industry – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Straddling the “Edge”: The Invisible Trend of Religion on TV Wed, 04 Mar 2015 15:00:54 +0000 Lost's Last Supper
One of the most compelling trends in American television programming at the moment is almost never even seen as a trend. A variety of shows in various stages of development or production that feature religious topics and imagery include: Constantine on NBC, Dig on USA, A.D. on NBC, Preacher on AMC, Lucifer for Fox, Black Jesus on Cartoon Network, a Ten Commandments-based series for WGN and another for NBC, American Gods on Starz, Daredevil on Netflix, Hand of God on Amazon the list goes on and on. Across broadcast, basic and pay cable, and online streaming platforms, there is a wealth of series dealing with spiritual stories, using specific religions’ dogma, featuring Biblical characters and translating religion into mythos.

So why are these elements ignored in trade news and minimized in promotional materials? Have the press and industry failed to recognize this as a trend or are they deliberately downplaying this widespread development across the TV landscape? With religion on fictional television growing, why is it so difficult for press and PR to acknowledge this shift within the industry?

We regularly hear talk of television’s greater edginess—its willingness to engage with more explicit language, sexuality, and violence. Yet when it comes to religion, things get more complicated. Since the neo-network era, “edge” has been a leading logic of the television industry: a way to gain the attention of desirable, affluent, niche audiences who are thought to seek programs distinctive in some way from the mediocre mainstream. Since the 1980s, the concept of “edgy” has found many additional markers for distinction. From NYPD Blue’s notable nudity and curse words to South Park’s free-for-all offensiveness, the taboos of language, representations, violence, and sexuality have faded. Religion, however, remained a vagary. When religion appeared, it was in general, sanitized terms or single-episode sensational stories that nevertheless avoided faith-based specificity.

In 1990, Horace Newcomb described religion represented on television as “the deeply, powerfully embedded notions of the good that must come from . . . somewhere” but that avoided specifics of belief. Little changed from that description of how religion is featured on television until the mid-2000s, when Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and the long-arm of The Passion of the Christ’s success enabled a period of multiple attempts at religiously-themed television shows. At that moment, the press noticed the pattern: For instance, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter both ran articles examining the “hot topic” of religious content for television, putting shows like Wonderfalls, Joan of Arcadia, Miracles, and Revelations in relation to each other and wider industrial vicissitudes. However, aside from a few successful shows with multiple seasons, this mid-decade trend died, and so too did the industry’s willingness to discuss religious content as a programming trend. It’s unclear why the industry that was able to make these links chose to stop explicitly drawing these connections and preferring to ignore the trend, but the big gamble and big loss of Kings seems the turning point toward skittishness.

Significantly, whereas Deadline has no problem identifying new trends pertaining to romantic comedies, movie adaptations, and medical dramas—regardless of how many of these series get greenlit or survive for longer than a handful of episodes—few articles appear regarding the increasingly widespread presence of religious series across the television landscape. If such series are discussed, as in this TV Guide article, Biblical series are foregrounded while most science fiction series are left out. (Whither the Sleepy Hollow mention, TV Guide?)

Religion may be perceived as “edgy,” or at least risky, in a business sense in that it is cast as somewhat dangerous in an industrial context. Many industry workers don’t want to talk about it or deflect to bigger “spiritual/humanist” questions. Even if writers use Revelation in a specifically Protestant iteration as the key to a show’s ongoing mythology, they remain careful to couch it among other mythologies that appear once. But religion on TV is the wrong kind of edgy for how the shows, studios, and networks conceive of their target audience. As young Americans and wealthy Americans (as well as coastal Americans) are identified as more and more secular, spiritual, or non-religious by Pew research and through anecdotal encounters, religion—particularly Christianity, which is the main wellspring for this content—continues to be thought of increasingly as belonging to old, poor, Heartland Americans, (i.e., not the desired consuming audience for many of these shows). Moreover, appealing to such an audience is cast in opposition to “edge.” Thus, the industry straddles a fine “edge”: On the one hand, networks use Biblical adaptations to get the ratings of Heartland viewers, on the other hand, they make the case to advertisers that the “right” kind of audience can be attracted to view their other shows by downplaying the religious elements while maintaining they won’t alienate viewers.

MV5BMTc4OTcyOTc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODE2OTU1MjE@._V1_In this recent spate of shows, the only notable example of a series that is exploiting its religious content to foreground its edgy bona fides is on Amazon. Continuing to cast itself as the place to go for television that could not appear anywhere else, Amazon Studios picked up Hand of God during its August 2014 pilot season. The series wins at edgy bingo: the main plot of the pilot features a corrupt judge who becomes born-again Christian following the brutal beating of his son and the rape of his daughter-in-law by an assailant that he then discovers via “visions” from God. The judge then conscripts a violent disciple to kill in the name of God. The characters curse freely, the violence is graphic, and drug use is commonplace. Yet it is the exploration of corruption in religion that sets this show apart from others in this recent trend. In bucking the industry’s insistence of downplaying religion as a key narrative element, Hand of God found the “edge” in religion. But you wouldn’t know it from trade press coverage of it.


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Crumbsucking the FM Dial Mon, 16 Feb 2015 15:53:57 +0000 615x200-ehow-images-a02-6l-n6-place-fm-transmitter-radio-station-800x800

FM transmitter tower

Post by John Anderson
Brooklyn College at the City University of New York

For more than a decade now, a spectrum-grab of impressive proportions has been taking place on the FM dial in the United States. While services such as Low-Power FM and HD Radio have dominated many discussions about future paths for broadcasting, the proliferation of FM translator stations has dwarfed them both.

The Federal Communications Commission created the FM translator service in 1970. Translator stations are limited to 250 watts of power and can only rebroadcast the signals of other stations. The original intent behind the translator service was to help noncommercial FM stations located in areas with challenging terrain provide a mechanism by which to address coverage gaps.

In 1981, the Chicago-based Moody Bible Institute petitioned the FCC to allow translators to be fed with programming other than a locally based full-power FM station. The FCC initially denied Moody’s request, in large part due to worries that “some parties” were engaging in practices with translators that smacked of speculation, such as filing applications in bulk to preclude competitors from certain markets. The agency also noted that many broadcasters were stretching the existing rules by siting translators to extend the reach of a full-power station.

But by 1990, after a well-coordinated lobbying campaign, the FCC fundamentally overhauled the FM translator service, effectively opening it up to commercial development. Translators were also unchained from local parent-stations and could be fed remotely. These changes spurred the rise of broadcasters who used FM translators to build out their own networks of stations. Since there’s no office to keep or staff to pay, costs of operation are low. Religious and public broadcasters took the greatest advantage of these rule changes to expand their reach.

Then LPFM got in the way. In 1997, as the FCC began receiving petitions to legalize a local low-power radio service, it froze new applications for FM translators on the majority of the dial. From a purely technical perspective, the only real distinction between FM translators and LPFM stations is that LPFMs must be live and local to some degree, while FM translators cannot. But incumbent broadcasters fervently opposed the creation of LPFM because they believed that the band was running out of capacity to accommodate more stations.

There is a grain of truth to this argument; the Reagan-era FCC opened up the FM dial to an increasing number of applicants and liberalized the rules regarding the movement of existing stations between markets. By the time LPFM came on the scene, spaces for new development of the FM dial in most markets had been reduced to crumbs, typically doled out as full-power FM licenses in rural and exurban locales and translator stations elsewhere. Yet while incumbent broadcasters railed on LPFM stations for asking to be “shoehorned” onto the dial, they prepared to make their own grab for all the crumbs they could.

In 2003, the FCC opened up an application window for new FM translator stations, and more than 13,000 were filed. A goodly portion were tendered by established religious and public broadcasters, though individual speculators came primed to play big. One enterprising man in Idaho, who had previously worked to build a large network of translators for Calvary Chapel churches, wrote software to spam the FCC’s electronic filing system, filing some 4,000 applications under two corporate names. In all, the FCC issued more than 2,000 new translator construction permits, but many who got them never intended to build the stations—or, at best, they only planned to build them out just enough to sell them to someone else.

Willis Tower in Chicago

Willis Tower in Chicago

In the intervening decade, as proponents of LPFM fought a protracted battle with Congress to expand the service to a point of technical parity with FM translators, the trade in translators became a market all its own, now worth tens of millions of dollars. Single construction permits now sell for five to six figures each, and in major markets they’re more valuable than some full-power AM stations. Last June, a 10-watt translator licensed to broadcast from atop the Willis Tower in Chicago sold for $4.6 million, while in December, a 4-watt translator in Long Island City, Queens changed hands for $3.5 million.

Far removed from their original intent as supplemental repeater-stations, most FM translators are now widely employed by broadcasters as “new stations” built and programmed on the cheap. Since the FCC considers translators a secondary service, they don’t count against the agency’s caps on media ownership. It’s a loophole in the law that’s widely acknowledged with a wink and a nod. An executive at mid-market conglomerate Saga advises his sales staff to call translators “metro stations” in pitches to advertising clients, so as to deemphasize their relatively weak signals and “make them sound more legitimate.”

Furthermore, transactions in the translator marketplace demonstrate a curious financial symbiosis between noncommercial broadcasters and some of America’s largest radio conglomerates. For example, in multiple markets, the Educational Media Foundation—parent of the K-LOVE and AIR-1 music networks—has sold or leased translators to iHeartMedia, who uses them to relay programming previously available as an HD-only subchannel. (HD Radio’s proprietor, iBiquity Digital Corporation, openly urges stations to set up their own “HD-on-translator play” as way to make some analog hay out of the stalled U.S. digital transition.)

Other major broadcasters use translators to relay out-of-market stations, or to provide a foothold on the FM dial for their AM properties. In fact, AM broadcasters are clamoring for the FCC to open one more translator filing window just for them, as a way to provide “relief” to their “beleaguered” band. It’s the beginning of a trend toward the ultimate settlement of all over-the-air broadcasting on the FM dial, something already underway in several Latin American and European countries. While they may be small and secondary, the rise of translators speaks volumes about the state of broadcast innovation. Like most natural resources, broadcast spectrum is finite, and we’d be wise to utilize it effectively. Instead, we’ll deep-sea drill and frack it to exhaustion—spare no expense to suck those last crumbs.


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The More You Know About Cross-Promotion Wed, 04 Feb 2015 15:00:11 +0000 I have a confession to make: I did not watch the Super Bowl.  But that didn’t keep me from knowing exactly what happened: the crazy last few minutes of the game, the best and worst of the commercials, and (of course) Katy Perry’s halftime show.

Imagine my delight when a friend & colleague posted a note to my Facebook wall alerting me to the fact that Katy Perry had appeared under what looked to be a replica of the classic “The More You Know” star, made famous in the NBC PSAs of our youth.

Below is an example, a 1990 Will Smith PSA on the benefits of staying in school.

And here is Katy Perry performing “Firework” during Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show:

And, because the internet is awesome, here’s a side-by-side comparison…

TMYK Comparison 

…and a mash-up:

 TMYK Mash-Up

As a scholar of media conglomerates and the logics that govern their operations, I have found the entire event immensely fun.  The question I got peppered with (well, if you count three friends’ comments as “peppering”) had to do with whether or not I thought Perry’s production was an example of planned cross-promotion, as the Super Bowl aired on NBC this year.

NBC TwitterThe short answer is that I don’t know.  I do know NBC was very quick to take advantage of the situation, tweeting out the “More You Know” logo at 7:23pm Eastern–a tweet that has been retweeted over 4000 times, typically with comments like “Nicely played, NBC!”  That tweet alone helped people make the connection between Perry’s performance, the PSA series, and NBC. Although many people of a certain age are likely to remember the PSAs, it’s quite likely that they would not remember them to be an NBC product.  NBC’s quick thinking (or advance knowledge and planning, perhaps) aided in closing the loop to take full advantage of the cross-promotional opportunity.

The long answer is that I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either—because NBC definitely doesn’t.  I’ve been grinning about this all week, because it beautifully illustrates something crucial to understanding the nature of cross-promotion: it doesn’t matter if it’s pre-planned or not, and it works better when it doesn’t appear to be arranged.

Like all forms of product integration, where advertisements are embedded within content, cross-promotion works by appearing “natural” and “organic” to that content.  When Jimmy Fallon has stars of NBC TV series on The Tonight Show, it’s an instance of cross-promotion, but it wouldn’t necessarily strike anyone as odd because Jimmy Fallon has lots of stars on The Tonight Show.  The star’s appearance on Fallon offers a potential double win for NBC; the star may draw fans to The Tonight Show, and the appearance might draw Fallon fans to the star’s series.  And that, of course, is the logic behind cross-promotion.  The risk NBC takes in engineering these opportunities is that if the audience feels duped, or like the network is trying to trick them, they might be turned off—but that sort of reaction is highly unlikely if the cross-promotion is thoughtfully conducted and unobtrusive.

And therein lies the beauty of Katy Perry’s ride on the “The More You Know” star at Super Bowl XLIX: it appeared to just happen with no forethought.  That sense of happenstance was a huge win for NBC, as audiences got to feel smart by noticing it, tweeting about it, commenting on Facebook, or saying something to their friends at the Super Bowl party.  That reward coupled with an accompanying nostalgia for an era when NBC was enjoying the height of their must-see-TV glory days imbues the entire incident with a rosy glow for audiences and, in turn, for the network.  Just as the appearance of an NBC star on Fallon offers a potential double win for NBC, so does a situation like this.

If it was pre-planned, it was an absolutely genius move made even better by no one from Perry’s camp or NBC stepping forward to claim credit for thinking of it.  If it wasn’t pre-planned, NBC got really lucky with Perry generating nostalgia for a PSA campaign that they could link to their network.  And whoever was manning the Twitter account on Sunday deserves a bonus.

I can hear the higher-ups at NBC now, gleefully counting up the many folks who ventured to YouTube to look up videos of 1990s PSAs, only to be flooded with warmth and affection for the bygone days of the network.  “Oh man…remember when NBC had Friends?  And ER?  And Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?”  NBC remembers, and they’re glad that now you do too.  And it’s all because Katy Perry rode a star around a football stadium on national TV.


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There Are Worse Things Fox Could Do: Grease Live and TV’s Sad Affair with the Live Musical Thu, 29 May 2014 12:58:12 +0000 Grease seems to ignore a string of warning signs.]]> greasefoxIt seems that the problematic life of the Broadway musical has run full steam into the struggles of 21st century network television. For the last couple decades, the Broadway musical has been solidly taken over by (assumedly surefire) pre-sold properties like Mamma Mia!, The Wedding Singer, The Producers, and High Fidelity. Crossover actors and content allow Broadway producers to hedge their bets on recouping their quite sizable investments. Life’s hard all over. They need something to get tourists’ butts into very expensive seats on the Great White Way, and the people like seeing things they recognize.

Now television, struggling in the era of multiple platform viewing and increased time-shifting, is turning to the clay feet of the musical for a wallop of financial and “special event” adrenaline. After 18 million Americans (hate) watched NBC’s live airing of The Sound of Music, it took less than five months for both NBC and Fox to announce their upcoming live musical projects, Peter Pan and Grease respectively. Of course this practice of airing live musicals has precedent. The New York-based 1950s live television era was bejeweled with live musical events. NBC’s 1955 airing of Peter Pan with Mary Martin garnered 64 million viewers. (Take that Carrie Underwood!) For the first time, television was bringing Middle America (and everyone else) the elusive sights and sounds of Broadway.

You're the one that I want cast

Today, the networks are struggling to find some way—other than awards shows—to draw a 21st century, distracted, i-device obsessed audience to their living rooms. The ratings success of The Sound of Music seems to have been just the encouragement needed to reproduce the tele-theatrical disaster that was Underwood’s performance. The selection of Grease by Fox seems to ignore a string of warning signs.

(1) As was the case with The Sound of Music, Grease is an iconic text. Just as most Americans can only imagine Julie Andrews descending the Alps, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are Grease to most. As many of the press announcements note, Grease is the highest grossing movie musical of all time. Casting is going to be a bear. (2) The Broadway version—even the latest incarnation that hybridized the Broadway and film versions—is not the 1978 Paramount film. The energy is different. The songs are different. This means something when one is trying to capitalize on an audience’s existing emotional attachment to a property. It is nearly impossible to deliver on such a promise when millions are saddled with memories of specific choreography, inflections, phrasing, etc. Overcoming this is no easy feat. (3) Television viewers have already chimed in on Grease and they did not emit a rousing “we go together.” NBC’s 2006 reality show Grease: You’re the One That I Want served as a televised audition for the 2007 Broadway revival’s Danny and Sandy and ranked 75th in annual Nielsens, garnering about a quarter the number of American Idol’s “hopelessly devoted” viewers. Fox’s Glee also took a shot at the musical with its own “Glease,” one of the lowest rated episodes of its drooping fourth season. (And let’s not even get started on Smash.)

grease on glee

As a devoted fan and scholar of the musical, I always try to root for the genre’s triumph over the jaded sensibilities of contemporary audiences, producers, and ticket buyers. (Although the lasting wounds from viewing 7th Heaven’s musical episode may never heal.) That said, I often find myself disappointed by the nasty effects a network’s or producer’s hope for commercial appeal has on the musical product itself. Although Paramount TV President Amy Powell sounds like a latter day Sylvester “Pat” Weaver (NBC 1950’s head of programming/chairman of the board and cheerleader for the “spectacular”) as she states, “Fox’s passion for engaging audiences with bold storytelling and live musical formats make it a perfect home for this special broadcast,” perhaps NBC’s current chairman Bob Greenblatt was a bit more honest and on point in his response to the Sound of Music, “We own it so we can repeat it every year for the next 10 years…Even if it does just a small fraction of what it did, it’s free to repeat it.” Who knows, maybe this new trend will catch fire and save the networks and produce a whole new generation of musical fans, or just maybe we’ll all get a real treat and Stockard Channing—high on Good Wife street cred—will reprise her role of Rizzo, only slightly more age inappropriate now than in 1978.



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I, Reboot (Part II) Tue, 20 May 2014 13:25:31 +0000 Casting off my weak and overused metaphor of a motor vehicle for a moment, I will tell the story of a “word,” and how it semiotically multiplied into a conceptual hubbub of meanings, and why. My thesis deconstructs the reboot term and I shall share with you what I have uncovered. It is not often, if ever, we get to see a word, a single, linguistic seed, evolve from the neologistic birth canal into a semantic formation.

And before you get your knickers all twisted up in a poststructuralist knot, it is necessary to construct definitions before we can even begin to analyse, examine and debate how cultural processes operate. The idea that concepts can be interpreted any which way possible is to misinterpret poststructuralism that suggests that language.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here. The term “reboot” – as in rebooting your computer – is only forty-three years old, its birthday being 1971. Relatively speaking, that’s a squealing, squawking baby! If words could grow legs and arms, reboot couldn’t even clench a fist, let alone walk or run.

ac1Etymologically, a reboot-as-narrative-analogy is even younger, a foetus, a seedling even (1989 is its birthday according to the Oxford English Dictionary). Many have commented that the reboot narrative concept comes from the comic book medium. Indeed it does. But this is where the problems begin, you see? This is where the genre process and rebooting get all entangled and entwined in a Gordian knot of conceptual hodge-podge. Comic books have been rebooting for decades, since “minute zero,” as Michael Chabon calls the publication of Action Comics #1 which introduced the world to Superman in 1938.

Not true.

To be sure, comic books have always sufficiently engaged in periodic revisions, regenerations and reformations. As Geoff Klock has argued, one of the principle reasons why long-running vast narratives, such as DC and Marvel, have managed to expand and enhance their brand “life” is by delicately dancing the dialectic between standardisation and differentiation to great effect as an elemental part of their survival code, a kind of Darwinism, a natural (textual) selection.

This is how all texts operate and not a description of the reboot process. “Mere repetition would not satisfy an audience,” claims Steve Neale. I concur, Steve. For Derek Johnson, “product differentiation is the key to profit.” Well said, Derek. Or, as Stringer Bell would no doubt say: “word” (which is cool-talk for “definitely,” or so I am led to believe).

What, then, is a reboot, I hear you ask?

In 1986, DC Comics sought to purge their labyrinthine story-program of continuity errors and a narrative history that deterred potential “newbies” from jumping on-board. Sales had been declining rapidly for over a decade and Marvel “ruled the roost.” A twelve-part mini-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was the answer to their problems. Annihilate the DC Universe and start over from scratch. In short, reboot the system. Wipe away a publication history and begin again with a new story-program.


To be sure – and I do not mince my words here – engaging with the DC comic book hyperdiegesis at that time could not have been helped by three PhDs in Quantum Physics, a Macarthur Grant and a five-year long sabbatical from life, the universe and nutritional necessity! Douglas Wolf describes fans who can successfully navigate the chaotic contours of the DC and Marvel hyperdiegetic continuities as “super-readers.” I think this does them a disservice. Comic book readers of the 1980s who consumed and understood the continuity are nothing less than geniuses, gurus, veritable professors of alternate realities and monstrous geographies. I say award them MBEs, each and every one of them. Stick ‘em in a laboratory and watch them create the time machine. Hell, throw in a Delorean, let’s see life really imitate art….

spider-manThe notion that comic books have been rebooting since its inception is misleading and fallacious. One technique which DC and Marvel have adopted over the years is that of the “ret-con,” an abbreviation of “retroactive continuity.” A ret-con retroactively changes continuity by altering the details of an event in the past to make sense of a current storyline. Sometimes this technique can be extreme, such as the Spider-Man arc, One More Day, which ret-conned Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s marriage out of continuity – and created a fan backlash in the process for good reason: it was just too darn silly!

It is not only comics that engage in ret-conning. If anyone remembers Dallas, and the infamous season where Bobby Ewing is killed and is miraculously resurrected the following year. How did he return? It was all a dream! This ret-con wiped away an entire season’s worth of episodes in one fell swoop. Of course, it was all downhill from there and Dallas had “jumped the shark.”

bobby ewing

A ret-con is not a reboot. A reboot wipes away a publication history or, in film or television, a screen history and begins again with a new syntagmatic layer.

Of course, rebooting can never truly wipe the slate clean. The slate is a palimpsest and contains all the traces and ghosts of previous incarnations. However, we can see (hypothetically) intertextuality and dialogism spiralling along a horizontal axis – the paradigmatic – and the story itself unfolding sequentially along a vertical axis which is the syntagm. Intertextuality may “destroy the linearity of the text,” as Laurent Jenny argues, but linearity is still preserved. I prefer to understand narrative as a dialectic between linearity and non-linearity, chaos and order, paradigm and syntagm. Intertextuality vandalise the text while at the same time readability is guaranteed. As Mark J.P Wolf states, “without causality, narrative is lost.”

Next time, I shall illustrate how the reboot terminology has been marshalled by academics and journalists in ill-conceived ways, one which has birthed a buzz word – fuzz-word even – that has set in motion a range of non-sequiturs.


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I, Reboot (Part 1) Thu, 08 May 2014 14:00:09 +0000 Following the completion of The Dark Knight Trilogy in 2012, director Christopher Nolan stated: “It’s a sign of how quickly things change in the movie business. There was no such thing conceptually speaking as a ‘reboot.’ That’s new terminology.” Au contraire, Mr. Nolan! Seven years earlier, on the eve of Batman Begins’ worldwide release, co-writer David S. Goyer said that after the catastrophic failure of Batman and Robin (which effectively forced the film series into cultural purgatory for eight years):

[I]t was necessary to do what we call in comic book terms “a reboot”… Say you’ve had 187 issues of The Incredible Hulk and you decide you’re going to introduce a new Issue 1. You pretend like those first 187 issues never happened, and you start the story from the beginning and the slate is wiped clean, and no one blinks…So we did the cinematic equivalent of a reboot, and by doing that, setting it at the beginning, you’re instantly distancing yourself from anything that’s come before. (Goyer, quoted in Greenberg, 2005: 13 – 14)

Upon closer examination of Nolan’s statement, however, we can see that he expressly states that a reboot is “new terminology” in the “movie business.” To some extent, then, Nolan is correct. The principle of rebooting did not exist as a film concept prior to Batman Begins which influenced other producers to follow the conceptual conceit. It was burrowed deep within the cultural ghetto of the comic book medium.

What is a reboot, then? This is the overarching question of this series of articles and one which I have been wrestling with for six years or so (yes, I possess nothing you could unequivocally describe as “a life”).

i reboot

A reboot is an economic and narrative strategy that ignores or disavows a pre-established series of texts to inaugurate a new narrative sequence, a beginning again. Despite what journalists, academics, and other commentators would have you believe, a reboot is not a prequel, a sequel, or a remake. A reboot can also be a remake or an adaptation – all reboots remake or adapt, to a greater or lesser extent; but not all remakes or adaptations are reboots. Prequels, sequels, and other derivations are all part of an “already-existing narrative sequence” (Wolf, 2012). Simply put, if new episodes in the story architecture are installed onto an “ongoing, aggregate content system” (Johnson, 2013), then this is not rebooting. Conversely, then, a reboot is a syntagmatic disconnect (with the proviso that reboots always enter into dialogic relations with other texts along the paradigmatic axis).

Over the past six years or so, I have been researching the reboot phenomenon in comic books and film; firstly, for my undergraduate final dissertation – which was also my first peer-reviewed publication – and then extended into a PhD thesis which I am putting the finishing touches to as we speak. My first encounter with the reboot terminology came in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as the word came to be increasingly used in popular film and TV magazines in the UK, such as Empire and Total Film, to describe an array of contradictory texts, many of which did not qualify as reboots at all. Indeed, the study of reboots has been made all the more frustrating by a kind of semantic fashion which I have tracked and mapped by consulting journalistic paratexts over the course of the past fifteen years to examine precisely when the terminology came to be in vogue. Following the success of Batman Begins and, more notably, The Dark Knight, the reboot terminology semantically exploded as a buzz-word, a fuzz-word even. This may sound like hyperbole, but let me assure you, I have many more examples populating my hard-drive than can be fit within the confines of a single book.

Reboot_BooksI also signed up for Google Alerts, an online service that sends weekly reports to my e-mail account detailing when the term reboot had been used, where and in what context. Since The Dark Knight was released in 2008, I have witnessed the emergence terminological “virus” as the term was first picked up by film journalists, TV critics, console game reviewers, industry personnel, and (the horror! the horror!) academics – and, then, on into the cultural vernacular of the everyday: Obama is rebooting the Presidency; Alex Ferguson is rebooting Manchester United; Reboot your wardrobe, your sex life, your business, your brain, your diet… and so on and so forth ad nauseam.

If I may be so bold and candid, one of the principle reasons why I set out to deconstruct the principle of rebooting was because I was irritated. That may not be the most praise-worthy or legitimate rationale for embarking on a research project that (let’s be honest here!) eats into a significant chunk of your life, if not consuming it in one hearty calorific meal.

Why was I irritated? Well, these journalists (and eventually scholars, too) were using the terminology incorrectly and incoherently. So I decided to look under the hood of the car, and investigate the engine, the cultural and linguistic mechanics, to see what was going on. The premise of this series of articles is to explain what I discovered “under the hood.”



Les Brown: Thinking Inside the Box Wed, 27 Nov 2013 15:00:52 +0000 les-brown-journalist-400x600

By the time Les Brown published his first Encyclopedia of Television in 1978, he was already worthy of an entry of his own.

Brown, who died Nov. 4 at the age of 84, was still an editor at Variety, the show business daily, when he published Televi$ion: The Business Behind the Box in 1971. Coverage of TV at that time was largely a matter of day-after reviews, programming announcements and celebrity puff pieces. Television was treated as something magical and mysterious, as if those “free” programs just appeared out of thin air like electronic manna.

Expanding on his nearly two decades covering radio and TV for the trade publication, Brown lifted the veil on network television, using a watershed year in the life of CBS’s programming division to illuminate the scheduling chess game and the astounding amounts of money involved.

“The business of television,” Brown wrote, “is to deliver audiences to advertisers.”

The observation may seem obvious today, but at the time the notion that programs weren’t television’s products but rather its lures, was a revelation to the millions watching the “big three” networks every day.

Along with Horace Newcomb’s 1974 TV: The Most Popular Art, which dared to take entertainment programming seriously, The Business Behind the Box became an inspiration and essential guide for a new generation of television critics and reporters that asked tougher questions about the medium’s impact and social responsibility.

Brown’s encyclopedias provided succinct, clear explanations of the networks’ histories, key players, technical terms and slang, and became a crucial reference for reporters covering the TV beat, for scholars and for any couch potato who was curious about how and why the television industry worked as it did.


Ron Simon, a curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York, called Brown a pioneering television scholar.

“The several editions of his Encyclopedia of Television were essential reading to understand the sweep of media history,” Simon said. “His Channels magazine charted the impact of the cable revolution, showing all the forces at work creating a new type of TV. Les Brown, as well as any media historian, documented all the forces at work that resulted in our TV programming: creative, business, and regulatory. He shared his wisdom at many conferences around the world, especially the Paley Center.”

In 1982, Brown launched the magazine Channels of Communication (later just Channels). Unlike TV Guide, which served mainly as a program guide, and Broadcasting, which was more concerned with hirings, firings and bottom lines, Channels took an analytical approach to broadcast television’s strategies, trends, profitability and ethics.

Brown served as a Peabody Awards board member from 1982 to 1988. Newcomb, whose board tenure overlapped Brown’s by a year, recalled that he “made everyone think twice — or more — about their judgments of the media, and Peabody was strengthened by his own strong arguments.”

Newcomb, who retired last summer as Peabody director, also called Brown “a giant among television commentators in the formative years of the medium.  He was a fierce critic in the best sense of the term, always concerned with what television meant for the society at large.”

In later years, Brown taught at Yale, Columbia and Fordham universities. But his lasting legacy is the approach to reporting and critiquing television that his books exemplified.

As Variety co-editor-in-chief Cynthia Littleton tweeted upon hearing of Brown’s passing, Televi$ion: The Business Behind the Box “remains required reading.”




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.


Is Orange the New Television? Tue, 22 Oct 2013 14:00:41 +0000 Orange is the New Black says something about our culture’s readiness for complex, sexually diverse female characters. ]]> Title Card OITNBIn The Television Will Be Revolutionized, Amanda Lotz argues that in the transition from the network to the post-network era, “the increasing multiplicity of ways of paying for and circulating programs have substantially expanded the range of programming that can be produced within the dictates of a commercial media system” (p. 149). Lotz asserts that new possibilities for distribution, like VOD, DVRs, and the Internet, will diversify television programming from scheduling to target audience to content. Netflix’s recent foray into original programming is a prime example of the changes Lotz discusses. Netflix—which has over 40 million global users, about 10 million more than HBO—claims primarily to be producing original programming to retain viewers, but its recent groundbreaking nod from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which nominated House of Cards in nine Emmy categories, suggests that Netflix is in fact telling new kinds of television stories.

Netflix’s July 2013 release of Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black is representative of the innovations in content made possible by independent distribution. There is little public information about why Showtime, home to Kohan’s Weeds, passed on Orange, but Kohan has discussed enthusiasm for the freedom working with Netflix gave her:

“the greatest thing about going to Netflix was that I pitched it in the room, and they ordered 13 episodes without a pilot. … That is every showrunner’s dream, to just ‘go to series’ and have that faith put in your work. … They were new, they were streamlined, they were lovely, they were enthusiastic about it. And I love being on the new frontier.”

Full Cast OITNB

One of the freedoms Kohan has enjoyed is writing a complex story about women for a diverse female ensemble cast. The complexity of Orange’s three-dimensional characters has been both praised for “exhibit[ing] the sort of real talk about race, gender, and identity usually limited to college seminars” and critiqued for repeating familiar stereotypes of race and class. Although many critics agree that the series is “a showcase for a large group of black and Latino actresses who for the most part have not had regular roles in series before this,” it is Orange’s representations of gender and sexuality diversity that have brought it nearly unanimous praise. The New Yorker, for instance, proclaimed, “There are more lesbians here—butch and femme and of every ethnicity—than in any other series on television.” The show also blurs the lines between lesbian and straight with characters like Piper Chapman, who finds herself caught between her former lover (a woman) and her fiancé (a man), and Lorna Morello, a “temporary lesbian” who has sex with Nicky Nichols until she feels it is a violation of her commitment to her male fiancé. But by far, the most interesting, compelling, and groundbreaking character on Orange is the prison’s hairdresser, Sophia Burset, who, in addition to being an inmate, is African American and transgender.

Laverne Cox OITNBLaverne Cox, also a transgender woman, plays Sophia, and her presence in Orange marks the first time in history that an African American trans woman has held a substantive role on television. And unlike the two-dimensional and stereotypical transgender characters who came before Sophia—like Dirty Sexy Money’s Carmelita Rainer, a mistress whose life ends tragically, and Nip/Tuck’s Ava Moore, a sexual predator who transitioned to woo a love interest—Sophia’s character is a thoughtful portrayal of transition and transgender identity. Laverne Cox told Time, “There’s a lot of the same trans stories being repeated over and over again. Orange breaks that in a lot of wonderful ways.”

Though she does not have an abundance of screen time in each episode, we learn a lot about Sophia’s life in season one, much of it in an episode-long showcase on her history, her transition (Cox’s real-life twin brother plays Sophia pre-transition), and the credit card fraud that landed her in prison. We also meet her wife and son, which allows the show to explore the complexities of transitioning in midlife. But Sophia’s most compelling storyline involves her struggle to receive her hormone pills in prison after a budget cut takes them away (they are eventually restored). Through it all, Orange portrays Sophia as a transgender woman who made some bad choices, but who refuses to be a victim or a stereotype—she is a loving spouse, parent, friend, confidant, and hairdresser extraordinaire.

With its multifaceted portrayals of women, gender, and sexuality, it is easy to see why Orange is being hailed as Netflix’s best program—even better than Emmy-nominated House of Cards. And when you look at the new fall offerings from the broadcast and cable networks, Orange looks downright avant-garde. In many ways it is disappointing that Orange seems so extraordinary in 2013, but as Bitch Flicks argues, “It is still revolutionary and fresh merely for there to be a show mostly about women, much less one like OitNB that does its best to reflect womanhood as anything but monolithic and directly addresses race, class and sexuality.” While it is not possible to know the number of viewers who have viewed Orange, the buzz the show has generated says something about our culture’s readiness for complex, sexually diverse female characters. Hopefully its success will convince television producers and networks to be ready, too.



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Enough Said? Beasts of the Southern Wild, SharkNado, and Extreme Weather Fri, 26 Jul 2013 13:00:14 +0000 reporter.onscreenIn this short post I’d like to juxtapose an unlikely pair of films in order to push harder at the taken-for-granted mythologies of extreme weather: reading acclaimed 2012 indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild ($1.8 million budget; 16-week shoot) alongside SyFy’s widely-discussed (if hardly acclaimed) July 11 SharkNado ($1 million budget; three-week shoot) produces a unique opportunity to (temporarily) disregard distinctions of taste that would assign them to separate categories, while also calling attention to unexamined assumptions about appropriate affective responses to the recycling of familiar generic clichés in these vastly different texts. Ironically, although the art-house aura of Beasts marks it out for a more educated audience, the consciously trashy SharkNado acknowledges climate change as a cause of extreme weather, couched in a preposterous B-movie context. Yet both movies foster affective responses that allow us to discount the extreme weather that provides their central crises, using the catastrophe as a proving ground for paternal love. Beasts features offensive, retrograde race, gender, and class politics, it has elicited deferential online discussions that rarely voice any critique (although bell hooks and some bloggers call out its flaws). Perhaps its poetic sheen, with lots of lens flares and handheld jiggling, has inoculated the film from political analysis, despite the fact that it portrays poor, rural, African American people speaking minstrel-show English, with lines like “they be talkin’ in codes” explaining how the six-year-old protagonist can hear animals speak. Along with a few drunk, dirty, working-class whites, heroine Hushpuppy and her father Wink live in filth and disarray, yet the film proffers them as an idealized utopian community. Beasts trucks in the recirculation of all-too-familiar clichés about people of color and the working class: closer to nature (“we’s who the earth’s for,” Hushpuppy tells us), working roots and shooting gators (Louisiana—exotic!), fiercely loyal, and explosively violent. Wink’s open-handed slap knocks Hushpuppy to the ground, yet because he later expresses his love for her on his deathbed, many viewers forgive his abusiveness.

Hushpuppy narrates in voiceover the tumultuous period in her life when Wink falls ill and a hurricane floods their rural community, The Bathtub, outside the south Louisiana levees. But the post-Katrina context in Beasts is submerged in the miasma of magical realism, which mystifies the extreme weather events in the film. We see many Bathtub denizens evacuating before the storm, but Hushpuppy and drunk Wink hunker down to ride it out. The threat to the Bathtub is ascribed vaguely to climate change, as Hushpuppy’s teacher explains: “the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled” which means “the ice caps gonna melt, water’s gonna rise, and everything south of the levee is going under.” Waters rise, not due to any human causation, but a mystical rupture in the universe. Redeemed father Wink watches approvingly as Hushpuppy faces down prehistoric aurochs, loosed by the melting ice.

Given this mystification of climate change and environmental degradation through noble savage primitivism, the movie is astonishingly popular. The Beasts Facebook page has over 76,000 likes, with posts touting a live performance of the film’s score in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and wishing readers “Happy Earth Day from the Bathtub!” The movie has inspired a Twitter hashtag #BEASTit, mainly used as encouragement in sporting and racing events; its @BeastsTheMovie twitter handle has over 3600 followers. On the official Beasts website, we can read about its four Oscar nominations and see animations of review snippets: A.O. Scott’s “a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” Bryan Alexander’s “spellbinding,” and Manohla Dargis’s “hauntingly beautiful.” Along the sidebar scrolls a procession of tweets, mostly expressing fans’ hyperbolic praise: “this movie has inspired me and changed my life” says jessicamartinez.

flying.sharkUnlike Beasts, nobody sees SharkNado as life-changing. Likewise, it cannot be mistaken for an art film—it positions itself consciously in the tradition of B-movies, in a line of SyFy made-for-basic-cable schlockfests such as SharkTopus and Chupacabra vs. The Alamo. Special effects hearken back to Bride of the Monster’s Bela Lugosi wrestling a plastic octopus, the tornadoes are CGI, with scripting and acting to match—but SharkNado’s genius lies in catering to fans of B-movies (tagline: Enough said.) Such fans (and others, presumably) went online en masse via Twitter during the premiere broadcast, peaking at 5000 #SharkNado tweets per minute, which Twitter ranks among the biggest trend surges in its history. Although video on demand is touted as the wave of the future, the simultaneity of watching a show as it airs along with millions of other viewers remains a strong component of viewer pleasure.

Wil Wheaton’s (@wilw) popular tweet, “I’m not so sure about the science in this movie you guys. #SharkNado,”  encapsulates the sarcastic, Mystery Science 3000 tone of the TweetNado. Unlike the storm in Beasts, which hazily alludes to Katrina, the extreme weather event in SharkNado is never credible. Nevertheless, it ably conforms to weather disaster movie conventions such as shots of bending palm trees and driving rain, and the reconstituted family unit at the end: hero-dad Fin gets back together with his ex-wife after rescuing her and their daughter along with lots of other people (although his ex’s husband is conveniently eaten). We even get the added pleasure of seeing the reporter eaten by a wind-propelled shark. Before she dies, we learn that sharks from the Gulf of Mexico have migrated into the unusually warm Pacific, where Hurricane David is now driving them up the California coast and “experts are saying global warming is the reason for this unprecedented event.”’s knowing nods to the pleasures of bad movies, as well as its many allusions to Jaws and other classics, suggest a target audience of savvy, sophisticated viewers, a group that may overlap with Beasts‘s demographic. But the affect SharkNado generates is less serious, less misty-eyed, and dedicated to the fun of hurling ridicule at a B-movie. With its spoofing tone, SharkNado produces a sharper, more critical mode of viewing than the art film, though it doesn’t pretend to Beasts’s intellectual depths. Both fantastical films employ extreme weather as a backdrop for adventure and heroism, including rejuvenating the father as the patriarch of the family; both the derision heaped on SharkNado and the precious sentimentality of Beasts operate to sideline any engagement with extreme weather beyond a staging ground for cliché.



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