BBC – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Pretty in Pink: BBC iPlayer and the Promotion of On-Demand Television Thu, 19 Nov 2015 12:00:27 +0000 Post by Paul Grainge, 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 Paul Grainge, Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.

BBC iPlayer as a “pink portal” (2010)

BBC iPlayer as a “pink portal” (2010)

Ever since the BBC launched its on-demand service, BBC iPlayer, on Christmas Day in 2007, short-form trailers have appeared across the BBC’s broadcast channels to promote the availability of iPlayer as a new way of accessing and engaging with BBC content. The distinctive iPlayer logo, pretty in pink, routinely appears in TV end credits as a reminder of program availability through catch-up and as a call to action. The “play” symbol invites audiences not only to watch shows they may have missed but also to download content, interact with educational guides, share recommendations and personalize their viewing through sign-in (the last of these reflecting the BBC’s desire, expressed by Director-General Tony Hall in 2015, to “reinvent public service broadcasting through data”).

As well as using end credits, the promotion of BBC iPlayer in the UK market has also taken place in between programs, a range of teasers (10 seconds), trailers (30-40 seconds) and full-blown brand stories (up to a minute long) appearing as interstitials in the BBC’s linear schedule. These always make me watch. Not simply because I’m a sucker for a well-crafted promo, but also because they reveal something of the way that the BBC has produced, and continues to develop, vernaculars around on-demand television.

BBC iPlayer logo

BBC iPlayer logo

This has become tied to questions of how the BBC communicates its role in a fast-changing media environment. Unquestionably, the BBC has been successful in creating brand awareness for iPlayer. This was evidenced by a YouGov poll in 2013 that named “BBC iPlayer” the UK’s number-one brand in terms of consumer perception, ahead of Samsung (2nd), John Lewis (3rd), (6th), YouTube (7th) and Marks & Spencer (8th). And yet, despite the ubiquity of the brand, it remains the case that iPlayer accounts for just 2-3% of all BBC audience viewing. For those responsible for iPlayer strategy at the BBC, this signals a head-scratching gap between brand awareness and actual use among mainstream audiences. While rebutting claims in 2015 that iPlayer’s audience had dipped for the first time, the Head of BBC iPlayer, Dan Taylor-Watt, nevertheless remarked in a May blog post that “the challenge for us is to get everyone using iPlayer—whether that’s to make the journey to work better, the holiday in the middle of no-where [sic] in the rain more enjoyable or just easily catch-up on what you’ve missed from the comfort of your sofa.”

It is the nature of the “challenge” that Taylor-Watt describes that interests me—specifically, how promotion has been used to get audiences to think of iPlayer as part of their daily habit. Since 2011, marketing campaigns for iPlayer have been informed by a “three beyond” strategy: “beyond PC, beyond catch-up, beyond the early-adopter.” This has been expressed in different ways, but is marked by a move away from techno-representations of iPlayer as a “portal”—viewers gazing at phosphoric BBC content in mystical electro-space—and towards representations that depict the use and function of iPlayer in the spaces and routines of everyday British life.

In the move from portals to port-a-loos (the tempting alternative title for this blog), a 2012 trailer called “Beyond the Computer” would depict the iPlayer logo descending onto screen devices being used in a range of spaces across the UK, from buses, beach huts, canal boats and office blocks to windmills, flats and the aforementioned portable toilet. Promoting the extension of iPlayer onto multiscreen devices, this trailer emphasized platform mobility in contemplative representations of “digital Britain.

More recently, however, iPlayer campaigns have taken a different tack, and have focused more deliberately on what BBC managers that Catherine Johnson and I have interviewed call the “need-states” of on-demand television. This involves communicating the relevance, rather than simply the availability, of iPlayer to audiences. A 2014 campaign called “Always There When You Need It” demonstrates this attempt to show how iPlayer can serve the “entertainment needs” of prospective users. Targeted at the audience persona of “mainstream mums”—women in their thirties and forties with children, seen by the BBC as a group that under-uses iPlayer—the promo imagined “moments and opportunities” where iPlayer could fill gaps and fit into the time-pressed lives of people negotiating hectic, harassed and occasionally hungover moments of the day.

At some level, “always there when you need it” chimes with Max Dawson’s analysis of DVR advertising in the U.S. By the terms of his argument, digital television technologies became linked in the 2000s to discourses of attention management. Dawson connects this to wider neoliberal ideologies and the reflexive project of learning how to allocate attention profitably. Alert to quotidian moments, “Always There When You Need It” depicts scenes where iPlayer solves problems of time and attention in social, familial and workday life—from viewing “opportunities” on a delayed train to calming over-energetic children.

And yet, there is something in these promos that extends beyond a concern with the profitable allocation of attention. In cultural terms, they also contribute to the way the BBC has sought to promote its identity and value as a (digital) public-service broadcaster. In a period when the BBC is having to justify its purpose and unique funding arrangement ahead of charter review in 2016—and in the face of attacks by a Conservative government intent on reducing the corporation’s size—it is perhaps no surprise that the BBC has developed vernaculars that imagine, and assert, the BBC as something that wraps around British life.  While the purpose of “always there when you need it” was to highlight iPlayer’s capacity to meet entertainment needs, this trailer and subsequent promotions (such as this year’s “if you love something let it show” campaign, which invites audiences to share recommendations through iPlayer) have as much to say about the BBC’s own political “need-states” as they do the conditions and situations where audiences might turn to iPlayer as a service.

‘If You Love Something Let It Show" campaign (2015)

‘If You Love Something Let It Show” campaign (2015)


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Losing Our Heads for the Tudors: The Unquiet Pleasures of Quixotic History in The Tudors and Wolf Hall Tue, 23 Jun 2015 14:00:51 +0000 The Tudors and Wolf Hall can actually tell us a great deal about how the early modern appears in contemporary popular culture, as well as how we engage with the historical past.]]> wolfhall

Post by T.J. West, Syracuse University

If we are, indeed, living in the Golden Age of Television, we can also be said to be living in the Golden Age of Tudorphilia (or at least a golden age, as the Tudors seem to bubble to the surface of popular consciousness periodically). From the runaway success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl to Hilary Mantel’s award-winning and critically lauded books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the exploits of Henry VIII and his six wives, as well as everyone caught in the crossfire, have re-entered the popular cultural landscape with a vengeance. We seemingly cannot get enough of the Tudors. In this essay, I would like to explore some of the aesthetic and ideological functions of two particular iterations of this obsession with England’s most (in)famous dynasty, Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010) and the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre’s Wolf Hall (2015), the latter based on Mantel’s two books on the life of Thomas Cromwell. However, rather than chiding these films as mere escapism or condemning them for distorting Tudor history (both of which may be true to some degree), I would like to argue that they can actually tell us a great deal about not only how the early modern appears in contemporary popular culture, but also why it appears and what it can tell us about how we engage with the historical past.

Of course, both The Tudors and Wolf Hall partake in a long tradition of re-imagining the Tudor court for the contemporary imagination. Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) solidified the image of Henry as a villainous glutton who devours both chicken legs and wives with the same abandon (this image is due, in no small part, to the corpulent persona assiduously cultivated by Charles Laughton). Other actors would bring different levels of complexity to the role, including Richard Burton’s brooding and Byronic persona in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) and Eric Bana’s gruffly and dangerously handsome interpretation in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

Cue Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who strides onto the set of The Tudors chewing scenery and shedding clothes. Exuding his signature mix of sultry sexuality and brat prince antics, Henry as Rhys-Meyers portrays Henry as less the erudite and thoughtful scholar-king and more the unruly id that constantly threatens to overwhelm the bounds of the narrative designed to contain him. His excessive and sometimes capricious sexual desires cause chaos at the personal, social, and political levels, leading to more than one ignominious death on the scaffold.


While men do certainly fall victim to Henry’s mercurial changes of temper, it is the women who truly bear the brunt of his sexual whims. While The Tudors contains many scenes of female nudity, the camera often focuses just as intently on the anguished expressions of Henry’s various consorts, particularly Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (portrayed by the immensely talented Maria Doyle Kennedy and Natalie Dormer, respectively). The first two seasons in particular draw conspicuous attention to the ways in which female bodies and sexuality serve the double-edged function of allowing access to power while also becoming their weak points, for in the world of The Tudors—as in so many other dramas that appear in the cable television world—women’s bodies remain a commodity that can be easily acquired and just as easily cast aside once their “usefulness” is expended. The many close-ups of Katherine’s face registers the emotional and mental anguish she encounters as a result of her own eclipse by Anne, and the camera also focuses on the latter’s face after her eventual fall from grace. While the series alludes to the momentous political and social changes that surround the events of Henry’s court—the annulment, after all, eventually became part of the broader Protestant Reformation—these momentous changes are mapped onto the suffering female body.

If bare flesh, sexual romps, and the anguished female body stand as the aesthetic markers of The Tudors, dim lighting, claustrophobically tight spaces and sinister whispers are those of Wolf Hall. While less explicitly concerned with the rampant sexual escapades of the Tudor dynasty, this latter drama remains just as invested in digging into the grim, dark underbelly of Tudor glamour. Death and a general precariousness of life are a consistent feature of this tightly-plotted vision of Henry’s reign. Death here can come in many forms, whether as the sweating sickness that claims the lives of Cromwell’s wife and daughters within the first episode or the despair that takes hold of Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey as he tumbles out of Henry’s orbit and into ignominy.

While Damian Lewis may not have the smokey, pin-up good likes of Rhys-Meyers, he does have his own brand of handsomeness, and it is worth noting that he actually looks like Henry was supposed to have looked, with his fiery-gold hair and fair skin. Likewise, Lewis makes for a more charismatic and likeable Henry, not falling so easily into the realm of sultry camp that always threatens the seriousness of The Tudors. However, it is precisely this charisma that makes this Henry so dangerous and that makes him serve as the perfect foil for Mark Rylance’s more dour and dark Cromwell. This Henry can turn from laughing and light-hearted to dangerously lethal in the blink of an eye, his radiant and sunny personality a mask covering a truly sinister persona just awaiting its chance to strike. As the series progresses, we see that caprice strike down several men and, while Cromwell has so far managed to rise above the bodies, anyone who knows their Tudor history knows that, inevitably, Henry’s sexual desires will once again destroy one of his most faithful councilors.

Clearly, both The Tudors and Wolf Hall remain invested in depicting the Early Modern world as dangerously and exotically other than the world that we currently inhabit. In their own ways, each of these series attempts to tame that dangerousness—to render it intelligible and contained—through the moral codes of melodrama (The Tudors) or the explanatory power of narrative and “literary” historical fiction (Wolf Hall). At the same time, however, they also contain within them a (perhaps unwitting) acknowledgment of the perilously undisciplined nature of both the past and sexuality. While both appear to have been tamed by the discourses we have designed to discipline them and to render them intelligible, there always remains something about them that slips away from us, unknowable, ungraspable, and ultimately ineffable. It is precisely these elements that make the Tudor period so unquietly pleasurable to watch, reminding us of the perilous Quixotism of history.


Missing from History: Langston Hughes’ The Man Who Went To War Fri, 12 Jun 2015 13:00:07 +0000 Front row standing (L-R): Hall Johnson, Alan Lomax, D. G. Bridson, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters.

Front row standing (L-R): Hall Johnson, Alan Lomax, D. G. Bridson, Canada Lee, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters.

Post by Michele Hilmes, University of Wisconsin-Madison

I have been so overwhelmed, and humbled, by the recent sequence of posts here on Antenna, sparked by the wonderful podcast assembled by Andrew Bottomley, Jeremy Morris, and Christopher Cwynar, that I wanted first of all to thank all of you who cast so many kind words in my direction, and second to say something about what I’ll be getting up to in retirement.

It was especially gratifying to hear so many of you acknowledge the importance of an historical perspective on the present, to enable us to see it more clearly. This works the other way too: to paraphrase Foucault, the perspective of the present continuously helps us to see things that were obscured in the past, such as the agency of whole classes of people – women, minorities, those outside the mainstream’s scope – as well as the significance of work done long ago and forgotten but now finding new relevance as we push the borders of our field ever wider.

One example of this in the field of sound is the first ever collection of critical essays on the creative work of Norman Corwin forthcoming from California in the spring, edited by Neil Verma with contributions from many of you reading this. It took a new generation of media scholarship, combined with the new interest in sound sparked by the digital present, to enable us once again to perceive the value of Corwin’s innovations, so long unheard and unappreciated.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Another example involves one of those amazingly serendipitous archival stories we sometimes get to tell. About five years ago, I was at the Library of Congress following up on research for Network Nations. One thing I was looking for was any trace of some of the radio features produced in the US during the WWII years by D. G. Bridson, an important innovator of the radio documentary feature form at the BBC. In his biography, Prospero and Ariel, Bridson describes his experiences working with people like Alan Lomax and Langston Hughes, the premier poet of the Harlem Renaissance, whom Bridson commissioned in late 1943 to write an original “ballad opera” in support of the war effort.[1]

Hughes’ script of The Man Who Went To War was produced in New York in February 1944, featuring some of the most significant African-American performers of the era. Paul Robeson introduced the show and provided the “Voice of God” at the end; Josh White performed the sung narration, with Ethel Waters and Canada Lee playing the central roles of Sally and Johnny. Alan Lomax arranged the music, which was sung by the Hall Johnson Choir, accompanied by noted bluesmen Sonny Terry playing harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar.

Hughes, whose struggle to get his scripts on the air in the US had led to frustration and disappointment, wrote to Erik Barnouw in March 1945:

“Probably my best script is THE MAN WHO WENT TO WAR as performed on BBC for England and the colonies last spring…Considering the seriousness of the race problem in our country, I do not feel that radio is serving the public interest in that regard very well… Personally, I DO NOT LIKE RADIO, and I feel that it is almost as far from being a free medium of expression for Negro writers as Hitler’s airlanes are for the Jews.”[2]

Hughes’ answer to US radio’s silence on race was to construct a musical drama that simply refuses to acknowledge that African-American and British identity might not be thoroughly elidable, or that the language of blues and gospel music might not speak for “all freedom-loving people,” without distinction. More musical poetry than drama, Hughes and Bridson built on the “radio ballad” or “ballad opera” form pioneered by Alan Lomax in the US and later developed by Charles Parker in Britain.

Listen here to the opening sequence of The Man Who Went to War:

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

The show was never aired in the US, due to rights issues, but was recorded and broadcast over the BBC in the spring of 1944, with highly favorable reception. But here, according to Bridson, its story ends; the last remaining recording – made on glass discs – was shattered soon after. And thus faded The Man Who Went To War, one of the very few of Hughes’ scripts for radio actually broadcast, unheard by the American public and inaccessible to scholars.

But not so! As I found out that day in 2010, the Library of Congress amazingly preserved a recorded copy – not the best sound quality in places, faded and scratched, but bringing to human ears for the first time in more than six decades voices and performances unique to the historical radio soundscape. It has now been digitized and can be found in the LOC collection, though not alas online. I look forward not only to digging into the history and reception of this unique work, but to making it the centerpiece of a history of the radio feature in the United States – the creative tradition that underlies current innovative soundwork like This American Life and Serial but that, like Corwin and so much else in American radio, remains missing from history – until media scholars like us go looking.

Thanks to the field we have together built up, and thanks too to some important historical projects you’ve read about here – the Radio Preservation Task Force, the Archive of American Public Broadcasting, and others in progress – much more of our missing media history promises to be revealed, after decades of silence.   It is my hope, and a goal in retirement, that what I have elsewhere referred to as the “lost critical history of radio”[3] – and by that I mean the critical heritage of American soundwork, in particular – can be revived and made meaningful to those of us who create, listen to, and reflect on soundwork today.


[1] My grateful thanks to Lisa Hollenbach for sharing with me her research in Langston Hughes’ papers in Yale’s Beinecke Collection.

[2] Letter from Langston Hughes to Erik Barnouw, 27 March 1945. B1 F10, Erik Barnouw papers, Columbia University.

[3] Michele Hilmes, “Radio’s Lost Critical History,” Australian Journalism Review Special Edition “Radio Reinvented: the enduring appeal of audio in the digital age,” 36:2, Spring 2015.


Public-Service Streaming: BBC Three and the Politics of Online Engagement Thu, 21 May 2015 11:00:13 +0000 Post by Elizabeth Evans, 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 Elizabeth Evans, Assistant Professor of Film and Television Studies in our department.

BBC 3-image1

In March 2014, the BBC announced plans to “transform” one of its channels, BBC Three, into an online-only “channel.” Under the proposals, BBC Three would cease linear broadcasting and exist only via the Corporation’s website and the hugely popular online catch-up service, iPlayer. This would then allow the channel’s broadcast spectrum space to be transferred to a new BBC One+1 channel and to increase the broadcast hours of children’s-only channel CBBC from twelve hours to fourteen. The announcement comes at an uncertain time for the BBC. After several years of budget freezes, its Royal Charter, which gives the BBC the right to collect the legally enforced license fee, is due for review in 2016. Its future has been positioned front and center in public debates. Party leaders called for the Corporation’s reform during the recent UK general election. Prime Minister David Cameron then appointed a new Minister for Culture, Media and Sport who had likened the license fee to the hugely unpopular and riot-inducing Thatcherite poll tax. Central to these debates are questions around the future of television viewing in light of digital technologies, and the continued value of public-service broadcasting.

It’s unsurprising that BBC Three has been the catalyst for these debates. BBC Three is clearly and incessantly labeled as a “youth-oriented” channel with an intended audience aged 16-34. That same group is equally consistently associated with changing viewing habits and a shift away from traditional distribution avenues such as broadcasting. This association was central to how the BBC announced its plan. Director of TV Danny Cohen told the press in December 2014 that it was the BBC’s responsibility to adapt to perceived changes in how 16-24 year-olds watch television. This necessary change is, apparently, a move away from broadcasting, producing a mix of episodic and short-form content, and positioning streaming technology at the heart of the BBC’s activities.

BBC 3-image2-BluestoneAlthough justified via beliefs concerning changing audience behavior, the BBC Three announcement also involved a series of claims about the value of broadcasting or, more specifically, values that broadcasting lacks. Cohen pronounced that the new, online BBC Three would “have the freedom to break traditional shackles and allow the BBC to be a leader in digital change.” BBC Three Controller Damien Cavanagh equated this “breaking [of] traditional shackles” to short-form video and to more transmedia or interactive storytelling forms designed to promote debate and to generate a “richer experience” for audiences. This sense of experimentation and innovation was explicitly positioned as a value that BBC Three’s new form would offer its youth audience, and which broadcasting apparently lacks.

Broadcasting was instead constructed as beholden to regimented episode lengths and slow production schedules. Both claims are somewhat ironic and problematic. BBC Three already produces short content in the form of 60 Second News, and on multiple occasions during its history, the BBC has created broadcast content that isn’t an hour or half-hour in length. Short-form content is a regular feature of rival public-service broadcaster Channel 4’s weekday evening schedule, with a five-minute slot for its series 4Thought. The BBC has equally ignored the hour and half-hour as program start times, most notably in Saturday early-evening slots. In terms of responsiveness to emerging events, the valuing of online over broadcasting also ignores the central technological feature of broadcasting: that it can be live, with news and current-affairs programming regularly responding rapidly to real-world events via broadcast means. Nothing inherent in broadcasting technology requires regimented slots or a delay in production. Ultimately the BBC positions the creative value of online engagement in terms of freedom from the (perceived) traditional practices of the broadcast industry, practices that have seemingly restricted the potential of broadcast technology itself.

Thus, the transformation of BBC Three has been couched in debates that devalue broadcasting in favor of a streaming-based distribution system seen as more agile, creative and relevant for younger audiences. To this end, the proposed changes to BBC Three are positioned as not simply about changing a single television channel, but about reinventing what the BBC, and what public service, means, future-proofing it for 2016 Charter renewal and beyond.

BBC 3-image3-I-survived-a-zombie-apocalypse-posterAt the same time, however, the proposals contain unspoken value statements that actually privilege broadcasting. After the full plans met with criticism, Kavanagh worked to reassure critics that new BBC Three content would still appear on BBC One or BBC Two in late-evening slots, creating a hierarchy of content at the fringes of the BBC’s broadcast activities. More prominently, at the heart of the BBC’s announcement is the provision of a BBC One+1 channel, which would repeat that channel’s content one hour later, along with expanded broadcast provision for children aged 6-12 via CBBC. By balancing an online BBC Three with broadcast expansion elsewhere, the Corporation makes a number of further assumptions about the value of television technology for its audiences, highlighting contradictions in its overall strategy. The general audience is positioned as still predominantly valuing broadcasting, but that “general audience” apparently does not include younger audiences or those who enjoy content aimed at younger audiences (that is, people not aged 16-34 but still interested in content pitched to that demographic). It also assumes that BBC Three’s audiences will not suffer from the same problems with accessing broadband services that BBC One’s audience would. Younger audiences, according to the BBC, would not only prefer to access content via streaming but are also universally able to do so, and thus are unaffected by the myriad of socio-cultural factors that play into the digital divide or infrastructural discrepancies in broadband access.

Whether the transformation of BBC Three actually goes ahead is still to be seen (governing body the BBC Trust has yet to approve the idea, and it has already been delayed until 2016). However, the way the BBC has proposed the strategy highlights the contradictory values currently at play in the UK television landscape. The notion that public-service broadcasting must change is positioned as self-evident. Online spaces are seen as agile and creative in ways that broadcasting is not, as protected against any further changes that may be wrought by digital convergence. Younger audiences are seemingly denied this value of broadcasting and firmly associated with the changes that are positioned at the heart of the new public-service media. But at the same time, additional value is placed on broadcasting for general – read older – audiences. As the BBC presents streaming and digital technologies as the future, it simultaneously reinforces broadcasting and the TV set. This works to position the Corporation as embracing the new while still valuing the old, and reiterates the centrality of the relationship among content, audience and distribution to public service broadcasting’s future definitions.


Honoring Hilmes: Across the Borders Fri, 08 May 2015 13:00:22 +0000 Hilmes3 copyThis is the fourth post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

Post by Jason Jacobs, University of Queensland

The impact of Michele Hilmes’ scholarship on me is best told by tracking its contribution to my early formation as an academic. In 1990 I was fishing around for a PhD topic; I’d spent the final year of my film degree at the University of Warwick under the charismatic mentorship of Charlotte Brunsdon, who had introduced a compelling television studies strand into the capstone Film Aesthetics course and, as a result, I found myself writing and thinking a lot about television. It was that period of British television when the last great dramas were still in recent memory: particularly that golden year, 1986, when the BBC transmitted The Singing Detective, The Life and Loves of a She Devil and The Monocled Mutineer; also the year, in fact, when public service broadcasting effectively ended as a practice in the UK. That, in turn, stimulated my curiosity about the history of television drama: Where did these great things come from? What traditions do they inhabit and respond to? With these questions in mind it made sense for me (plus I hail from the region) to enroll at the University of East Anglia under the supervision of Charles Barr, who had recently published a piece in Sight and Sound which had contrasted the achievement of Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson’s The Classical Hollywood Cinema with the dearth of work on television history. There really was very little written in the UK about the history of television that wasn’t anecdotal or mostly concerned with institutional history (such as Asa Briggs’ History of Broadcasting in the UK, rather like – but not quite – Barnouw’s three volume history of US broadcasting). Nothing, certainly, to compare to the work in Thomas Elsaesser’s magnificent collection Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, which was launched by him shortly after I arrived in Norwich.

hollywoodbroadcastingOf course, as the famous parable by Richard Hamilton instructs us, what I assumed were issues unique to my intellectual tastes and dispositions, turned out to be part of a much wider cultural momentum. There was work being written on television history, and the best of it was coming from the US: indeed most of my reading in my first year of PhD came from US based scholars, in particular William Boddy, William Urrichio and, of course, Michele Hilmes’ Hollywood and Broadcasting. This was precisely the rich, theoretically-inflected revisionist history I craved and, for a long while, my thesis had a strong US component. I even lived in Manhattan for several weeks in order to view as much early material as I could at the (then) Museum of Television and Radio. The advantages of scarce primary material! I didn’t meet Michele until a few years later in Madison and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that we began to meet and talk fairly regularly. By then television history had considerable momentum, but it remained nationalized. Which is to say there was still that Briggs-Barnouw division: US history on one side, the rest on the other. When we were working on The Television History Book together there wasn’t a moment when we doubted the wisdom of bringing national television histories together – that underpinned, in a very small space, our shared belief in the intellectual fascination of flows of talent, technology, training and ideas between broadcasting nations. It is an indication as much of Michele’s commitment to this as it is to my weakness, that without her example I may have let it drop – so strong had the cultural-nationalist inflected British television history become.

There’s still a bit of that around, but it looks and sounds odd. A couple of years ago Michele was the keynote at a conference in the University of Reading, UK, and although her paper was typically stunning in its ambition and delivery, during questions I noticed some senior British academics carried the whiff of indignation at the effrontery of a Yank speaking so well about aspects of ‘their’ television and its connections and absorption in the US. Afterwards, as I drove Michele and her husband Bruce back to my hotel for a nice cup of tea, we reflected on the odd shortsightedness of such a response. One thing about Michele and her work (and as the title of one of her books puts it!) that is so distinctive and unusual is that she is all about making connections across the lines, and not about policing borders or holding territory.

I don’t have a copy to hand, but in his wonderful book, True Friendship, Christopher Ricks talks about Eliot and Pound’s friendship as incorporating competition, yes, necessarily – but never ruthless competition. Over the past few years I saw a lot of Michele as our projects converged, both interested in transnational relations between British and American broadcasting. Sometimes we’d run into each other at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham Park, or when I was up to my neck in the NBC archives in Madison. Once, over margaritas in her lakeside home, we both expressed a desire the other would publish first – it would be so helpful! I’m glad to say Michele’s Network Nations was first. Here’s an image that shows how helpful it has been, and continues to be for me. Each yellow leaf a reminder to return to her again.



From Nottingham and Beyond: British Classical Music Radio, Public Service Broadcasting and the Neoliberal Market Thu, 26 Feb 2015 17:32:32 +0000 Post by Roberta Pearson, Department of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham

This is the first installment in what is intended to be a series of roughly fortnightly blogs under the rubric of “From Nottingham and Beyond.” The Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham in the UK and the Department of Communication Arts share common interests in media industries—a commonality signalled by Prof. Michele Hilmes’ stay with us last year as Nottingham’s first Fulbright Fellow. When Jonathan Gray suggested that we make a regular contribution to Antenna, we happily agreed, thinking that this would further strengthen the bonds between the two departments. We have assembled a group of contributors comprised of both academic staff at Nottingham and many of our recent alumni, working either in higher education or in the industry both in the UK and abroad.

radio 3These contributors have been asked to bring a UK and/or global perspective to their Antenna blogs. I’m going to kick off by writing about current developments in British classical music radio. The ongoing controversy over the current programming strategies of BBC Radio 3 the nation’s non-commercial classical music radio channel, speaks to broader debates concerning the purpose and future of public service broadcasting in the UK as well as to broader debates concerning the future of the arts. The national debate about the channel’s “dumbing down” in search of larger audiences has broader implications in an age in which the logics of an aggressive neoliberalism that elevates market competitiveness over all other measures of value threaten public service broadcasting in the UK, the rest of Europe and elsewhere.Classical music has had a dedicated radio channel in the UK since the establishment of the BBB’s Third Programme in 1946. In 1967, when the BBC launched its first pop music station, Radio 1, the Light Programme became Radio 2, the Home Programme Radio 4 and the Third Programme Radio 3. Neither the Third Programme nor Radio 3 intended to cater for a broad-based mass audience for classical music. Instead, both had reputations for being unabashedly elitist and rather terrifyingly cerebral, playing a defiantly non–crowd-pleasing repertoire that frequently included the atonal and the avant-garde. This was not a problem at a time when the BBC’s public service values represented a broad cultural consensus about the purpose and value of radio and television.

reithThe BBC’s first Director General, John Reith (above), first articulated the fundamental principles of public service broadcasting and since then, as the BBC itself has said, the term “‘Reithian values’ has become a byword for public service broadcasting.” Central to those values was giving the audience what it needed rather than what it wanted – educating and uplifting rather than appealing to populist tastes or attempting to attract hordes of listeners and viewers. Funded by the license fee, the annual payment made by each household owning a radio and then a television, the BBC could program content that might not attract large audiences but that was nonetheless seen as providing value to the nation in terms of introducing audience members to cultural forms such as classical music that they might otherwise never encounter.

The 1992 launch of commercial classical music radio station Classic FM which has as its mission “to make classical music accessible and relevant to a modern audience through its engaging style” was a game-changer for Radio 3. Classic FM presented itself as a gateway to classical music, appealing to listeners whose lack of the requisite cultural capital frightened them off from the high-brow Radio 3. It enjoyed immediate success by exploiting the increasing popularity of the kind of ‘mainstream’ classical music – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Pachelbel’s Canon and the like – that we are constantly exposed to when shopping, riding elevators, holding on customer service lines, overhearing mobile ringtones, walking through airports, boarding airplanes, eating in restaurants, going to the cinema and watching television.


The playlist is restricted, drawn from the limited mainstream repertoire, and repetitive, with certain compositions regularly featured – Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto (images). Usually only the best-known movements are played rather than the entire work. And viewers are made to feel valued through interacting with the channel through phone-ins, emails, tweets, requests, dedications and by voting for the “greatest pieces of classical music” for the daily Hall of Fame Hour.


In the face of Classic FM’s success and with increasing pressure from policy makers to provide “value for money” through upping listener numbers, Radio 3 decided that it had to be more “accessible and welcoming” to a wider audience, especially to people “with little knowledge of classical music.” Radio 3 began emulating Classic FM’s strategies, with listener call-ins, a lighter repertoire, excerpts rather than complete works and the repetition of popular favorites. Classic FM took notice, complaining to a Parliamentary committee that Radio 3’s duplication of its format eroded listener choice. And long-standing Radio 3 listeners, particularly the independent advocacy group Friends of Radio 3 responded with fury. They raged against the ‘dumbing down’ that catered for newbies while those knowledgeable about classical music were ignored. They lamented the loss of the old Radio 3 that many said had admirably fulfilled its public-service remit by providing them with a free education in classical music and improving the overall quality of their lives. Most importantly, they insisted that audience numbers should not drive programming strategies and called for a return to Reithian values. They rejected the neoliberal market logics that measure value only in economic terms – Radio 3 should be judged by its enrichment of its listeners’ lives, not on spend per audience member or the sheer number of listeners.

The debate about Radio 3 raises issues relevant to public service broadcasting more generally. Should tiny audiences be appealed to if there is no immediate gain in either economic or PR terms? Can public service broadcasting afford to be elitist in the austerity age? The debate also raises issues relevant to the place of the arts in the neoliberal market. Should public monies continue to fund the opera or the theatre when only a small percentage of the population patronises them? Can only those art forms that make money survive? Has Theodor Adorno been proven right in saying, “Through the total absorption of both musical production and consumption by the capitalist process, the alienation of man has become complete.”


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

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

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


Co-production screen credits for Sherlock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bollywood, Hollywood — Trollywood? Thu, 06 Feb 2014 13:00:37 +0000 DowntonAbbey1I’ve been thinking about the long-standing, productive relationship between the US and the UK in the field of broadcasting for some time.  My recent book Network Nations traced some aspects of that history, from the early days of radio up to the late 1970s.  This year, aided by a sabbatical and a Fulbright research fellowship at the University of Nottingham, I’ve picked up the story from the 1980s on – not an easy task, as it turns out.

But I think it’s time to come out with a bold statement:  somewhere in the British/American relationship, a distinct genre of television has originated, which I propose (tongue in cheek, in the best British manner) to call “Trollywood”:  that transnational creative space created by the collaboration of British and American television producers over the last 50 years.  Furthermore, Trollywood’s operations have called into being a transnational public, not only composed of US and British audiences but assembling others from across the globe, whose members arguably have as much as or more in common with each other in terms of cultural affinities and shared affective experience, across national boundaries, than they have with other audiences in their home countries.  This despite the fact that the extent of the relationship has been downplayed in both nations, has been criticized on both sides, and is exceedingly hard to tease out.

But I will try, with a few numbers and statistics.  Let me assure you from the outset that these numbers are entirely unreliable – they are compiled through the BFI database, a wonderful instrument that nonetheless has enough quirks and omissions that the actual numbers given here should be understood as the roughest of approximations.  For instance, sometimes each episode in a series is counted as a separate production, sometimes not; some productions are counted twice or more since they have more than two co-production partners, etc.  But key patterns and formations emerge.

sherlockFrom 1980 to 2010, BFI tells us, a total of 2,237 programs have resulted from US/UK co-production.  Of those, the BBC has produced 1,345, or slightly more than half.  Other major UK co-producers are Channel Four and the various ITV companies. Since the re-structuring of the UK television industry in the 1990s, a host of independent production companies has emerged, many of them headed by former BBC and ITV co-production execs: Carnival, Left Bank, Kudos, Mammoth, and many others.  One of the most important forces to enter the scene in recent years has been BBC America, now itself often a co-production partner with both British and American companies.

On the US side, the dominant force by far is WGBH/Masterpiece, with 690 co-productions listed by the BFI between 1980 and 2010.  Cable channel A&E and New York public TV station WNET/Thirteen follow, with 287 and 216, respectively, dating from the 1980s.  But more recent cable and pay-cable partners like HBO, Discovery, Animal Planet, and Showtime are moving up, while important historical players, like Time-Life Films, have faded away.

What emerges clearly from these highly tentative numbers, however, is that the BBC/WGBH connection has been and still is by far the dominant one, with 548 prominent co-productions over this period, consisting of more than 200 series (some only 2 or 3 episodes, others running much longer) and many other one-off productions.  This is a considerable output, rivaling all but the biggest studios in commercial TV production, and indicating that this transnational partnership is important for public service broadcasting on both sides of the Atlantic.  And its audience numbers in the millions, across cultural and linguistic borders – all tuned into Trollywood.

torchwood_xlgOf course, the most popular US commercial programs obtain much bigger audiences through global distribution.  But what is distinct about Trollywood as I am defining it here is that these programs are co-productions:  not made in one place and shipped off the shelf across the globe, but arising from a long-standing relationship of mutual influence, creative input, and distinctly transnational production practices.  They also face unique challenges in their home nations, as well as taking advantage of unique opportunities.

I’ll explore the issues behind transnational co-production in future posts.  But next time you watch Sherlock, or Downton Abbey, or Torchwood, think “I am Trollywood nation” – a transnational public sharing affinities for a certain type of TV, a distinct set of productive practices and concerns, a historic constellation of affective cultural experience.  Not sure what difference that will make, but it’s worth trying on for size.


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From Mercury to Mars: The Shadow of the Great Detective: Orson Welles and Sherlock Holmes on the Air Fri, 10 Jan 2014 13:57:22 +0000 WelleswTower_squareV2In this tenth installment of our ongoing From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio After 75 Years series (in conjunction with Sounding Out!), A. Brad Schwartz explores the connection between Orson Welles and Sherlock Holmes. From his earliest experimentation with radio as a student to his final radio performance in the 1950s (a BBC production of “The Final Problem”), Welles regularly turned to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Schwartz, who co-wrote the recent PBS special on the “War of the Worlds” panic, argues that echoes of the Holmes stories can be heard throughout Welles’s radio work, including his performance as the ethereal crime-fighter The Shadow. It was partly by learning from Conan Doyle’s example of great storytelling, Schwartz claims, that Welles reshaped the rules of radio drama.

Click here to read A. Brad Schwartz’s full post over on Sounding Out!.

This post is the tenth in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsStay tuned for Antenna’s next installment from Jennifer Hyland Wang on Monday, January 20th.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


The Cultural Lives of Doctor Who: The Hype of the Doctor Tue, 17 Dec 2013 17:35:16 +0000 Matt Smith flicks a V-sign on Doctor Who Live: The AfterpartyI’ve recently written about the marketing of the Steven Moffat era, but here I’d like to look back at the promotional events of last month. ‘The Day of the Doctor’ stretched out into at least a week of the Doctor (if not longer) thanks to ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’, ‘The Night of the Doctor’, ‘The Science of Doctor Who’, ‘The Ultimate Guide’, ‘Doctor Who Live: The Afterparty’, ‘The Story of Trock’, ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’, The ExCeL Celebration, and more.  Indeed, such was the level of Doctor Who’s UK cultural presence that it reached number three in the cinema box office, its “red button” BBC offerings out-rated many BBC1 and BBC2 TV shows, and broadsheet newspapers carried front-page images of a Royal reception hosted by Sophie, Countess of Wessex.

Given this omni-coverage, and proliferation of texts that could easily be construed as paratexts (or vice versa), it’s hardly surprising that showrunner Steven Moffat has recently remarked in Doctor Who Magazine: “I dreaded this month, because… how do you pitch it at the right level. How do you make sure there’s enough Doctor Who without making people vomit with it all being too much? But it seems to be about bang on, I think”.

However, Doctor Who’s November ascension to the heights of hype brought with it a few unhappy voices: aggravated letter-writers and email-senders complained to the BBC’s Newswatch programme that BBC News coverage constituted advertising for a Corporation product rather than media/entertainment reportage, whilst The Radio Times’ letter section (14—20 Dec) included the following gem, from one Stephen Thompson: “Having enjoyed Doctor Who as young people in the 1960s and again as parents in the 70s, my wife and I decline to go along with the hype surrounding the 50th-anniversary ‘special’. Like the little boy who watched the king parading in his new clothes, we did watch it, but we found it incomprehensible… Labyrinth, also featuring John Hurt as a centuries-old survivor, though panned by the critics, was much better!”

The ‘hype of the Doctor’ becomes a thing in itself for these members of the public, inciting them to critique and reject excessive promotion from a public service broadcaster. The show’s production team were aware of this potential danger, however, with Moffat observing that there “has been more hype than I thought possible, and vastly more than I thought (in my weaker moments) wise.” For, as Jonathan Gray has noted, paratextual promotion’s mere existence can devalue a text. Hype indicates a text’s industrial and commercial roots all too obviously for some audiences.

Doctor Who is perhaps unlikely to be deemed ‘art’, but it can certainly be positioned as a public good linked to historical worth and cultural value. The Director-General of the BBC, Tony Hall, got in on this act when he aligned Who with the “nurturing” values and virtues of the BBC in a piece written for the anniversary edition of the Radio Times (23—30 Nov): “If I may be allowed a small plug, it was the BBC that brought William Hartnell to that scrapyard in 1963. The BBC who nurtured [the series]… and invented the miracle of regeneration to explain cast changes. And after the decision to cancel the show was reversed, it was the BBC who reinvented it with some of the best acting and writing on television, anywhere in the world. And you can now watch the Doctor …in 206 territories… Each has fans tuning in and buying the merchandise. …All that helps the BBC generate income to spend on high-quality programmes at home.”

Setting aside how this objectifies “the decision to cancel” the show, whilst attributing agency to the BBC for keeping Who alive via regeneration and reinvention, “plugging” something usually means selling it. And hype conveys a version of the same thing – it’s generally construed as a blatantly commercial practice. Likewise, members of the public who complained about the BBC “advertising” its own wares under the guise of entertainment news were also hurling a devalued discourse of commerce at the Beeb.

Doctor Who’s explosion of paratextual incarnations across November thus risked casting a market(ing) shadow over the BBC’s status as a public service broadcaster, over-writing royalty with revenue-generation. Though Tony Hall was quick to point out that Who’s money-making would help to fund public service productions, by aligning the show with a kind of blockbuster paratextuality, the BBC unwittingly cast itself as a hype merchant as well as the custodian of a valued creation loved by generations.

Meanwhile, getting 3D cinema tickets or entry to the BBC Worldwide-led Celebration event became neoliberal exercises in consumer sovereignty. In the first instance, punters had to compete amongst themselves to secure bookings, with a Celebration ballot only subsequently being run. Sitting in the front few rows at the ExCeL required a higher fee – a VIP TARDIS ticket – giving the impression that profits from the fan market were being keenly maximized by BBC Worldwide.

Whilst sections of fandom might embrace neoliberal common-sense, this ultimately leads to calls for Doctor Who’s merchandising/ticketing profits to be fed straight back into the show. Fan magazine SFX says in its review of ‘Day of the Doctor’, “More than half a million people watched it globally in cinemas, and it made £1.7 million in UK cinemas alone! Let’s pump that cash right back into Who, eh Beeb…?” But this is not something the BBC could ever entertain without fatally undermining its public service principles. BBC Worldwide is probably already putting amounts of money into the series – but little information on such funding has made it into the public domain. Just how much of Doctor Who’s budgeting can now – directly or indirectly – be traced back to Worldwide and its various commercial operations?

As if to distract from questions of profiteering, the global ‘simulcast’ was immediately badged with a Guinness World Record, awarded on Sunday November 24th. This had obviously been pre-arranged as a photo opportunity (and as a way of persuading paying customers at the Celebration that they were participating in an “historic moment”). Articulating the episode with a grandeur of reach, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ was paratextually inflected here by a preferred BBC interpretation; as a record-breaking achievement rather than a money-making activity. Who Guinness World Record

The BBC also addressed Doctor Who fandom via “red button” and online provision. ‘The Night of the Doctor’ and ‘The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot’ both blatantly catered to fan agendas whilst being made available at no charge. Were these texts or paratexts? Marketing for the Who brand, or gifts to fandom? I’d hazard that such ‘extras’ were liminal (para)texts, permanently caught in mid-regeneration between market and gift economies.

Whilst trying to make itself a kind of social glue uniting the nation (and multiple territories) around special event programming, the BBC consistently found itself enmeshed in commercial discourses of revenue, profit and (excessive/blockbuster) promotion. November’s week of the Doctor, and the hype of the Doctor, demonstrate an undecidability of commerce/public service, as each is caught up in the other, tangled together in an inseparably mixed economy. Throwing the Royal family, World Records, One Direction, and red button mockdocs into the paratextual mix, the BBC wants to be read as a source of public value: a giver of gifts rather than a shaper of hype. But like ‘The Day of the Doctor’, which rewrites the show’s back-story and yet fits into established continuity at one and the same time, the BBC’s celebration of the 50th anniversary rewrites the extent to which commercial operations can be built onto a licence fee-funded property, whilst still fitting into traditional PSB continuities of nation-building and community-serving.


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