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

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

BBC iPlayer as a “pink portal” (2010)

BBC iPlayer as a “pink portal” (2010)

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

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

BBC iPlayer logo

BBC iPlayer logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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3-D Television and the Stereoscopic Archive Thu, 05 Nov 2015 12:00:29 +0000 Post by Nick Camfield, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor, Nick Camfield, completed his PhD in the department in 2014.

In perhaps the most striking sequence in Bill Morrison’s Decasia: The State of Decay (2002), a boxer launches heavy cross-blows at a punching bag obscured by decomposing film stock. As the nitrate warps and bubbles, the boxer’s punches seem defiant. As Morrison recounted, “I wasn’t just looking for instances of decayed film, [but] instances where the image [was] fighting off the inexorability of its demise.”[1]

Still from Decasia.

Still from Decasia.

Rocky Marciano featured in 3-D Rarities.

Rocky Marciano featured in 3-D Rarities.

Nitrate film was highly combustible and subject to serious chemical deterioration, and Morrison did have opportunities to adulterate his decaying elements further. Decasia nevertheless serves as an anti-Bazinian statement on mortality and a powerful call for film preservation—an unending process of curatorship, working with nitrate and triacetate bases, and with analog and digital formats. As R. M. Hayes notes, 3-D filmmaking dates almost to cinema’s inception.[2] While preservation of the 2D cinematic archive is considered a valuable endeavor, the stereoscopic archive has received comparatively little attention. The mass production of 3-D televisions and home video players has opened spaces for 3-D film spectatorship and restoration, however, and for appropriations of older stereoscopic texts through expressions of nostalgia and subcultural capital.

As I argue in my PhD thesis, 3-D television emerged as a mass-produced technology as part of a cycle that crossed media platforms and bolstered development trends in each.[3] At the same time, discourses on safety and convenience and accusations of gimmickry informed 3-D television’s situation in the media marketplace.[4] Such complaints were rooted in longstanding claims about the unviability of 3-D media. If, as Keith Johnston maintains, 3-D has reached a “final moment,” in which historical discourses have arrested the technology’s potential,[5] one might observe that 3-D television’s fate was determined long before its introduction. Assertions that 3-D television has failed absolutely are widespread. Television reviewers stress that 3-D functionality is of little interest, yet they are obliged to discuss this aspect of performance. Satellite broadcasters have abandoned 3-D production, due to negligible viewing figures and to make room for ultra-high definition (UHD) platforms. A technology that manufacturers heralded as “revolutionary” has quickly become a sideshow attraction.

Gog-22BRejections of stereoscopic technology have emboldened 3-D media fans, however, and current aesthetic practices have further encouraged devotees. According to Barbara Klinger, 21st-century 3-D filmmakers have eschewed “pop-out” effects to preserve Hollywood’s invisible styling.[6] Keith Johnston likewise suggests that conservative aesthetic choices limited 3-D television’s appeal.[7] Filmmakers such as James Cameron have worked to distinguish 21st-century 3-D filmmaking from that of earlier periods. In breaking the fourth wall, the argument goes, 3-D “pop-out” disrupts narrative continuity. To address this difficulty, it is claimed, “pop-out” should be minimized and depth of field accentuated. Such assertions offer fans of older 3-D films something to rail against: namely, alleged corporate behemoths steamrolling their visceral pleasures. For aficionados, current aesthetic practices stand in contradistinction to a “golden age” of stereoscopic filmmaking slowly being revived on home video.

Dragonfly SquadronThough recent Hollywood blockbusters are well represented on 3-D Blu-ray, older titles have until very recently been neglected. Over the past two years, both conglomerate and independent Blu-ray distributors have issued dual-frame–format releases of older 3-D movies. Since none of these titles were re-released theatrically, home-video reissue represents the only opportunity to view them in anything approximating their cinematic form.[8] Moreover, without the advent of 3-D television, such restorations would not have been undertaken, likely abandoning many of these cultural artifacts to decay. In order of 3-D Blu-ray release, one can now (or shortly) access The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Dial M for Murder (1954), Amityville 3-D (1983), House of Wax (1953), The Bubble (1966), Dragonfly Squadron (1954), Inferno 3-D (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Comin’ at Ya! (1981, forthcoming), The Mask (1961, forthcoming), and Gog (1954, forthcoming). Nonetheless, this list represents a small fraction of historical 3-D productions with still retrievable negatives.

3-D RaritiesPerhaps the most diligently restored stereoscopic release to date is 3-D Rarities, a collection of 22 shorts and novelties held by the 3-D Film Archive and distributed on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley. The films date from 1922 to 1962 and include documentary footage of New York City, anti–nuclear testing film Doom Town (1953), a Pennsylvania Railroad promotion, animated short The Adventures of Sam Space (1953), Casper the Friendly Ghost short Boo Moon (1954), and a Francis Ford Coppola–directed burlesque sequence from 1962.[9] Flicker Alley’s release prompted subcultural expression among enthusiasts, who dismiss recent Hollywood 3-D filmmaking in favor of a lost and unapologetically in-your-face aesthetic. Claims that Hollywood has domesticated 3-D allow fans of historical stereoscopic texts to position themselves in opposition to “mainstream” sensibilities and production techniques, as evidenced by user reviews of Flicker Alley’s release.

Fans derive clear pleasures from an older stereoscopic aesthetic, while decrying 21st- century Hollywood practices. As one reviewer enthused, “This is the first real example of what 3-D was to me when I grew up. Short and to the pointy!” Others remarked that “Unlike modern 3-D films, vintage 3-D is incredibly strong and will push your 3-D television to its full potential”; “Don’t expect today’s Hollywood films to come close to the level of dimensional enjoyment you will experience here”; and “Contemporary 3-D movies just don’t take advantage of the medium the way these classics did.” Such observations pervade commentary on 3-D Rarities, along with calls for access to a wider catalog of historical 3-D texts. In the absence of such representation, there is comfort in the knowledge that a limited archive of stereoscopic titles is currently both rejuvenated and enjoyed.Boo Moon


[1] Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray 3-D Rarities includes similar training footage of Rocky Marciano, who, through use of negative parallax, seems to hit a punching bag through the screen plane. This footage has been carefully stored and digitally restored, unlike the heavily degraded stock Morrison sought out for Decasia. Links to trailers including excerpts from both sequences are included above.

[2] R. M. Hayes, 3-D Movies: A History and Filmography of Stereoscopic Cinema (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989), p. 3.

[3] Nicholas Camfield, 3DTV Year One: Force, Resistance, and Media Technology (PhD Thesis submitted to the University of Nottingham for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2014), pp. 47-94.

[4] Ibid., pp. 95-220.

[5] Keith Johnston, “Pop-out Footballers, Pop Concerts and Popular Films: The Past, Present, and Future of 3D Television,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.4 (February 2013): 438-455.

[6] Barbara Klinger, “Three-Dimensional Cinema: The New Normal,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.4 (February 2013): 423-431.

[7] Johnston, op cit.

[8] Not every production listed was originally exhibited using Polaroid (dual-frame) 3-D, with some presented in anaglyph (red/green) formats. All 3-D Blu-ray titles referenced above are presented in superior dual-frame formats, however.

[9] Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray release was preceded by a special screening of 3-D Rarities at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).


A New Brand of Tea Leaves?: The 2015 Emmy Awards Mon, 21 Sep 2015 04:23:07 +0000 Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 12.20.58 AMPredicting the Emmy Awards is a fool’s errand, even in the grand scheme of the fallibility of award predictions: whereas the Oscars have precursor awards (primarily the Guilds) with voting base overlap, the Emmys have no such preview, leaving experts to effectively read tea leaves.

However, this year came with a new brand of tea leaves, brought on by a significant change: whereas past years have seen winners determined by a limited blue-ribbon panel of voters in a given peer group, this year the voting was opened up to all members of said groups, meaning the voting pool increased exponentially. Reporting speculated that this could dramatically alter the winners, skewing toward populist series and diminishing the impact of the episode submissions that were typically considered crucial variables in the blue-ribbon panels’ decisions.

Accordingly, this year’s predictions narrative had more weight than usual, pushing those who were following the story to see each early win as a marker of a given narrative. And it didn’t take long for such a narrative to emerge, even if I joked about it being premature when I called it early on: HBO swept through the broadcast like the behemoth it once was, laying waste to numerous records in the process. Game of Thrones shattered the record for most wins by a series in a single year well before it won for Outstanding Drama Series, and Veep won three awards—including the fourth consecutive win for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and second for Tony Hale—before it emerged to dethrone Modern Family and take HBO’s second-ever win for Outstanding Comedy Series. Combine with Olive Kitteridge’s near-sweep of the Limited Series category—losing only Supporting Actress—and you have the most dominant performance for a single channel or network in recent Emmys history. It’s the first time that a single channel has taken home the TV Movie (Bessie), Limited Series (or Miniseries), Drama, and Comedy awards in the same year since the TV Movie category was added in 1980.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 12.21.52 AMThere are a large number of conclusions we could make based on this. We could discuss how the opening up of the voting pool privileged a show like Game of Thrones that has both large viewership and strength in the creative arts categories whose voters were previously unlikely to vote in the program awards. We might ask if the accessibility of HBO programming—both through elaborate screener DVD boxes sent to voters and through the ease of HBO Go/HBO Now—makes it more likely that voters have seen shows on the channel, versus some of the competition. We can ponder how the potential dilution of submitted episodes’ importance to the process privileged past winners and nominees with whom voters were familiar (thus giving Veep an advantage over newcomer Transparent, which won Lead Actor and Directing Emmys for Amazon Studios).

And yet here’s the thing about awards: we’ll never know. Although the social media consensus on my feed seems to be that Game of Thrones would have been more deserving in earlier seasons, or that Transparent was breaking more ground in comedy than Veep’s political satire, there’s every possibility Emmy voters felt Game of Thrones had its strongest year yet and Transparent was a drama masquerading as a comedy and dragged down by Maura’s unlikeable children. It becomes easy to forget in efforts to “solve” the Emmy voting process by turning it into an objective process that it is an inherently subjective one. And while I am an advocate for contextualizing the specific subjectivities that shape each year’s winners lest we accept the prestige they’ve come to represent as an asterisk-free marker of television greatness, this year’s awards reminded me and everyone else who follows the Emmys too closely that there will never be evidence to support any of our conclusions. We will never know exactly why a given series or performer or writer or director won an Emmy award. It is beyond our reach.

And yet lest the above read as an outright rejection of Emmys narratives, this was nonetheless a night that reinforced how the swirling subjectivity of industry awards can transform such that objective consensus emerges. Fitting given the night’s controversial spoiler-laden montage of series finales—which would’ve been harmless with fewer climactic moments chosen in editing—this was a night where two actors had their last chance to win an Emmy for a role that will define their career. And whereas Parks and Recreation’s Amy Poehler had her chance swept away by the HBO tide, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm emerged victorious, winning his first Emmy—and the first acting Emmy for any actor on the AMC series, inconceivably—and earning a standing ovation in the process.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 12.20.32 AMTechnically, that win inspires just as many questions. Had the tape system and limited voting pools held an often-reprehensible character back in previous years? Did all those HBO-happy voters feel about The Newsroom the way I felt about The Newsroom? And yet those questions don’t matter as much when the victory feels just, as was also the case when Viola Davis—the clear standout of the uneven How To Get Away With Murder—took to the stage after winning Lead Actress in a Drama Series and spoke eloquently and righteously about the struggle facing actresses of color when you don’t see people like you standing on that stage winning Emmys. It doesn’t matter if this new voting system was responsible for Davis’ win, because it was both a deserving performance—although there’s that subjectivity again—and because it represents a small step toward addressing the Academy’s longstanding struggle with diversity.

You could argue that “it doesn’t matter” describes the whole evening, and not just the various procedures that preceded it: it is very possible to overstate the importance of the Emmy Awards, as HBO publicity will helpfully—if deservedly—demonstrate over the next 24-72 hours. But Davis’ win stands out as an example of an Emmys moment that unquestionably matters, and pushes a deeper consideration into not simply who wins Emmys, but how they win them, and how that remains an area where greater work in diversity and representation can and should be explored by the Television Academy. And perhaps here we can make a distinction, then: it may be impossible to safely predict the Emmys, but it’s very possible to investigate that process with a critical eye, one that hopefully with move beyond procedures to the politics that underlie them in the years that follow.


First Impressions: Fear the Walking Dead Fri, 28 Aug 2015 14:25:25 +0000 fear1Post by Amanda Keeler, Marquette University

The Walking Deadcompanion” series Fear the Walking Dead is the latest iteration of offshoot/spinoff storytelling around this narrative universe. Fear the Walking Dead premiered Sunday night on AMC, setting another ratings record for the cable channel by reaching approximately 10.1 million viewers. I’ve written about The Walking Dead previously on Antenna, in a piece that focuses on the complexities of genre and how the show fluctuates over time to blend multiple genres, primarily by mixing western imagery to create a post-apocalyptic return to the frontier. The announcement of the new program Fear the Walking Dead led me to a number of questions related to how the show would work in terms of storytelling, genre, setting, and character. Without the comic book as a reference point, how would its narrative progress and/or differ from the original television show? How would its differing landscape and location, set in Los Angeles, California, rather than the American south, shift its tone and genre? What types of character would populate its world? Would it function as an ensemble cast, or would one or two characters dominate the central narrative?

While the prolific nature of film sequels and blockbuster franchises suggests the relative safety of building new pieces around known narrative worlds, the enormous popularity of The Walking Dead puts a lot of pressure on its new companion piece. Audiences at this point, on the cusp of The Walking Dead’s sixth season premiere slated for 11 October 2015, are accustomed to many of the elements that define the original show. This precursor sets up the new show in some positive and negative ways, depending on which elements of the original show resonate with individual viewers. But unlike The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead will likely not be given multiple seasons to find its audience or to have the luxury of missteps along the way.

Critical reviews thus far have been mixed. Laura Bradley at Slate thinks it should have been a comedy so that the two shows could function as “palate cleansers for each other.” Todd VanDerWerff at Vox writes that “the show is basically Parenthood with zombies.” But, is that a bad thing? What do we want so-called “zombie” shows to look and feel like? Do viewers want this to be the same show but in a different setting, and is that even possible? Will it create the same kind of viewer dissatisfaction that the second season of True Detective experienced this summer when the central story moved from Louisiana to California?


In terms of the show’s location, I wonder if the Los Angeles location might disrupt the deeply traditional gender norms that define the characters across the first three seasons on The Walking Dead. This isn’t clear yet, but remains something to pay attention to in the context of this show’s cast, being that Kim Dickens (as Madison Clark) is the show’s most famous cast member, who may or may not be the “Rick Grimes” (Andrew Lincoln) of this world. As well, my interpretation of The Walking Dead as a western is deeply tied to its location in the south and the pre-apocalyptic professions of its two main characters in seasons one and two. Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal), who were both law enforcement officers, have the knowledge of and access to the guns and ammunition that are key to their post-apocalyptic survival. In Los Angeles, who or what will have that kind of upper hand?

To address my pre-viewing questions: It is definitely a different show than its precedent — and it is much too soon to tell if that is good or bad. It was an entertaining hour of television that moved slowly, much like the pilot of The Walking Dead. Unlike that pilot episode, “Days Gone Bye,” however, the main character will not wake up after everything in the world has changed. This new show gives us Rick’s coma time, through the Clark-Manawa family, and it will take viewing a few more episodes to find out if this unexplored timeline is worthy of the screen time that Fear the Walking Dead is giving it.

From the perspective of the first episode, the show does one thing quite well. While not terribly visually interesting beyond the shots of a bleak, polluted urban landscape, the pilot episode of Fear the Walking Dead uses sound to tell its story in a fascinating way. As somewhat omniscient viewers who are aware of the events that will soon transpire, we know a lot more than the characters and it builds anticipation towards some unknown tipping point. The show plays with this audience knowledge by cleverly using the cacophony of the city to foreshadow the slow yet inevitable realization that zombies (or walkers) will soon be a threat to these characters’ existence. The characters hear sirens, helicopters, gunshots, but continue through their days with these “normal” city sounds. Cars zip by, narrowly missing people and objects. Shots are fired, and ignored. Dogs continue to bark incessantly off screen. With each scene the sirens grow in volume and proximity, building towards the one sound that viewers know, but these characters cannot yet comprehend: the telltale rasp of the undead walkers. These sounds all build powerfully as the characters move towards the knowledge that the audience already has. The city noises are a wonderful contrast to the prominent sounds of the first seasons of The Walking Dead: the absolute silence of a technological, industrial society that has already ceased existing punctuated by the buzzing cicadas and blood-thirsty walkers.


On the other hand, not everything in the pilot episode came together cohesively. The writing is a little clunky, the characters and their motivations don’t yet make sense, and some of the acting feels unsatisfactory. The main characters work in a high school, which the show (unfortunately) uses as a backdrop to show Travis lecture his students about the battle of man versus nature, in which “nature always wins.” In a different classroom, Madison’s daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Cary) fools around with her girlfriends while her teacher lectures on chaos theory. As attempts at textured mise-en-scène or layered storytelling, these elements feel forced.

Nonetheless, after viewing only one episode into this new show, I am looking forward to watching how the questions I posed at the beginning are addressed in the coming weeks.


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In Memoriam: Peg Lynch and Her Records of Broadcast History Mon, 03 Aug 2015 14:00:19 +0000 Ethel and Albert, recently passed away at the age of 98. Her contributions to radio and early television may not be well known, but materially this forgotten show exists. ]]> Peg Lynch

Post by Lauren Bratslavsky, Illinois State University

“You’re early. There’s an episode… houseguest arrives early and I’m unprepared.” Peg Lynch’s voice trailed off as she opened the door to let me in. At the time, she was 94 and still mentally composing episode plots for the long-ago radio and television program she created, Ethel and Albert. It was a show about nothing really: a miswritten phone message, a broken light bulb, a failed dinner party, and so on. I stumbled across her show when I was poking around my university’s special collections. I read some Ethel and Albert scripts and was amused. I researched what I could about the show, but was disappointed at the overall lack of information. I learned from the archivist that Lynch was still alive. I nervously called her up and asked her some questions about what it was like to work in radio and television, especially as a woman. Lynch didn’t think it was that special, or why anyone would care about her experience in the business, but she invited me to her home to meet her. I later learned this was one of her endearing attributes – that is, inviting people to her home and treating them lovingly as long lost relatives.

I was a bit stunned to see Peg Lynch’s obituary more than a week ago in The New York Times. I knew that her health had taken a turn for the worse and that this may have been the 98-year-old woman’s last leg. What surprised me was the fact of the obituary itself, which led to obituaries in Variety, LA Times, and elsewhere. It was not that Lynch didn’t deserve the lengthy write-ups and accolades of her work in radio and television; she was long over due for such recognition. I was amazed that her little-known career was finally gaining notice. For a few years now, I’ve queried radio fans and television historians whether they’ve heard of Ethel and Albert, which gained a nation-wide audience in 1944 to 1950, then a television audience from 1950 to 1956, and back to radio until the 1970s. For some, the characters rang a bell, but very few clearly recognized the show or Peg Lynch.

NBC Ethel and Albert title card 1To be fair, there are many radio and early television programs that are obscure, and indeed unmemorable. What makes Ethel and Albert, and the later radio incarnation, The Couple Next Door, remarkable is that Peg Lynch created the show and wrote every single episode by herself and starred in both the radio and television versions. The only analog to Lynch’s creator-writer-actor career was Gertrude Berg. Berg’s career is well documented in the history books and broadcasting lore, most likely in part due to the notoriety associated with the blacklist as well as awards, as noted in her obituary. Lynch’s work, never touched by controversy or industry awards, became just one of the thousands of entries in program encyclopedias. Without mechanisms such as television syndication or lasting celebrity status, like that of Lucille Ball or Betty White, Lynch fell further into obscurity. Had it not been for an email sent by Astrid King, Lynch’s daughter, the New York Times most likely would not have picked up on the news of her passing. And then, write-ups of Peg Lynch, “a pioneering woman in broadcast entertainment,” would not have circulated as it did.

A page from Peg Lynch's scrapbook, posted to her Facebook page.

A page from Peg Lynch’s scrapbook, posted to her Facebook page.

Why is Peg Lynch’s career significant for radio and television history? While obituaries frame her as a pioneer, I think a more apt description is that she persevered in an industry that was constantly changing and predominately male. As outlined in her obituary and in far greater detail on her website, Peg started in radio as a copywriter in the early 1930s at a local, small-town radio station in Minnesota. When she asked for a raise that reflected her many responsibilities, which included such tasks as writing ad copy and a daily women’s program, she was denied. She quit and continued to work in different radio stations, making her way out of the Midwest and to New York City. All the while, she held on to her creation, Ethel and Albert, a middle-aged married couple who were known for their gentle and realistic bickering. She first pitched Ethel and Albert to NBC in 1944, who made her an offer but wanted 50/50 ownership over the rights of the show. Lynch walked way. Instead, Lynch secured a network deal around the time NBC-Blue turned into the ABC network. Someone at WJZ (NBC-Blue/ABC’s flagship station) got a hold of Lynch, offered her an evening slot and allowed her to retain full ownership. Ethel and Albert was not sponsored by one company, but rather was part of the co-op model of radio sponsorship. In 1946, Ethel and Albert was a short-lived test case for television at WRGB, GE’s experimental studio. Ethel and Albert remained on the radio until 1950, when Lynch was offered a real television opportunity: a ten-minute recurring segment on NBC’s The Kate Smith Hour. First, in 1953, NBC had Lynch turn her popular ten-minute segment into a half-hour network sitcom, sponsored by Sunbeam. Sunbeam dropped the live sitcom in favor of a different genre, the spectacular (as chronicled in Variety). CBS then picked up Ethel and Albert, sponsored by Maxwell House, as a summer replacement for December Bride in 1955 (an awkward promo for the switch over is on YouTube).

Peg-Lynch-PapersDespite decent ratings, CBS did not continue working with Lynch. I suspect this decision had something to do with I Love Lucy and CBS not wanting to have two programs featuring bickering couples, even if Ethel and Albert were far more subdued and realistic than Lucy and Desi. ABC aired Ethel and Alberts final television run, which was sponsored by Ralston Purina (Chex cereal and dog food). The show ended in 1956, at another transition moment when sitcom production moved from New York to Hollywood and from live to film. As Lynch recounted in her oral history (available through the University of Oregon’s Special Collections), there was talk of moving the show to Hollywood, but she preferred to stay on the East Coast. And really, she was tired of the weekly pressures to write new episodes while rehearsing and performing live. After television, she did some commercial work. Oddly enough, Lynch went back to radio, penning a near-copy of her original creation but under the title, The Couple Next Door for CBS Radio. Lynch had a couple more runs on the radio in the 1960s and 1970s, specifically on NBC’s Monitor and then NPR’s Earplay. With the last radio show in 1976, titled The Little Things in Life, Lynch’s long broadcast career ended.


The story of Peg Lynch can serve as a sort of public service announcement to those of us who toil in archives and seek out broadcast history’s margins. Two points in particular come to mind: the materiality of broadcast’s forgotten histories and the active role we play in shaping the use and availability of the material record. First, echoing Laura LaPlaca’s recent Antenna post, if we focus on all that is gone (and resign to the fact of this lack), then we overlook “the broadcast archive’s extraordinarily expansive physicality.” Lynch’s creative output is indeed physically available, even if mentions and critiques of her work are largely absent from our histories. The initial radio and television broadcasts were ephemeral in the sense that they were live broadcasts, moments of popular culture that began and ended in their programmed time slots. But there is a whole swath of materiality that exists in various forms and locations. There are the paper materials that Lynch saved throughout her career: scripts, letters, and a few other paper materials. Lynch’s mother compiled news clippings, photos, and various correspondence into scrapbooks. Decades after the height of her career, Lynch received an invitation to establish an archival collection at the University of Oregon in 1969 (how and why that happened is a whole other story), so all those scripts, scrapbooks, and paperwork are open for research (and soon, there will be more).

Throughout the 1970s and well into the 2000s, the physical meetings and tape-swapping of old time radio fans sustained the memory and the audio record of Ethel and Albert and The Couple Next Door. The fan conventions seem especially crucial in the age before the internet, as in, a time before old time radio websites posted shows and interviews. The conventions, and later on, the fan websites, fostered networks of old and new fans (Lynch loved her fans and her fans loved her). Even more material records exist now that we can search databases of digitized trade publications (like this article in Radio and TV Monitor, written by Lynch about the benefits of marital bickering, that is available on Lantern). References to the production side of Ethel and Albert certainly exist in the vast NBC corporate archives. The audio tapes exist in physical form and circulate digitally on the web. And the live television program? Those exists, too. Nearly every episode was filmed on a kinescope, which Lynch owned and now safely reside at the University of Oregon.

Which brings me to my second point: As radio and television scholars, we participate in recirculating the canon as well as seeking out new examples that corroborate or challenge existing histories. Just the very act of taking an interest in a little-known program or writer can help broaden the scope of broadcast histories or refine particular stories, such as the case of a little-known woman who was among the very few people to create, write, and star in her own show. The Peg Lynch Papers at the University of Oregon had been mostly dormant since they arrived decades ago. The archivists had various priorities in their immediate purview – the limited resources in such an institution necessarily limits which donors to follow up with in their twilight years. Thus, active interest from a faculty member or a researcher can help call greater attention to little-used or little-known collections, especially those collections whose creators are still alive. Those kinescopes of every episode? Up until two years ago, those were under Lynch’s couch and in cabinets in her home. After my first visit to Lynch’s home, I told the archivists about my visit, including the films and the fact that Lynch was still relatively lucid and had stories to tell. I’m sure that those kinescopes, as well as more papers, audio tapes, and ephemera would have made it to Oregon, thus joining the rest of Lynch’s collection. But the oral history? The personal relationships? The chance to participate in a collective nudge to ensure the preservation of a so-called ephemeral broadcast history? That probably would not have happened without some active participation and good old phone calls.


We can celebrate all that has survived, while prodding to discover what else exists. And we can continue to draw from the canon, while interrogating the wealth of materials that exists in the hopes of broadening and refining our histories. So long, Peg.


]]> 6
Documenting Hitch Thu, 02 Jul 2015 11:00:24 +0000 Hitchcock on Monitor

Post by Richard Hewett, University of Salford

This post continues the ongoing From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Richard Hewett, who completed his PhD in the department in 2012.

Alfred Hitchcock must rank as one of the most discussed and documented filmmakers of the 20th century, the number of books that focus on his life and work having turned into a cottage industry since his death in 1980. This year alone has seen the publication of a second volume of Sidney Gottlieb’s collected interviews and short stories, Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr’s Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, and a new biography by Peter Ackroyd. Over the years a number of screen documentaries have also been produced, the latest of which, Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut, premiered at Cannes last month.

The director clearly continues to exert the same fascination that he inspired during his lifetime, but on television, at least, the love affair between documentarists and Hitchcock now risks falling into the same trap as Ackroyd’s biography: having nothing new to say, and no new way of saying it. As Hitchcock TV profiles are legion, I will focus here on those made specifically for British television. What emerges is a clear picture — in creative terms, at least — of diminishing returns, though it seems with no similarly diminishing interest in the man himself.

Prior to Hitchcock’s death, the number of UK documentaries were few in number, the filmmaker featuring more regularly in extended interviews for arts-centered magazine programs, many of which have since been culled (repeatedly) for biographical features. Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock’s visits to British TV studios were inevitably timed to coincide with the release of his latest cinematic work. Thus we have a 1960 interview for Picture Parade (BBC) (the year of Psycho’s release), a 1964 interview with Huw Wheldon on Monitor (BBC) (coinciding with Marnie), appearances on Profile (BBC) and Late Night Line-Up (BBC) from 1966 (surrounding Torn Curtain’s release), a 1969 NFT appearance (BBC), being interviewed by Bryan Forbes (circa Topaz), and so on. These appearances are notable primarily for the control Hitchcock himself exerts, both subtly and otherwise. Whether or not the questions were pre-screened is impossible to say, but the director is seldom led along any conversational routes he does not wish to pursue, with the result that the same anecdotes are repeated, sometimes verbatim. Reputations - Alfred the GreatThe one British TV documentary made during his lifetime, the 1972 Aquarius (ITV) entry “Alfred the Great,” is little different, featuring a combination of studio interview material and footage of Hitchcock directing the opening sequence from Frenzy (1972). Here, as elsewhere, Hitchcock both literally and metaphorically calls the shots. The sole occasion on which the director is visibly challenged in any of these appearances is, interestingly, the only one to take place in front of a live audience. In his NFT interview, Hitchcock effortlessly works an appreciative crowd until interlocutor Bryan Forbes, having pointed out that Hitchcock seldom concerns himself with social consciousness, takes issue with Hitch’s repetition of Samuel Goldwyn’s maxim that “messages are for Western Union.” Forbes cuts short the resultant rumble of appreciative laughter, curtly stating, “Yes; I don’t think the applause is actually well placed, because not all films that fall into that category are necessarily bad films, and Goldwyn was getting a cheap laugh, really, which is echoed here…”

At this point, Hitchcock visibly cools.

This moment does not appear in the majority of the television documentaries made following Hitchcock’s passing, though the stories he consistently regurgitated during his lifetime are, perhaps inevitably, employed as a framework upon which to build. Three examples stand out in this respect: the two-part Omnibus (BBC) documentary from 1986; another two-part entry in the Reputations series (BBC) in 1999 (Hitchcock’s centenary year); and Living Famously (BBC) from 2002. Reputations - Alfred the AuteurEach relates, often via reliance on identical archive-interview footage, the same tales: the infant Hitchcock being scared by his mother saying “Boo!”; Hitchcock’s fear of “everything,” but in particular policemen — the latter a result of being locked in a prison cell (at his father’s behest) while still a child; explaining the difference between suspense and surprise; bemoaning his lack of technique for having let the bomb go off in Sabotage (1936); and explaining that he never said actors were cattle, only that they should be treated as such.

It is entirely natural, of course, that documentary-makers should rely on such primary material, even if much of Hitchcock’s self-celebration goes unchallenged. His statement that after an initially unsuccessful screening for studio bosses, breakthrough film The Lodger (1926) was conveniently left on the shelf for three months before being dusted off and hailed a classic conveniently ignores the fact that Ivor Montagu was brought in to re-edit the film in the interim, removing several of the title cards. However, when the Omnibus and Reputations entries were made, there had been no significant UK television documentary focus on Hitchcock’s career for several years. (The BBC had in 1997 mounted a Close Up on Hitchcock retrospective, which featured actors and directors briefly discussing his work.) The inclusion of such notable (and now departed) talking heads as James Stewart, Joan Fontaine, Ann Todd, Teresa Wright, Farley Granger, Janet Leigh, Charles Bennett, Samuel Taylor, Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, John Michael Hayes and Ernest Lehman provides valuable archive material, which would in turn be plundered for later such efforts.

There is also a sense, with these documentaries at least, of new discoveries and revelations waiting to be made — even if some of these later transpire to be false. Saul Bass’ claim, in Omnibus, that he in fact directed the Psycho shower sequence stirred up a storm of angry protest from many who had worked on the film (though Bass had been responsible for the storyboards), while Tippi Hedren’s reflection, in Reputations, on the post-Marnie rift provided a much-recycled sound bite: “I am totally responsible for it… No; I’m not, he is!”

By the time of Living Famously, this talent pool of primary sources, alas, starts to dwindle, and the same stories and reflections begin to derive from biographers such as David Freeman and Donald Spoto, or critics including Barry Norman, though the indefatigable Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell is still present to defend her father’s (and mother’s) reputation. Pat Hitchcock on Living DangerouslyThere is perhaps a sense of the well running dry. As with the 1960s interviews conducted with Hitchcock himself, few new questions are asked. It is almost as though Hitchcock continues to exert editorial control over his legacy from beyond the grave, much as he did with the montage piecing together of shots in his movies. Given the paucity of new biographical detail, the sensible approach — and the one taken by the two most recent original TV documentaries, Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock (BBC, 2009) and Jonathan Ross’s Perspectives: Made in Britain (ITV, 2013) — is to focus on lesser-addressed areas of the director’s life. Perhaps in a tacit admission that the old style of expository voiceover documentary has run its course, each of these takes a familiar media face and places it onscreen to deliver a personal take on the great man, both focusing on the British period, which allows an in-depth look at the more obscure (in terms of television airings) early work. Merton humorously acknowledges his reliance on archive footage by splicing himself into the interviews, introducing an irreverent note of which Hitchcock himself might have approved. The documentary closes with Merton loosening the necktie that he has (atypically) worn throughout the program, intimating that he is about to perpetrate the strangling (though presumably not rape) of Hitchcock in the style of Frenzy’s psychotic killer. Ross takes a somewhat different tack, using his and Hitchcock’s shared geographical origins (each hail from Leytonstone in East London) to unpack both the director’s early life and Ross’ personal relationship to his work. Though this verges on a vanity project at times, it at least introduces some new material, including Ross demonstrating how the effects shot from Blackmail (1929) was achieved.

Hitchcock on location in AquariusAnd that, for the moment, draws a curtain (though not a torn one) over original Hitchcock documentaries on mainstream British television. The recent Talking Pictures entries, on Hitchcock and his leading actors (BBC, 2014, 2015), apply an entirely cut-and-paste approach, linking much archive footage that did not feature in previous programs (including a large segment of the NFT interview), with Sylvia Syms’ knowing voiceover. This is perhaps as far as can now be travelled in terms of a biographical or career overview, but British television documentarists of the future would do well to take a leaf out of Kent Jones’ book, or from Michael Epstein’s documentary Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood (1999), to focus on particular periods, themes or relationships in Hitchcock’s career. Even the documentary extras which have proliferated on DVDs and BluRays over the last 15 years tend to address mainly the American films, and it would be gratifying to see a Hitchcock season — perhaps on BBC Four, which occasionally re-airs the Reputations and Living Famously material — that spotlights lesser-examined works, such as the wartime propaganda films (Bon Voyage [1944] and Aventure Malgache [1944]), the comedies (The Farmer’s Wife [1928], Mr. and Mrs. Smith [1941]) or (comparative) failures such as The Paradine Case (1947) and Under Capricorn (1949).

Until then, the Hitchcock TV documentary furrow would seem to have been definitively plowed.


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

Post by T.J. West, Syracuse University

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Making an Exit, Coming Home: Israeli Television Creators in a Global-Aiming Industry Thu, 18 Jun 2015 11:00:53 +0000 The Affair’s Hagai Levi puts it, taking a permanent detour from work that “started out as art.” ]]> Hagai Levi on the cover of  weekly magazine, with the accompanying headline, “Curse of Success” (Leora Hadas' translation).

Hagai Levi on the cover of Haaretz weekly magazine, with the accompanying headline, “Curse of Success” (Leora Hadas’ translation).

Post by Leora Hadas, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Leora Hadas, PhD candidate in Film and Television Studies in our department, a PhD candidate in Film and Television Studies in our department who begins teaching film and television in the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University in China in January 2016. 

The multiple-award-winning The Affair (Showtime, 2014–), now airing in the UK, has once again placed Israeli television on the global stage, although most viewers may never know it. The series was co-created by Israeli writer-director Hagai Levi, previously responsible for Be’Tipul/In Treatment (HBO, 2008-2010). The show’s purchase and adaptation by the major cable channel has since become a model for success to which creators throughout the Israeli television industry aspire. Israeli television shows and formats are enjoying a remarkable reception not only in the United States, but across the globe. Dramas such as In Treatment and Homeland (Showtime, 2011–), as well as successful reality television formats such as Rising Star (HaKokhav HaBa), have led to the New York Times calling Israel “a kind of global entrepôt for creative TV.”

The reach of the Israeli television industry is disproportionate to its tiny size and relative youth, but according to Georgia State University’s Sharon Shahaf, originates in just these qualities. Small budgets force a focus on storytelling and characterization, and an inexperienced industry has more leeway for personal and innovative creativity. Israeli dramas seldom employ a writing team, and are often written entirely by their creators. The convergence of creator and head writer, while fraying in the U.S., adds to the status of Israeli drama as essentially personal form of storytelling. As chief executive of Keshet Broadcasting Avi Nir says, “Israeli dramas are very much driven by auteurs, by people who have their own unique story and own unique voice to tell it.” Yet Levi left the Showtime production of The Affair, citing creative differences, telling Israeli news site Ynet that the show “started out as art, and there was a specific moment when I started to recognize that it was moving away from that.”

Title card from Israeli TV series <em>Fauda</em>. The show’s tagline is “In this war, everything’s personal.”

Title card from Israeli TV series Fauda. The show’s tagline is “In this war, everything’s personal.”

Levi’s experience in the transition between Tel Aviv and Hollywood reveals the contradictory position of scripted-series creators in Israeli television. Like their U.S. counterparts, creators in Israel are cultural legitimators, whose presence validates their shows as works of art and personal vision. Many of them work in multiple media, and enjoy a broad presence in more legitimate cultural spaces such as film, novels (Ron Leshem, Ta Gordin), theatre (Reshef Levi, HaBorer) or even political criticism (Sa’id Kashua, Avoda Arvit). Others are actors who star in semi-autobiographical shows, drawing on nationally specific experience – as IDF soldiers (Lior Raz, Fauda) or as minorities within Israel’s complex social mosaic (Maor Zegori, Zegori Imperia).

At the same time, the possibility of selling a show to Hollywood slots well into the “making an exit” narrative of the Israeli IT industry. The dream scenario pitched by Alon Dolev, founder of the TV Format Fund, is that of a start-up: an idea that is successfully sold on abroad, giving its originators “a regular, sometimes lifelong income” (my translation) while the buyer undertake the task of further management. To sell a show to the U.S. specifically is to “make it” in an industry that is increasingly oriented outwards, aiming for the international market from the get-go.

The reality behind the discourse is, naturally, more complex. Shows might “make an exit,” but creator seldom will. If episodes of HBO’s In Treatment were often taken verbatim from the original Be’Tipul, further Israel-drama adaptations usually borrow little but the initial idea, which loses much of its cultural identity in the process – as when Hatufim, or “Abductees,” was Americanized as Homeland. A growing focus on the selling of formats often means a complete dissociation between creator and show, even for the most reputedly personal of dramas. Distributors such as Keshet, Dori Media and Tedy Productions, though representing Israeli performers, do not deal in behind-the-scenes talent. Normally, their modus operandi is to get complete control over distribution rights and leave production companies out of the loop, a practice that continues to generate fierce public debate.

There results a paradox, in which the ultimate success is a personal Israeli story sold in Hollywood to an entirely new creative team. As Israeli television increasingly thinks in global terms, drama creators are in a curious split position between auteur and, in the uniquely Israeli term, “startupist.” They are expected to represent a locally and culturally grounded authenticity, yet end their role when the local goes global. Perhaps also as a result of its youth, Israeli television is not familiar with the figure of the showrunner: the writer-creator who also function as producer and as the main face of and power behind his or her show.

An Israeli-US co-production, Dig advertises Israeli producer Gideon Raff’s involvement.  In Israel, creator names never feature in poster or trailer content.

An Israeli-US co-production, Dig advertises Israeli producer Gideon Raff’s involvement. In Israel, creator names never feature in poster or trailer content.

For all their cultural presence, the discussion around format sales and resultant power struggles between producers and distributors almost entirely excludes creators. The fact is that the only means for an Israeli creator to receive either royalties on creative control over a show is to be directly hired into the adaptation’s writing team – a practice that remains very rare, going as it does against distributor interests. Essentially, while Israeli television drama is celebrated for its auteurial quality, Hagai Levi is but one among many creators who prefers to be, in the words of the Hebrew theme to Hatufim, “coming home.”


Streaming Across Borders: The Digital Single Market, Web-Based Television and the “Global” Viewer Thu, 04 Jun 2015 11:00:54 +0000 eudigitalsinglemarketPost by Sam Ward, University of Nottingham

This post continues the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor is Sam Ward, PhD candidate in Film and Television Studies in our department and Visiting Lecturer in the University of Roehampton’s Department of Media, Culture and Language. 

Last month, the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) announced plans for its Digital Single Market (DSM) initiative. Over the next two years, the initiative aims to increase cross-border trade in media and communications and standardize the consumer experience across the continent. Among a variety of likely ramifications, the proposals have sparked warnings that the BBC will be forced to make its iPlayer on-demand platform available outside the UK. Since its launch in 2007, the iPlayer has proven a popular aspect of the BBC’s “public purpose” in “delivering to the public the benefit of emerging media technologies and services.” But it remains available only on British soil, where it is paid out of the universal license fee. In the press conference announcing the DSM, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker complained of such “national silos,” envisioning instead a globe-trotting, always-connected media consumer: “You can drive from Talinn to Turin without once showing your passport, but you can’t stream your favorite TV shows from home once you get there.”

In her contribution to this column last month, Elizabeth Evans pointed to the important place of age in the industrial discourse surrounding digital television consumption. With this post, I want to continue with the question of how new forms of viewing are framed, but in terms of the equally definitive discourse of global connectedness. Just as Evans points out that “post-broadcast” viewing habits are reflexively associated with a “youth” demographic, the idea that viewers should be allowed to take the iPlayer with them as they move across borders reflects how those same viewing habits are increasingly tied to transnational flows. Traditional scheduled channels have always been perceived as a key aspect of what makes a television system national – especially, perhaps, in countries such as Britain where the most-watched channels have historically been those with a public-service remit requiring them to serve national cultural and economic interests. So far, the iPlayer has functioned as a digital extension of this logic, making the DSM all the more notable. (This is especially significant at a time when a newly elected British government prepares for both a referendum on the country’s membership of the EU and, as Evans explains, a potential renegotiation of the BBC’s revenue model.)

pic2The DSM will reportedly also have a significant impact on how commercial VOD platforms such as Netflix and Amazon operate on the continent. It promises to enforce an end to “unjustified” geo-blocking and to consider broadening the scope of the EC’s Satellite and Cable Directive to account for online services. In fact, a more borderless European digital market would seem to be compatible with the promotional positioning of these U.S.-based services, which are commonly framed in terms of a deterritorialized mode of consumption. In the run-up to Netflix’s UK launch in 2012 – marking its first venture into Europe – its CEO Reed Hastings foresaw “a service for the world’s best content for the world’s citizens.” Hastings’ rhetoric epitomizes the tendency for streaming and downloading in the UK to be strongly associated with the transnational flow of content. A glance at the main webpage of any commercial VOD service available in the country presents a more or less entirely non-British range of content. This is the case even with British-based services such as Blinkbox (whose flagship offerings currently include HBO’s Game of Thrones, The CW’s Arrow and Danish period drama 1864, among many other imports, and just a handful of old BBC series). Netflix has emerged as the most popular subscription streaming service largely thanks to its being the only way British viewers could watch all five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad (known here as a “Netflix hit”) and its exclusive rights to House of Cards.

At the same time, the national territory remains a key point of reference for viewers and providers alike. To continue with the example of Netflix, it has increasingly sought to integrate itself directly with the domestic system, both in technical and cultural terms. The company has negotiated several partnerships with broadcast-based platforms to make its content accessible via web-connected television sets, as well as laptops and tablet computers. Meanwhile, its imported drama is commonly advertised with the help of domestically familiar personalities, as with Ricky Gervais’ flying tour around flagship Netflix shows in a promo from last year.

Since rolling out in several European and Asian countries, Netflix has opened up to commissioned content from domestic markets across its non-U.S. territories. The Crown, a £100 million adaptation of a play about Queen Elizabeth II, is planned for 2016, produced by British production company Left Bank Pictures.

Playwright Peter Morgan’s The Audience, source of the announced Netflix adaptation The Crown.

More recently, Netflix has for the first time issued an open commissioning brief to UK companies for factual and entertainment content. Netflix report that this new content will be made available simultaneously in all the territories in which it is active, as had been the case for House of Cards. This hugely expensive strategy may yet see the realization of Hastings’ global customer. As The Hollywood Reporter put it, “Instead of waiting for Europe to create a single digital market, Netflix will do it itself.”

For now, what is clear is that both the European Commission and the new corporate powers of the “post-broadcast” era are keen to define technological connectivity as intimately linked with transnational connectivity. This gives rise to a host of pressing questions for media scholars: about television’s historical tethering to the national sphere, which will undoubtedly persist even as transnational projects flourish; about the textual characteristics of content Hastings has in mind for Netflix’s “global” citizen-consumer (note, for example, the clear attraction of one of Britain’s most successful world exports as subject matter for The Crown); and about the reception of both the content and the brands of these new providers among audiences internationally. The key question for all concerned is whether the true potential of any “digital single market” lies in developing a newly transnationalized form of European public-service media, or simply in keeping pace with the demands of commercial giants’ global expansion.


Moving Into a Fuller House: Television Reboots, Nostalgia, and Time Fri, 29 May 2015 13:25:04 +0000 Post by Mark Lashley, La Salle University


Well, technology is a glittering lure. But there is a rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash – if they have a sentimental bond with the product…. [I]n Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.

            – Mad Men (Season 1, Episode 13: “The Wheel”)

Certainly you’ll recall that particular Don Draper pitch from an early standout episode of Mad Men, co-written by series creator Matthew Weiner. While embedded with countless themes, Mad Men for much of its viewing audience was a show about connecting with a past, a time and setting of which it was never really a part, but which is both recognizable and sentimental (a topic that Tsapovsky & Frosh examine in a recent Media, Culture and Society article). This pitch was meant to sell a tangible product – the Kodak Carousel – but even in his fictional universe, Don Draper probably wasn’t the first ad man to think of using nostalgia as a vehicle for sales. Today, we see many examples of long gone television series and films finding new life, sold to audiences on the premise of memory.

I use Mad Men as an example for televised nostalgia both because of its recency and its thematic engagement with these ideas, but there are a few threads that connect the show to the current trend of resurrected nostalgia properties on television. There’s the fact that Mad Men existed as a show about memory (or the avoidance thereof) and rebirth. And there’s the recognition of the platform on which many of the show’s fans first encountered it – Netflix, the burgeoning media giant that is in the process of giving new life to several beloved properties. One can imagine Ted Sarandos and his brethren watching “The Wheel” a time or two before making some of their recent programming decisions. A “twinge in your heart” for Full House? Well, for a certain generation, perhaps.

full-houseThe much buzzed about Fuller House, a many-years-later follow-up to the 1990s ABC staple, certainly does not mark the first time programmers have banked on nostalgia to build audiences. Even Full House progenitor The Brady Bunch had a (bizarrely soapy) sequel in 1990. But for at least the first half century of television history, the medium had little tendency to look back on itself. As scholars like Holdsworth (2011) and others have noted, the notion of television as an ephemeral or disposable media form is diminishing. To some extent, television series as ephemera (and this follows for film as well) began to lose steam early in the post-network era as rerun culture took hold on cable and in syndication. Now, though, television series exist in readily accessible archives, and the economic value of that access is not insignificant; just look at FX Networks’ success with #EverySimpsonsEver or Hulu’s recent acquisition of exclusive streaming rights to Seinfeld for a rumored $700,000 an episode (the show launches on the platform in late June).

To some extent, the archival presence of series like these (among hundreds of others) removes those shows from time. I know many undergraduate students who love shows like Full House and Seinfeld, even though most of those shows’ episodes were produced before the students were born. Yet for many others who experienced them years ago on an episodic basis, these shows are important signifiers of a bygone time – Draper’s “sentimental bond.” The cross section of these two experiences may be key in influencing platforms like Netflix to take a chance on new episodes of a series like Full House. Even 25 years later, in a more cynical television landscape, it’s a property that can resonate with both young and old.

wet_hot_american_summerOf course, there are nostalgia properties that would appear far less foolproof, like Netflix’s upcoming prequel to 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer. The film itself was a commercial flop that gained a cult audience through DVD and streaming. It also featured a huge ensemble cast including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Bradley Cooper, whose names are far more recognizable now than they were at the time of the film’s release, and all of whom have returned for First Day of Camp (and are joined by big name newcomers like Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig). It may be the case that Netflix will find greater success with their spinoff series than the original film could ever hope of boasting. And this is not the first time that Netflix has revived a cult property, as the (10 years delayed) fourth season of Arrested Development can attest.

The reboot phenomenon is certainly not unique to Netflix, and over the top providers are not the only content hosts that are reaching into the past for programming ideas. ABC’s fall schedule includes The Muppets, a behind-the-scenes, mockumentary-style look at the fictional entertainers. Showtime’s on-again, off-again reboot of Twin Peaks is back on, with director David Lynch on board. Fox is bringing back The X-Files for a limited series event in January (after doing the same for 24 last season). And there are a surprising number of other nostalgia properties coming to the small screen soon.

Is there more to this phenomenon than just a reflexive turn among contemporary television audiences? It’s doubtful that all of these properties will be commercially or critically successful, so these reboots are not safe bets for networks and streaming services any more than a series featuring a well known and likeable star would be (remember The Michael J. Fox Show?). Perhaps television as it stands now is effectively eradicating time. Already, newcomers to a show like Arrested Development can watch seasons one through four in a single binge, utterly unaware of the lapse in time that made the fourth season notable (and controversial). In a few years, a viewer will watch the first two seasons of Twin Peaks and dive right in to the sequel, or watch early episodes of Full House interspersed with the travails of grownup D.J. Tanner on Fuller House.

Even as we have constructed television in terms beyond the ephemeral, we still often think of the medium as a vehicle for public memory, when in fact the nostalgic “twinge” or “bond” is an individual one. As content demands increase, and more money is spent resurrecting the old, it will be interesting to see if audiences still crave more of their favorites, or seek a renaissance of the new.