though posts just magically appeared, but there were always editors behind them, encouraging others to write, helping them understand Word Press, tagging and editing and polishing up posts when necessary, adding photos, organizing columns and series, and more. Those first voices on Antenna all finished up and moved on elsewhere, and were replaced by yet more amazing editors. Andrew Bottomley and Chris Cwynar were here from the start (and alongside me are now the greybeards), as were Mary Beltrán and Danny Kimball, and were joined in time as editors by the likes of Myles McNutt, Nora Patterson, Evan Elkins, Kit Hughes, Jennifer Smith, Alyxandra Vesey, Sarah Murray, Taylor Cole Miller, Drew Zolides, Tony Tran, Caroline Leader, Nicholas Benson, Jenna Stoeber, and April Bethea. Jeremy Morris and Derek Johnson also worked with us behind the scenes after their arrivals in the department, and Eric Hoyt offered background support. Throughout, Comm Arts’ fantastic staff, first Joel Ninmann, and then Pete Sengstock and Michael Trevis, have made it all possible by working the back-end.

But the gas tank is empty. We’re tired. That invisible labor has to come from somewhere, and it’s become hard to keep finding ways to gas up when we have other things going on. Roaming around for content has proven harder and harder a task with each semester. Academic blogging in media studies in general seems to have hit peak then started to decline. Many conversations are happening on Medium, Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere instead. And so we find ourselves at a point where it’s time to take down the rabbit ears and press the off button.

There are so many people to thank. I list the key grad students, UW faculty, and staff above (and picture the editors below). Andrew Bottomley, Kyra Hunting, Myles McNutt, Taylor Miller, and Alyx Vesey deserve particular commendation for regularly doing way, way more as editors than could ever fairly be expected of mere human beings. I highlight their superhuman efforts not to diminish others’, but because they’ve been especially tireless. And as writers, all hail Myles McNutt for his 52 posts. Other MCSers who’ve spilled more than their fair share of online ink are Erin Copple Smith with 27 posts, Drew Zolides with 23, Kyra Hunting with 19, Matt Sienkiewicz with 16, Andrew Bottomley with 15, Chris Cwynar with 14, Nora Patterson and Nick Marx with 13 apiece, Alyx Vesey with 11, Danny Kimball and Jennifer Smith with 10 each, and Liz Ellcessor and Lindsay Hogan with 9 each. Liz also made it all technically possible in the early days, while Megan Sapnar Ankerson made our little antenna.

Antenna has had some great friends from elsewhere along the way, too. Avi Santo, Jason Mittell, Amanda Lotz, Kristina Busse, and Jeffrey Jones were all supremely helpful in talking through what it could and should be before and after it went live. When we’ve threatened to pull the plug before, Amanda, Jason, and Kristina in particular gave me the pep talks I needed to keep going on, as they often do. All five of them produced content for us like bosses too. Jason’s written 34 posts, Amanda 20, Kristina 17, Jeff 14, and they’re joined in the 10-and-above club by Matt Hills with 21, Kristina Busse with 17, Martha Nochimson with 16, Melissa Click with 13, Brad Schauer with 12, Ben Aslinger, Allison McCracken, and Louisa Stein with 11 each, and Tim Anderson, Bill Kirkpatrick, and Elana Levine with 10 each. Especially amazing was Chris Becker with 70 posts (!!), many (but not all) from her “What Are You Missing?” column. Many more wrote multiples less than 10. And of late our great colleagues at University of Nottingham, led by the formidable Mark Gallagher and Roberta Pearson, have often held us up with their posts.

Thanks to all our readers too for reading, commenting, sharing, “liking” on Facebook, retweeting on Twitter, citing, and so forth.

We debated whether to end with a “best of” series of posts, but partly because the possibilities of the site and the day-to-day-ness of it – what it represented, and what it did in aggregate – were its greatest offerings, and partly to avoid serenading ourselves, instead let’s just end it here. In television finale terms, we couldn’t script something as emotionally satisfying as the Justified finale, and feared the mis-steps of so many other finales, so instead we thought we’d follow Cheers’ lead and say, “sorry, we’re closed,” adjust a picture on the wall, and walk off-stage, leaving a darkened set behind us. As with Cheers in reruns, we’ll keep the site up and running as long as possible so that you can still read past articles, but this will be Antenna’s last post.

With thanks to the editors who made it happen:





And a thank you to everyone who has written for us (with apologies for anyone we’ve missed. Tell me and I’ll add you):

Rebecca Adelman

Pablo Alonso González

Hector Amaya

Robin Andersen

Bailey Anderson

John Anderson

Tim Anderson

Mark Andrejevic

Megan Sapnar Ankerson

Melissa Aronczyk

Robert Asen

Ben Aslinger

Jennifer Stephens Aubrey

Jane Banks

Miranda Banks

Corey Barker

Kyle Barnett

Kathleen Battles

Geoffrey Baym

Nancy Baym

Christine Becker

Ron Becker

Mary Beltrán

James Bennett

Nicholas Benson

Megan Biddinger

Jonathan Bignell

Trevor J. Blank

Anthony Bleach

Aniko Bodroghkozy

Paul Booth

David Bordwell

Nandana Bose

Andrew Bottomley

Maria Suzanne Boyd

Miranda Brady

Lauren Bratslavsky

Piers Britton

Will Brooker

Robert Brookey

Bill Brown

Blanka Brzozowska

Chiara Bucaria

Chelsea Bullock

Colin Burnett

Kristina Busse

Nick Camfield

Karma Chávez

Aleena Chia

Mike Chopra-Gant

Yiu Fai Chow

Cynthia Chris

Yiu-Wai Chu

Jennifer Clark

Melissa Click

Norma Coates

D. Elizabeth Cohen

Brandon Colvin

Andrea Comiskey

Cindy Conaway

Matthew Connolly

Kyle Conway

Li Cornfeld

David Crider

Phillip Lamarr Cunningham

Michael Curtin

Christopher Cwynar

Shilpa Davé

Evan Davis

Max Dawson

Amber Day

Jeroen de Kloet

Rayna Denison

Brian DeShazor

Matthew Dewey

Camilo Diaz Pino

Eric Dienstfrey

Courtney Brannon Donoghue

Bonnie Dow

Jimmy Draper

Brooke Erin Duffy

Sean Duncan

Christina Dunbar-Hester

Amanda Nell Edgar

Kate Egan

Liora Elias

Evan Elkins

Liz Ellcessor

Tarik Ahmed Elseewi

Elizabeth Evans

Anna Everett

Nicky Falkof

Brian Faucette

Brian Fauteux

Laura Felschow

Terry Flew

Sam Ford

Matthew Freeman

Kathy Fuller-Seeley

Joy V. Fuqua

Hiroko Furukawa

Mark Gallagher

Patryk Galuszka

Racquel Gates

Kamille Gentles-Peart

Lincoln Geraghty

Lindsay Giggey

Anne Gilbert

Colleen Glenn

Kevin Glynn

Keara Goin

Ian Gordon

Paul Grainge

Jonathan Gray

Brian Gregory

Hollis Griffin

Sabine Gruffat

Leora Hadas

Germaine Halegoua

Erin Hanna

Mary Beth Haralovich

C. Lee Harrington

Nate Harrison

John Hartley

Mobina Hashmi

Dan Hassoun

Timothy Havens

Mark Hayward

Heather Hendershot

Brian Herrera

Richard Hewett

Matt Hills

Michele Hilmes

Ashley Hinck

Lindsay Hogan

Lisa Hollenbach

Su Holmes

Chris Holmlund

Noel Holston

Jennifer Holt

Jonah Horwitz

Robert Glenn Howard

Charlotte Howell

Eric Hoyt

Kit Hughes

Kyra Hunting

Eleanor Huntington

Nina Huntemann

Kiranmayi Indraganti

Josh Jackson

Jason Jacobs

Deborah Jaramillo

Sarah Jedd

Catherine Johnson

Derek Johnson

Jenell Johnson

Jeffrey P. Jones

Jennifer Jones

Liew Kai Khiun

Carolyn Kane

Katie Karpuch

Mary Celeste Kearney

Amanda Keeler

Jen Kelly

Kelly Kessler

Dina Khdair

Danny Kimball

Bill Kirkpatrick

Amanda Ann Klein

Simone Knox

Carly Kocurek

Melanie Kohnen

Derek Kompare

Jon Kraszewski

Shanti Kumar

Katariina Kyrölö

Jorie Lagerwey

Laura LaPlaca

Mark Lashley

Caroline Ferris Leader

Tama Leaver

Bruce Lenthall

Suzanne Leonard

Elana Levine

Julia Leyda

Chris Lippard

Derek Long

Lori Kido Lopez

Alexis Lothian

Amanda Lotz

Jason Loviglio

Madhavi Mallapragada

Daniel Marcus

Stefania Marghitu

Kelli Marshall

Alfred Martin

Nick Marx

Catherine Martin

Ernest Mathijs

Vicki Mayer

Allison McCracken

Chelsea McCracken

Paul McDonald

Alan McKee

John McMurria

Myles McNutt

Ritesh Mehta

Ross Melnick

Cynthia B. Meyers

Brandon Miller

Taylor Cole Miller

Sreya Mitra

Jason Mittell

Kelsey Moore

Chris Moreh

Jeremy Morris

Caryn Murphy

Daniel Murphy

Sarah Murray

Susan Murray

Linde Murugan

Philip Napoli

Elizabeth Nathanson

Diane Negra

Michael Z. Newman

Jack Newsinger

Darrell Newton

LeiLani Nishime

Martha Nochimson

Andrew Owens

Kathryn Palmer

Eleanor Patterson

Roberta Pearson

Reece Peck

Allison Perlman

Alisa Perren

Anne Helen Petersen

Jennifer Petersen

Karen Petruska

Devon Powers

William Proctor

Aswin Punathambekar

Debra Ramsay

Sripana Ray

Mike Rennett

Maureen Rogers

Sharon Marie Ross

Meagan Rothschild

Leo Rubinkowski

Judd Ethan Ruggill

Alexander Russo

Maureen Ryan

Mark Sample

Rossend Sanchez Baro

Cornel Sandvoss

Kevin Sanson

Avi Santo

Stephanie Sapienza

Emily Sauter

Bradley Schauer

Philip Scepanski

Peter Schaefer

Laura Schnitker

Suzanne Scott

Robert Sevenich

Adrienne Shaw

Josh Shepperd

Shawn Shimpach

Tyler Shores

Matt Sienkiewicz

Anthony Smith

Erin Copple Smith

Iain Robert Smith

Jennifer Smith

Beretta Smith-Shomade

Jason Sperb

Carol Stabile

Matt Stahl

Louisa Stein

Chris Sterling

Jonathan Sterne

Jenna Stoeber

Bärbel Göbel Stolz

Nora Stone

David Suisman

Sylwia Szostak

R. Colin Tait

Lynnell Thomas

Ethan Thompson

Nao Tomabechi

KT Torrey

Tony Tran

Chuck Tryon

Amy Tully

Shawn VanCour

John Vanderhoef

Sonja van Wichelen

Julia Velkova

Neil Verma

Alyxandra Vesey

Travis Vogan

Ira Wagman

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen

Gregory Waller

Sam Ward

Kristen Warner

Amber Watts

Brenda Weber

Ann Werner

Thomas West

Khadijah Costley White

Timeka Williams

Booth Wilson

Joe Wlodarz

Pamela Wojcik

Jennifer Hyland Wong

Faye Woods

Dannagal Goldthwaite Young

Sabrina Q. Yu

Andrea Zeffiro

Andrew Zolides


]]> 5
What’s New in Media Industries? A Revised Edition of Understanding Media Industries Tue, 02 Feb 2016 15:44:15 +0000 IoC Framework

by Amanda D. Lotz and Timothy Havens

The editorial team at Antenna has generously allowed us this post to speak directly to what we hope is our primary market instead of through the marketing team of our publisher. There is a second, revised edition of Understanding Media Industries available (Oxford University Press, 2017—it’s from the future). If you didn’t know there was a first edition, skip to paragraph three.

This paragraph is for those of you patient enough to bear with a first edition that didn’t turn out exactly as intended and to beseech those of you who considered it but found it too flawed, to please give it another try. There are long and complicated stories about why the first edition turned out as it did that we won’t devote to print, but there were problems, we’re sorry, and we’ve fixed a lot of them.

Teaching media industries classes can be challenging because the object of study refuses to remain constant. Our goal with this project was to create a book that would provide a foundation of study that might manage to stay relevant for a handful of years and to provide a clearinghouse of supplemental material that would be more of the moment.

Understanding Media Industries comes with a detailed instructor supplement that has links to and descriptions of media content to use in classes, applied readings about things in the real world and questions that connect them with textbook concepts, and ideas for assignments and other resources. There are also elaborate weekly discussion section activities (and powerpoints) and lecture powerpoints integrating many of the recommended readings and clips. To access these materials, go to Also, an extended table of contents is available on the OUP site.

The book has an email address and a Twitter feed that we hope to use to build and share more resources. Whenever we come across a new story that illustrates a concept we’ll send a link by Twitter along with a brief suggestion of its relevance and the chapter it fits in. Follow the book @HavensLotzUMI or search #UMI. There are already a few out there. Please send ideas, assignments, and suggestions to or, if you’re not a Twitter person and would like updates pushed by email, send us a note and we’ll distribute updates that way as well.

We’ve learned a ton about the textbook industry in the process and could probably illustrate every point in the book with an example, though that would amuse no one. One of the biggest frustrations has been encountering the perception that a book about media industries isn’t needed because there are so few classes on the topic. Our goal was to make starting such a course, whether a lecture of hundreds or a conversation among a handful, much easier. We’ve been teaching these courses for awhile now and are happy to share our insight. We’ll be presenting a workshop at SCMS and a panel at BEA about the challenges and experiences, and are always happy to chat if you drop us a line.


The New Hegemonic Hierarchy: Tracking (Men’s) Athletic Activity Fri, 29 Jan 2016 12:00:24 +0000 Post by Rebecca Feasey, Bath Spa University

RF5This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. Today’s contributor, Rebecca Feasey, completed her PhD in the department in 2003.

I have previously written on the representation of masculinity and the male role in popular television programming and considered the ways in which a range of friends, fathers, heroes and martyrs might be considered in relation to the hegemonic ideal. While the pinnacle of hegemonic masculinity speaks of a powerful, forceful and self-sufficient figure, demonstrating economic advantage and physical prowess, men on screen were seen to negotiate this particular ideal while continuing to demonstrate male dominance over their female counterparts. I concluded this work by suggesting that contemporary men ostensibly challenge the rigid codes of hegemonic power in favor of maintaining their hierarchical status, and nowhere is this more evident than in the emergence and development of the MAMIL.

The MAMIL (an acronym for the Middle-Aged Man In Lycra, hereafter Mamil) is a term recently used to describe a 40-something man who rides an elite road bike for leisure and pleasure, and who is styled in expensive, form-fitting, unforgiving and carefully picked sporting clothes and accessories. Contemporary commentary informs us that Mamils “do not simply go on an hour-long run out. Rides regularly last three hours or more, while in the spring and summer they disappear for days to ride in ‘sportive’ events.”

RF1What interests me here is not the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme (the government tax-exemption initiative introduced in 1999 to promote healthier journeys to work), the carbon-neutral footprint or even the sartorial efforts of the Mamils in question, bur rather, the use and abuse of Strava (and other available GPS systems) for this particular group. Strava, Swedish for “stride,” is a website and mobile app used to track athletic activity via GPS. It is proving incredibly popular with Mamils who can now pit themselves against friends, family and what are termed “followers,” irrespective of whether they are nipping to the local shops or doing the 874-mile “end-to-end” Land’s End to John o’ Groats–style challenge.

Much contemporary work in masculinity studies tells us that men never openly discuss the hegemonic hierarchy or speak frankly or candidly about their position within it. Instead, men rely on markers of power and legitimacy to speak on their behalf. Promotions, company cars, updated business cards, expense accounts and designer accessories speak of wealth, and although physical mastery is clearly visible it is seldom a source of comment. However, the whole point of Strava seems to be the establishment of a more calculated, deliberate and exposed hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity based on the distance, pace and frequency of a rider. The Telegraph’s Matthew Sparkes tells us that:

RF0Strava has forever changed cycling, for better or worse. The website tracks you via GPS and publicly ranks your best time on ‘segments’ of road along with other users. Now even a short trip to the supermarket has an element of competition […] if Strava ceases to exist you could lose a treasure trove of bragging rights fond memories.

He continues:

Email signatures are normally functional affairs reserved for job titles, phone numbers and addresses. But wouldn’t it be great if you could somehow use yours to show off the fact that you hold the (KOM) King of the Mountain across the local Tesco car park?

Later still, he asserts:

What is Strava for if not competing mercilessly with friends and colleagues? […] [E]nter your “athlete number” […] and that of one or more other riders. It then searches through the archives and finds segments that you’ve all recorded times for, laying out the results out for all to see.

One long-time cyclist says that Strava encourages competitiveness rather than healthy riding because the Strava team send the rider messages every time one of their KOM sections has been beaten:

Uh oh! Alex Morgan just stole your KOM!
Hey CyclingTips,
You just lost your KOM on Mt Rael Climb to Alex Morgan by 1 second.
Better get out there and show them who’s boss!
Your friends at Strava

Sparkes recommends that Mamils take the day off, leaving the GPS at home to enjoy “a ride at your own pace with nobody peering over your shoulder.” His words might appear hollow, though, to those men committed to the banter and bravado that Strava encourages:RF2

Being a MAMIL, like all mid-life crises means acting like little boys. As 11-year-olds do, they have their in-jokes, asserting the perfect number of bikes to own is N + 1 (N is the number of bikes you have already). Another formula, which shows they are not entirely stupid, is S – 1 (S is the number of bikes that will prompt your wife to demand a separation).

It is commonplace for friends and acquaintances to offer kudos to one another after a successful ride. Such kudos might serve as a mark of respect for fellow cyclists, but it can also be read as one more way of marking hierarchies for the 40-something Mamil. The Mamil proposes a new take on the old masculine hierarchy. While it’s easy to mock, deride or undermine earlier iterations of hegemonic masculinity for their commitment to body sculpting, excessive hours spent in the office, or ostentatious soft-top cars or the motorcycling equivalent, it is harder to challenge the eco-friendly, physically fit Mamil. This is precisely why these new figures of contemporary masculinity are such skillful hegemonic creations.

Hegemonic masculinity has routinely relied on masculine camaraderie and jovial banter at the expense of women, and the Strava Mamil continues this bromantic scenario, but for a wider, invested and interested audience. Indeed, there is no Queen of the Mountain accolade. Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the UK. As one Wall Street banker puts it:RF3

Every day, bankers check the league tables, a scoreboard that shows who won the biggest deals. Then they check their Strava app to see who’s chewing up the pavement fastest on his $20,000 bike. That’s recreation on Wall Street. […] We like to push ourselves. And it’s not ’80s Wall Street. We’re not out buying Lamborghinis and paying for coke habits. We’re buying $10,000 bikes.

Fitness-culture discourse frames Strava as a “hotly contested virtual race of it’s [sic] own where Stravaddicts are venturing out on rides with the sole intent of sniping segments for themselves and claiming the top of the leaderboards.” While Strava puts discourses of competitive fitness in niche circulation, it also bolsters persistent male hegemony.


“Real” Transmedia: Cultures and Communities of Cross-Platform Media in Colombia Wed, 27 Jan 2016 14:30:56 +0000 Antenna image1Post by Matthew Freeman, Bath Spa University

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. Today’s contributor, Matthew Freeman, completed his PhD in the department in 2015.

The media industries readily produce fictional stories across multiple media, telling the tales of the Avengers across comics, film and television, inviting audiences to participate in the reinvigorated intergalactic Star Wars universe across cinema, novels, the Web, video games, and so on. This transmedia storytelling phenomenon is of course a common go-to strategy in Hollywood’s fiction factory of brand-oriented franchise-making, tied up with commercial notions of digital marketing, merchandising, sequels, “cash nexuses,” and so forth. But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that transmedia is so much more than media franchising. In an age where the distribution of media across multiple platforms is increasingly accessible, transmedia has emerged as a global strategy for targeting fragmentary audiences – be it in business, media or education. And yet while scholarship continues to dwell on transmedia’s commercial, Antenna image3global industry formations, far smaller communities and far less commercial cultures around the world now make new and very different uses of transmedia, entirely re-thinking transmedia by applying it to non-fictional cultural projects as a socio-political strategy for informing and unifying local communities. There has been little attempt to track, analyze or understand such a socio-political idea of transmedia: Henry Jenkins famously theorized transmedia within a digital and industrial context,[1] but what does it mean to examine transmedia from a cultural perspective?

In one sense, examining transmedia from a cultural perspective first means acknowledging the innate multiplicity of transmedia’s potential. James Hay and Nick Couldry, hinting at this very idea, argue that the oft-cited model of transmedia – that is, the one seemingly based on convergences in the name of commerce – is far from the only model, especially when positioned globally: “international differences are obscured by the generality of the term ‘convergence culture’, and it can be helpful to consider convergence ‘cultures’ in the plural.”[2]

And so in another sense, examining transmedia from a cultural perspective also means establishing a whole new cultural-specificity model or approach to understandings of transmedia, taking into account the politics, peoples, ideologies, social values, cultural trends, histories, leisure and heritage of individual countries and their smaller communities. Taking a cultural approach to analyzing transmedia surely means mapping the many faces of transmedia in many different countries. For instance, while in the US and UK transmedia has evolved into an established marketing and brand-development practice,[3] Image1emerging research across Europe paints a different picture of transmedia. In Europe, transmedia can occupy the role of a promotion tool for independent filmmakers, or that of a site of construction for social reality games, or even serve as a means of political activism.[4] In countries such as Spain, meanwhile, entire curricula are being developed around the potential application of transmedia as a tool for educational and literacy enhancement for students seeking global citizenship skills (Gomez 2013; Scolari 2013).

Hence one thing starts to become very clear: when conceived of or utilized as a cultural practice – rather than a commercially-minded industrial one – transmedia is suddenly no longer about storytelling, at least not in a fictional sense. Instead, it is about something more, something more real – that is to say, something more political, more social and more ideologically profound.

Allow me to offer some examples. Towards the end of last year I was invited to consult and to teach in the School of Sciences and Humanities at EAFIT University in Colombia. Antenna image2The invite was for the launch of a new MA in Transmedia Communication, the very first of its kind in Latin America. After consulting on the content of the MA program throughout the autumn, I then flew out to teach in Colombia, delivering a week’s worth of lectures about the different models, strategies and techniques of transmedia storytelling – focusing primarily on UK and US contexts. The aim here was to try and lay out the core characteristics and tendencies of many transmedia stories so students could then apply particular ideas when developing their own transmedia projects. What struck me about the whole experience was just how irrelevant some – though thankfully not all – of my own ingrained ideas about what transmedia actually is were to a Colombian audience. For them, transmedia is not – or rather should not be – a commercial practice of promotion, fiction, world building, franchising and the like. Instead, it is a political system that is nothing short of pivotal to developing social change in local communities; for them, transmedia is about reconstructing memories.

Though documentary has for many decades played a vital role in Latin America’s media ecology, independent producers and universities are the key drivers in the country’s current transmedia trend. While at EAFIT University, a number of innovative transmedia projects caught my eye – all of which aimed to fulfill this promise of developing social change and reconstructing local memories. One project, now currently underway, aims to create non-official narratives of the Colombian armed conflict from the victims’ point of view. By using different media platforms such as games, maps, web series, books and museums, the Medellín victims will be able to communicate their thoughts about the Colombian armed conflict to local and national public spheres. Image2Another project, this one a graduate student’s, uses transmedia as a tool to gather and articulate the emotional fallout of the people from Medellín who have been displaced from their homes. The aim is therefore to document the citizens of Medellín, and Colombia, and show what it is like to be displaced in one’s own city, reconstructing an entire generation of historical memories concerning victims of internal displacement via the use of non-official stories and the representation of these stories across platforms.

In other words, in the context of Colombian culture, transmedia is not just a tool for social change – it is a blessing born out of a long history of cultural tradition that can help Colombians reconstruct the country after more than 50 years of armed conflict. As one of the students enrolled on EAFIT’s MA in Transmedia Communication asserts, “I strongly believe that transmedia in Colombia can contribute to creating processes of memory, recognition and solidarity for the victims of the Colombian armed conflict. I think that using and developing transmedia with local communities can be the clue to starting real processes of reconciliation in the country.”

The emphasis, again, is on using transmedia for something real. And so it seems particularly important to continue more fully interrogating non-fictional transmedia cultures – in the plural. Susan Kerrigan and J.T. Velikovsky begin to interrogate non-fictional transmedia storytelling through the framework of reality television formats, [5] just as Paul Grainge and Catherine Johnson (2015) consider the BBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympic Games through the lens of transmedia. And yet it is still far from clear in academic circles what it might mean to fully conceptualize a “real transmedia,” as it were. As my and William Proctor’s Transmedia Earth Network will aim to address, perhaps it is now time to move beyond emphases on industry and technology and instead to more fully embrace how cultural specificity (politics, heritage, social traditions, peoples, leisure and more) Image3informs “real” transmedia stories with real cultural impacts and powerful resolutions for communities around the world. How do the unique politics, heritages and social traditions specific to a given country inform alternative models of transmedia? In Colombia at least, transmedia is now used to reshape its cultures and its communities – and in the words of one Colombian student, this is because, in Colombia, “transmedia is still a field of experimentation; it is new, it is unknown and we are the ones defining it and making it important for all branches of our knowledge.”

Free from the shackles of its Western understandings, then, Colombia’s notion of what transmedia actually is raises important questions about the future of transmedia, both as a phenomenon and as a focus of academic enquiry. How else is transmedia being interpreted by other cultures? And how else might it begin to reshape cultural communities and to tell their real stories of political and social traditions around the world? Only time will tell…


[1] See Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[2] James Hay and Nick Couldry “Rethinking Convergence/Culture,” Cultural Studies 25.4 (2011): 473-486.

[3] See for example Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010) and Paul Grainge and Catherine Johnson, Promotional Screen Industries (London: Routledge, 2015).

[4] See Carlos Scolari, Paolo Bertetti and Matthew Freeman Transmedia Archaeology: Storytelling in the Borderlines of Science Fiction, Comics and Pulp Magazines (Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot, 2014).

[5] See Susan Kerrigan and J. T. Velikovsky, “Examining Documentary Transmedia Narratives Through The Living History of Fort Scratchley Project,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (online 2015, DOI: 10.1177/1354856514567053).


Serial Goes Missing Fri, 08 Jan 2016 16:07:21 +0000 serial-season2

You could cite the sponsorship of Audible, the rise of Midroll Media, Gimlet and PRX’s Radiotopia, galvanizing events like Podcast Movement and the Third Coast International Audio Festival, but ask anyone and they will say that it was Serial and its 100 million downloads that elevated narrative-driven podcasting from dorky obscurity back in 2014. Serial was mainstream. Serial intensified and also transcended the This American Life aesthetic. Serial was serious.

It also clarified the affect surrounding its own mode of consumption. One did not merely follow Serial or like Serial in 2014; one was “obsessed” with Serial. It’s the word that came up most often in the coverage, and served as grist for ridicule and derivative works, of which there are now many – Breakdown, Another Dead Man Walking, Limetown. If TV has taken on the metaphor of substance abuse these days (we are “addicted” to Making a Murderer, we “binge” on Scandal), narrative-driven podcasting has taken on the argot of infatuation, of compulsion, of love.

That response was prompted by the podcast itself. Early in the first episode, there is a bit of theater when Sarah Koenig reflects on how a meeting with lawyer Rabia Chaudry prompted her investigation of the murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the issue of whether or not Lee’s former boyfriend Adnan Syed had really committed it. In an aside, Koenig uses the technique of false improvisation, seeming to rethink a word in mid-sentence, although the line strikes the ear as scripted:

This conversation with Rabia […] this is what launched me on this year long – obsession is maybe too strong a word – let’s say fascination, with this case.

Let’s not. When this first aired, here on Antenna Jason Mittell made the argument that the main character of Serial wasn’t Syed at all, but Koenig herself. In retrospect I’d go further. Because the show dramatizes how engrossed its host became with the investigation she was performing, her obsession was the “protagonist” of the show. After all, that which drives Serial’s seriality is neither the chronology of the story nor that of its reconstruction, but Koenig’s internal thought process, her uncertainty when faced with multiple avenues of interpretation afforded by the same datum. Remember the Nisha Call, the pay phone at Best Buy, Syed stealing from the donations at his mosque? We listened to Koenig organize and reorganize each of these, value and devalue them, recursively, incredulously, passionately. We listened to Koenig struggling with the stubborn ambiguity of an ever-growing wall of details. That is why (as critics are starting to realize) imitating Serial’s narrative is impossible to do without recreating its narration.


So Serial’s thorniest philosophical problem was never with ethics, but instead with something closer to hermeneutics. The last lines of the twelfth episode speak to this theme:

When Rabia first told me about Adnan’s case, certainty, one way or the other seemed so attainable. We just needed to get the right documents, spend enough time, talk to the right people, find his alibi. Then I did find Asia, and she was real and she remembered and we all thought “how hard could this possibly be? We just have to keep going.” Now, more than a year later, I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders like an aggravated cop. Don’t tell me Adnan’s a nice guy, don’t tell me Jay was scared, don’t tell me who might have made some five second phone call. Just tell me the facts ma’am, because we didn’t have them fifteen years ago and we still don’t have them now.

In an ironic touch, Koenig cites detective Joe “Just the Facts” Friday of Dragnet, radio’s paragon of positivist “keeping going,” as she expresses skepticism about the certainty that such a method provides. What was at stake in Koenig’s obsession, ultimately, wasn’t her feelings towards Adnan (the allegation of romantic attachment strikes me as both unsupported and misogynistic) but her worry that certainty about him is unavailable. What if the truth isn’t out there? That is the fear to which Koenig was professionally and emotionally vulnerable, and by foregrounding that exposure rather than subordinating it, she gave the show dimension, made it special and weird.


Last month Serial returned, now with seven new staff members and a host of collaborators, including Mark Boal’s Page One film company, tackling an elusive subject: the disappearance and search for Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who left his post in Afghanistan one night in June 2009 and was returned after a prisoner swap five years later.

The topic is complex, but in adopting it Koenig also marginalizes her own voice. We hear little about her own thinking, opinions, epistemological struggles. The first episode ends dramatically, with a phone ringing and Koenig explaining “That’s me, calling the Taliban.” But this is almost the only moment of personal ownership in the episode. By contrast, the first installment of Season 1 was full of that:

… This search sometimes feels undignified on my part …
… I have to know if Adnan really was in the library at 2:36 PM …
… If you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is this is the one that came to me …

koenigIn the Season 1 launch she uses the object pronoun form “me” 14 times to refer to herself. In the launch of Season 2 she only uses it four times.

She’s an outsider, learning terminology as we do and drawing on others. A recent article in Vulture characterizes Koenig as a novice in national security, describing Boal as the “embed” with contacts in government and a background as a screenwriter for films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. In its very structure, then, Season 2 turns away from the model of the heroic individual quest, of “dramatic nonfiction narrative in the form of a personal journey” as Eugenia Williamson characterizes the This American Life aesthetic, and toward a model of collaboration. No doubt many journalists will cheer this change.

The team is making use of all of its resources. “The Golden Chicken,” the second episode, draws on 12 interviewees from Bergdahl’s battalion, 25 hours of taped conversations between Boal and Bergdahl, an interview with Taliban leader Mujahid Rehman, reporting by Afghan Sami Yousafzai who made contact with a fighter named Hilal, as well as documents from Wikileaks, all to reconstruct what happened to Bowe in the first weeks of captivity. If Serial’s new season is “about the knotted relationship between systems and people,” as Slate’s Katy Waldman puts it, then it also requires a number of systems and people to explore it.

Like the first season, this one dwells on discrepancies. The Taliban say that they did a traditional attan dance to cheer up Bergdahl in an orchard during his transportation, but he remembers nothing like that. Like last time, the heart of the show lies in interview tapes peppered with humdrum audio, like the sounds of Boal microwaving his lunch, which contrast the network news snippets at the top of the program – what Koenig calls the “antiseptic upstairs realm” of the mass media narrative. Like the first season, this one often focuses on vivid details. In the third episode, we learn that Taliban fighters drink Mountain Dew, think sunglasses look cool, and say “What’s up, bro.” The first episode explains what life was like in Bergdahl’s station in Paktika province by focusing on the burn pit, where pitiable soldiers took turns stirring their own burning refuse. It’s a shit-stirring scene at a post made famous by a soldier trying to stir up shit.

In theory, there is no reason why the new season, with its dark humor, with its war and torture, with its humanized subject and investigators, should differ tonally from the previous one. Koenig clearly has sympathy for her subject in the fourth episode, listen to her describe how a captor cuts Bergdahl’s chest slowly with a razor blade 600 times. With multiple accounts of these and other events, the same awe and uncertainty we experienced the first time should plague us. “Any one piece of this story can keep a person’s mind churning,” Koenig promises in an early passage.

And yet it doesn’t. Why? Because Koenig is not vulnerable to her story this time out; she tells the story without becoming a character in it. She has yet to speak to Bergdahl directly, and her retreat to the role of anchor bears the same antiseptic whiff as the TV media reports that the program borrows for its opening. We aren’t even following Koenig’s “mental churning” closely enough to know how fraught it might be. Without the pathos of a narrator’s affective relation to her narrative, the season comes across as superior journalism but inferior meta journalism. We’ve lost the innervating anxiety that made it special.

Just think of it at the level of sonic texture. Gone are the calls to Adnan, car rides with co-producers, footsteps into fields, knocks on doors, auditory situations in which we felt physically proximal to our host moving through space over a duration of time. Instead, Koenig speaks to us from nowhere in particular, pointing our ears at places rather than taking us along with her to visit them. Her intense intimacy with the audience is not mirrored by a similar sonic proximity to the people and places that the story is about, leaving the experience oddly hollow, even lonely.

zoomPerhaps Season 2 is too far away from its focus. Obsession always implies a collapse of critical distance, but Serial’s own metaphors go the other way. Early on in the first episode, Koenig likens the Bergdahl story to a children’s book called Zoom.

It starts with these pointy red shapes. And then, next page, you realize those shapes are a rooster’s comb. Next page, you zoom out, you see the rooster is standing on a fence with two little kids watching him. Next page, zoom out again, they’re in a farmhouse. And then, zoom further, you realize that all of it — the rooster, the kids, the farmhouse — are toys being played with by another child […] Out and out it zooms, the aperture of the thing getting wider and wider until the original image is so far away it’s unseeable. That’s what the story of Bowe Bergdahl is like.

It’s what the podcast is like, too. Even as we get closer to the story, we seem further away.

This is not the only time that Koenig refers to children’s media. Earlier on in the episode, she contrasts Boal’s salty language with Bowe’s schoolboy politeness, noting that the latter’s go-to expletive is Charlie Brown’s “good grief.” During the second episode, Koenig describes the Army’s thinking once it knew Bergdahl was captured this way:

They also knew that the Taliban’s goal would be to get Bowe to a hideout in the tribal region of Western Pakistan, because Pakistan is like home base. Or, to put it in Tom and Jerry terms, Pakistan is the hole in the baseboard where Tom cannot go.

Finally, in the third episode, as Koenig narrates the nightmarish tale of one of Bergdahl’s escape attempts. As Bergdahl falls off a cliff, the scene takes on the language of the comic strip:

Bowe lands on a dry riverbed on his left side. He said the word “oof” actually came out of his mouth, just like in a cartoon, loud enough so that some dogs started barking their heads off.

Small wonder that Serial feels just as bracing this time around, but flatter. Adnan Syed was a cipher; Bowe Bergdahl is a sketch.

And so, a year later, Serial remains the best game in town, an ambitious program, dense and with the best narrative rhythm in American narrative audio. It still boldly leads the field when it comes to signaling what podcasts can do. But it has lost its touch when it comes to refashioning how podcasts can feel. Is it fascinating? Sure. But so far obsession remains too strong a word.


]]> 13
The Force Re-Awakens: Star Wars, Repetition, and Nostalgia, Part 2 Wed, 06 Jan 2016 19:21:59 +0000 Samurai

In my previous post, I pointed to numerous “new” things in The Force Awakens that should challenge a slipshod reading of the film as “mere” repetition or nostalgic pastiche and homage. Now, though, let’s look at the very terms and assumptions mobilized in the attack — pastiche, repetition, originality, and nostalgia.

First, it might be worth noting the significant irony that some people are only now concerned about a Star Wars film being full of pastiche. A princess must return to her people who are staging a rebellion against an imperial force; she is helped by an odd duo who seem there mostly for comic effect, and by a venerable old knight who must face off against his former second-in-command who went bad and now leads the imperial forces. Sound familiar? That’s the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa influences abound in A New Hope and its progeny (those Jedi do seem remarkably samurai-like, as does Vader’s helmet, no?). Yet of course Kurosawa was himself deeply beholden to John Ford and other westerns, another genre that is plastered all over A New Hope. Add some Flash Gordon. And some King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And so much more. A New Hope was always a poster child for postmodern pastiche of pastiche of pastiche – and proof that movies could still be enjoyable and amazing while looking deep into a hall of pastiche-y mirrors.


Hidden Fortress & A New Hope‘s beginnings: bickering, funny lowly figures walk through sparsely populated landscape, telling us about the world as they do so. They disagree over which way to go, and split up. Each is picked up by slave traders, thereby reuniting them.

Indeed, and second, we could benefit from unpacking this ludicrous notion that any work of art must be “original” to be good, since absolutely nothing is (or could be) original. Everything learns from, and comes in the wake of, other texts. Sometimes this is direct (even the beloved Shakespeare struggled to create an individual plot of his own), sometimes it’s “just” scenes or characters or character types. But nothing is original. Rather, the value in anything comes from how it repeats and/or reworks. When we marvel at how fresh or original something is, we’ve usually realized a genre to which it belongs (through multiple other similarities and through repetition), and are excited to see a lone element or two of that genre reworked.

Vladimir Propp and some of his formalist colleagues would tell us, in fact, that the kind of exercise I conducted in my previous post – of walking through how a plot repeats another – can be done with all literature, all stories. At a certain level of abstraction, there really are a very limited number of tales to be told. And this idea is especially central to discussions of myth. Read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces … and if you do, incidentally, you’re reading something that was a key influence on George Lucas, and hence on the very foundations of the original Star Wars trilogy. Repetition is key to myth, and, c’mon, it’s clear when A New Hope situates us in a world in which good guys wear white and bad guys wear black that it’s aiming to be mythic. So let’s not be surprised when we see heroes needing to storm the castle again. Or when we see the young upstart experience a moment of becoming on the battlefield again. When a great hero is struck down publicly again. Give me another 2000 words and I could use them simply to list moments when these events happen across filmic and television genres, Greek epics and tragedies, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, etc.


Recently, the wise Nancy Baym told me that when we say two things are opposite, we’re actually saying that they’re entirely alike in all ways but one (otherwise, for instance, night and pencils might more appropriately count as opposites, not night and day). That’s worth thinking about here, since it suggests that fundamental difference is regularly structured upon and within fundamental similarity. In storytelling terms, therefore, that which is most amazingly “different”/“original” may be only a slight reworking of something else. We’re often doing things wrong as analysts if we’re looking for true, stark difference (the pencils instead of daytime), as instead there may be just as much value to be found in seeing how night and day are related yet still different. So, yes, Obi-Wan and Han both get struck down … but how are the integers of those scenes different in ways that evoke different reactions, from us, from the characters, by the story itself? In my previous post, I suggested that this “similarity” is far from it, since the emotional weight is different, the intent (of the victim, and of the killer) is different, the place it has in the narrative is different. Originality comes when an expectation is violated, but expectations are set up through similarity.



Changing tacks, I’d also want to question what is being demanded of sequels and franchises in general here. It’s deeply perplexing to hear people angered and disappointed by a sequel doing things that the original did. Isn’t this par for course? When James Bond orders a vodka martini, gets a fast car with buttons that activate weapons on it, has a knock-down, drawn-out chase scene, or beds yet another woman, do we roll our eyes at how the film is just “fan service”? When we return to Godfather II and find out that it’s still a gangster film (yawn) obsessed with family members (oh, how original) who sometimes lie to each other and operate behind each other’s backs (never heard that before), while jockeying for power with other families or contenders (ripoff!), is this “fan fiction”? When Harry Potter has another Quidditch game that involves an amazing come-from-behind victory, when Katniss Everdeen must work her way through another set of competitors, when Bella Swan is still working out who she loves, is this all just pathetic repetition? Sequels repeat. That is what they promise to do. They are all “fan fiction,” if fan fiction is the act of taking many of the same characters or elements and reworking them with some new elements added. And unless a sequel radically violates the terms of the original world, narrative, or characters, it’s also always “fan service.” Using those terms to criticize a sequel, therefore, is too often indicative of the speaker’s derogatory elitist ignorance about fandom (aw, how cute that some people think all fanfic is “My Big Day at Hogwarts,” and don’t know about all the fucking and cuddling that Harry and Draco get up to in fanfic), but also betrays a very odd lack of awareness of the very point of sequels, like complaining that a eulogy just wouldn’t shut up about the dead person and their life.

Yawn. How Fan Service. Such No Originality

Wow. How Fan Service. Such No Originality. So Repetition.

I wonder, though, whether The Force Awakens was misread by some viewers as a reboot not “just” a sequel. Certainly, sequels more usually follow fast on the heels of their originals, whereas The Force Awakens is many years “late,” as is more common with reboots. And whereas increasingly franchises lack a constant auteur figure, Star Wars was associated with George Lucas (and Twentieth Century Fox) for so long in a way that may have led some to see J. J. Abrams and Disney as necessarily “rebooting” the franchise, especially since Abrams recently (sort of) rebooted Star Trek. Reboots are all the rage, and carry with them a different set of expectations, namely that a fresh start of forms will occur. The narrative world should feel different, the key characters should be given new backstories or wrinkles. But The Force Awakens isn’t a reboot, and the prominent use of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and (to a lesser extent, at least in trailers) Mark Hamill in promotional materials should’ve made that clear: the gang was getting back together. In the absence of announcements that, say, The Rock was going to play Han, or that Kristin Schaal would play a reinvented Leia, there was no fakeout here: The Force Awakens was sold as a sequel. The most prominent line across many of its trailers was Kylo Ren’s “I will finish what you started,” and one of them ended with Han pronouncing, “Chewie, we’re home.” Those lines subtly (or not-so-subtly?) alluded, too, to the franchise’s need to overcome the prequel trilogy, to reset, and to get back to basics.


As my previous post suggested, The Force Awakens does have a lot that’s new, the world is slightly different, the stakes are revised, and the key narrative and character dynamics are not carbon copies. But even if we acknowledge the significant repetition, mythic resonance, homage, pastiche, and loop-backs, none of those should be the grounds for castigating a text. So by all means say you didn’t like the characters, the feel, the pacing, or any specifics. Snoke sucks in totality, for instance (the name alone is stupider than even “Jar-Jar”). The fact that one sanitation stormtrooper knows how to destroy Starkiller Base is a ludicrous plot-hole (maybe all those Bothan spies wouldn’t have died finding plans for Death Star 2.0 if only one of them had thought to ask the dude cleaning the toilets how to destroy it). There’s more. Or by all means criticize how any plot element was redone and didn’t work as well (or at all) in the reworking. Part of my problem with Starkiller Base is that as new as it is in some ways (a supergun rooted in a planet, that siphons energy from the Sun is somewhat fresh), it violates what we’d expect from the third in a sequence, being bigger and better, yes, yet having far inferior defenses (2.0 was harder to destroy than 1.0, but 3.0 is way too easily destroyed). Or, as strong as the team of Rey, Finn, and Poe are in other ways, I worry that they’re not particularly fun, and that we just killed off Han the Fun Bringer. But the attack on the film as a repetitive, unoriginal clone is replete with erroneous, idealistic notions of originality that simply don’t hold up, and that critical scholars should be able to cut through.

Snoke sucks

Snoke sucks

Finally, and changing tacks again, there’s the critique of this being nostalgia. As I noted in the last post, this alone is an interesting admission that The Force Awakens is different, since A New Hope was more definitively future-focused. Nostalgia is too often used clumsily in regular speech, though, used to mean “a desire for repetition” or “a desire to go back,” yet without realizing that nostalgia always carries an element of pain, emanating from the realization that we can’t go back. There can be great warmth in nostalgia, and some versions of it aim only to revel in that warmth (cf. Happy Days). But handled well, nostalgia should encourage reflection, not only on the fact that we can’t go back because of time’s onward march, but on the idea that the time, place, or feeling that we want to go back to was never really there.

Consider Kylo Ren, who holds onto the melted mask of his grandfather, and who looks to it for guidance and support. We all know this to be a pathetic act, partly because, well, speaking to a melted mask isn’t entirely healthy, but mostly because we know his grandfather well. Anakin went to the Dark Side, destroying many good people in the process, killing kids in the process, and allowing fascism to rise. He lives up to his destiny to “bring balance to the Force” in his last moments, but overall his life was unequivocally tragic. He wore his mask, no less, not strictly speaking to be bad-ass and masked, but to hide a scarred face, to support his crumbled body, and to hide his last vestiges of humanity. For Ren to want to be Vader, to walk in his foot-steps, to “finish what he started,” is thus deeply misguided to say the least, and shows as much misunderstanding of history as does an average Tea Party rally. Ren is a figure suffering from nostalgia, mired and trapped in the past that he has created, not a real past. And yet when his father Han calls for him to snap out of it, Ren acknowledges that moving back in time isn’t possible. That whole scene, no less, is marked with futility – precisely because we’ve seen the original trilogy, we know when Han steps out onto that platform that he’s dead, and as he appeals to Ren, we know the appeal will fail. There is no going back.

Things My Grandpa Did

Things My Grandpa Did, by Kylo Ren

To be fair to The Force Awakens’ critics who allege woeful nostalgia, though, they’re not talking about nostalgia within the diegesis per se; they’re talking about nostalgia for the original films. Abrams certainly gives us Han and Chewie in the Falcon again, X-Wings destroying enemy bases, lightsaber battles in the dark, and even iris and wipe edits, but he also denies us some pleasures in thoughtful ways that conform to this interesting, reflective type of nostalgia. Take Han and Leia. We don’t get much of them bickering playfully and in a somewhat sexually charged way in The Force Awakens, and we don’t see them living happily ever after. We see them hug, but with Leia’s eyes full of loss and sadness. They reflect upon the fact that their relationship wasn’t strong enough to survive the loss of their son, and in their reflections that they each responded by “going back to the only thing I was ever any good at,” there’s an admission that they weren’t good at being with each other. There’s an acceptance of this, moreover, and Abrams never poses the state of their relationship as something to be resolved or overcome. I find a painful beauty in that. Nostalgic? Yes. But not at all repetition, nor a return to the way things were; instead, a message that the only (open, obvious) couple that the original trilogy gave us wasn’t a princess and her knight destined to live happily every after, and that maybe we don’t need a princess and knight to live happily ever after (since neither is “broken” per se).

Just like old times??

Just like old times??

The film isn’t just an exercise in the gleeful nostalgia of going back to where we were, and it has a more complex relationship to time and to the pasts in and of the film. The Force Awakens engages with nostalgia, but it is a thoughtful engagement, not at all the “aw, geez, isn’t it nice to be back where we started?” nostalgia that the disdainful criticisms of it suggest.


Let me conclude by reiterating that I don’t intend anything here to demand that The Force Awakens is an amazing film that must be revered. But to attack it front-on as an exercise in mere repetition, loving and uncritical nostalgia, and pastiche is, as Admiral Ackbar would tell us, a trap, since those pesky shield generators are still up. If you want to dislike it, go for it, but avoid an attack that idolizes a whacky notion of originality, and/or that rests upon on a misguided understanding of what repetition and nostalgia are.


]]> 3
The Force Re-Awakens: Star Wars, Repetition, and Nostalgia, Part 1 Tue, 05 Jan 2016 17:18:52 +0000 Heading

Since the release of J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the Internet has been alive with complaints about it as an exercise in nostalgia that revels in mere repetition, pastiche, photocopying, etc. (I’d cite some examples, but at this point it’d be like citing examples of cats being popular on the Internet: you can find these complaints anywhere). Sometimes, these ooze with contempt for fandom, writing the movie off as “fan service” or “fan fiction,” as if that’s the worst thing anything could ever be. Some such posts and reviews rehash the tired, ancient, and utterly insipid suggestion that anyone who enjoys a blockbuster Hollywood franchise film is a brainless sheep, grazing here in the pasture of Farmer Walt. Others are less unkind to the audience, but instead regard themselves as offering aesthetic critiques, arguing that there is “nothing new” and wringing their hands about a culture of repetition.

I want to respond to and engage with this line of attack. I don’t intend this as a defense per se – since the film obviously has many lovers whose gushing praise of the film is as prevalent as the attack, and since I think the film is going to be just fine (understatement alert). Nor is this a plea for critics to come around and see the light, since they’re welcome to dislike the film. Rather, it’s interesting to stop and think through what’s being said about originality, nostalgia, franchising, and repetition.

In this post, I’ll discuss what is in fact new, then in a follow-up post I’ll ask “so what if there’s repetition?” and explore the bizarre criticism that The Force Awakens looking and feeling like A New Hope is contemptible. To discuss what’s new in the film requires getting into its guts, so this post will focus heavily on the plot and characters, whereas the next one will examine broader issues separated from that plot and those characters, of repetition, sequels, and originality.

A warning – spoilers abound. Don’t read past here if you don’t want to be spoiled (but also, hey, it’s been out for three weeks now. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go see it already).


To begin, let’s acknowledge that the film does indeed engage in quite a lot of repetition with variation. The (1) First Order is catching up with (2) Poe, who is believed to have important information regarding the whereabouts of a lynchpin of the (3) Resistance efforts against it, when (4) BB-8 is set loose on the desert planet of (5) Jakku with said information. Our young desert-dwelling hero with a mysterious past, (6) Rey, stumbles into an alliance with (7) Finn, and the old warrior (8) Han Solo, while that pesky evil organization engages its mega weapon, (9) the Starkiller Base, to destroy (10) many planets, to show its supreme fascist power. Positioned within the evil organization, and following the leadership of (11) Snoke, and alongside numerous Brits in grey uniforms, is the disliked Sith figure of power and malevolence, (12) Kylo Ren, who has a fondness for helmets and dark clothing. After encountering numerous interesting species, some friendly some dangerous, our heroes find plans to destroy this nasty base, team up with the x-wings to do so, and in a race of time to see who will strike first, the good guys or the bad guys, yay, the good guys win and destroy the base, but not before the nasty Sith faces off with an old frenemy and kills him, much to the horror of our onlooking heroes. Replace those numbers with, respectively, the Empire, Leia, the Rebellion, R2-D2, Tatooine, Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, the Death Star, Alderaan, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Darth Vader, and you have the plot of A New Hope. So, yes, there is definite overlap.

What’s new?

A lot of scenes, while ostensibly similar, carry vastly different weight precisely because they’re happening in the seventh movie of a franchise that is now 38 years old. Saying that a scene is “the same” as one in A New Hope is like saying a 60s style diner is “the same” as a diner one would actually have visited in the 60s, when of course it’s not – time has intervened and history has added and edited meaning. Maybe that diner you used to eat in as a kid looks just the same, but its neighborhood has changed, the owner has wrinkles, the people sitting there are no longer choosing between it and twenty other similar diners but between it and a Thai place, Chinese takeout, arepas from a food cart, and so on, the restaurant has its own stories, and thus you’re simply wrong if you think you’re reacting to it the same way as you used to. When context changes, meaning changes, and this script would surely have been written with an awareness of context changing. Add “small” changes, since this is not repetition – it’s repetition with variation – and add history, and a great deal changes.


The Force Awakens situates us in a galaxy where fascism and evil seem doomed to return, to hold the day, as a constant threat, even when we thought it was vanquished. By comparison, Leia’s Rebellion in A New Hope has been fighting the Empire for how long? Star Wars fans can now answer that question precisely, but when the film came out, we didn’t know whether it was a recent threat or a long-running one. This changes the stakes considerably, and proposes a bleaker, darker world, one that is further signaled by relationship failures and by loss – Han and Leia didn’t live happily ever after, they lost their son, Leia lost her brother, we all lose Han (and where, really, is the parallel there? The worst unplanned death of a good guy in the original trilogy is who? Porkins? Random Ewok #8? Han’s tauntaun?), and Rey feels the absence of her parents as Luke never did. Tears are shed. The kids with whom I watched The Force Awakens the second time found the movie a downer, and many adults did too, whereas A New Hope is effervescently upbeat.


Our bad guy is different too. When we encountered Vader, he was something of a solitary figure, derided for practicing an obscure religion, and simply A Bad Guy; by contrast, Kylo Ren not only follows Snoke, a Sith Lord, in a way that automatically privileges him over his fascist ginger (am I the only one to see a South Park reference here?) counterpart, and that puts him in a long line of Sith, but we know at this point in the franchise to assume that bad guys have good struggling within them, so we’re asked to relate to him differently. Vader, moreover, is confident and assured: he doesn’t run anywhere, he just strides; he never questions himself (till Return of the Jedi); he seems certain of victory. Kylo Ren, though, is replete with weakness, sensed by Rey when she backwashes his mind-reading trick; he rages like an angry toddler; he shows off; and for half the film he has his mask off, making him more human than Vader. Defeating him therefore seems to require a wholly different bag of tricks than defeating A New Hope’s Vader.


Or take the much-discussed killing of Han, reminiscent of the killing of Obi-Wan. When Obi-Wan’s killed, he’s had about fifteen minutes of screen-time, if that. By contrast, when Han’s killed, he’s arguably the most beloved character in a 38 year-old franchise, somebody who many audience members may’ve imagined they were on the playground, may’ve (should’ve?) even had crushes on. And since it’s Harrison Ford, he’s also Indiana Jones. Comparing the emotional impact of their deaths is thus plain silly. Let’s remember, too, that Obi-Wan wanted to be struck down – his little smirk before he stops fighting is one of the best parts of A New Hope, as is his mercurial threat that striking him down will only make him stronger, and the suggestion that Luke’s meant to watch, that Obi-Wan’s death is a sacrifice in aid of some future gain. Barring major new information, though, Han’s just dead: he won’t be appearing in ghost-form in a swamp near you anytime soon. He doesn’t do it to help Rey along a path. Obi-Wan doesn’t appeal to Anakin as his old friend, as Han appeals to his son; Obi-Wan is sure either than Anakin is gone or that he can’t bring him back except through death, whereas Han wants to bring his son home and thinks for a minute that his appeal is working.


Importantly, too, A New Hope is governed by young people, and brims with youthful desires to become someone, to grow up, to create something new, and to throw off the shackles of old guardians. Uncle Owen is unlikable for holding Luke back (as is Grand Moff Tarkin for holding Vader in check, for that matter), and Obi-Wan is exceptional precisely because he plays the role of cool uncle saying that Luke should go ahead and train as a Jedi, travel the galaxy, leave home. There’s more than a touch of the sixties in these folk. The Force Awakens, by contrast, respects and reveres its elders. Only Kylo Ren rages against his parents, and we as an audience are presumed to side with those parents. The film is quite tender in its brief treatment of Leia and Han as an old couple, Mark Hamill’s face in the closing scene is worn down by time, even new character Maz has a wisdom to be heard. Ironically, in other words, when critics say The Force Awakens is drenched in nostalgia, they’re noting that it’s operating in a very different mode from the future-centered New Hope.


And then there’s Finn, Rey, and (the admittedly under-developed) Poe. I can’t help but notice that an overwhelming amount of the attacks on The Force Awakens offering “nothing new” are from white guys, who clearly don’t get why it might matter that the franchise – the most successful franchise in media and merchandising history, no less – has just been entrusted to a Black English man, a White English woman, and a Guatemalan-American man. This is massive for identity politics. Perhaps not unique, but big. Especially for a franchise that has often relegated people of color to being comic fodder or the basis for stereotyped alien races. As a kid playing Star Wars, I was invited to play a host of white mostly-American figures (or the Black Bad Guy), but if kids are playing Star Wars now, they’re presented with a much wider range of options.


Finn appears in my plot parallel exercise above as a counterpart to Han, but is not at all Han. He’s a defector – a role entirely new to the films – not a rogue. Being a defector invites us to think about the ethical positioning of being part of the First Order, in a way that none of the original movies ever cared about, and in a way that immediately positions him as principled, whereas Han’s principles are notoriously questioned throughout A New Hope. Finn’s not as sure of himself as is Han, and he’s arguably allowed a wider range – brave, crack shot, scared, tentative, funny, impulsive, controlled, along for the ride, ready to act.


Rey, meanwhile, is the movie’s centerpiece. There are some nominal similarities to Luke, but she’s so much more capable, less whiny. The schtick surrounding her annoyance at Finn taking her hand tells us a lot about her independence. The Force is stronger in her, as is having her shit together. And let’s be honest that Daisy Ridley runs circles around Mark Hamill’s rather poor acting from A New Hope. Her Rey is the first bona fide hero in the filmic franchise: I count Han and Obi-Wan as sidekicks, Luke was too dithery and needed two films to get up to speed, and Episodes I-III’s Anakin was so horribly acted that he just existed as a long, stale filmic fart. Despite being the film’s clear hero, she doesn’t destroy the Starkiller Base, nor does she defeat the bad guy, and yet she offers a stronger spine for the next two films than Luke ever did.

I could go on about all sorts of little changes, too, but each of the above changes tone, theme, and stakes.

The Force Awakens isn’t just A New Hope in slightly newer clothing, therefore. But in the next post, I’ll allow the critics the day, assume it is or that my comments above aren’t convincing, and I’ll then ask, “so what?” Why are people bothered that Film #7 in a series seems a lot like some of the earlier films? And what might they be overlooking about how storytelling in this mode works?


]]> 3
Original or Exclusive? Shifts in Television Financing and Distribution Shift Meanings Fri, 01 Jan 2016 15:00:40 +0000 netflixoriginalseries

By  Amanda D. Lotz and Timothy Havens

In addition to increasing the possible objects of study, broadband-distributed television services have introduced new challenges to grounding the television shows we study in their industrial milieu. In truth, this is not an issue that originates with broadband services—it has been a part of international distribution for some time—but has become more acute since the late 1980s, when co-productions became common in Europe, Asia, and the Americas as a way to compete against a growing onslaught of US imports. Before that, if you knew a show’s country of origin, it was pretty easy to ascertain what entity it had been produced for: even though many public broadcasters acquired programming from independent producers, they nevertheless aired it on their national broadcast channels. With some noteworthy exceptions, very little television produced outside the US at this time traveled beyond its nation of origin.

Pinpointing a television series’ industrial and national origins became more complicated as cable and satellite introduced a greater range and variety of television services around the globe. These newcomers were often commercial distributors in systems where public service broadcasting had long dominated, as well as various advertising-subscription hybrid services, as was the case for most US cable channels. Not only did the upstarts tend to source their programming much more widely than their broadcast counterparts; they also quickly developed sister channels in multiple markets that shared program acquisitions.

Television programming has consequently expanded its flow through international markets and now more regularly flows in countervailing directions. The greater diversity of services that deliver programming and the greater diversity of flows have made it more challenging for scholars to develop a shared understanding of the impact that industrial conditions have on programming decisions and the meanings we associate with particular programs, because changes in distributors reinscribe how we understand shows as they move beyond their original licensing distributor. For example, what is an “HBO show”? A show produced by HBO and aired in the US on HBO, as was the case of The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Six Feet Under? Does The Leftovers’ production by Warner Bros. make it less of an HBO show, or does the distinction hold because through produced by another studio, it was created for the logics of a subscriber supported service?

The more difficult question is are these still HBO shows when they air on Sky Atlantic, Canal Plus, and HBO Nordic? What about Homeland? The US-based scholar would immediately categorize it as a Showtime “original”—or at least as one produced under the logics of subscriber-funded television (though it is produced by Fox 21)—but how is that show defined in a conversation between a US based scholar and one in Denmark who watches Homeland on HBO Nordic, which is also the source of The Walking Dead? And what about co-productions? Should they always be described as sourced by all financial contributors or just those involved creatively?

Netflix’s marketers have added to the challenge with its liberal use of the term “original” in marketing, typically marketing any show it has exclusive rights to in a country as “original”—hence Netflix claimed Lilyhammer was a “Netflix original” in the US and often claims shows produced for other US networks and channels as “original” in markets outside the US. But we would argue that the only “Netflix originals” are those Netflix pays to have produced. Most of what Netflix promotes as original content is more accurately described as “exclusive” in a particular market (though they seem to be somewhat liberal in calling programming “Netflix originals” even by this designation!)

All we’re really arguing for is the need to follow the money in order to discern for what type of entity the series we write about are produced. Such distinctions are important to discussions of texts because the mandate (commercial; public service) and business model of the entity it is created for (advertising; subscription; advertising and subscription) ends up imprinted upon it in ways often relevant to the argument at hand. Thus, the sale of shows in secondary markets can obscure those origins. And while we may think that much of this is reasonably beyond the notice of general viewers, it certainly matters for television scholars looking to make precise claims about industrial conditions and representation.

But we would like to push this observation even further, to encourage scholars to consider the ways in which various and subsequent industrial practices and conditions leave their mark on the programming we encounter and our orientations toward that programming. We believe that multiple iterations of industrial authorship—the production company, the original channel, the syndicator, and subsequent channels can be thought of as what Derrida calls a “trace.” For Derrida, the trace is the absent other that makes meaning possible; the other side of a binary, such as “woman” is to “man,” which is necessary to make any term meaningful. But the trace is more than this: it contains within it all of the meanings and contradictions that have accrued to a signifier over time, much like the endless links of chain Jacob Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol drags behind him wherever he goes.

Economic practices, industrial arrangements, brands, and corporate cultures all leave a trace on programming. These traces range from the obvious to the barely perceptible, but they undoubtedly shape televisual representations and viewers’ engagements with those representations.


]]> 1
The Rise of Big Copyright: Content Protection and the Formation of Anti-Piracy Alliances Thu, 17 Dec 2015 12:00:53 +0000 Post by Paul McDonald, King’s College London

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor, Paul McDonald, was Professor of Cinema and Media Industries in our department from 2011-2015. 

Image - Get It Right from a Genuine SiteA few weeks ago, the Get It Right from a Genuine Site anti-piracy campaign was launched in the UK. The campaign was run by Creative Content UK, a body formed the previous year to “boost consumer awareness of the wide array of legitimate online content services and help reduce online copyright infringement.” CCUK’s founding partners were the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), Hollywood’s trade body for international territories the Motion Picture Association (MPA), and the four main internet service providers in the UK: BT, Sky Broadband, TalkTalk and Virgin Media. Additional support for CCUK came from broadcasters (BBC and ITV), actors’ union Equity, the Film Distributors’ Association, the Independent Film and Television Alliance, the Musicians’ Union, Pact, the Premier League, the Publishers Association and UK Music.

CCUK is the newest arrival to the UK’s anti-piracy business and as such is representative of a trend now characterizing the modern media industries—the formation of inter- and intra-industry alliances to combat media piracy and protect copyrighted content. Over recent years, claims of escalating piracy have seemingly been accompanied by a concurrent escalation in the number of coalitions formed to combat it. Although not a new development, the formation of anti-piracy alliances has intensified over the last ten to fifteen years. As a way of grasping the implications of this trend, these developments might be described as the rise of Big Copyright, the emergence of new constellations of commercial-legal power in the media economy.

There are several reasons why this trend cannot simply be seen as a continuation of the oligopolistic tendencies of so-called Big Media by means of intellectual property. First, as a label for a concentrated cluster of private firms, Big Media has no formal collective identity other than perhaps memberships of trade associations for the film or music businesses. Big Copyright, on the other hand, materializes in a multitude of specific, named alliances that are the products of formalized agreements to collaborate. Second, Big Copyright brings together interests that spread far beyond the diversified holdings of even the largest, most diversified media and communication conglomerates. Big Media are part of Big Copyright, but the latter extends further, formed of unities among multiple copyright holders from across the business software, publishing, music, film, television and game industries, plus broadcasters, internet service providers, media retailers, marketing agencies, technology firms and in some cases police forces. These alliances have become power brokers in what Adrian Johns describes as the “intellectual property defence industry,” creating constellations of interests to aggregate social and political capital against piracy. While these groupings are led by the media industries, the raison d’être behind the creation of these alliances is to reach beyond the media sector by pressuring governments to act in the interests of rights holders, working with judicial and police authorities to enforce the protection of rights, and reaching out to the public by communicating lessons in good copyright citizenship. Finally, while Big Media largely means the major U.S. media firms, with the possible addition of Bertelsmann, Big Copyright is more internationally dispersed, comprising alliances formed around various national coalitions and including a few transnational members.

Image - FACT LogoBy way of illustration, I’ll briefly review here the alliances at the forefront of the content protection business in the UK. Formed in October 1982 through collaboration between the Motion Picture Export Association of America (MPEAA), the Society of Film Distributors, and the British Videogram Association (BVA), the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) was established in the early years of the home-video boom, when Britain was regarded by Hollywood as a hotbed of video piracy due to the low fines imposed for first offenses and lenient sentences for subsequent convictions. FACT is part of the MPA’s international network of national non-profit “content protection organizations” (CPOs), which now extends to over 30 countries, predominantly in Western Europe but also in parts of Eastern Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and North and South America. Through this network, FACT has equivalents in other major international markets for Hollywood film and television, including JIMCA (the Japan and International Motion Picture Copyright Association), Germany’s Gesellschaft zur Verfolgung von Urheberrechtsverletzungen (GVU, the Society for the Prosecution of Copyright Infringement), France’s Association de Lutte Contre la Piraterie Audiovisuelle (ALPA, the Association for the Fight Against Audiovisual Piracy) and the Asociación Protectora de Cine y Música México (APCM, the Mexican Association for the Protection of Movies and Music). Image - APCM LogoCPOs localize the MPA’s global fight against piracy, providing on-the-ground points of contact for links with national governmental departments, law-enforcement agencies, and companies or trade bodies in the media sector. Although operating as a kind of outpost in Hollywood’s global fight against film and television piracy, FACT is now networked into the broader UK media economy. Alongside the MPA and the six major Hollywood corporations, FACT’s membership includes the main terrestrial broadcasters (BBC, ITV), satcaster (Sky) and cable provider (Virgin Media), plus film trade bodies (British Video Association, Film Distributors’ Association, and UK Cinema Association), and a leading sports rights holder (Premier League). As an industry body, FACT holds no statutory authority but instead functions primarily to aid anti-piracy efforts by collaborating with national law-enforcement and customs officials to investigate and prosecute alleged infringing activities. FACT operates partnerships with HM Revenue and Customs, Border Force, the National Crime Agency, Trading Standards offices, and fifteen regional police forces.

Image - Alliance Against Copyright Theft LogoFACT therefore represents a point of mediation between the MPA CPOs and various national companies, bodies and agencies. For over three decades, FACT has remained at the forefront of anti-piracy efforts in the UK, but since the late 1990s, this network organization has seen developments with the formation of various new alliances. Operating as a kind of über-association, the Alliance for Intellectual Property exists to provide a single voice representing the collective interests of the copyright industries to the UK government. Formed in 1998, the Alliance aggregates the interests of two dozen “trade organisations, enforcement organisations and collecting societies from across the creative, branded and design industries.” Beyond its own business, the Alliance pays communications consultancy Luther Pendragon to provide administrative support to the All Party Parliamentary Intellectual Property Group (APPG), launched in 2003 as an interest group within UK government that, according to the Register of All-Party Parliamentary Groups, serves to “debate and highlight the value of intellectual property (IP) and the importance of its promotion and protection.”

Image - Industry Trust LogoOperating since 2004 with support from the UK film, TV and video industries, the Industry Trust for Intellectual Property Awareness describes itself as a “pro-copyright consumer education body.” Membership of the Trust extends to 44 entities, including all the major film/video distributors and cinema chains and their related trade bodies, plus marketing agencies (My Movies, Think Jam), pre-school entertainment company HIT, optical-disc manufacturer Sony DADC, digital-entertainment technology provider Rovi, home-entertainment metadata supplier West10, and leading online retailers (e.g. Amazon, eBay) and supermarkets (e.g. Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco). In addition, the Trust has 88 partners from across the UK’s film and television business, including FACT and the Alliance for IP. To promote awareness of the value of IP, the Industry Trust has run multiple campaigns, including the series of Moments Worth Paying For ads screened across cinemas, digital outdoor spaces and online media.

Following the model of the Center for Copyright Information in the US, CCUK was launched with two purposes. Get It Right from a Genuine Site is the first outcome of CCUK’s commitment to pro-copyright public awareness campaigning.

CCUK was also established to implement the Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme (VCAP), a system for rights owners to monitor transfers of infringing content over file-sharing networks, logging the IP addresses of infringers and notifying ISPs who send “escalating” warning letters to the relevant users. Issuing only a series of educative warnings means VCAP takes a lighter touch to deterrence than the enforcement of disconnections or financial penalties proposed by the 2010 Digital Economy Act. This has led to some questioning, however, particularly from the MPAA, over whether the program has any real teeth.

As the UK case shows, the landscape of anti-piracy alliance formation is confusing: not only has there been the proliferation of alliances, but many companies or organizations are also members of multiple alliances, and some alliances partner in other alliances. The formation of, but also the blurring between, alliances is particularly noticeable in how the presence of the Hollywood majors is unsurprisingly woven throughout these networks: the majors are individual members of FACT and the Industry Trust but are also collectively represented in these groupings and the Alliance for IP through the Film Distributors’ Association and the MPA.

AImage - Moments Worth Paying For-Anchorman 2s suggested earlier, Big Copyright grows out of nationally-configured coalitions of collective interests. So in the U.S., a similar array of alliances operates to those found in the UK. Representing trade associations across the copyright industries, the International Intellectual Property Alliance annually reports to the U.S. Trade Representative on the current state of IP regimes in foreign territories, with the aim of using the trading system to strengthen the international enforcement of rights. Copyright Alliance is a pan-media coalition that lobbies Congress for stronger copyright legislation, while CreativeFuture (originally Creative America) runs television, social-media and website campaigns on how piracy threatens jobs in film and television. Pulling back from the detail of these labyrinthine connections, at a level of abstract generalization we can see these coalitions serve a limited number of core functions in the fight against piracy: the political work of lobbying government for stronger legislative protections, the legal work of aiding statutory authorities to enforce rights, and the discursive work of public-awareness campaigning.

Frequently, analyses of the media industries focus on the organization of the conditions facilitating the production, dissemination and presentation of media content. Often this means concentrating on particular media firms. But the rise of Big Copyright demands we must now equally attend to how anti-piracy alliances are today very much part of the operational purposes of the modern media industries. By their very definition, these alliances are not companies but operate in the spaces between companies. For this reason, they may slip out of sight. This is not to say they are invisible or secretive, although knowledge of the precise workings is confined to industry stakeholders and is unavailable to the public. Rather they are just not an immediately noticeable component of the media business. With their proliferation, however, anti-piracy alliances have become a distinct category of player in the media industries. Thus, it is now vital we make these alliances visible for the roles they play in regulating the marketplace of rights and in shaping the cultural sphere.


“Not Linear or On-Demand”: Television in “the Internet Age” Thu, 03 Dec 2015 12:00:33 +0000 Post by Catherine Johnson, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Catherine Johnson, Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.

In March 2015, Tony Hall (Director General of the BBC) outlined his vision for the BBC as it entered “the internet age.” Hall argued that while broadcasting had been responding to digitization for the past twenty years, until recently it had been relatively unaffected by the internet. This, Hall claimed, was changing as broadcasters responded to a new landscape in which television and the internet became more entwined.

Ofcom CMR Fig 1.5

Figure numbers and notes from original OFCOM source.

Ofcom’s annual Communication Market Report (CMR) offers a useful overview of the changing media landscape in this “internet age.” At the end of 2014, 56% of UK households had a TV connected to the internet, either via a set-top box or smart TV, and 83% of UK premises were able to receive superfast broadband. 54% of households owned a tablet (up 10 percentage points from 2013), smartphones were the most widely-owned internet-enabled device (present in two-thirds of UK households), and 4G mobile subscriptions increased from 3% at the end of 2013 to 28% at the end of 2014.

Ofcom CMR15 Fig 1.27

Figure numbers and notes from original OFCOM source.

Amid increasing access to internet-connected devices, broadcast TV viewing remained robust, with traditional live television accounting for just under 70% of the total time adults spent watching audio-visual content in the UK. However, this did represent a decline of 12 minutes annually from the previous year. Data from the UK ratings company BARB suggested that about half of this decline could be accounted for by viewing on catch-up, video-on-demand (VOD) and subscription services (such as Netflix).

Certainly, non-traditional viewing has risen over the past year. Viewing of non-subscription catch-up services (such as BBC iPlayer) has increased by 26% and 16% of UK households now subscribe to Netflix. Meanwhile, smartphones, tablets and 4G are driving consumption of television content on alternative internet-enabled platforms, particularly among younger audiences, with 16-24s more likely to use a computer or smartphone than a set-top box to access VOD TV services, and with 50% of 4G users accessing audio-visual content on their mobile phones.

Ofcom CMR15 Fig 1.39

Figure numbers and notes from original OFCOM source.

This is a complex landscape, with the changes in behavior and access to technology varying by age groups, location and economic status. What this landscape points to, however, is an increased interconnectivity between television and the internet. While this fast-moving environment raises significant difficulties for the regulation of public-service television, it also presents challenges to broadcasters attempting to navigate a landscape in which television is increasingly distributed and accessed online, whether through internet-connected set-top boxes and smart TVs or through online services available through PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

All of the UK’s broadcasters have an online web presence, typically in the form of a website and VOD service. These VOD services are available across a range of devices, including PCs and laptops, tablets, smartphones, games consoles, set-top boxes and connected television sets. In October 2015, the launch of Freeview Play made all of the public-service VOD services (alongside a suite of digital television channels) available on a television set without subscription, through the purchase of a Freeview Play enabled smart TV or set-top box. The UK’s pay-TV providers also offer their own VOD players as part of their subscription packages, and viewers can access standalone VOD services through individual subscription or download programs on a pay-per-view basis.

Table 1: Top online VOD services listed in Ofcom’s 2014 Communications Market Report, based on claimed use of selected online VOD services in the UK for 2013-14.

Table 1: Top online VOD services listed in Ofcom’s 2014 Communications Market Report, based on claimed use of selected online VOD services in the UK for 2013-14.

There is a tendency within reports such as Ofcom’s CMR to distinguish between broadcaster VOD services, such as BBC iPlayer, and new OTT providers, such as Netflix, with the former understood as “catch-up” services and the latter as subscription services used to access content not available on other platforms. Yet this positioning of broadcaster VOD services as “catch-up” fails to account for the ways in which they blend different modes of viewing in an attempt to appeal to the different “need states” of television viewing. It is important to recognize that broadcaster VOD services provide not only a mechanism to catch up on broadcast programs that have been missed, but also act as a site for accessing and viewing live and original programming. The UK’s free-to-air commercial public-service broadcaster, ITV, noted in 2014 that over 25% of all requests to its VOD service ITV Player were to watch live TV, and the interface now includes a “Live TV” button among its permanent tabs. In this case, the distinction often made between linear and non-linear television breaks down as viewers use non-linear on-demand services to access linear broadcasting.ITVPlayer Nov15

A year later in 2015, the UK’s other main commercial public-service broadcaster, Channel 4, re-launched its VOD player (4oD) as All 4, positioning it as its seventh “channel” and a central hub of its activities and identity as a broadcaster. All 4 replaced Channel 4’s broadcaster website as well as 4oD, effectively positioning the broadcaster online as a VOD service. Tim Bleasdale, Creative Director of the digital product design company Ostmodern, vividly described his company’s work on All 4 as creating “a world where 4oD has eaten the rest of”

The design of the All 4 online interface itself is based on offering viewers three differentiated experiences. “On Demand” is the tab through which to access catch-up and archived programs, including box sets. “Now” is the place to watch live broadcasts, interactive formats, clips, new shorts and social-media conversations. “On Soon” showcases exclusive online premieres, promos and trailers, as well as being the place to set reminders and alerts. Far from being a catch-up service, All 4 attempts to collapse the boundaries between broadcasting and VOD. As Laura Slattery of The Irish Times argues, All 4 can be understood as the presentation of “all of Channel 4’s linear channels (Channel 4, E4, More 4), its catch-up content and its digital exclusives in one place – reflecting the fact that younger viewers increasingly do not differentiate between live television and video-on-demand.” Jonathan Holmes concurs, claiming that All 4 represented “yet another sign that broadcasters no longer view online as an adjunct to their main mission, but as central to modern television.”All 4 Nov15

More controversially, in 2014 the BBC revealed its proposal to transform its digital channel BBC Three into an online-only service delivered through its VOD service BBC iPlayer. While this decision was driven significantly by the need to cut costs in a difficult political environment (as Liz Evans discussed in an earlier Antenna blog), it was also positioned by the broadcaster as a means of responding to changing viewing habits, particularly of younger audiences. Echoing much of the rhetoric around the launch of All 4, Damian Kavanagh (Controller, BBC Three) described the move as merging what is great about broadcast and digital in order to “give something of the digital world, not just in it.” Although the service has not yet launched, the BBC’s proposals for BBC Three online again focused around need states with the service positioned around two pillars: “Make Me Think” and “Make Me Laugh.”

As with All 4, Damien Kavanagh has described this as an opportunity to combine the delivery of traditional television programming with different forms of content, from short-form to image-led storytelling and increased interaction from viewers. However, while the channel would have a dedicated home online, the BBC claimed in its proposals that the different kinds of content would sit within different sites online, with short-form and digital content emerging on social platforms such as Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and long-form content appearing on iPlayer, as well as on broadcast channels BBC One and BBC Two. This model points to the difficulties of blending online and broadcast. Although VOD services such as All 4 and BBC iPlayer can act as hubs for television content online, the BBC’s proposals suggest that there remains a distinction between digital-only content (described by Kavanagh as short-form and digital) and broadcast content (understood as long-form programming). Within the BBC’s thinking, VOD services such as the iPlayer seem to emerge as extensions of broadcast channels (a place to access long-form programs online), rather than as a site that can accommodate other forms of “digital-only” content that might be better suited to social platforms such as Tumblr or Twitter.

While I am usually resistant to predicting the future, what is emerging is a television landscape in which VOD services sit alongside channels on our television sets and in which live broadcast programming is offered within the same online interface as on-demand and interactive content. This integration of online and broadcasting is unlikely to lead to the decline of live, linear television viewing, but it does change the relationship between broadcasting and on-demand. Indeed, when announcing the launch of All 4 David Abraham, Chief Executive of Channel 4, claimed that the future of TV lies “not with either linear or on-demand, but a creative and visual integration of the two worlds, blending the strengths of both into a single brand.” To understand television in the internet age, we need to recognize that far from being separate or distinct, linear and non-linear television are entwined in a media landscape in which broadcasting and online are, and will be, increasingly interdependent.


]]> 2