censorship – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 The Visibility and Invisibility of Chinese Independent Films http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/08/27/visible-invisible-chinese-indie-films/ Thu, 27 Aug 2015 11:00:22 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=27954 Post by Sabrina Q. Yu, Newcastle 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. This week’s contributor, Sabrina Qiong Yu, completed her PhD in the department in 2008.

poster for Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火) (Diao Yinan, 2014)

poster for Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火) (Diao Yinan, 2014)

At the recent Locarno International Film Festival, 26-year-old Chinese director Bi Gan won Best Emerging Director as well as Special Mention for the First Feature award. Five years ago, Locarno awarded its top prize, the Golden Leopard, to another previously unknown Chinese director, Li Hongqi. In 2014, Berlin’s Golden Bear went to Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), directed by Diao Yinan. These three directors share a common identity in China—independent filmmaker—and their award-winning works are often labeled as independent films. But the term “independent” in the Chinese context is quite slippery and under-defined, and in fact is becoming increasingly controversial and sensitive.

In their 2006 book, Paul Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang refer to a discrepancy in the precise language used to characterize non-state filmmaking in China. They note that “‘underground’ is a term preferred by overseas media and embodies expectations of the subversive function of this alternative film culture in contemporary China,”[1] while Chinese filmmakers, media and scholarship all favor “independent,” “not necessarily due to censorship pressures.”[2] However, the situation has now taken an interesting turn. “Independent” has become a politically sensitive term and easily draws attention from the authorities. Consequently, Chinese media, scholars and many indie filmmakers carefully avoid the term, just as the label “underground” met with disfavor a decade ago. Apart from a few collections of interviews with indie filmmakers and the very limited number of articles written mostly by indie-circle insiders, indie films are out of sight in Chinese scholarship. It is even harder for the term to appear on official media, especially after the authorities’ forceful shutdown of or severe interference with nationwide indie film festivals since 2012.

poster for Kaili Blues (路边野餐) (Bi Gan, 2015)

poster for Kaili Blues (路边野餐) (Bi Gan, 2015)

In the past couple of years, in my numerous formal or informal discussions with Mainland Chinese scholars, film officials and practitioners, I notice behind various attitudes towards indie films—which include disdain, caution and criticism—there is something in common; that is, unfamiliarity with indie films. The general impression of indie films remains tied to the work of first-generation indie filmmakers emerging in the 1990s such as Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke, now having mostly gone above ground and renewed their identity as arthouse directors. The situation is similar in Western scholarship on Chinese film. Compared to Chinese-language scholarship, there is much more discussion of Chinese indie films (and particularly of indie documentaries) in English-language criticism, but this discussion is largely confined to the work of the early and more established indie filmmakers. Indie films springing up during the past ten to fifteen years have not received much academic attention, largely due to the very limited access to such films.

Generally, even knowledgeable parties hold a set of fixed ideas about Chinese indie films. Firstly, indie films are often regarded as low quality because of low budgets, the use of DV and amateur actors. A common perception, from both inside and outside of China, is that indie films are not up to an implicit professional standard and lack aesthetic value. This preconception can partly explain why many Chinese scholars are reluctant to pay attention to indie films. Probably due to a similar judgment, Western scholars and critics discuss Chinese indie films mainly from anthropological and sociological perspectives, rather than focusing on their aesthetic features.

poster for Winter Vacation (寒假) (Li Hongqi, 2010)

poster for Winter Vacation (寒假) (Li Hongqi, 2010)

In the Chinese context, indie films usually refer to the films not approved by government censors. Unsurprisingly, another familiar charge leveled at indie films within China relates to their avowedly gloomy tone and depressing representation of reality, even if not touching on sensitive or taboo subjects. This represents the opinion on indie films within a wider public in China. Indie films are often blamed for their lack of “positive energy,” a term heavily promoted by mainstream ideology. Western critics hold a much more positive attitude towards Chinese indie films, but show a similarly stereotypical view. Although the labels “underground film” and “dissident film” have been gradually phased out in Western writing on Chinese indie films, the attention to these films still largely lies in their supposed free expression and courageous handling of forbidden or marginalized subjects. In the West, Chinese indie films are discussed mainly in terms of their confrontation with censorship, and indie filmmakers still carry the currency of anti-authority. In a word, indie films are highly politicized both in China and the West.

The third often-heard accusation on Chinese indie films is that they cater to the West, based on the fact that indie films, from the outset, have been supported by Western film festivals and festival-related funds. Excluded from domestic film distribution and exhibition systems, a few indie film pioneers have paved a road to success for numerous Chinese indie filmmakers to follow; that is, to gain awards and reputation at international film festivals and then get opportunities and funds for their future film projects. Indie films are hence given a name—festival films—both in Chinese and English critical discourse. Although the label of “banned film in China” once added extra cultural capital to some indie films and won them sympathy at international film festivals, it is imprudent to claim that indie films are made only for the West. Indeed, I would argue that deep-rooted biases towards, or at least a partial view of, indie films result from an ignorance of the richness and dynamics in Chinese indie films as well as a failure to keep up with fast-developing and highly creative indie filmmaking in contemporary China. While the term of “independent” is quite visible in certain contexts, Chinese indie films themselves are largely invisible.

poster for River Road (家在水草丰茂的地方)(Li Ruijun, 2014)

poster for River Road (家在水草丰茂的地方)(Li Ruijun, 2014)

I do not have space here to survey the lengthy debate on definitions of indie films or to provide an overview of Chinese indie filmmaking in the 21st century. Instead, I simply want to point out that the above three clichéd perceptions of Chinese indie films are easily challenged by the reality of indie filmmaking. The numerous awards Chinese indie films won at different international film festivals in recent years speak to the artistic quality of these films. Despite the restrictions in all aspects of film production, indie filmmakers offer the most exciting experiments and inventions for contemporary Chinese cinema, in sharp contrast to those commercially successful but artistically banal mainstream films that have contributed to Mainland China’s box-office miracle in the past few years. In recent indie filmmaking, although a strong interest in marginalized or sensitive subjects still exists, more attention has been paid to the changing society and to ordinary Chinese people who are faced with all sorts of tremendous changes (for example, Li Ruijun’s “earth trilogy”—The Old Donkey [2010], Flying with the Crane [2012] and River Road [2014]—which explore the issue of the inheritance of traditions). Neither indulging in the dark side of the society nor presenting the visual evidence of a corrupted and chaotic country can justify the diverse topics of contemporary Chinese indie films. Finally, while international film festivals and film funds still attract Chinese indie filmmakers, more venues for the production, distribution and exhibition of indie films have emerged in the past fifteen years, including numerous domestic indie film festivals and exhibitions committed to showing indie work, and some domestic film companies such as Heaven Pictures Group that promote and support high-quality indie films. Furthermore, more and more indie films now seek approval from censors in order to reach a wider audience. The definition and scope of Chinese indie films are becoming increasingly unstable and complex. Notably lacking industrial support and suffering from ideological control, Chinese indie films are nonetheless writing a new chapter in the history of Chinese cinema, and undoubtedly deserve more critical attention.


[1] Paul G. Pickowicz and Yingjin Zhang (eds.), From Underground to Independent: Alternative Film Culture in Contemporary China (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), pp. viii-ix.

[2] Ibid, p. ix.


Monty Python’s Life of Brian, British Local Censorship, and the “Pythonesque” http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/05/07/monty-pythons-life-of-brian-british-local-censorship-and-the-pythonesque/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2015/05/07/monty-pythons-life-of-brian-british-local-censorship-and-the-pythonesque/#comments Thu, 07 May 2015 11:00:51 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=26286 Post by Kate Egan, Aberystwyth University, UK

K Egan Image 1 Life of Brian posterThis is the sixth installment in 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, Kate Egan, completed her PhD in the department in 2005.

In the last five years, there has been a new burst of research activity around British film censorship (Barber 2011; Kimber 2011; Kramer 2011; Simkin 2011; Lamberti 2012). Much of this work has benefitted, in terms of primary source material, from the recent opening up of the British Board of Film Classification’s files from the last century. This post illustrates what can be learned about the – to date – under-explored area of British local censorship through consultation of British film-related archives (the BBFC archive, as well as local newspaper resources at the British Library). I will focus here on the British local censorship history of a film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), that has been consistently lauded, by critics and audiences, as one of the best comedies of all time, but which was given extensive –possibly unprecedented – levels of coverage in the local British press in late 1979 and early 1980.

In August 1979, the BBFC decided to grant Life of Brian an AA certificate (suitable for age fourteen and over) without cuts, a decision made after the BBFC had obtained legal advice on whether the film might be legally blasphemous. This issue was of particular concern after the British publication Gay News was prosecuted for blasphemous libel in 1976, but the BBFC had received reassurance that Life of Brian was not blasphemous in a legal sense. Indeed, in a BBFC bulletin sent to local councils throughout Britain in early 1980, the BBFC defended and explained its decision in relation to the social role and license of comedy, noting that the film’s potential to induce “a degree of irreverent scepticism in its audience” was “surely permissible in a democratic society.”

According to documents in the BBFC archives, however, by mid-1980, eleven councils had banned Life of Brian from their constituencies, 28 had altered the film’s certificate from an AA to an X Certificate, and 62 had screened the film but eventually decided to uphold the BBFC’s AA certificate. Consequently, and as Sian Barber has illustrated in Censoring the 1970s (2011), this flurry of local activity, controversy and debate around Life of Brian led to the film becoming an illuminating test case for the effectiveness of local film censorship in the UK at the end of the 1970s.

Over the last five years, after consulting newspaper clippings in the Life of Brian file in the BBFC archives I’ve been searching for further local newspaper articles, news reports, editorials and readers’ letters from areas of the UK where the film was banned or considered for banning. This post draws on issues that have emerged from this initial research, relating to debates in five local newspapers in particular:

  1. The Harrogate Advertiser, which covered the process and reactions to the banning of the film unseen by Harrogate Council’s Film Selection Sub-Committee in November 1979;
  1. The South Wales Evening Post, which covered the banning of the film by Swansea City Council in February 1980;
  1. The Dudley Herald, which covered the process whereby the town’s Environmental Health committee watched the film and then upgraded it from an AA to an X certificate in February 1980 (ultimately leading it to be banned in Dudley, as the film’s distributor, CIC, refused to allow the film to be screened in localities where a change to the original BBFC certificate was requested);
  1. The Exeter Express and Echo, which covered the process whereby the film was viewed by the city council in March 1980, but then kept its certificate at an AA;
  1. The Thanet Times, which covered the process whereby the film (in Thanet and Margate in Kent) was first banned unseen by the council in December 1979, before having its AA certificate reinstated in February 1980.

What comes through clearly when exploring these press debates is that the local controversies around the film could be seen – drawing on Annette Kuhn’s arguments in Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality (1988) – to have a number of productive consequences. Indeed, the local censorship fuss around the Life of Brian issue was hugely beneficial in generating heightened publicity for the film. Feeding into this was the fact that local people in areas where the film had been banned, or where it was likely to be banned, were organizing hired bus trips to adjacent areas where the film was being screened. K Egan Image 2 Thanet TimesAfter the film was passed for screening in Exeter, for instance, the Exeter Express and Echo noted that screenings of the film in one Exeter cinema were attracting full houses every night and that the film was likely to run for fifteen weeks or more. The cinema’s manager attributed the crowds to the publicity the film had received and the consequent busloads of people coming to Exeter screenings from East Devon and Plymouth, where the film had been banned (April 24, 1980, p. 17). This also led, according to the Harrogate Advertiser, to the film being promoted in some areas as “the film that’s banned in Harrogate” (December 1, 1979, p. 3). In cinemas in the Thanet district, the film was promoted, after the initial council ban was overturned, with the slogan “Have you seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian – Thanet District Council Have!” (Thanet Times, June 17, 1980, p. 10).

The local furor over Life of Brian had other kinds of productive consequences. It is evident, on analyzing local newspaper reports across the first half of 1980, that, while the initial debate related to the film’s potential to be seen as blasphemous or to offend those in the local community with strongly held religious convictions, ultimately the split between those who wanted to ban the film and those who opposed a ban was characterized, in the local press, as a split between the old and out-of-touch and the young and cine-literate. Consequently, the decision to ban Life of Brian unseen in areas such as Harrogate was deemed – by the local newspaper, certain councillors, and those writing to the newspaper to protest – as illustrating the outmoded, bureaucratic, archaic values of the council members who had the power to make such judgements on local public morals, values and taste relating to the cinema.

For a letter-writer in Dudley, the council had shown, through its decision, that it was “out of touch with the needs of teenagers” (Dudley Herald, February 22, 1980), while in a Harrogate Advertiser report, a teacher in Harrogate noted that the local ban had aroused resentment among “quite serious and intellectual sixth formers in Harrogate” (March 22, 1980, p. 1). Indeed, what is particularly revealing about this old/young split in the Life of Brian debate was that local young people’s protests against local councils tended to cross religious and political lines. According to the Thanet Times, for instance, the group (pictured below left) protesting against the council ban on the film included the chairmen of, respectively, the local Young Conservative and Young Socialist groups (January 22, 1980, p. 1), while this picture (below right) shows Swansea’s young liberals protesting the Life of Brian ban outside Swansea City Council (February 19, 1980, p. 3). In addition, the Dudley Herald published a letter from a Dudley West Young Conservatives representative, who noted that they had formed their own protest group against the ban, with the name SPAM: Society for the Prevention of the Abolition of Monty.

times+evening post

Also revealing is the way local press reports draw on a form of Pythonesque humor as a resource to highlight the anachronistic, undemocratic or bureaucratic nature of local council decisions. This humor manifests itself in two key ways. Monty Python is frequently used as a reference point to highlight the farcical nature of council decisions. For instance, in response to the news that Dudley Council’s decision to upgrade Life of Brian’s certificate to an X meant that the distributors would bar the film from being shown at all, a Dudley Herald editorial noted that the local saga around the film “had developed into a bigger farce than the film itself” (February 15, 1980, p. 4). The fact that the banning of the film locally had led many to go to see the film in other areas is also frequently related to Pythonesque humor. As one letter-writer noted in the Harrogate Advertiser, “perhaps the Committee could spend a little time conscience-searching and ask themselves how many of the young people who have travelled to other towns to see this film did so because of the excessive publicity given by their inept bungling of the whole issue. Monty Python would be highly amused” (February 23, 1980, p. 3).

A second tactic was to write letters to local newspapers in the Pythonesque satirical mode of, to quote Marcia Landy, a “disgruntled, morally offended patron.”[1] For instance, a letter to the Harrogate Advertiser noted that “I write in praise of our great and good councillors for their splendid and timely action in banning Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Not since the Emperor Nero has such a threat been posed against Christianity as presented by this film, which I have not actually seen. There is no doubt that, were it to be shown in Harrogate, Christian Civilisation as we know it would vanish overnight, old ladies would be sold to white slavers, there would be human sacrifice on the Stray, and blood-crazed mobs of perverted young people would burn our churches to the ground. Only the brave action of our council, which knows what is best for us, has saved our community from universal chaos” (November 24, 1979, p. 12).

In terms of the impact of such tactics, as the local furor around the film began to die down in July 1980, the BBFC sent a letter to all local councils expressing concerns about what the issue had revealed about the UK’s local censorship system. In 1979, the Williams Committee report on Obscenity and Film Censorship had proposed the scrapping of local authority censorship powers in Britain (a news item subsequently debated at length by the local newspapers I’ve consulted). This illustrates the way local protests about ill-informed, out-of-touch councillors, and the use of Pythonesque humor to pinpoint their ineffectiveness and inefficiency, impacted on national conceptions of the local censorship process at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.

In Marcia Landy’s discussion of Monty Python’s cult status, she notes that Monty Python’s Flying Circus had “used television […] to satirize […] social institutions,” including “the state’s administration of social life,” and that this had occurred at a time, the late 1960s, “of worldwide cultural transformation, opening the door to critical approaches to authority and to gendered, generational, sexual, national and regional identity.”[2] In this sense, the processes and events I’ve outlined illustrate how the Python members themselves – and their role in providing tools for the critique of systems of authority, established thought and their potential hypocrisies – performed a crucial social and political function for protestors of the Life of Brian ban throughout the UK at this time.


[1] Marcia Landy, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” in David Lavery (ed.), The Essential Cult TV Reader (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), p. 172.

[2] Ibid., pp. 166-167.


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The Cost of Interfaces http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/03/19/the-cost-of-interfaces/ Tue, 19 Mar 2013 13:00:31 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=19152 locking-internet-access2Two unrelated thing happened to me yersterday that brought me to the exact same impasse: One of my favorite podcasts, Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest had a segment that I disagreed with enough that I wanted to comment. Trying to figure out where to post my feedback, the post told me “Comment on our Facebook page.” Shortly thereafter, the discussions about a new fan studies SIG started up…on Facebook. And while I was thrilled to see people putting hard work into organizing the SIG, I was excluded from the conversation.

I used to have a Facebook, years ago, for a very short time. In that brief time it connected me with some friends from high school, my abusive ex-boyfriend, and my college roommate. Only one of those was a pleasant surprise. So when Facebook suddenly installed new privacy features that forced me to lay open my life to the public or delete various information about myself, I took the (admittedly for me easy) step and deleted my account.

I have boycotted all things Facebook since, but it is hard and getting harder. My friend sends out invitations for a cookie swap, and I cannot see it because it is on Facebook. My favorite restaurant offers discounts, and I cannot use it because it is on Facebook. My favorite podcast asks me to vote for them in the iTunes podcast competition, and—even though I have iTunes!–I cannot vote because it is on Facebook.

What all of these things have in common, besides exhibiting how stubborn I can apparently be, is a complete invisibility and unawareness of the nature of Facebook for those who are members. We all know that Facebook has a variety of privacy settings, we all know about the dangers of nametagging, and we may know about the recent attempt to sell access to its usersSome of us may even have followed the concerns surrounding tracking users. But what I find interesting is the way few who are on Facebook are conscious of the fact that not everyone is.

I can’t call it privilege, because I clearly have the ability to get over myself and just make another account. But it shares with privilege the quiet invisibility of those without accounts, the inability to conceive of anyone not having access, and the resulting lack of consideration for those who choose to remain outside of Facebook’s walled garden. And this is where the crux of the matter is for me—and where this post turns from my whining about not getting to join in these amazingly intimate and supportive shared spaces where many academics gather to a post about the costs of the interfaces we use.

Because yesterday something more momentous happened than my inability to access Facebook: we learned that Google Reader will close down, destroying the most-used RSS feed reader and leaving those of us who relied on it desperately looking for alternatives. Now a savvy reader might ask me why I make a strong categorical stand with Facebook yet support a company at least as evil and exploitative of its users, who also happen to change their products with little input. Who doesn’t remember the nymwars of the summer of 2011? And I will have to admit that I am weak and apparently my conscience only goes as far as my Gmail account. But I try not to assume everyone is on Google, so when I collaborate on Google Docs, I have learned that not everyone is a Google puppet and have learned to create workarounds.

When the Organization of Transformative Works and the Archive of Our Own were but a glimpse in its founders’ eyes, one of the battle cries was: “I want us to own the goddamned servers.” What fans had learned the hard way was that you may be allowed to post virtually anything online, but only as long as your ISP doesn’t send you a cease and desist letter. Even more serious is the control ISPs have over the other side, our actual access to the Internet. This, of course, is a lesson that across the world has long been known by oppressed groups and citizens of oppressive regimes (and not only those!): the Internet may be free, but it is only as accessible as your ISP. In the United States, we are slowly becoming aware of that limitation: with many ISPs ascribing to the new six strikes rule, they are threatening that they can remove our Internet access at will.

Both modes of access are controlled by commercial entities (and, in many cases, by national oversight to boot), and we have little control over any of it. Facebook and its ever changing rules, Google and its ever changing products, and commercial web sites with their eager willingness to delete fanworks on the say-so of media companies with little recourse for the injured party, all of these are reminders that we live in a world where everything seems at our grasp and easily accessible—until we suddenly stand outside and get reminded that these are corporate entities who do not exist for our good but for their profit.


What Are You Missing? Jan 29-Feb 11 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/02/12/what-are-you-missing-jan-29-feb-11/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/02/12/what-are-you-missing-jan-29-feb-11/#comments Sun, 12 Feb 2012 16:20:28 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=12210 Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1. While movie industry revenues are down, one study finds that BitTorrent piracy isn’t responsible, at least for US box office declines, and the media conglomerates overall have had a good decade. Winter box office numbers are up, even as the average price of a ticket got slightly cheaper.

2. MGM is attempting yet another comeback with a new infusion of credit, while Disney is trying to take on India next. But I’m sure what you really want to know about is what Lionsgate is up to: its president of production is leaving in March and is being replaced by new partner Summit’s production chief.

3. Netflix agreed to wait 28 days for Warner Bros. DVDs, but Redbox has balked at that, while Disney is working out options. Redbox is now the largest DVD renter and continues to grow, as DVDs aren’t quite dead just yet despite Netflix’s best efforts. VOD is clearly the future, though, and some studies show VOD has even bigger revenue potential without windowing than with it. The VOD take for Bridesmaids has been big, but many are most surprised just by the fact that Universal released the numbers on it.

4. Kickstarter is grabbing a lot of attention lately, even just within 24 hours: it was a presence at Sundance, has helped two projects reach $1 million in pledges, has facilitated funding on a wide array of projects, and has the potential to change the gaming world. And you know it’s a good model when a new competitor, Crowdtilt, has popped up already.

5. Barnes & Noble is fighting with both Microsoft and Amazon, but it has to get in line alongside many others in regard to the latter, as other booksellers have joined in to not carry Amazon-published books, Goodreads is abandoning Amazon, and one state after another fights to pry taxes out of Amazon. With the taxation seeming inevitable, Amazon is moving forth with plans for brick-and-mortar stores. It should chat with Barnes & Noble about how well those are doing lately.

6. Some artists worry that digital music is ruining sound quality, but more are worried about it, or more specifically digital  music services, ruining their profits, and Paul McCartney has accordingly pulled his music. (Now where will we find “Silly Love Songs” when we really need it?) Sister Sledge and others are taking Warner Music to court over missing digital sales revenue, while the iTunes Match service could be a big money maker for indie musicians.

7. Though game and console sales continue to drop, gaming in general has greatly risen as a pursuit over the past few years, as mobile and online gaming have spread, and the Kindle Fire looks to be a pivotal new outlet for that. One thing that hasn’t declined is politicians getting undie-bunched over violent video games, while a few gamers are voluntarily choosing non-killing games.

8. Printing out a year’s worth of Facebook status updates would require 11.5 billion sheets of paper. Printing out a year’s worth of complaints and concerns about Facebook would probably take 15 billion. But luckily there aren’t too many examples of people shooting their laptops or, for Pete’s sake, each other over Facebook.

9. Google and Facebook are removing content in India due to religious censorship warnings, while the Iranian government is pretty much just blocking the whole internet to keep content it doesn’t like inaccessible to its people. In regard to piracy, the UK is testing out new protection measures, while Europeans are planning protests against limitations.

10. Some of the finer News for TV Majors posts from the past two weeks: New Netflix RivalLiz Lemon Problem, James Murdoch’s Fall, Amazon Plans, Ellen Stays, Internet Viewing Rising, Youth Spectatorship, News & Twitter, House Ending, Cable Beats Broadcast for Politics, Apple HDTV Specs, Super Bowl Stuff, ABC-Univision News Channel, Seeing Smash, Revolution Ratings, Race & Cable Ratings, Sky Developments.


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SOPA: Just Say NOPA http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/12/22/sopa-just-say-nopa/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/12/22/sopa-just-say-nopa/#comments Thu, 22 Dec 2011 16:07:28 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=11614 Whatever you’ve been doing on the internet in the last few weeks, chances are you ran across something about SOPA. Whether it was in blacked-out tweets and status updates, at the top of Reddit, or ‘blocked’ access to Tumblr, online protests in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act that is being debated in the US House of Representatives have been all over the internet recently. And for good reason— SOPA is a big, big deal and it deserves the attention and action of anyone who cares about the future of the internet. In fact, SOPA— along with its companion bill in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act— might just be the most dangerous internet legislation the US government has ever considered.

So what’s the big deal? What makes this bill so much worse than all of Congress’s other “anti-piracy” measures? Well, it would put in place an entire system of internet censorship that would empower the US government and corporations to block any website. The Department of Justice would have a blacklist of foreign “rogue sites” which fit a vague definition of enabling intellectual property infringement and would block American users from accessing these sites, in addition to cutting off the sites’ revenues from US-based advertising services and payment processors. All of this would happen within five days of the accusation of infringement, without any judge, any two-sided hearing, or any due process for the accused site. In fact, it further encourages pre-emptive “voluntary action” by offering immunity for internet service providers, browser producers, and search engines that block sites without even any infringement claims.

SOPA’s corporate backers in the recording and film industries focus on overseas sites that they refer to as “dedicated to intellectual property theft,” despite the fact that, for instance, targeted one-click file-hosting services like Rapidshare have been found legal in both American and European courts. In addition to plowing over such “rogue sites” that actually have substantial non-infringing uses, SOPA would also ensnare domestic sites that link to any infringing material or any “rogue site”— and would block the entire domain for even one link on one page. This means that any social media platform that hosts user-generated content— everything from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to Reddit, Tumblr, and Wikipedia— would become liable for everything their users post. SOPA, then, would overturn over a decade of precedent for internet law in the “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that protect internet intermediaries from liability for what users do (an example of how prior copyright expansion legislation at least included some reasonable limitations).

SOPA would have a huge impact on freedom of expression, creativity, and innovation online. Doing away with safe harbor protections would place a massive burden on online services to police their users and more actively censor what they do online. This would have chilling effects on the free expression and creativity of users by encouraging self-censorship and would stifle innovative new start-ups with limited resources. Further, if whole platforms disappear from US access, the free expression of all other users becomes collateral damage. Of course, these very powerful tools for shutting down online activities hold great potential for abuse— especially when held by industries with a long history of using the law to expand their control and protect them from disruptive innovators.

Further, SOPA flies in the face of the principles of net neutrality and internet freedom that the US government evangelizes everywhere else around the world. While the US extols the virtues of free and open internet connectivity globally, SOPA would institute the same technical censorship system as China, Iran, Syria, and similarly repressive regimes. The only difference is that the American censorship system would instead be used to protect corporate profits— intellectual property now trumps all other rights. In addition to undermining American credibility in calling out authoritarian states’ internet censorship, SOPA would also set a precedent for other liberal democracies to further filter and block internet content. On top of all this, SOPA involves mucking around with the fundamental technical workings of the internet, with serious consequences for the stability and security of critical internet resources like the Domain Name System. By interfering with the connections between site addresses and the servers they are designed to connect to, SOPA’s blocking system would undermine the next-generation DNSSEC system being developed by the US government’s own internet security experts and all other internet protocols that depend on it working universally consistent.

SOPA is now in markup in the House Judiciary Committee, where the hearings have been laughably lopsided and the representatives have openly admitted their ignorance of the constitutional, economic, and technical implications of what they’re proposing. The bill’s sponsors were rushing for a vote before the holidays, but, after some last-minute jerking around with on-again-off-again sessions this week, it has now been delayed until some time in the new year. (PIPA has already made it out of committee and will be coming to the Senate floor in the new year.) This is a positive development: they weren’t able to ram it through committee around the holidays while fewer people are paying attention. However, SOPA’s supporters are surely counting on the large opposition effort losing momentum. If you find any of the above scary— if you don’t want to see your Facebook feed blacked out for real soon— you should help keep the pressure on Congress to stand up for freedom online.


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What Are You Missing? Mar 20-April 2 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/04/03/what-are-you-missing-mar-20-april-2/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/04/03/what-are-you-missing-mar-20-april-2/#comments Sun, 03 Apr 2011 14:00:14 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=8873 Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1. Music recommendation engines have mostly flopped with users, and Google has pulled its music search feature to tinker with it. In the meantime, perhaps Google’s new +1 button will help with music searching and recommending, while the music industry itself is freaking out about Amazon’s cloud service, as labels are mad that Amazon hasn’t secured licensing rights for this use (some of the same issues that have kept Spotify from coming to the US), and Apple and Google are keeping an eye on this for their own future cloud plans. A bonus for Canadian readers: Canada beat the US again in digital music growth! 01 Canada!

2. Blockbuster is shuttering more than 150 stores as it awaits auction this week, with Carl Icahn and Dish Network as possible buyers. Netflix is probably chuckling at that, as its shares went up and it nears a big deal to stream Miramax films. And while Netflix is concerned about data caps in Canada, enough to reduce streaming video quality there, it maybe doesn’t have to worry about the Amazon cloud service, nor are movie studios as perturbed as music labels are by Amazon’s cloud (yet).

3. The role of film festivals and arthouse cinemas is changing as online distribution grows in prominence. Also likely to grow is online movie ticket purchasing through services like Groupon; some wonder if differential ticket pricing would help grow theater attendance; and, as our waistlines continue to grow, at least we won’t have to be reminded of the calories we’re consuming in movie theater popcorn, thanks to an FDA ruling. But the biggest challenge theater owners have now is premium video-on-demand rentals, whose imminent launching angers the National Association of Theater Owners. The underlying message from studios to theater owners at the recent CinemaCon was basically “Quit yer bitchin’ and get with the digital program,” which is sure to go over well.

4. The Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers struck a contract deal, no strike needed, even though it doesn’t offer everything the WGA wanted (note: Variety paywalled article), and some members, who still have to vote on it, think it’s a bad deal (note: NSFW Kurt Sutter tweet). Meanwhile, Michigan has decided its film production tax credits are a bad deal, and filmmakers are fleeing as a result, while Georgia decided to keep theirs.

5. Nielsen has studied the placement of gaming consoles in the home, determining that the Wii rules the living room, while the Xbox dominates in the kids’ bedroom. In terms of games, Guitar Hero 3 tops a list of best-selling games from this generation, and The Weinstein Company hopes to make future lists with video game versions of some of its library titles, mostly horror films like Scream.

6. Burma has banned Skype, while China’s censorship of electronic communication continues to tighten, and Google is especially in its crosshairs. Google is funding development of technologies to detect such censorship, and the US government has given the BBC World Service money to help combat it. But lest we think censorship is only a problem elsewhere, we should take note that the ACLU is fighting to stop schools from blocking LGBT websites.

7. File-sharing music piracy in the US has declined, with 9% of internet users now using P2P services to download. Some point to the shutdown of Limewire as a direct catalyst for the decline; others disagree. Either way, a London School of Economics study claims that file-sharing isn’t responsible for the record industry’s collapse. From the film perspective, new MPAA head Chris Dodd sees things differently, saying that piracy is the single biggest threat to the survival of the movie industry, as DVD piracy in places like China is running wild. So the solution, I guess, is to demand IP addresses of individual downloaders and to totally get that one guy who uploaded Wolverine. Take that, China!

8. David Carr insists we need to recognize Google as a media company, and it’s certainly made the WAYM links a lot lately. Here’s more: Google has picked Kansas City as its fiber network test market, gotten probation for the bad Buzz, been accused of antitrust violations by Microsoft, and added the +1 button; Google Street View has been deemed legal in Germany and got fined in France; and Google Books lost a key court case, which further delays the dream of a universal digital library.

9. Some random internet bits: AOL is consolidating content sites, Dropbox is making money, Groupon is getting sued, Reddit is creeping us out, Firefox 4 is being downloaded a lot, LinkedIn has reached 100 million, and PayPal has new competition, plus check where your state ranks in internet access speed.

10. Some good News for TV Majors links from the past two weeks: Mad Men Agreement, TWC Fight & TWC Pulls Channels, Peabody Awards, Viewing By Race, Profanity Appeals Pause, Internet TV Standards, New Football PlaysStarz Delay for Netflix, Showtime Pulling From Netflix, Mogul Salaries, BBC Cuts.


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What Are You Missing? March 6 – 19 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/03/20/what-are-you-missing-march-6-march-19/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/03/20/what-are-you-missing-march-6-march-19/#comments Sun, 20 Mar 2011 14:39:12 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=8784 Ten (or more) media industry stories you might have missed recently:

1. There was a ton of Netflix-related news the past few weeks, the biggest being the House of Cards deal, which you can catch up on via the @N4TVM link below. Otherwise (*deep breath*): Netflix controls about 60% of the market for digital movies; digital distribution is killing DVDs, and Netflix appears to be piling on with its iPad app; consumers seem to prefer streaming rentals over download sales; Amazon is the new upstart; Facebook is also dipping a toe into this arena with some Warner Bros. rentals, but Netflix isn’t scared by this, nor should it be, really, plus Netflix is even testing integration with Facebook accounts; Netflix has been hit with a class-action lawsuit involving customer privacy; Netflix has a deal with Nintendo for the 3DS; Hollywood sees Netflix largely as a disruptor and may try to destroy it (hmm…that sounds familiar to film industry historians), which makes it even more enticing that Netflix’s streaming contracts with the studios expire soon, including the unique deal with Starz (and also just as Netflix’s streaming costs are declining); and finally, maybe UltraViolet will be the long-term studio answer to Netflix’s challenge, but in the short-term, Andrew Wallenstein recommends a premium VOD war. Last-minute bonus link: The Economist lays out all the threats to Hollywood’s home-entertainment business.

2. The major Hollywood studios have had mixed profitability results over the past year (they apparently need to study our brains more). Studio profits won’t be helped by state plans to heavily curb Hollywood tax credits, though some Californians are defending the economic value of theirs. AOL is trying to stay relevant by courting Hollywood, and if Huffington Post bloggers don’t like working for free for AOL, they can at least be glad they’re not working for the Weinstein brothers. (Special bonus link: Box Office Magazine has opened up its vast archives for free access.)

3. Christopher Dodd has been named MPAA chairman, so now he gets to tackle (ignore) the complaints (proof) that the MPAA ratings board is biased against independent producers. Beyond the US, there are a number of films dealing with content objections, including A Serbian Film (*MPAA ratings board explodes*). The British will soon get to see (allegedly) riskier films now that Robert Redford is launching a mini-Sundance festival in London. Sundance and Tribeca are also both looking online for distribution possibilities, plus there’s the new website Fandor, a Netflix for indies trying to foster an online social community around independent film (MPAA ratings board members need not apply).

4. You probably heard about the House voting to defund NPR, but a closer look reveals that the bill doesn’t technically defund NPR per se (NPR, the parent organization, doesn’t get direct federal funding). Instead, the bill forbids NPR’s member stations, such as Missouri’s KCRU, from spending their federal funds on NPR’s national programming and dues. But the bill is unlikely to get through the Senate anyway, so this largely boils down to politicians playing to their bases (with the pointlessness of the endeavor mocked effectively by Rep. Anthony Weiner). But while the vote indeed fell heavily along party lines, seven Republicans did vote against it, and another, Rep. Justin Amash, just voted “present” as a way to express his concern that the bill doesn’t actually reduce federal spending. Plus – hold onto your hats, hipsters – Sen. Saxby Chambliss was heard defending NPR (though he said it on an NPR station, so perhaps he was just being kind to his hosts). If you need a quick primer on some of the basic arguments surrounding NPR station funding: on one side, Sen. Jim DeMint explains why he thinks public broadcasting should go private, and Rick Green argues the government shouldn’t give handouts to the news media; on the other side, journalists Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser argue that NPR deserves support for filling a crucial gap in local news coverage, Rep. Jim Moran says federal funding is essential for the survival of NPR’s stations, and community activist Sally Kohn uses a dog as a visual aid to clarify just how much of a “budget saver” completely defunding NPR stations would be.

5. Spotify now has more subscribers than any paid music service in the world, and it’s staffing up for its US launch, which, as you know from reading the previous 10 or 20 WAYM posts, is going to happen any day now. Meanwhile, Apple is working on its cloud music service, and it may also soon offer unlimited downloads of purchased music on iTunes, while the digital music service Mog wants to get into your car (it’s “the Holy Grail,” says Mog’s founder, which makes me look at my little Ford Focus in a whole new way).

6. Ina Fried looks back on how Rovio managed to drum up $42 million in its first crack at venture funding, while the WSJ and ReadWriteWeb look ahead to the future for Rovio’s Angry Birds, and Rovio’s CEO predicts that console games are doomed by the dominance of social and mobile gaming. (By the way, did you get the Angry Birds St. Paddy’s Day update? More pigs than ever.) But Xbox just had a great sales month thanks to strong Kinect sales, Nintendo is pushing 3-D heavily, and PlayStation is looking to the cloud.

7. Google is drawing fire for favoring the company’s own sites with its search engine, discriminating against the blind with Google apps, and getting excessively favorable treatment in Britain, but it’s on the other side of accusations that an online video technology it backs has been unfairly smothered by tech rivals. Within Google’s corporate umbrella, YouTube is expanding its staff, and it has acquired one service that makes your videos better and another that makes better videos.

8. The Internet is up for a Nobel Peace Prize (woo The Internet!…wait, there are 241 nominations? Is LOLcats nominated too?). But don’t look for The Internet to win any presidential medals, as it hasn’t helped The American Economy grow as much as one would expect. You better not tell The Nobel Committee about the new .XXX domain designated for Porn Sites (or maybe that would help The Internet’s chances?). And you’d best not tell Anonymous if The Internet, or also-nominated Wikileaks, doesn’t win a Nobel, since The Nobel Committee is just about the only entity not under its attack yet.

9. Twitter is now five years old; Twitter Blog has some celebratory stats, and Funny or Die has a Ken Burns-style retrospective (with a bit of NSFW language). Five is the cute stage, but it’s also when kids have to learn the value of sharing, and Twitter is taking some chances with not playing nice with third-party apps, even as users show a preference for them. Perhaps a time-out is called for so Twitter can think about what it’s done.

10.  Some good News for TV Majors links from the past two weeks: Bachelor & RaceNetflix Deal Official, UK Retransmission, SCMS Follow-ups, BBC AnalysisNews CollectionNews NewsReality Beating Scripted, Japan Coverage, Hulu Originals, Aging Audience, Reference Risk, Upfronts Schedule.


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What Are You Missing? January 16-29 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/01/30/what-are-you-missing-january-16-29/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/01/30/what-are-you-missing-january-16-29/#comments Sun, 30 Jan 2011 18:26:26 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=8187 Ten (or more) media industry stories you might have missed recently:

1. This one deserves a standalone entry of its very own: Cheezburger Network, the company behind LOLcats, just raised $30 million in its first round of venture capital funding, and earned an entry in the Taiwanese animated news as a result.

2. The Internet has gotten really, really big, so big that we’re running out of old-school IP addresses (but surely not LOLcats). It’s not so big that it can’t be turned off by an entire country, but big enough that there are even ways to get around that. After all, Mathew Ingram argues, it’s not the particular site you access that matters, it’s the power of the whole network that can help foster revolutions. Many are now wondering if the internet could be turned off in the US.

3. We worry about online privacy, but few of us do much to protect ourselves. Maybe if privacy policies were in the form of cool infographics, that would help out. Google is “helping out” by making it difficult for us to search for BitTorrent sites, but don’t worry, you can still search for “how to kidnap a child,” among other delights. But you have to work harder to find “Egypt” in China right now.

4. While Steve Jobs’ health situation prompted a stock dip, Apple is otherwise flying high financially, with record earnings, revenue success in China, and big iPad and iPod Touch sales. iPads are also making a mark on global PC market share, and even the Mac is gaining again. Playboy won’t be available as an iPad app now, but Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily iPad-only newspaper app will launch next week.

5. Outside of the item that kiosks for the first time now have higher market share than rental stores, the ancillary market movie news has pretty much just become Netflix news: Netflix is now the number 2 video subscription service (behind Comcast); it has topped 20 million subscribers, with growth driven lately by streaming; and Facebook integration is coming next, as are more aggressive studio content fights. But it’s not all puppies and rainbow streams for Netflix: Comcast could be gunning for it, sustaining its quality content and growth will be a challenge, Amazon just got a step ahead in Europe, and some instant-watch customers are annoyed at the removal of the DVD queue from their connected devices.

6. The King’s Speech is gaining major Oscar momentum, racking up PGA and DGA award wins, and such indie films (or sorta-indie films, if you’re picky about whose money is behind them) are enjoying more Academy love than the majors. But A.O. Scott castigates the Academy for not giving enough love to foreign cinema, thus curbing its momentum in the U.S. Meanwhile, the Hollywood’s non-award-worthy films are getting more love overseas than they are at home. Unfortunately, no one loves British film…well, except for The King’s Speech (a sorta-British film, Harvey?).

7. The best and worst of the Sundance Film Festival has been on display for the past ten days, and the award winners were announced last night, while last year’s Sundance standouts have made a significant Oscar nominations impact. The deal-making at Sundance went pretty well and even headed in some new directions, and Ted Hope left Sundance significantly buoyed about the future of indie cinema (which includes the return of Good Machine).

8. With albums selling so poorly, music executives being tossed around, and the future of digital music still uncertain, many new ideas are coming along: “instant” singles, a digital music awards show, more niche retail stores, 360-degree music videos, happily dismissing MySpace, and Spotify, which has finally closed its first US deal (with Sony) but is wary of Apple.

9. The Nintendo 3DS is now officially on its way, at the same time some see the PSP as on its way out. Many employees are on their way out at Disney Interactive, as that division shifts from console games to online and mobile ones, and that also doesn’t speak well of Epic Mickey. Disney should think about hiring the eighth grader who developed a game that topped Angry Birds, and how about some games with female protagonists?

10. Good News for TV Majors links from the past two weeks: Done Deal, Egypt Coverage, Mobile Activities, The New NBCU, Ratings Primer, Hulu Future Options, Netflix Taking Aim, Twitter Feed, BBC Sitcom Debates, Olbermann’s Legacy, FCC Approves, WealthTV Sets Precedent, Golden TVeets.


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Is It OK to Type This? http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/04/28/is-it-ok-to-type-this/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2010/04/28/is-it-ok-to-type-this/#comments Wed, 28 Apr 2010 12:36:44 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=3465 South Park controversy on depicting Mohammed contribute to our overall understanding of the issue?]]> The brilliance of South Park’s satire is found largely in its merciless attack on the way in which the Western media discusses important issues.  In between episodes of celebrity bashing and scatological irreverence, creators Parker and Stone show a true talent for honing in on the most absurd, least productive elements of contemporary discourse and isolating what makes these debates so impotent.  The episode “The Passion of the Jew” isn’t so much about anti-Semitism as it is about how we talk about anti-Semitism. Even Cartman’s recent bald-faced accusations of Pope Benedict’s complicity in protecting child abusers can be read as a comment on the ways in which the mass media has taken a nuanced approached to the most vulgar and violent of problems.  Ok, yes, South Park is making a claim about the Pope’s real-life guilt, but the manner in which it is levied also points the finger at the way in which the public sphere tip-toes around such sensitive topics.

Which brings me to the program’s recent two-part, 200th episode spectacular, creatively entitled “200” and “201.”  The episodes, which are kind of a mess in terms of narrative, will be best remembered for being South Park’s first engagement with the issue of Islamic Sharia law and its potential conflict with free speech principles.  In 2001, the episode “Super Best Friends” featured a portrayal of the prophet Mohammed alongside Jesus Christ, Buddha, Joseph Smith and a host of other religious figures and no one really seemed to care.  This was, however, well before the violent, painful controversy that erupted over Jyllands-Posten publishing a set of cartoons of Mohammed.  Although there were clear differences between the earlier South Park imagery and that of Jyllands-Posten, which portrayed Mohammed as a terrorist, the essence of the controversy applies equally.  There are those who believe that the prohibition against depicting Mohammed applies universally and the threat of violence hangs over all those in defiance. Even Jytte Klausen’s academic book The Cartoons that Shook the World was published without the titular cartoons, giving many the impression that this issue was being controlled either by excessive cultural sensitivities, fear of violence or a combination of the two.

“200” tries to take this issue head-on.  The citizens of South Park, blackmailed into bringing Mohammed to town, attempt a debate over whether or not this can be done without causing offense or getting the town blown up. The discussion goes nowhere, developing neither the plot nor the satire.  The townspeople, much like Parker, Stone and most of us, don’t know how to debate this issue because, as currently framed, there’s very little to debate.  If one accepts the principle that the rules of one religion, either due to respect or fear, ought to be followed by those outside the faith, then it seems like picturing Mohammed is totally off limits.  If not, it’s an act of cowardice to redact Mohammed’s image.  In any case there’s a double standard.  The argument in “200” and “201” is something along the lines of “if the Buddhists can handle Buddha snorting coke in front of a group of forth graders, then a cartoon of Mohammed fighting crime shouldn’t be cause for death and destruction.”

It kind of makes sense, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to address the real issue.  This is largely because South Park’s strength is in parodying the how of publics debate, not the what.  The program’s satire is one of exaggeration, where a small absurdity is isolated and magnified.  So long as they stay within the world of discourse, playing the role of media critics, they’re very, very good.  This debate pulls them out of their comfort zones, forcing them to contend with embassies that really got burned down and people for whom sacredness is in no way metaphorical.  Comedy Central was forced to censor “201” fairly heavily due to these real concerns, giving Parker and Stone something to complain about but also reinforcing the extent to which this particular debate is not yet ready for their form of satire.  The answer, in practical terms, is “need more information,” even if our our philosophical instincts say otherwise.

The episode, has, however, served the important role of reinvigorating public discussions of the issue, providing some hope that we will, one day, understand the underlying principles well enough for blunt-edge satire to be a productive tool.  For example, CNN here puts forth a refreshingly not-hysterical discussion of the issue.   Of course there have also been calls to violence and free-speech responses that, while politically coherent, seem a bit juvenile.  But, undeniably, the public discussion has been enhanced by South Park.  The episodes themselves may not quite hit the target, but one way or another debate has improved, if not quite in the more forceful manner Parker and Stone intended.


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