Monthly Archives: December 2010

Twitter Telelevision?

During my two summers working at MySpace I saw a great deal of frustration towards the insular nature of the “webisode.”

Try as they may, internet hits could not make the transition into successful full length television series. Why? Too many reasons. One: web series tend to have unknown, sometimes untrained, actors. Two: they lack the production connections to perpetuate growth and funding opportunities. Three? People discredit anything birthed on the internet to be unfit for anywhere but the internet – it’s a cultural pigeonholing that has yet to be proved un-founded, for the few webseries who have attempted to cross over into real television (Quarterlife anyone?) failed miserably.

Yet recently, Twitter has been spawning movie and television deals one after another. Why? Because Twitter is selling ideas, pitches, not pre-packaged, actor attached, already produced content.

Great success Tweeters. Now you don’t even need an appointment to sell a script.

The Hidden Power of Cult.

I’m always surprised when it takes me more than two seasons to catch onto a good show – yet it happens ALL the time. Arrested Development and Veronica Mars didn’t become two of my all-time favorite shows until YEARS after they were cancelled. Supernatural had started it’s sixth season by the time I became enamoured, Dexter was in its fourth.

How is it that certain TV shows become mainstream hits overnight, while others silently succeed in the dark? Supernatural is a widely popular show, with a highly dedicated fanbase, yet it receives very little mainstream attention – even in it’s 6th season.

So in order to understand this phenomenon, I try and dissect why people watch what they watch.

At the network level, NBC, FOX, ABC, HBO all have their flagship programs, the big buzz, money making series – and it is these shows that that the advertising funds are poured into. These are the summer blockbusters of television. Spectacle cultural phenonmena like Glee and Mad Men. Low budget animation series like Family Guy, The Simpson, South Park. Things that have either proven formulas for success or instant niche explosions. Wide reaching content. The hit programs on any network in turn tend to define audience perception of what the given company is all about. 30 Rock and the Office have defined NBC as the “quirky off beat indie” network. FOX, because of it’s a member of the Newscorp family is known for its conflicting image of hyper-conservatism, coming from its news programming, and crass animated humor (Family Guy and The Simpsons) and semi-wholesome hit family programming (Glee.) ABC, owned by Disney? Family television. CW? Gossip Girl. Sex and blood, baby! That shiz sells.

While these network trends/stereotypes aren’t always true, they limit the openness of viewership and hinder the widening of their demographics. For the longest time I rejected the possibility that Supernatural could be a quality television program because it was on the CW. Boy was I wrong.

Furthermore, the hyper success of one television show tends to funnel the resources and attention of both the industry and the viewers away from the other less-hyped programs that are out there.

Then, not everyone has, or can afford to have, premium television – putting Starz, HBO and Showtime at an inherent disadvantage for viewership numbers. Furthermore, the edgier type of programming put on premium television limits itself to an older less conservative fan base, forcing it into a 18-40 year old liberal demographic, considerably less widespread than “easy a” cable programming.

But this is all the technical stuff, television fandom is much more than numbers and time slots, it’s the heart and soul of millions.

This is what makes the idea of “cult” media so fascinating – it separates from the technical, the structural and the industrial constraints and parameters of it’s network or context and succeeds without million dollar advertising campaigns, big stars or prime time slots – they succeed because of the passion of their fans and the intensity of viewer participation.

And if that ain’t love? I don’t know what is.

Ross: Power to the People? Or to the Industry?

As filmic technology improves and methods of tele-participation grow and evolve, the lines between the industry and the audience shift and blur. It seems, generally speaking, that over time, the people have gained more control in what the industry produces, keeps in the line up, and renews at the end of each season, yet how is it that the “Man” has relinquished so much of his power to us little people in a world controlled by profit? Well, simply put – he hasn’t.

The studio, the network, the industrial machine of digital and HD, they want us THINK we hold the fate of television in our hands, the truth is, as soon as we forge ahead towards viewer independence, they find a new way to market, package, and manipulate our tastes – turning the false security of personal choice into the profitable systematic production of mainstream consumerist drivel. It’s the same thing media does to trends in music, fashion, and other forms of culture, the mainstreaming of the counterculture, and the adaptation of independent desires into hetero-normative profit driven industry.

Yet it remains VERY important to those in charge that we feel important in the production process. Not to use the same old tired examples over and over again but FOX’s response of denial to rumors of Arrested Development’s cancellation in 2005 is a prime example of the industry’s false empathy for the viewer; the show was cancelled 6 months later. In the end, the network will always make the choices that result in profit.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re moving in reverse; the audience has certainly made notable headway in our ability to control the direction of television and filmic content. Increased fan visibility on the internet has lead to better industry measurements of viewership, and the prevalence of multi-media conversational platforms has allowed for constant the constant debate and remixing of preexisting content.

So the networks are listening, yes, but then why are critically acclaimed shows taken off the air? The real indication of viewer power would be a world in which GOOD shows, well written, witty, and unique shows got the chance to grow into their fan bases. Terribly imbalanced advertising funds, strange time slots and lack of network support are only a few of the obstacles facing any show’s chance at success.

There are too many industy factors outside the bound of audience control for the “little people,” the fans, to gain real or substantial input in the televisual process.

Yet this is not to say we are powerless, if our voices are loud enough we may be able to make a dent in what is produced and consumed, how large a dent it is however, depends on if the numbers align with our passion.

“It’s called breaking, and it’s unprofessional!” …poking through the fourth wall.

Tina Fey is no stranger to the world of live television, consequently, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise when she and NBC decided to air live versions of an episode of “30 Rock” last month. This choice did several things for the already popular series; first off, it made an attempt at reasserting the power of television scheduling – asking viewers who normally stream online content at their leisure to revert back to the days of traditional network determined time slots. Did it work? No way. At least not for anyone under 30. Every person I spoke to about the episode streamed it off Hulu a day or two after it aired, partially, I’m sure because our school doesn’t offer us basic cable, but even more so because at Middlebury, Thursday nights are religiously dedicated to drinking too much and making a fool out of oneself.

Even now, I had to look up what day of the week and time “30 Rock” airs because I have grown dependent on constructing my televisual life around my own convenience and rapidly evolving schedule.

Yet, “30 Rock’s” rebooting of live viewing was not meant in any way to inspire us backward towards old audience habits – instead it was a call to the acknowledgment of the nature of the medium itself. It was a call to “meta.”

But what exactly is this META thing? Hell, I had no idea until the beginning of this semester, when Mr. Toren Hardee, the media savvy king of all things current and hip, explained it to me (with just a hint of filmic pretension): Meta is self-reference for the sake of self-reference. It knowingly creates an extra dimension of audience interaction that blurs the lines between the medium and reality thusly altering audience relationship to the content.

This however, is not a new concept; the idea of purposefully self-referential media has been around for quite some time, take for example some of the early “cinema verites” where intrigue into the medium produced the filming of filming. Or the evolution of an interest in the lexicon of the “Stars” as seen in Keaton’s knowing nod to the audience when trying on hats in Steamboat Bill Jr. “Meta” filmmaking can take on several different forms, though each involves some sort of acknowledgment of film as film. This breaking down of the fourth wall can exist in an addressing of the medium itself (the camera, the audience) or in the admission of an outside context, unmasking characters as actors. In many cases, such meta exposition overlaps medium and context, creating a separate space for extended audience connection or advanced understanding of the medium, shifting viewership from passive to personal and active.

The live episode of “30 Rock” is a perfect example of multi-dimensional meta; the cast frequently acknowledges the fact that things look different, and that there is something off about the episode, the title of the show itself references the change in film style (live episode), and the narrative follows the concept of breaking character on live television – it’s meta upon meta upon meta.

What “30 Rock” succeeds in doing in it’s live episode is providing the audience with the true benefits of self-referential cinema, it strengthens audience connection with the characters and the narrative, and allows us a feeling of commitment to the both the source text, and the outside world it exists in.

Another blazing example of this appears in season 2 episode 8 of the series Supernatural, “Hollywood Babylon.” It is here that the two protagonists visit the very studio lot where the series does their post production work within the context of their narrative, and then, when taking a tour of the lot, pass the set of “Gilmore Girls,” one of the former stars first shows, causing the actor to make a knowing face and hop off the tour tram.

Meta is an inside joke between the audience and the actors, a secret between a director and fans, a shared moment or glance or scene that breaks the wall between viewer and creator. It doesn’t have to be funny, or overtly obvious, but it blurs the lines between the consumer and the consumed, allowing for a renewed sense of free viewership.