a feminist technology blog

Category: television (Page 1 of 2)

I Want to Believe

There’s a new X-Files movie coming out on July 25. I was an enormous X-Files fan in college, and I’m very excited about it. I’ve been watching old episodes in preparation, and they really hold up. This week the NYT ran a nice article about the film that included this quote from Gillian Anderson, who played Scully:

Ms. Anderson used to find the whole idea [of Mulder & Scully pursuing a romantic relationship] ridiculous. “There was always part of me that thought, ‘What’s so special about these two, and will everybody not shut up about it?’ ” she said. “And then, while we were doing this movie, somebody sent me a link to a YouTube montage that a fan had put together of Mulder and Scully. Clips of our growing intimacy through the series. One, it was really moving, and two, I couldn’t believe how many times we held hands and actually kissed. And I was left with my very first understanding of what the fans were on about. I finally kind of got it.

I think it is extremely cool that a fanvid by an X-Phile helped Gillian Anderson reformulate her opinion of the relationships of a character that she played! This is a great example of the influence of fandom on canon texts, and it’s also a nice counterpoint to many of the popular conceptions of romantic/shipper fanvids, that they’re something that silly teenage girls do.

I first learned about fanvids from seeing a really great presentation by Francesca Coppa at Media in Transition 5 at MIT. She pointed out that this is a historically female form of fandom that pre-dates machinima and video mash-ups, but gets almost no attention in comparison. (She also showed how incredibly time-consuming and complex creating fanvids was during the heyday of the VCR.) Here’s a great two-part interview with Francesca on Henry Jenkins’ blog: part one and part two.

Beauty and the Geek 3

Since my old Beauty and the Geek post still gets plenty of comments, I thought I’d post my thoughts on the current season.

I’m hating it. What made the show so good– the honest interplay between people raised to value very different aspects of themselves– has been largely abandoned this year in favor of bitchy cattiness from the girls. The current crop of Beauties are not just vapid and shallow, they’re mean to each other, and they’re mean to the Geeks. The editing is emphasizing this, so I can’t say they aren’t being called on it, but… I’m not sure what the Geeks are supposed to learn from these women except that “women are bitches!!!1”, a message we hear enough of on television already.

I’m also tired of the way the show equates the two knowledge bases. I guess there is some validity in keeping up with popular culture, just in terms of small talk, cultural capital, etc., but don’t insult your audience by pretending that BASIC political knowledge– like, who ran for VP in the last presidential election– is on the same level as whether or not Cameron Diaz or Justin Timberlake are dating. I am a pop culture and gossip junkie, don’t get me wrong, but it makes me very disheartened to see the unbelievably low standards that pass on this show for scientific, political, etc. knowledge. MARKETING is not on the same level of importance with history or physics!

I just get so tired of people positioning history, math, science, literature etc. as “boring” and celebrity culture, fashion, and workout knowledge as “interesting”. Personally, I think the upteenth story about Britney’s new boyfriend is way more boring than, say, the history of the French Revolution, and I think this show really enforces that dichotomy more than it attempts to break it down. But god, people, could we please have a season with some smart women?! Enough of these bimbos.

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seth godin on the quality of video: do you actually watch TV, dude?

It’s always entertaining when people who haven’t actually studied the media talk about the media.

Seth Godin claims that the quality of video has decreased as the amount of entertainment options has proliferated. His example? “think American Idol vs. M*A*S*H”. If you’ve read Steven Johnson’s very entertaining book “Everything Bad is Good for You“, you see the obvious flaw here.

You can’t really compare the most critically acclaimed show of one decade with the, um, least critically acclaimed show of another. A better comparison would be M*A*S*H vs. Six Feet Under, or Grey’s Anatomy, or LOST (when it was good). Or American Idol vs. Fantasy Island or Battle of the Network Stars.

I think Johnson’s analysis of politics is crap, but in TV at least he’s right-on. He explains that multi-threaded story arcs, complex plot lines, and episodes that require multiple viewing are fairly de rigueur in network dramas these days, and he’s totally right. Because TV shows make so much $$ off syndication and DVD sales, rather than airing once during the season and once during the summer, they can — and have to– be more complex in order to appeal to customers who watch them multiple times. Even sitcoms like Seinfeld or Friends (admittedly two of the best sitcoms of the last decade) are highly self-referential with complicated character developments and nods to previous episodes and in-jokes.

Anyway, regardless of all that, I’m not sure what the logic is in claiming that the increase in video (by which I’m assuming Godin means the rise of video-related entertainment options, like YouTube, video games, DVD’s, and cable shows) has led to diminished quality. That might be so if the amount of talent producing videos was finite and would then be spread too thin with increased numbers of products, but that’s simply not true. Instead, we see the rise of participatory culture and user-created content, and cool stuff like elaborate fan-produced videos and cable shows that can take more risks and push the envelope more than they could on advertiser-sponsored network television.

Actually, I think we’re living in a golden age of video content. YouTube is great for wasting time at work or adding comments to MySpace or cracking your friend up over IM, but it’s not great for immersion or emotional connection or any of the other reasons we watch movies or long-form video content like television shows. There’s definitely room for both as they fill different needs.

Finally, I asked a few people last week whether they’d rather watch movies or TV shows on DVD. Most people said the latter, and so did I. A really good television show (my favorites being Freaks and Geeks, Veronica Mars, Six Feet Under and Grey’s Anatomy) is much longer than a movie, can develop the characters in much richer ways, and can incorporate varied/riskier/more diverse viewpoints than movies can. For example, the hubbub over Brokeback Mountain is odd when you consider that gay-themed television shows, even risque ones, had been around for ages before that. The sex on the British Queer as Folk or on Six Feet Under was way more explicit than in Brokeback.

I’m babbling, but my point is: there is no diminishing in video quality, and Seth Grodin should stick to making vague claims about viral marketing. Also, he’s right about the slashing and burning of foreign news departments, but it’s not because of atomized content, it’s because of A) the pressure on TV news to be profitable and B) the pressure on newspapers to be profitable once they’re bought by Big Media. And does he /really/ think the future of foreign journalism is random bloggers flying themselves to Havana to report on stories? I need to pull some numbers on foreign bureaus before I start getting bitchy about it, but it just frustrates me that these subjects are studied — in depth — in communication and media studies departments, and yet people throw around aphorisms and opinions about them without even bothering to see if someone else has looked at the subject first.

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using the internet

I’m writing a book review of the classic internet ethnographic study, creatively titled The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach, by Daniel Miller and Don Slater. Despite the nondescript name, the book is a very rich text about internet use in Trinidad. The authors find much higher internet penetration rates than they had expected, and they find that Trinidadians (at the time) used the internet in a very wide variety of ways, in cybercafes, at neighbors’ houses, with friends. They write:

This degree of diffusion was impressive, but does not convey the shock of walking past the yard dogs in front of a squatter’s corrugated iron-and-plank built hut with no running water in order to ask the self-evidently daft question, “Do any members of your household use the Internet?”, only to find oneself in a very well-informed conversation about email, paying for computer courses, career prospects in IT and library access.

I’ve been thinking about the way that internet use is embedded in people’s lives. I know that now that I work at home, I surf the net in an entirely different way than I did when I was a 9-5er with plenty of free time on my hands. When I’m laptopping around the country, I use the internet very differently from when I’ve just got my machine on so that my giant torrent of The Amazing Race Season 3 can finish up. Anyway, I was reading this article1 by John Carey on how people actually use the web, and I came upon this paragraph:

Lifestyles of people in the study group had a strong impact on how and when they usethe Web. Consider first a group of three recent college graduates who shared anapartment in Manhattan. They have very hectic and irregular schedules. On any given evening, one might be at a gym; another out on a date; or the three of them might be visiting a local sports bar. Much of their media use moved later into the evening and their apartment was crammed with media options: multiple televisions, PCs, cellphones, videogame consoles and MP-3 players. They also had broadband access to the Web and a wireless network. To reach them, media had to fit flexibly into their irregular schedules because they might not be available when regularly scheduled media were playing. Television was limited by having a schedule; the Web and other media such as videogames were generally schedule-free and therefore fit more easily into the routines of people with hectic, irregular schedules.

This basically describes me and everyone I know. Let’s look at TV: there are a few people I know who will make sure they see a certain program, and make it part of their weekly routine: folding laundry while watching Desperate Housewives, for example. But for most of the people I know, there are two options:

1. Pay for a DVR
2. Get all your media from the web.

Since 2 is basically free, since we all have broadband anyway, there’s not much compelling reason to do 1. When I’m watching TV on my computer, it becomes just another website that I’m looking at, often in a corner of the screen, movies and TV shows from past and present, US and abroad, cult and mainstream, cable and network are all undifferentiated.

I read something recently which referred to the “post-network” era of American broadcasting, which I think describes right now just fine. I don’t remember the last time I watched a sitcom. I watch a fair amount of TV: I download Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, the Amazing Race, and the Sopranos every week, and I work through the back catalogs of other shows that interest me. All of those shows, by the way, I got into by watching them on the web first (with the Sopranos, it was Netflixing DVDs, since it launched pre-torrent). This means that of all my friends, even if we’re all watching a show, one person is likely to be catching up on back DVDs, one person may TiVo it and watch it day of, and I may be three weeks behind because I haven’t bothered to download the torrents yet.

I’m more than happy to see the era of network TV lumber to a close, which may be hypocritical, because I still want to get entertainment products that I like and watch them when I want to. If I could pay a $10/mo fee for all-internet TV, with no DRM and total time-shifting, I’d probably do it just for the convenience, and because then I could watch shows that I really like, such as Made, which are never on the torrents.

But back to the internet: it becomes so hard to differentiate types of “media” from one another. Going physically to the movies, to me, is a fun activity to do with friends that displaces going to a club or a show if we’re feeling tired or there’s something really cool on. It’s not like I choose between going out to the movies and watching TV. Internet, video games, TV, DVDs are all kind of part of the same thing for me, and since I’m online most of the time, I’m usually working, taking a brief surfing break, working, watching an episode, working, etc. This is a pattern of media use that just doesn’t fit within old media models.

Big Media seems to be slowly stumbling into the sunlight and realizing they need to regroup; I have to say that the TV studios have been a lot less assly about P2P than, say, Jack Valenti or the RIAA. Anyway. Back to book review.

1.The Web Habit: An Ethnographic Study of Web Usage Patterns. Carey, John. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, New York, NY, p1-18.

Gender Switchin’ Beauty & the Geek 3

I mini-marathoned all six aired so far eps of Beauty & the Geek 2, the show exec produced by Ashton Kutcher which pairs supposedly “hot” (skinny and heavily made up) girls with geeky (smart, socially awkward) guys. The guys learn about fashion and grooming, the girls learn there’s more to life than shoes and gossip magazines, and at least one pair hooks up. Game over.

It’s actually a pretty entertaining show. They’re clearly casting for personalities, since pretty much any bimboid girl would fit the “hot” archetype. The geeks are a bit trickier, but they have a bunch of programmers, MIT grad students, yada yada, what you’d expect. All these kids are really young, undergraduate age, and there are some fairly touching moments when the girls actually start believing they have more to offer the world than their looks, or when the guys realize they can participate in normal college-ish activities without being permanently shunned.

But it’s so predicated on predictable, sexist stereotypes. I’ve spent the last few days musing over how they could flip the casting for Beauty & the Geek 3: geeky girls and hot guys. It’s really difficult to figure out how this could work and not be insanely subversive, since so much of the “hot girl” / “geeky guy” dichotomy depends on really gender-specific things:

  • The girls have to be nurturing and willing to gently teach the guys stuff and help them open up.
  • The idea that a dorky or overweight guy could be a sex object is not completely out of the realm of possibility on television.
  • The girls have to be superficial, but not mean.

OK: Flip to socially awkward, supersmart girls and himbo, A&F chest-waxing dudes. The assumption is that the “hot” guys are just going to be complete assholes to the “dorky” girls. The idea that a woman might have something to offer the world other than her looks just goes against every single presupposition of reality television, not to mention consumer culture overall.

There really isn’t a way to make the relationship between a conventionally attractive man and a conventionally unattractive woman who’s smarter than the guy palatable to the majority discourse on television. We just don’t see that. We don’t see that many smart women, period, and we certainly don’t see them if they’re not perfectly coiffed, shaved, toned, plucked, and manicured. Imagine some hypernerd tough chick programmer who lifts weights and reads sci-fi and goes to LOTR conventions. Can we really imagine her neutering herself into a well-spoken, polite bimbo? “Geekiness” for women can sometimes be an extremely powerful form of opting out of mainstream beauty culture in a very effective, self-aware way.

Maybe I’m not giving the hot guys of the world enough credit, but from my experience with narcissistic men who don’t have much going on upstairs, they generally aren’t really into seeing women as people. Women are ranked on their looks and fit into very specific, sexist types, and if they don’t fit those types, they’re not sexual objects, and so they’re non-people. Television generally doesn’t have much time for women who aren’t “hot”, and the idea that a fat girl, or a girl who doesn’t wear makeup, or a girl who doesn’t dress trendily could be “hot” isn’t very common either.

I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in real life. But I am saying that on television targeted towards teenagers, switching the roles on this show would require a great deal of backpedaling and shifting in order to create something that would be acceptable to advertisers, etc. Seeing “hot” girls learning BASIC FACTS (Who is John Kerry?) isn’t threatening. Seeing a whipsmart, weird, awkward girl gaining confidence in herself and being constantly validated is. I really hope I’m wrong because I am DYING to see this show.

(Gossip: Wes from B&G2 is total slimeball! Check out the MySpace group: http://groups.myspace.com/wesislame. He’s a faker, dude, totally recruited by Ashton to geek out so he could be hottied up. And he cheated on his “real” girlfriend and his TV girlfriend. OH SNAP, you are so busted Wes!)

SNL: Don’t Give Us Free Advertising

Sort of an old story: NBC freaks out over Lazy Sunday meme. Dude, COME ON. That was the first thing I’d seen off SNL besides Ashlee Simpson’s jig (and the Goth Talk sketch featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar, which is hilarious) in like five years. NBC should be stoked that anyone is even talking about SNL at all, and they should be doing everything they can to facilitate that.

Two things here:

1. YouTube has reached critical mass really, really quickly. Like twenty times quicker than any other site I can remember recently. It’s because it works, and because the users have been uploading a storm of pirated, rare, old, and interesting content. It’s also a sea of some of the stupider memes I’ve seen lately. Browse the top videos and you’ll see stuff that looks like a 15 year old in Montecito filmed something on their desk with their phone’s camcorder. Because they did. Anything on the front page is guaranteed to sit there for at least a day or so, because popularity begats popularity.

(Favorite current YouTube video: Prince on American Bandstand, 1980. Thanks Salah!)

2. This is sort of an endless discourse, isn’t it? In this corner, we have true viral marketing, which isn’t designed by hipster boutique agencies, doesn’t have built-in DRM and isn’t easily trackable or controllable. In the other corner, we have Big Media, sweating and shaking that they might not be able to wring every single cent out of one of their tired “content properties.”

You can’t have both, dudes: either lock down your “marketing” and take every snippet of fun out of it (have you seen how shitty iTunes video is on most machines?), or have a successful marketing campaign. Users don’t send each other jittery, shuddering video wrapped in crippleware, and they don’t pay $2 for a 2 minute clip.

(Speaking of, I bought the whole second season of My Super Sweet 16 (SHUT UP) on iTunes and whoa, was that a waste of cash. The video is unwatchable on my machine, my iPod is a 3G (it doesn’t play video) and I can’t find any sort of shareware or opensource app that will play the bizarre m4v iTunes standard. The one time I pay for something rather than torrenting it and it doesn’t work. Back to downloading episodes of Beauty and the Geek. AGAIN: PAYING FOR CONTENT HAS TO BE MORE COMPELLING THAN DOWNLOADING IT FOR FREE. I am not sure why this is such a bitter pill to swallow.

Reality TV: It’s still fake

Time has a nice long article about the editing techniques / “frankenbites” used by reality show producers/editors to create storylines. SURPRISE: this stuff is leaking out because of the Writer’s Guild lawsuit.

(I’ve written about this before; also check out some news posts on the subject.)

To recap: reality television is totally fake, tons of stuff is edited or just plain made up. Here’s a nice example:

News producers, documentarians–and, yes, magazine writers–selectively edit raw material and get accused of cherry-picking facts and quotes. But on an entertainment show the pressure to deliver drama is high, and the standards of acceptable fudging are shadier. The first season of Laguna Beach, MTV’s reality series about rich teens in Orange County, Calif., centered on a love triangle among two girls (LC and Kristin) and a boy (Stephen). The problem, says a story editor who asked not to be named, was that the triangle didn’t exist. LC and Stephen, he says, were platonic friends, so the producers played Cupid through montage. LC “would say things about [Stephen] as a friend,” says the editor. “[LC] said, ‘I just love this guy.’ All you have to do is cut to a shot of the girl, and suddenly she’s jealous and grimacing.”

But, again to recap, my fascination with this doesn’t stem so much with the quite obvious blatant editing (which anyone with any degree of media literacy will recognize) but with this Writer’s Guild lawsuit. The producers claim that the writers aren’t really writers, see, because it’s reality TV and they don’t use writers. But obviously they do. Bonus: you don’t have to pay “script consultants” and “story editors” as much as writers! It’s this big semantic/rhetorical mythology created around what is basically a bunch of game shows with dramatic story lines edited in.

I’ve also been watching American Idol again (sucker) and it’s so fascinating to me how the audition process creates these micro-slebs* like “tan girl” and “little cowboy”, who are then discussed on the Idol on Fox boards, often by their real-life friends and family. Fans dig up contestant blogs or, more realistically, trashy-looking MySpace profiles, which are soon filled with comments from Idol watchers (the show’s audience is up umpteen percent again and has a 49% share among teen girls). There’s almost instantaneous feedback between the show, the contestants, and the audience. The access is so much wider than what we’re used to, and when we’re considering a show like American Idol which is predicated on audience participation in the first place, the old models of television/audience get way complicated.

I’m also interested lately in how little segments of TV shows get YouTubed and passed around, like the “God Warrior!” Margurite Perron clip from the first few eps of Trading Spouses, a show that rarely (I’d assume) gets a foothold in the young internet meme demographics (the God Warrior herself got a Leno visit out of the deal). Lately it’s been Kevin Federline’s “Papazoa” listening session on MTV (spoofed on G4 and ratcheting around Fark and the humor blogs at warp speed) , and before that it was the “Lazy Sunday” Chronicles of Narnia rap. These again are new models of watching, consuming, and remixing television. Who’s watching who?

We’ve come a long way from “I Kiss You!!” (Sup, Mahir?)

I’ll disclaim my reality-hatin’ on post with the statement that I still love Project Runway, the best reality show on TV right now, because it features contestants with actual personalities who are actually talented (go Nick!!). For the torrent-friendly among you: check out Project Catwalk, the UK version. It’s just as entertaining with the bonus of lots of cool accents.

* Old fametracker board slang for a celebrity, usually derogatory.

Targeted Advertising

Post-Christmukkah slowdown still in effect. I’m in Seattle, the most wireless city in America, where all the local establishments have wifi including laundromats, coffee shops, bars, and R Place, a three-story gay dance club. However, I’ve been taking a much needed break from the net and spending a lot of time sleeping, watching Christmas specials (recommended: the 1988 Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special, starring special guest stars Cher, Dinah Shore, and Grace Jones), and eating carrot cake.

One thing:

Rise of niche-targeted marketing in 2006.
USA Today article about efforts to target consumers right down to the individual level via DVR’s, networked video games, cellular content and of course websites/downloads. Unsurprisingly, it’s personalized media technology that makes this possible.

Like other Internet search sites, Google deploys perhaps the most successful incarnation of targeted advertising: Certain queries to the search engine trigger advertisements corresponding to the subject.

Google’s director of product management, Richard Holden, would like to expand that model as video on demand begins to flourish, either on the Internet or on cable systems. When users hunt for programming, Holden suggests, Google’s method for linking ads to search terms could run in the background — along with the auction process Google uses to determine prices for the ads.

With their massive popularity and boundless record keeping, sites like Google and Yahoo Inc. can capture detailed information about their users — especially with the rise of “social networking” zones that group people of common interests.

No shock there. Is this really news? There’s two perspectives on these developments that I see. The first is that this is a Good Thing as it means nobody will have to sit through advertisements for things that they don’t want. The second is that this is a Bad Thing as it means the consumer profile for each individual will become incredibly detailed and a potential severe violation of privacy. My perspective is that although I would like to see a serious decrease in advertising, I don’t see it going anywhere any time soon. And since the current business models for content are based on old media technology, and aren’t really working right now, we’re going to see a lot of experimentation with advertising in the next five years until corporations alight on a solution that actually makes them money (see: the replacement of clickthrough ads with AdWords, commercial breaks vs. product placement, etc.). I think anyone who consumes mainstream media content is naiive to think that there is any way they’re going to get to consume this content, which only exists to deliver audiences to advertisers, without being marketed to. I do believe that detailed consumer profiling is intrusive and a potential violation of privacy, but on the other hand, there really aren’t any laws against it. So the long-term solution is to call for greater consumer protection laws. Until then, you have to either opt-out of consuming personalized content, or consume it illegally (downloading etc.) if you don’t want this to happen.

Happy Holidays!

Job From Hell: TV Writer

Picture this: you’re a writer on the paranormal crime drama Medium. Your boss tells you that due to a Sony-wrangled synergistic deal, you have to somehow work three references to the new Memoir of a Geisha movie into your latest script. How do you handle this?

Well, according to Wired today, TV writers are asking for more $$ if they have to acquiesce to such stupid demands. This isn’t Turtle Wax sponsoring Family Feud. . This is quiet desperation on the part of time-shifted studio execs.

Since I download my shows (Arrested Development and Veronica Mars, if you care) I don’t see any ads, and since the last time Arrested Development did product placement for Burger King they handled it in a manner quite fitting to the show, this isn’t a matter I generally get wadded up about. But I do think that getting hired because of your uncanny ability to write in the voice of a crime-solving psychic, and then finding out that you’re basically writing that super awkward Pottery Barn episode of Friends over and over again might be a bummer. But where’s TV’s business model? We hear over and over again in our rarified internerd/copyfight sphere that we’ll all eventually get to pay just for shows that we like, and we’ll all become niche markets, etc. but how does that work exactly? The only reason NBC can sell sitcoms through iTunes is because they’ve already made them.

I think we’re going to see far more blatant product placement before we see an actual change in the advertiser-supported content business model. Like, really tacky product placement too. Hey, American Idol contestants! Wanna go for a ride in your Ford Focus? Thought so.

(In the meantime, I’m sticking with illegally downloaded episodes of shows that still rely on non-integrated commercial sponsorship.)

NBC to Sell TV Shows for Viewing on Apple Software – New York Times

NBC agrees to sell TV episodes via iTunes (NYT / permalink)

Since they’re offering geek-friendly fare like Surface, The Office, and Battlestar Galactica, I think this is going to be just as successful as ABC’s offering. It’s also very cool that they’re adding older programs like Dragnet.

Unsurprisingly, the quoted execs point out that downloads don’t lower program ratings:

One important factor is that the Internet distribution does not seem to affect the viewership of the broadcast programs, he said.

Ratings of ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” have increased since they have been available for sale on iTunes. Similarly… the audience for “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” has grown since the network started making a Webcast of the program available at 10 o’clock Eastern time each night.

Thank you! I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that by December 2006, TV downloads will have reached the tipping point and we’ll see a ton of legal content available. At which point Tape it Off The Internet will actually be useful.

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