Global Media – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Rethinking Media Distribution Wed, 20 Nov 2013 15:00:21 +0000 Tryon pic

The news that the subscription service Netflix now has more total subscribers than premium cable channel HBO further confirms that media industries are changing rapidly, especially when it comes to the practices of movie and TV distribution. Beyond altering the economics of media distribution, subscription services such as Netflix and Hulu have introduced a whole new vocabulary for both media consumers and industry professionals alike. Activities such as binge watching and “Netflix adultery” were unimaginable just a few short years ago, while more traditional practices—such as the weekly trip to the video store—have practically disappeared. With those changes in mind, Jeff Ulin, a media distribution expert who has worked at Lucasfilm, Paramount, and Universal, has substantially revised his 2009 book, The Business of Media Distribution, for the era of digital delivery, providing a fascinating and engaging road map for both media scholars and industry professionals.

The new edition of the book starts by spelling out how studios and networks manage media properties in order to create value—through managing intellectual property rights, for example—before tracing several different modes of distribution: theatrical, home video, television, and internet. The final sections of the book focus on aspects such as marketing and promotion, especially as those practices have been transformed by the emergence of social media tools. Ulin also reiterates one of the key observations discussed in his first book: the idea that studios are best understood as “financing and distributing machines” that seek to maximize value, in large part by managing the distribution “windows” when movies or TV shows are available through a specific platform. Ulin emphasizes the process by which studios carefully balance when movies are available theatrically, through VOD platforms, on DVD, and eventually through subscription services such as Netflix, in order to maximize the value of a given text.

In his map of the film distribution landscape, Ulin traces several of the key factors that drove the adoption of digital projectors, most notably the role of 3D in serving as a means for justifying surcharges to consumers. But another major factor identified by Ulin is the role of China as a major marketplace for Hollywood theatrical films. Specifically, Ulin points out that the U.S. government negotiated a deal to raise the limit on the number of international films screened annually in China from 20 to 34, with the stipulation that the additional movies be screened in 3D. While Ulin is less explicit on this matter, the clear implication is that China’s theatrical market will likely shape the choices studios make when it comes to picking projects for the foreseeable future.

But the strength of Ulin’s book is his thorough explanation of the changes in the home video marketplace, especially as online video sources are poised to upset DVD rental and sales. As Ulin points out, the conflicts between physical or bricks-and-mortar retailers and online sources including Amazon are often more complex than they appear, especially given incentives such as using DVDs as “loss-leaders” to draw shoppers into big-box retailers such as Walmart and Target. More crucially, however, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services such as Netflix and Hulu and transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) retailers such as Amazon and iTunes have upset traditional revenue streams and the distribution windows that were designed to provide various platforms (theaters, pay cable, basic cable) with periods of exclusivity that allowed studios and exhibitors to protect the value of the movie being distributed. These conflicts have played out in the ongoing debates over day-and-date distribution, especially for independent and low-budget movies, or shorter theatrical windows for studio films. But they also inform how TV shows circulate, especially when the interests of production companies and SVOD services such as Netflix compete with the interests of cable TV channels such as TNT and FX that are currently negotiating to extend their “broadcast window” to encompass the most recent season of a show, rather than just the five most recent episodes. Such battles are likely to persist in our current on-demand culture

One of the challenges that faces any book that focuses on the media distribution landscape is that it changes so rapidly. As I was reading Ulin’s book, Blockbuster Video announced that it would be closing its last 300 stores, resulting in the loss of over 3.000 jobs and leaving Redbox as, perhaps, the primary option for DVD rental for most US consumers. However, Ulin’s book remains relevant, in large part because he offers several key principles to describe the ongoing evolution of the media industries. With that in mind, we can read all of the recent changes—Netflix’s competition with HBO, Blockbuster’s closure of its U.S. stores, and China’s emergence as a crucial theatrical market—as part of a larger system in which studios and other media institutions use windows in order to generate and retain value for the films and television shows they distribute, no matter how we access them.


Ex-Pat TV: Technologies of TV Away from Home Mon, 29 Oct 2012 13:00:20 +0000 World Map with arrowsAs media scholars, we increasingly find ourselves living abroad for periods of time, either doing research or working in universities outside our home countries. While for some, this can be a thrilling research opportunity, for others it can be frustrating to be separated from both research material and TV pleasure by international licensing agreements that don’t seem to be keeping pace with the culture of an on demand global internet. As an American recently moved to Ireland but continuing to study and write about American culture and television, I fall into the latter camp, and thus have been searching for the best technologies to watch Ex-pat TV.

The following is a list of some of the technologies I either researched or tried out. I hope that these either help others connect to the TV they’re missing or inspire readers to post their own experiences with or suggestions for getting TV while away from home. A side note: some of the technologies listed below require negotiating ethics and legalities, others less so, although none would likely be greeted with enthusiasm by American television executives.

Bit Torrent—Invented in 2001, this is, by internet standards, an ancient file-sharing service that most readers are probably familiar with. Its advantages are being well tested, having lots of users, and often providing the quickest turnover from airdate to streaming on your computer. The downsides are that relying on file-sharing isn’t the safest thing for your computer, and in May 2011, 23,000 BitTorrent users were, according to Wired magazine, the subject of the biggest file-sharing lawsuit to date in the US. Despite the problems, BitTorrent is the best known and most-used of the semi-standard pirating—er… sharing—sites or services.

Streaming Services—Various streaming services from Netflix to iTunes or Amazon have the advantage of being perfectly legal. The downsides are pretty much everything else. iTunes is hugely expensive at $2.99 an episode for current half-hour or hour-long network shows (Modern Family and The Good Wife, for example) or $49.99 for an HD season pass, $38.99 for an SD season pass. Programs from premium channels are only available for past seasons, and there’s no guarantee of finding your show if it’s more obscure. doesn’t offer the streaming services available in the US, and blocks streaming outside the US. Netflix in the UK and Ireland, while having racked up an impressive million users in the short time since its launch in early 2012, has a very limited catalog.

Slingbox—This requires you to have a friend in your home country willing to connect the sling box to his/her TV set. Basically, Slingbox gives you access to your home DVR on your computer or any other device connected to the internet. It works extremely well, and while it’s a US company, you could probably connect it to a TV in any country. The boxes cost between $179.99 and $300, and the newest box, while top-of-the-line, mostly looks hard to stack with all the other black boxes that are probably connected to your TV.

AmericanTV2Go—This service essentially charges you a monthly fee for access to a centrally hosted Slingbox. I used the free trial and it was great, but ranging from $49.99-$99.99 a month, too expensive to continue regularly, especially on top of a local cable subscription.

VPN Clients—This is what I’ve settled on as the best for me. Most U.S. colleges and universities have a virtual private network that you can set up so that you can still log in to your school’s server and access your virtual learning environments, shared files and library subscriptions on days you work from home. If you’re abroad temporarily, you can use your home university’s vpn and connect to the internet in your home country, giving you access to any streaming content available there. If that’s not an option, for $7/month, companies like Strong VPN will let you log in to a vpn in another country. Strong only has networks available in the US and the UK right now, but for a bit more per month, PC-Streaming offers networks in Canada, Australia, and several European countries; you could likely find similar services connecting you to wherever your home country is.


Is It a Camel? Is It a Turban? No, It’s The 99! Marketing Islamic Superheroes as Global Cultural Commodities Mon, 30 Apr 2012 18:27:40 +0000 DISCLAIMER: This post is part of a larger project analyzing the global circulation of brands created in the “developing world.” The expanded essay delves into the paradoxical manner in which these brands are marketed and positioned for global consumers. In the excerpt below, I try to identify a couple of key tensions that emerge in trying to reposition Islam as a global brand.

At the 2010 TED Global conference, an annual event that brings together innovators and entrepreneurs in the fields of technology, entertainment and design, Dr. Naif al-Mutawa gave a 20-minute presentation on The 99, his global superhero franchise inspired by Islamic archetypes. Published first as a comic book by al-Mutawa’s Kuwaiti-based Teshkeel Media Group beginning in 2006, by 2010 The 99 was well on its way to becoming a global cross-media brand designed to reach Muslims around world through theme parks, social media, merchandizing and a television series co-produced with Endemol Entertainment.

Toward the end of his talk, al-Mutawa explained his motivations and aspirations for the project while expressing frustration with a popular trend amongst some Muslim families to dress their children up as suicide bombers as a form of protest, which he linked to the absence of positive contemporary Islamic heroes for kids to emulate. Choking up slightly, al-Mutawa argued that by linking enough positive things to the Koran, Muslim children would begin to take pride in a different set of representations and embrace the shared universal values that Islam already advocates, like kindness and generosity, rather than being taught to revere its more fanatical and fringe elements. Or, as al-Mutawa explained, “an entire generation of young Muslims is growing up believing that Islam is a bad thing. They are put in a situation to defend the indefensible. My thinking was, how can I expand the boundaries of what Islam is, talk about stuff that all human beings share together, and not allow people to sabotage and hijack Islam.”

To prove his point, al-Mutawa juxtaposed two photos: one of a young girl dressed up in a white robe, a green headband bearing Hamas’ Shahada emblem, and a mock bomb belt holding a Koran in one hand and gesturing to the sky with the other. The other was photo-shopped image of the same little girl, with her headband now branded with The 99 logo and her bomb belt replaced by a t-shirt featuring a selection of The 99 superheroes. Tellingly, she is still depicted holding the Koran – as opposed to a copy of The 99 comic book – while gesturing skyward.

In al-Mutawa’s vision, The 99 is a transformative brand that normalizes Muslim youth by inaugurating them into the realm of consumer capitalism. As such, it is part of an effort to repair and redefine Islam’s reputation through branding and marketing, but also through the marketization of Islam. Or, to quote Al-Mutawa, “someone had tarnished the name of Islam, and I wanted to go in and help rebrand it.” While The 99 are marketed as new role models for children to emulate, al-Mutawa is repeatedly positioned as the ultimate prototype for the new Muslim superhero, whose entrepreneurial powers inspire new forms of investment in Islamic identity.

In some ways, al-Mutawa’s approach to repackaging and repositioning Islam for Muslims seems very much in the spirit of development paradigms that the West has been promoting for decades. He seems to be a cross between a modern-day version of Daniel Lerner’s (1958) “grocer,” enthralled with consumer capitalism and eager to spread the gospel of Western entrepreneurialism, and a proponent of Everett Rogers and Arvind Singhal’s (1999) entertainment-education thesis, which argues that modernity is best taught through popular rather than didactic means. Indeed, al-Mutawa is a self-professed social entrepreneur who wants to build a better world through capitalism. He has gone on record that he believes “Entrepreneurship is based in the United States… in Kuwait, education is free and food is subsidized. The State takes care of the population, but by doing that they don’t force the population to take care of itself. That becomes the biggest impediment to entrepreneurship.” His efforts to rebrand Islam through The 99 have earned him numerous awards and recognitions, including the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Marketplace of Ideas Award and the 2009 Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award. President Obama gave al-Mutawa and The 99 a special shout out at the 2011 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in Washington DC for their super heroic work promoting tolerance. Meanwhile, Forbes Magazine recognized The 99 as one of the top twenty hot trends of 2010.

With such positive credentialing, one would think that al-Mutawa’s efforts to build The 99 into a global cross-media franchise would be welcomed as evidence that Western values are being positively inculcated in the Middle East. Yet, attempts to bring The 99 animated TV series to US audiences have been met with accusations that al-Mutawa is attempting to indoctrinate non-Muslims into Shari’a law. In 2010, The Hub acquired the US rights to The 99 animated series, which offered the brand potential access to 60 million households. Almost immediately, conservative organizations began a campaign to have the series removed, accusing it of foisting “sinister Muslim values” on non-Muslim children in an attempt to “Islamify youth.” One critic asked, “Will children learn about democracy, modernity, tolerance, Enlightenment, women’s and gay rights from these ‘Islamic’ figures?” while ignoring how US cartoons rarely offer children much insight into these issues either. Ultimately, al-Mutawa’s efforts to rebrand Islam by emphasizing the positive and pro-Western attributes of the religion were dismissed as forms of “Dawah proselytizing” by critics who insisted that The 99 should have been critical of Islam, rather than celebrating its archetypes. According to this logic, the only good Muslims are the self-hating kind. The pressure critics placed on the Hub was sufficient to cause the cable network to indefinitely postpone the series’ debut.

American resistance to The 99 reveals both the limits of consumer capitalism as a great equalizer and some of the incompatibilities of brand marketing with correcting misconceptions about Islam.


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

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

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

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


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