From the VCR to YouTube: An Interview with Lucas Hilderbrand (Part Two)

In talking with fans, it is clear that many of them began “recording” programs well before the availability of videotape. That is, many fans of the Baby Boom generation used audiotape to capture and replay moments from favorite films (smuggling it into the theater) and television shows (using alligator clips attached to their set). What would we learn about the prehistory of video by extending your count back further in time to account for the capacities of audiotape as a means of preserving and exchanging media content? This example suggests some of the challenges, since I gather such practices are rarely discussed in official records of the period, yet loom large in the popular memory of many fans of my age.

It struck me that the histories of video, as they had been written, had not paid enough attention to audio. Not only was the technology for videotape based upon audio recording technologies, but it also seemed to me that popular uses and adoption of the format were similarly modeled upon audio cassette tapes. In addition, my thinking about the grain of videotape was enormously influenced by the histories on sound recording, sound art, and music–for instance, the way intentional distortion or snippets of tape played backward in a song calls attention to a technologically specific aesthetic. Of course video bootlegging had a prehistory in music bootlegging, and of course home taping started with audio. Such audio taping would have implicitly called attention to its own limitations: both in terms of low fidelity recording and the absence of a corresponding image. Yet, such recordings were deeply personal, and likely to either be listened to repeatedly or kept as part of a personal archive.

Your discussion of Superstar highlights Todd Haynes’ origins as an independent videomaker who used “bootleg” practices to create and circulate his work. As I am writing these questions, my Tivo is already set to record Haynes’ high profile version of Mildred Pierce for HBO. What might a fuller elaboration of Haynes’ career tell us about the ways grassroots and independent media production is helping to shape the commercial mainstream? Has anything remained from the “bootleg aesthetic” as he has made this transition?

Todd Haynes was always a filmmaker rather than video artist, but his work is frequently citational. In other words, most of his work builds from pre-existing sources in cinema and popular music, which in and of itself suggests a sensibility of the video era, when one could have access to an array of old films from different periods, and to fan-based remixing. His appropriation has gone from unauthorized music use with Superstar to complicated fabulations of rock history with licensed and original music in Velvet Goldmine to a simulation of mid-century melodramas with Far From Heaven to a remake with intentions of fidelity in Mildred Pierce. Yet, even Mildred Pierce is filtered through 1970s cinematic representations of the 1930s. I don’t subscribe to HBO, so I’ll have to wait for the DVDs to be available on Netflix to see Mildred Pierce.

Much of the fascination with video has rested with the ability to form our own collections, archives, libraries of materials, which reflect our own idiosyncratic tastes and interests. As you write, “VHS and other analog formats have allowed users to own texts and to make texts their own: to keep them, study them, rework them, copy them, and share them with their friends.” Yet, with the drying up of the DVD market, some are predicting we are moving towards a world where we rent access to media but may not be able to collect and own it. Do you think this is a reasonable prediction and if so, what do you see as the losses to our culture implicit in this move towards a new model of access?

I’ve already suggested something along these lines, but basically, as we move from a tangible media model based on purchasing an object (a physical cassette or DVD) to a streaming media model based upon licensing or subscription, we may lose access to a particular title at any moment when its contract expires or it goes offline. In the tangible model, what is paid for is the hard copy, not the “content”, but that tangibility guarantees access to the recording until that copy becomes unplayable. In streaming scenario, we may find ourselves assuming that a particular video will always be available, only to find it’s no longer there. I think we’ve probably all experienced this kind of unreliability with trying to watch something that has been pulled off of YouTube. But it can also happen on Netflix or Hulu. However, the content industry, as far as I know, has never gone to anyone’s house and taken back VHS tapes and DVDs that someone has recorded or bought.

You discuss the kinds of feminist media network which emerged through the practices and ethics of video “sharing.” To what degree has this politicized conception of “sharing as caring” continued as we moved deeper into the digital era?

We can find numerous examples of using YouTube or other sites for posting and circulating grassroots, activist, or expose videos. But we also see a couple different conceptions of community video emerge. One is Kickstarter, which has become an important way for raising financing for independent media projects, which depends on social networks of friends pledging small financial contributions and an ethos that personal investments are increasingly necessary to mount radical work in an age of limited public funding. But there also continues to be a less overtly politicized model of fan communities forming around reworked media texts that circulate on YouTube yet that may do so in ways that seek to remain stealth. For instance, I have a friend who has recently become deeply involved in the numerous Glee fan videos posted on YouTube centering on Klaine (the relationship between Kurt and Blaine). The comments reveal intense emotional–and eroticized–responses to these videos that essentially form a community based upon feelings, but they are also clearly aware that the videos are uploaded without network permission. So the comments reflect contradictory impulses: the profuse emotional expressions are always in tension with self-policing tactics to never mention the name of the show in the comments, in the hopes that Fox will not track the videos and issue take-down notices.

In your concluding discussion of YouTube, you make a claim that one of its defining characteristics is that of “instantaneity”, noting “Users post television clips almost as soon as they have been broadcast,” a practice that can call attention to specific moments captured from the endless flow of the broadcast signal. From the start, video has been tied to “time shifting”, so what does YouTube add to our relations to the time of Broadcast experience? And how do these new temporal relations shape what becomes the most valued content at this video-sharing site?

One of the things that YouTube reminds us of is the complicated–and often seemingly arbitrary–rules of access for TV. Some broadcasts are truly fleeting, while other shows seem to never go away and recur in syndication with inexplicable frequency and longevity. But YouTube also expands and blurs our understanding of the boundaries of what counts as television by streaming network clips alongside webcam rants, fan remixes, and cat videos. When I’ve taught television, I have found it impossible to make any assumptions about what students watch now or what their cultural touchstones would have been growing up. The timeshifting of video, cable, and now YouTube only make this more complicated: new popular texts no longer have the same cultural dominance in their own moment, for better or worse, at the same time that our experiences of older texts seem to be less and less periodized. As YouTube comes to seem more everyday and less novel, we are amassing a history of viral videos, too, and so they may have less cultural penetration or staying power in cultural memory. What we see on YouTube are idiosyncratic viral phenomena and long tails.

Lucas Hilderbrand is faculty in film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to core courses on film and TV, he teaches classes on popular sound media, documentary, sex in cinema, Disney, and queer nightlife. He is a contributor to flowtv.org and is currently researching the cultural history of gay bars in the U.S.

From the VCR to YouTube: An Interview with Lucas Hilderbrand (Part One)

What happened before YouTube?

It’s a question we’ve addressed here many times before. Many different histories lead to our current moment of video sharing and DIY media-making — some subcultural (the history of fandom and a range of other communities of practice which are generating new content), some economic, some technological. Lucas Hilderbrand, author of Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, holds some critical pieces of the puzzle, writing with historiographical sophistication about the emergence of video as a technology and as set of cultural practices, about the debates it sparked especially around shifts in control over production and distribution, about the communities which formed around the sharing of tapes, and about how all of this looks forward to contemporary digital practices. It is a book which raises vital questions and provides a rich historical context for our current debates.

As someone who lived through the era when the VCR was launched, the book brought back many memories of things I had almost forgotten about the dramatic adjustments which the culture made to this transformative and transgressive technology. Working through the book for an interview, I was struck by the fact that I, like many other instructors, have had very little to say about videotape in my current course on new media and culture, something I will work on the next time I teach it.

Given my enthusiasm for this book, I was delighted to be able to interview Hilderbrand and share with you his own reflections on the ways the history of video can help us to understand some contemporary media developments.

As you note, the debates about videotape form an important precursor to current debates about digital technologies — especially those concerning the implications of expanding grassroots control over media production and circulation and debates around copying and intellectual property. From the start, video was understood as “out of control,” as shifting the balance of power between established media producers and distributors, new entrepreneurs, and consumers. What can we learn from tracing the history of video, which might better inform current discussions around file-sharing, piracy, and YouTube?

For me, the stakes of the project were always largely historical and in response to a threat of cultural amnesia. On the one hand, I was interested in intervening in new media studies, which has historically focused on the newness and nowness of technologies. I was intrigued by work that rethought newness in a historical sense, by returning to the 19th century and examining old media in their own moments of newness. But even this more historical work seemed to erase recent and increasingly obsolete technologies from memory and from the histories of new media. It seemed to me that many of the functions and political struggles surrounding new digital technologies had already pre-existed with tape technologies. I thought that it was important not only to complicate the hype surround new media but also to look back at the lessons we could learn from these prior moments that shaped the present.

In terms of questions of policy and sharing, I was struck that so much of the anxiety about piracy and the litigation around copyright seemed like a replay of the controversies that surrounded audiocassettes and videotape when they were introduced. Both the recorded music and the film industries fought tape because they feared that if audiences could make their own copies, that there would be economic collapse for the content industry. For the film studios, at least, VHS proved to be a huge economic boom. The challenge then, as more recently, was to find a new business model that didn’t alienate the audience but also provided reasonable and accessible ways to market content.

But the differences between digital distribution and analog tape sharing are also obviously significant in terms of efficiency and scale and in terms of their financial threat, so we need a technologically specific understanding of both the material practices and policy implications. But there’s also a major difference between the ways file sharing and burning a DVD work, so even “the digital” needs to be complicated and differentiated.

You describe video as the beginning of “on demand” culture, but also note that this culture has always been constrained on a practical level by issues of availability. How might we carry forward these tensions between the promises and reality of access to think about recent offerings by Amazon, Netflix, and others, that would make more movies and television shows available on demand?

The innovations are largely changes in convenience: as you have suggested in Convergence Culture, convergence often means the availability of the same content across multiple platforms. Even before streaming video, Netflix was functionally the best video store in the world, insofar as it has more selection than any single brick-and-mortar store could, yet even Netflix’s inventory was limited to content that had been released on DVD. There remain treasures and obscurities that have never been made available on DVD. And, of course, every tangible technology wears out eventually, so if Netflix’s discs of a film got scratched, broken, or lost and that title had gone out of print, it could not be rented. So there is always the limitation of what is made materially available.

For me, streaming video creates a different set of issues. On the one hand, people seem very enthusiastic about Netflix streaming and Hulu. These offer instant streaming access to an ever-increasing range of films and TV shows, and these have been two of the leaders in establishing a new business model that makes online distribution economically viable for the industry. But that model is based upon licensing and subscription rather than purchase. In other words, what is sold is time and access, but that access could be cut off at any time–if the user stops paying or the service’s licensing agreement with the rights-owners lapses. Unless users figure out a way to hack, download, and store the material, we are moving toward a model where there is no longer fixity and the assurance of long-term access that a videotape or a DVD allows. We are also moving away from a collector model. This is potentially alarming for fans and especially for teachers and scholars. It will be very hard to teach film and TV when we no longer have stable access or recordings that can be cued. But in the meantime, most people seem to be embracing the streaming model for its convenience. It’s been an economic boom for Netflix, and I frequently hear people complain if they have to wait for a DVD to be mailed rather than have streaming access.

Your book argues that issues of access and copying give rise to an aesthetic that recognizes if not respects the reality of “degeneration” which characterizes all analog video. Yet the digital introduces the potential for a “pristine” copy, an image that does not wear down through use. In my own research, I’ve watched aesthetic shifts in the fan vidding world between early vids which showed rainbow lines and other technical imperfections which emerged from the process of copying and more recent work that uses digital editing techniques and uses DVDs for the source material. What changes do you think have occurred in “video” aesthetics as a consequence of the shift from analog to digital?

First, I’d like to challenge the concept that digital technologies are perfect. Although in principle reproduction should not involve degeneration, most digital reproduction does involve compression, which is a different kind of loss. Perhaps I didn’t think this through as clearly as I could have at the time when I was writing: analog reproduction operates through degeneration, digital reproduction through compression. In addition, so many of our interactions with new technologies involve frustration and troubleshooting, whether it’s an unreadable DVD or a problem toggling a laptop to a projector or an email missing an attachment. Some of these problems are about mechanical failure, others about human error.

In terms of resolution, I was struck that, when the electronics and content industries began the push for audiences to adopt HD TVs and DVD formats, we saw more rapid adoption of low-resolution video technologies, from YouTube to cameraphones. These low-res options have become increasingly refined to allow for clearer resolution, but it seemed to me that it was convenience rather than pristine quality that generated a massive response. That said, there are numerous instances on YouTube and elsewhere that viewers will prefer a high-quality copy when it’s equally available. But we also see a blurring of the two models of “prosumer”: producer-consumers often have access to professional-consumer grade technologies that allow for slick fan productions.

Yet evolutions in video aesthetics, I think, make outmoded image resolutions not just dated but increasingly visible. When I started thinking through analog video aesthetics, there wasn’t much analytical work to build from, but there are now many popular examples that suggest recognition of what old video technologies look like. The technology has become a style. A friend told me that his iPhone has a filter on its camera to make the image look like VHS. I’ve seen similar effects that make still images look like Polaroids. So now we have a fetishization of the retro.

Lucas Hilderbrand is faculty in film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to core courses on film and TV, he teaches classes on popular sound media, documentary, sex in cinema, Disney, and queer nightlife. He is a contributor to flowtv.org

and is currently researching the cultural history of gay bars in the U.S.

Responses to My Rant about House, Castle, and White Collar

My blog post last week ranting about how television deals with committed relationship clearly hit a responsive chord with lots of readers and has generated more response than anything I’ve posted here in a long, long time. Not only have we had active comments posted on the blog, I’ve also been receiving messages via e-mail, Tweets, Facebook updates, and in person comments. Today, I wanted to share some of the e-mail responses I’ve received so far, hoping to generate even more reflection out there on these issues. Please, if you want to add anything and have trouble with the Spam Filter on the blog proper, send me e-mails at hjenkins@usc.edu, and do signal that you intend the comments for publication here. So far, the series most often cited as having a great husband-wife relationship is Friday Night Lights, which I have not seen, but may give a chance based on this level of intense fan excitement.

Mr, Jenkins,

Hello! My name is Nicole Bessette, and I will be attending USC’s School of Cinematic Arts as a Critical Studies major in the Fall. While on Twitter today, a friend sent me the link to your most recent article regarding the difficulty television has in representing committed relationships, and much as you confessed to inhaling Castle recently, I seemed to have done the same with your article. Your point of view and the way you so eloquently expressed it really struck a chord in me, so I wanted to take this time to wholeheartedly thank you for sharing it with me and so many others.

I, myself, have been a Castle enthusiast since the show first premiered two years ago, and I always tell people that the best thing about it and the reason why I personally believe it to be the best show on television is because of the writing. Mr. Andrew Marlowe, also a USC alumnus, has truly mastered every ounce of the show–from its characters to its relationships–and what I admire about him most is that he has given us a show that actually feels real. Unlike House, you can fully invest in these characters and the relationships that they have with each other, and at the end of each new episode, you turn off your television feeling as though you’re a part of something bigger. For this and many other reasons, I could not agree with you more in believing that Castle is just the show to break the mold of the “unrealistic” TV relationships.

In fact, I have become so taken with Castle that I have begun writing about it for a website called BuddyTV.com. As their exclusive Castle Fan Columnist, I volunteer my time every Monday to write recaps of the latest episodes, and although it is often a very time-consuming process, I couldn’t enjoy it more because I am being given such a great opportunity to promote a show that I love. In fact, through the power of the social media phenomenon that is Twitter, I was even fortunate enough to have three of the stars of the show (Molly Quinn, Tamala Jones, and Jon Huertas) read one of my articles. I guess all in all, however, what I am really trying to say, Mr. Jenkins, is that I am so very grateful to you for taking the time to highlight some of Castle‘s best features and in turn support what I believe to be the best show ever on television. What’s more, I very much look forward to meeting you on campus sometime in the near future. Again, my sincerest thanks for taking the time to read this, and I wish you all the best!

Nicole Bessette

Hi

The whole conversation about what constitutes a good relationship or a bad one and how some show runners are awesome at portraying every kind of relationship, while others are only good at some, is something I love discussing, so here goes:-

For me a show that always did well with relationships was Friday Night Lights. The central couple of Tami and Eric Taylor were possibly the most realistic portrayal of a married couple I’ve seen on tv. They had been married for years and knew each other inside out. They did that silent communication thing (FNL were actually really good at letting silences work for them in general), they supported each other when their daughter, Julie, tired to play one against the other. They had silly arguments, they had more serious arguments but never was their love for each other in questions.

The writers didn’t feel the need to have anything sensational happen within their marriage – no OMG secrets, no affairs, nothing like that. And they were one of the most compelling couples on TV because they were written WELL. Kind of like all the reasons you cited for liking Elizabeth and Peter on White Collar, who I also love.

I think that’s the thing the writers and Nathan Fillion need to remember – if it’s well written it will engage the viewer and they’ll still want to see what happens next. The problem is it’s the badly written relationships that stick in people’s minds, creating the idea that as soon as two people finally get it together they become boring. It’s the writing and the fact that writers don’t necessarily know what they are going to do after the initial get together that creates a problem. For example: Sarah and Chuck’s relationship evolved and moved on once they got together, but it’s never been boring.

In fact, talking about Chuck, it reminds me of something that really annoys me – when shows will do anything ANYTHING to keep their main couple apart – to the point where it becomes a joke, it no longer comes about organically from the story, but it’s just the writers wondering what they can do now to keep them apart and it becomes boring and annoying.

A show that did really badly with relationships was Stargate Altantis. The one that really sticks in my head is the Rodney McKay/Katie Brown fiasco. The two characters went from awkwardly liking each other to McKay proposing. It was ridiculous. McKay never spent any time with Katie and they seemed to find looking at each other, casually touching each other or giving each other chaste kisses really embarrassing. It was baffling that the writers thought that the viewers would buy into the idea that Katie and Rodney were in an actual, grown-up relationship. Then there was McKay’s relationship with Keller that seemed to come out of nowhere – at least on McKay’s part, and again had him spending little to no time (that the viewer saw or heard about) with the woman he professed to love. Those are not writers who should ever try to depict honest to god grown-up relationships.

I would love to tell certain show runners that you can’t just throw a relationship at the viewers and expect them to like it. It needs lead-up, we need to see it happening (or at least be able to look back and see it happening). Also, make sure you don’t take time away from the aspects of the show that viewers like, just to be able to include the romance, we kind of hate that. Along the same vain, don’t forsake friendships and other relationships that have been portrayed for seasons for a romance that the viewers are going to be less invested in. If you bring in a new character, we resent them, if it’s a regular character we resent that the others are being screwed. And if you bring two regular characters together – and it wasn’t signposted from the beginning – you are going to have to put up with the fans who hate character A and character B being together.

I’d also like to tell show runners of certain kinds of shows that, really, romance isn’t for them. Something like NCIS, for example. I watch that for the team interactions. I don’t care about their romantic entanglements. The only one I’m okay with is Abby/McGee because that was something that existed from the moment McGee appeared and somehow the writers have managed to make sure that it doesn’t take over the show and it’s always done subtly and rather cutely. Compare that to Ziva and Tony, where you often feel like you’re being hit over the head with a sledgehammer – also, thinking about Ziva and Tony, if you’re actors don’t have chemistry when possibly moving towards a romantic relationship, drop it. It’s painful to watch.

When romance comes into shows that I don’t equate with romance, I tend to stop watching them. I stopped watching CS:NY after the 3rd season because the writers focused WAY too much on Danny and Lyndsay and I found it boring.

And one final thing: show runners, you don’t need romantic relationships in shows just to attract women. We like shows with little to no romance just fine and you tend to piss us off if you suggest that a show suddenly has romance in it to ‘appeal to women’. Stop. Just, stop it. One of the reasons I like Nikita: the women don’t spend their time angsting over guys or talking about them all the time.

I hadn’t realised that this had got so long, so I think I’m going to stop now *g*

Iona Liddell

Hi Henry-

I recently rewatched My So-Called Life (thx netflix) and was surprised at how Angela Chase’s parents were represented strongly as individuals also trying to navigate their own so-called lives. They were thoughtfully represented as individuals committed to each other while also trying to maintain some sort of healthy and separate identity/autonomy within a marriage and family.

— C Coy

I think my gold standard for how to show a relationship is always gonna be John Crichton and Aeryn Sun, because even if it didn’t reach solidly committed stage until pretty late, somehow it felt like that was what it really was the whole time, in a way. And I never felt any sense that they were any less interesting when they were committed, instead they were more.

But yeah, I agree totally with what you said about White Collar, because I adore the relationships and maturity in that show. \o/

–Alyndra N

Hello Professor Jenkins!

Wannabe aca-fan, graduating student in Media Communication and administrator of Bones Italian fandom, here!

I have to say that I’m always very interested in what you write, both academically and personally, but with the article you wrote yesterday you really touched my inner shipper’s heart.

Given my experience on the subject, I think I can add another point of view to the discussion.

I think you’re absolutely right when you say that television authors usually don’t know how to represent a good healthy committed relationship, but it’s also true that -often- they don’t even have to arrive to depict that “committed” part of the relationships.

If you ask me, the real problem is that the “will they/won’t they” dynamic works too well! I speak from personal experience when I say that it’s like an addiction! No matter how long the authors keep the pair a non-couple or how bad the story gets, people can’t help but coming back for more, hoping every time that THAT is gonna be THE time…

Unfortunately, this postponing the unavoidable is a pull so strong for the public (especially the female one) that let the networks to collect very high ratings, thus to pose two possible scenarios:

1) the authors get scared, become “cowards” and, dreading the “Moonlighting curse”, let the pair remain a non-couple;

2) the authors are ready for the big step, but the network make them wait. And wait. And wait. And the pair remains a non-couple.

In any case, the pair finally becomes a couple when it’s usually too late and the story is already ruined.

My favorite series, Bones, for example, is now, in its sixth season, dangerously bordering this “deadline”.

Bones is a declared character-driven drama disguised as a procedural, starring Emily Deschanel and dear old pal David Boreanaz from the Whedonverse. It’s considered like Castle‘s big brother because it’s the one from where Castle authors take their inspiration. If you are enjoying the characters’ dynamics in Castle, you definitely can’t miss Bones!

I am now able to appreciate Castle as well (I’m loving the 3rd season!) but I couldn’t begin to truly appreciate it until I accepted the fact that it wasn’t really a “bad copy” of Bones (here at BuddyTV you can find a very funny article on the subject), but a different show that tries to address most of Bones‘ main themes from a different perspective.

These two shows definitely have a different “touch”, maybe Bones is a little bit more deeper and Castle a little bit more frivolous, but in the end they’re very similar and if you like one, you can’t help but ending up loving the other as well.

For 5 years in Bones everything was great: the scripts were funny and intense at the same time, the characters explored at 360° and the chemistry between the main (non)couple exceptional, but then the authors (and the network), fearing of ruining everything, didn’t have the stomach to take them to the next level when the time was right and decided to drag the story keeping them apart for a little longer but in this way they completely damaged their chemistry, depriving the show from its main point of strength.

Now, Castle has one huge advantage on Bones: it’s 3 years younger and can learn from its big brother what to do and what not. Will it have the courage to take the big step sooner than Bones? At the moment, nobody can tell.

I, in the meantime, will keep to watch them both because they are, without any shadow of doubt, the two shows that best narrate their characters and if the writers will be so good to mantain the chemistry between the main couples even when they’ll officially become couples, the shows will become even better!

Glad to have read your rant and hoping to read another as soon as possible.

Best regards,

Beatrice Belli

PS: My friends say that Chuck is a tv show where the authors knew how to put together the couple without ruining the chemistry but I don’t watch it so I can’t confirm, sorry.

Just read your fantastic Castle post. You say it’s less aca, more fan – but with fan writing that has insight like that, who even needs academics? :p

You end the post with ” But, tell me, what would you most like to teach the show runner of your choice about the care and feeding of actual human characters involved in committed relationships?” But do you specifically mean romantic relationships specifically, or any bond between characters? Because as you rightly point out, while the elements of the plot, the contrivances of the genre, may hook us in and keep us curious, it is always the characters and their emotional attachments to each other that led the viewer forge a connection. Even with something Lost, one of the most successful recent shows to have people coming back for “OMG what’s next!”, it’s eduring appeal, I’d argue, was based on character attachment. Conversely, did Heroes become dull because of contrived plots? Or because we know longer much cared for its characters. Of course, none of what I am writing is I think even remotely novel.

I’ll echo everyone on Friday Night Lights. The relationship between First Lady and President was quite interesting on The West Wing. I don’t think I’ve ever paused to reflect on The Good Wife, in part because though I enjoy the show immensely, it rarely bears close scrutiny.

And a really fantastic show in all ways, including a wickedly incisive on again off again romance, is the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. It’s a metatextual dramedy about a Shakespeare Festival in small town Ontario, where the slightly mad artistic director is haunted by the ghost of the previous artistic director, as they direct Hamlet in the first season, MacBeth in the second, and King Lear in the third. After The Wire, almost certainly the best work of Television I’ve ever encountered.

Two surprisingly interesting relationship dynamics are in very male dominated show. The first is Californication. You’d think the premise of bad boy artist fuck-up who sleeps around would wear thing after four seasons, and yet amazing, it is still compelling. And his absolutely love for Karen is really something. The relationship is completely FUBAR, and yet it’s amazing how much they care about each other, and how we care for them. It’s as if Hank Moody exerts on us as viewers the same sort of charm he does on women – we know he’s an asshole, part of us just wants to get inside him (metaphorically, in the viewers case).

Second, a surprisingly interesting relationship is Ari Gold and his wife on Entourage. Now, it’s not particularly realistic – nothing on the show is – and maybe ways, it’s less about them as a couple but how it shows a different perspective to Ari. Even so, it’s evolved into something very different than much of the show (and indeed, Ari’s marriage is a crucial issue at the end of the most recent season).

And in terms of Castle specifically – yes, I think we’ll get there. As it’s much more than romantic tension, there have been so many missed connections of confessions of love. I agree with the poster’s analysis of bones, that they “will they/won’t they” will tire eventually. I think they are playing it out nicely, though occasionally it’s torture as a fan. Think of the scene where they finally kiss – and yet, “nothing” evolves from that. Of course, any romantic entanglement between the two will have its own comedic pitfalls. I find it highly unlikely they would stay together without breaking up at least once. But so far, much like Californication, they have managed to stretch a charming premise way past it’s usual expiry date, so I give them faith. I think for it to be most engaging, the doctor boyfriend needs to be an actual on screen character as much as he is tallked about. Even with limited screen time, Castle’s flames have left way more of a mark than Becket’s long term boyfriend.

And as well edited as that “closure” video was….Blah! If I want some that sappy, I’ll watch Fillion’s old soaps.

Michael Carens-Nedelsky

Dear Henry,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful insights into the problem of TV writing today and the lack of committed relationships being depicted. I have to totally agree with you. I am a HUGE Castle fan and have been watching since the very first episode. I have watched the relationship grow over the past three seasons and it does worry me a bit that one of the actors (Nathan Fillion) is leery about the relationship moving forward and the thought that it will get dull or boring and lose fans by doing so. But, I believe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Take, for example, the Thin Man movies you were talking about, and that makes me think of the TV show Hart to Hart. Was that show ever great or what? They were married, the show was interesting, their chemistry was remarkably charming, and I know I was never bored watching it. That was one sexy couple and they were in a committed relationship, imagine that? Also, White Collar also has a great married couple, but Elizabeth is a little bit under used in that series and so we don’t see her a whole lot. But, again, it’s a great example of what a great committed couple looks like.

As far as House goes, I believe that it all boils down to the characterization. I believe that as he is written, he is just a miserable person and doesn’t believe he deserves happiness or even that he can truly be happy. So, I think he will always try to sabotage anything good that could possibly ever happen to him. I know he loves Cuddy and she loves him, but that is one relationship that I think may be better off as it is currently. Especially since he has proven that he can’t be there for her when she really needs him (her recent cancer scare) and he’s so afraid of his feelings that he turns to drugs again to drown them out. I don’t think he will ever be emotionally mature to handle being with her (or anyone really.)

Which brings me back to Castle. I had heard that the creator Andrew Marlowe stated that when creating Castle he modeled part of it from old black and white movies. You can certainly see there are characteristics he used, like the great banter from the Tracy/Hepburn movies like Woman of the Year, or even Hepburn/Grant in Bringing Up Baby (not that he used those specifically I am just referencing movies I feel have that great back and forth between the characters). Castle and Beckett have had that great give and take right from the start. The issue I see is that from the very first episode as the show is written, there is that “attraction.” Castle is pretty much hitting on Beckett from the start. I feel that Castle in the first season is depicted a bit as a womanizer. (that is just my opinion and how I saw him in Season One.) I think he has mellowed out as the seasons have gone on and has even shown a bit more maturity as the series progresses. I have sensed that Beckett’s hesitation in allowing herself to admit to feelings for him may stem from her first impressions of him (if it was the same as mine. Again I am just speculating).

I feel that if a show starts out from the first episode, catering to this immense attraction, it’s only inevitable that the fans start getting restless for the couple to become a romantic couple. Castle is now in Season 3 and we have had episodes like Knockdown where the characters kissed, even though it was supposedly as a “cover”. And episodes like Countdown when the characters come very close to death and one character comes close to finally admitting that they love the other (at least it looks like what she was about to say.) Then we have the last few episodes where there is barely any interaction between Castle and Beckett of any kind of personal nature. It’s very hard for fans who are rooting for this relationship to all of a sudden feel like the brakes are being slammed on just when that train just started to pick up some speed.

I believe for a show to survive the will they or won’t they debate, they should take a clue from The XFiles. This was a show that did not introduce their two main characters right from the start as having this immense sexual tension between them. They developed a working relationship, a friendship and years down the road you get a hint of something deeper going on. I didn’t even consider them a romantic couple until the first XFiles movie came out and they almost kissed. That was when it finally dawned on me that they could have the potential to be a great couple. I know a lot of XFiles fans would disagree, just like there are Castle fans out there who don’t want to see them get together either. I believe that for Castle, it has to happen. They have to have these characters give a relationship a shot. The writing the whole time has been working towards that, I think it’s very obvious. And I do believe they can make it work. Take Scarecrow and Mrs. King for example, they gave it a shot and even got married . Okay, so the marriage was a secret but I believe if Kate Jackson had not gotten sick and if the show hadn’t ended due to her illness it would have lasted longer and it would have been exciting to see where it would have gone.

So, yes there is hope that a happy, committed relationship between Castle and Beckett is possible. And I hope the writers prove Nathan Fillion wrong and Stana Katic right. And make some of us die hard Castle fans who want to see them together very happy. And I can’t believe I am about to say this but here goes… But, if they feel they do think a romantic relationship between Castle and Beckett will dive bomb like Moonlighting, then let the characters move on and form committed relationships with other people. It would break my Castle fan heart, but at the same time I would rather they just stop it now then hesitate for too long and miss the wonderful chance that could have been theirs.

Thanks so much for listening and so glad you love Castle as much as I do!

Sincerely,

Judy Peak

I, myself, have been a Castle enthusiast since the show first premiered two years ago, and I always tell people that the best thing about it and the reason why I personally believe it to be the best show on television is because of the writing. Mr. Andrew Marlowe, also a USC alumnus, has truly mastered every ounce of the show–from its characters to its relationships–and what I admire about him most is that he has given us a show that actually feels real. Unlike House, you can fully invest in these characters and the relationships that they have with each other, and at the end of each new episode, you turn off your television feeling as though you’re a part of something bigger. For this and many other reasons, I could not agree with you more in believing that Castle is just the show to break the mold of the “unrealistic” TV relationships.

In fact, I have become so taken with Castle that I have begun writing about it for a website called BuddyTV.com. As their exclusive Castle Fan Columnist, I volunteer my time every Monday to write recaps of the latest episodes, and although it is often a very time-consuming process, I couldn’t enjoy it more because I am being given such a great opportunity to promote a show that I love. In fact, through the power of the social media phenomenon that is Twitter, I was even fortunate enough to have three of the stars of the show (Molly Quinn, Tamala Jones, and Jon Huertas) read one of my articles. I guess all in all, however, what I am really trying to say, Mr. Jenkins, is that I am so very grateful to you for taking the time to highlight some of Castle‘s best features and in turn support what I believe to be the best show ever on television.

–Nicole Bessette

Hi Dr. Jenkins,

I just read your April 6 blog and wanted to share with you this recent post I made on another forum because it relates to your question of what would I ask of the showrunners of Castle (a family favorite in our home).

Interrupting our S/J ship to comment on confirmation. Or shipfirmation. Or…whatever we want to call it. Bear with me, I promise this is not off-topic

I am grading papers this morning while watching (loosely speaking) the last X-Files movie on tv. Now…I was a M/S (Mulder/Scully) diehard shipper. Wrote my fair share of fanfic, read some fabulous fanfic, etc… and like all shippers was clamoring for resolution.

Not that half-a$$ed stuff we got with maybe-babies that were given up, not halfway-hallway kisses (but sexy as all getout in the outtakes of movie 1), no. We wanted 100% “I fell in love with you” dialogue.

And we got it in movie #2.

Now…the next bit should be read with the understanding that not only was I a fan of the show, I worked on the show. My screen name used to be “setmedic,” so that should tell you what I did. I worked hard to work on the show, because I loved the show. I tell you this so you can understand my next statement.

Movie #2 was total and utter rubbish. Start to finish.

Fragmented script, go-for-the-gore storyline with no real premise, no characters in which we could put our faith, or commit to, we certainly didn’t care about M/S as characters, and they lost all cred (for God’s sake, Scully **Googled** stem cell research in looking up treatment options (and seriously…a pathologist doing “cutting-edge” pediatric cancer treatment? Really?)). But, I digress.

But. Earlier in the movie we got a scene in which (strangely reminiscent of the Jack/OTHER scene) in which the camera lifts over Scully’s sleeping body to reveal…Mulder. And, just five minutes ago, Scully looked deep into Mulder’s eyes and said “This is why I fell in love with you.”

Woo. Freaking. Who.

A small, throwaway line that meant…NOTHING.

NOTHING.

No feeling. No chemistry. By this point neither actor was invested in any way in doing the movie other than for financial reasons (yes, I do know this). It wasn’t about futhering the story, or the mythology, or an homage to the fans. And it showed in the dry, passionless, “I love you,” which may as well been, “That’s why I bought cabbage with you.”

I do not want our Sam/Jack confirmation to come in the form of a throwaway line in a crappy movie. I would much rather have fanfic and the end-of-the-series-as-we-knew-it Season 8 “Let’s not dwell” pier fishing (and we all know it’s not about the fishing) scene than a sarcastic, stick-it-to-the-fans tossed-off line.

I, and many of you, have brilliant imaginations and we know the actors love and respect the characters — nearly as much as do we. I don’t believe Brad would put us in the same position Chris Carter did with X-Files, but just in case, I’m laying it out there:

Dear Brad,

Please give us our unequivocal shipfirmation in a lovingly respectful way that enhances and celebrates our characters and does not make them caricatures of themselves or the genre. If that’s not possible, please leave it as-is. I’m good with that.

With deepest respect,

Pol

So, Dr. Jenkins, my plea to Andrew Marlowe and Terri Edda would be to use their married relationship as a basis for the dynamic. Or the “couple-age” dynamic of the fabulous writers of the gay family in Modern Family, (and other families in the show) because they have completely nailed those relationships.

In short, Andrew and Terri, take a look around at the fantastic, successful, thriving relationships around you and mine them for the wealth of information they offer. What things do couples struggle over? Money? That’s boring. For Castle and Beckett it would be about power. Castle is a typical white male who has money. Lots of money. Lots and lots of money.

What if the Nikki Heat series doesn’t do as well as Derek Storm? Is Castle not writing the Beckett he sees? She should be a best-seller.

What if Castle wants to do some real police training? How would that change their dynamic? What if he decides to do the Academy?

Oh, how I’d love to write for them!

Thank you (as always) for the venue and for your fantastic insights.

Best,

Polly

Dear Prof. Jenkins:

Hello! I’m a longtime reader who loved your post on television’s allergy to committed relationships, and wanted to add a few thoughts:

– Another shining example from a surprising source: The Vampire Diaries‘s Stefan and Elena, who have been together 32 episodes and counting. They’re high schoolers, but by CW standards, staying together for more than a season = practically married. It’s to the writers’ credit that the obstacles they’ve faced as a couple have been much more compelling than the “we’re so different and this can never be!!” hand-wringing they went through beforehand, and it highlights a common thread that I think runs throughout the shows that have pulled off successful relationships: respect for stability and loyalty. Elena and Stefan are largely portrayed as a sensible and well-adjusted people, which doesn’t preclude disagreements, but eliminates the need to rely on interpersonal conflict to drive the plot. The town’s machinations keep them busy enough. I get the sense the writers want them to stay together because there’s such a rich story to be mined there, and thus have avoided the willful misunderstandings/distrust/stupidity that have been used to break up other pairings. Stefan and Elena – along with Friday Night Lights‘s Eric and Tami Taylor, which I’d agree with other posters is the gold standard – run contrary to the conventional wisdom that relationships that hook viewers aren’t synonymous with what we want in real life. My corner of fandom would love to life-swap with the Taylors. Give me domesticity any day,

At the same time, I’ll acknowledge Beatrice Belli’s point that “will they/won’t they” works really, really, ridiculously well – so well, in fact, that I’d guess it’s one of the elements of a show that’s most likely to turn casual viewers into spoiler-seeking, fic-reading, content-producing fans, and writers may be more confident in their abilities to maintain their audience’s interest that way – and with good reason, since pulse-pounding depictions of domestic life are so rare and exert a different emotional pull. Not to justify writers’ fears, but I think there is something uniquely engaging about UST that’s hard to replicate; the tension doesn’t go away once characters get together, but it comes packaged in a different form by nature, one where the attraction is no longer so hard-won. I’d be interested in hearing from people whose investment in a TV pairing grew after the protagonists got together after a looooong buildup. Then again, maybe the situation is so dire there wouldn’t be any good examples, and that’s the problem in the first place!

– I don’t watch House, but through fandom osmosis I’d suspect that the writers have taken pains over the years to compound House and Cuddy’s respective dysfunctions to keep them apart, which has now backfired in the form of reverting to tired patterns. Your point about showrunners resisting change is well-taken; however, I think what’s turned me off of more shows is post-hookup characters becoming unrecognizable. The world’s best chemistry can’t make up for a lack of caring. I loved Jim and Pam up until season three of The Office, and my losing interest in the show had nothing to do with their getting together. I just didn’t like them anymore, separately or together: the once-endearing appreciation society of whispers and pranks they had formed to make through the workday now just seemed petty and mean-spirited, and Pam got flattened into Jim’s appendage. That and the plots were about 100x less funny. Same with Chuck and Sarah – I’ve read praise of how the writers have handled their evolving relationship, but by the time Sarah had been reduced to Chuck’s damsel in distress to make it happen, I wanted out. More than anything I wish writers understood that viewers become invested not only in the idea of a relationship, but also in the separate identities two characters bring to the table, their friendships and partnerships with other characters….and the plots that frame all these interactions! I’d rather have writers focus on developing a stable male/female friendship dynamic grounded in respect before plying their audience with romantic tension. Honestly, I’m not sure whether half of the will they/won’t they couples on my current shows even like each other. There’s one: Leslie and Ben on Parks & Rec. Your description of Castle and Beckett also applies to them: “They clearly are two people who have fun together…and they are people who respect each other’s intelligence and creativity.” What I love to see in a committed relationship isn’t all that different from a great friendship.

– I’ve never seen a full ep of Castle, but I have a few good friends who love it, and for their sake, television’s, and yours, I hope Castle and Beckett achieve that elusive balance: happy but not complacent; steady but not predictable; and not too late in the show’s run, when the cases remain fresh and interesting and a worthy canvas for the characters. If I could give the writers any advice, it would be to invest in some good plotting, because the intrigue of a tight mystery does wonders to supplant the tension that fades when the stakes are low. The characters are what keep me watching a show, but too often it seems like showrunners are only willing to take a big step late in the game, when the storylines and dialogue are no longer at their best. I think the long-range format is one of TV’s greatest strengths, but I often wonder whether we’d be better off with short-run, UK-style series that allow for more thoughtful planning and a surer sense of direction. But your post makes me hopeful this show will use the format to its advantage, and if Castle manages to combine an ongoing committed relationship with smart cases, I will buy the DVDs so fast I’ll leave skid marks.

Thanks for opening up the floor to such a great question! I loved reading the responses, and I hope it’s all right mine rambled on for so long. Your work helped convince me to pursue graduate studies in media studies, so it means a lot that you took the time to read this. From one fan to another: thank you!

Best,

Jennifer Shen

A Rant About Television’s Difficulty in Representing Committed Relationships

Two things collided over the past week for me as a loyal television viewer and I want to get them off my chest. I give fair warning that this is going to be a bit of a rant. There’s almost no aca here and a hell of a lot of fan.

The first is that after watching House M.D. with some great pleasure for seven seasons, I am more and more facing the grim reality that it has more or less jumped the shark this season thanks to its frustrating and ill-conceived representation of the on-again, off-again love affair between House and Cuddy.

The second is that I have been more or less inhaling Castle for the past month or so, watching several episodes a night in true “can’t eat just one” spirit, having somehow failed to discover it until its third season, and much of what has fueled my passion for this series has been its sophisticated handling of the relationships (all of them in their varied forms and contexts) between the central characters. If you also have not discovered Castle, here’s a first season preview which does a good job of spilling out the basic premise.

The contrast between the two series came to a head for me when I read the profile of Castle star Nathan Fillion in the March 25 issue of Entertainment Weekly, a cover story which correctly declared Fillion “Geek God,” and which included a side bar asking Castle‘s two leads whether they think Castle and Beckett should “date or wait.” The responses broke down rather predictably along gender lines, with Stana Katic, who plays Beckett, rooting for the two characters to “take it to the next level” and Nathan Fillion worrying that doing so will take much of the passion and tension out of the series. Here’s what they each had to say:

Katic: “I might be naively romantic, but I believe that a relationship can be just as spicy when people get together as it was in the chase. The complications that happen when characters like Beckett and Castle get together can make for interesting viewing. They have ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends, he has a certain kind of lifestyle and she has a certain kind of lifestyle — and then on top of that, they actually really care for each other. It would be neat to see how these two people attract each other and drive each other crazy. I’d love to see what happens when Beckett actually touches on a couple of his pet peeves. It would be fun to see her torture him a little bit, you know, in a fun way.”

Fillion: “When you get people together, [viewers] stop with the yearning, they stop with the wanting. They go, ‘Ah, finally. They’re together. All right, what else is on?’ I know as an audience member, I enjoy knowing more than the characters I watch on TV know. [With our show it’s] looking at these two, saying ‘just turn around! She’s making the face right now! She’s making the face! You’ll see it! Ah, you missed it.’ The lack of resolution is what keeps people coming back. I think the challenge is how do you serve that so it’s not repetitive.”

And yes, I know what Fillion’s worried about — he’s worried about seeing something like what has happened to House this season. But the problem with House is not that House and Cuddy are in a relationship. The problem is that the writers do not have a clue how to depict a relationship between House and Cuddy in a way which shows any kind of emotional maturity, any kind of psychological depth, and any kind of personal growth.

I often suspect that Hollywood’s inability to depict relationships that grow over time has everything to do with the divorce rate in the entertainment capital, very little to do with the constraints of the medium (given how well television depicts the unfolding of interpersonal relationships over time) and even less to do with the desire of fans. (One of the things to pay attention to is how many of the “commitment” episodes for television series are written by a small handful of writers who have consistently ruined every couple they touched.)

From my experience, fandom is all about the relationships between characters, and fans are capable of pulling out insights into those relationships from the most subtle touch, the most nuanced reaction shots, and stitch them together through their stories and videos into stories which show how relationships can grow and unfold over time. Here, for example, a fan re-edits footage from the series to imagine a different kind of relationship between the protagonists.

I’ve been married for more than thirty years to the same woman (well, actually, neither of us remains the same person from one moment to the next and that’s part of what makes marriage such a grand adventure.) My wife remains my best friend, my playmate, my mentor and confident, my sharpest critic and my biggest fan, and living together keeps me constantly on my toes.

This is the kind of relationship which we rarely see on television, again because contemporary writers seem incapable of writing such relationships — could it be because they are twenty-somethings still recovering from their first major breakup? If I go back to older Hollywood movies, I can see the kinds of relationships I am looking for — all you have to do is watch any movie which couples Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey or even better, my personal favorite pairing, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Watch how their relationship grows across the full run of The Thin Man series, even, though, gasp, they are together from their very first scenes. There’s nothing dull, predictable, passionless, or static about their interactions. It doesn’t fall back on House‘s cynical assumption that people are ultimately incapable of change and thus doomed to disappoint each other.

Part of what gives me confidence that Castle is not going to fall into the traps that House has is that the series itself has shown a close attention to the nuances of character interaction from its first season forward. Certainly, Castle and Beckett have grown closer to each other episode by episode and the writers have been imaginative at finding new ways to deepen their bonds with each other. They clearly are two people who have fun together, which for me is the number one requirement for a meaningful and committed relationship, and they are people who respect each other’s intelligence and creativity. The series loves to show them pitching ideas back and forth, often completing each other’s intelligence, and they take delight in showing the two very adult characters nevertheless playing with each other, teasing each other with hints of secrets not yet disclosed.

But it isn’t just the intense chemistry between the two performers — and the obvious passion between the two characters which everyone but they seem prepared to acknowledge — that gives me faith for the future of the relationship. It is also that the series does a great job of depicting other kinds of relationships — friendships and partnerships such as the one between Ryan and Esposito, mentorships such as the one between Captain Montgomery and Beckett, the father-daughter relationship between Castle and Alexis, the mother-son relationship between Castle and Martha, and even the complexities of relationships which unfold in a single relationships. They recently sprang on us a romance between Esposito and Parish that retrospectively seemed to have been hiding in plain sight all along. There’s a powerful sense here that relationships do not just involve the partners but also extend across a larger social network which has a stake in each member’s happiness.

And in each of these relationships, at each stage of development, there are hints that the characters involved are more than the sum of their relationships. They are still capable of surprising each other, they have both a history and a future together. This is what keeps me as a fan watching a series long past the point where the genre formulas shaping the stories have become predictable. So, why should the writers or cast worry about their ability to keep the relationship interesting once they move beyond the first blushes of courtship, given that the relationship so far has been so much deeper than teasing the audience about will they or want they?

Given the range and complexity of these relationships, there are surely many different dimensions of the life between Castle and Beckett the writers can pull out, many different things they can learn from and about each other, and many ways that their relationship can be implicated in the mysteries they solve. Of all of the shows currently on television, I think Castle has the best potential to show me the kind of committed couple that I long to see, and I am not alone as the broad range of fan videos and fan stories about these characters suggest.

There’s something else which gives me hope that Castle might achieve this kind of representation of dating and married life – the other great couple currently on genre television, Elizabeth and Peter Burke on White Collar, another series currently on my Tivo, although alas, due to USA Network’s short seasons, there’s a painfully long wait before I’ll see any new episodes. White Collar is another fannish show which lives and dies on the basis of character entanglements, entanglements which again go well beyond romance.

Here’s a segment from a recent Paley Center event where a woman of the audience asks the program stars and producers about the intense bonds between the series male protagonists, Neal and Peter, and gets some interesting insights in return.

And there’s another whole thesis to be written about Neal’s other great friendships with his long-time partner, Mozzie, and with his sophisticated landlady, June, played by the great Diane Carroll. And I’ve been enjoying watching the sexy partnerships between Neal and his sometimes paramours, Alex and Sara. But above all, what I love about White Collar is its depictions of the domestic life between Peter and Elizabeth. Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) doesn’t get a lot of screen time: she may only be in a scene or two per episode, and due to the actress’s maternity leave, she missed out a good chunk of the first half of the season, but when they are together, there is a playfulness and mutual respect which from where I sit show the signs of a happily married couple.

They know each other well. They call each other out on their nonsense. But there’s no question that they would do anything for each other. Elizabeth is smart and she’s intelligent, not always the same thing; she’s got her own thoughts and her own life; she’s not a simple appendage of her husband. And it is precisely because their relationship is complex and unpredictable and constantly evolving that it becomes a catalyst shaping the interactions with the other characters. Witness the Paley Center audience member’s acknowledgment that part of what strengthens the friendship between Neal and Peter is that Peter is seeking Neal’s advice on how to be a better husband.

Here’s a fan video which does a great job in conveying some of what I value about White Collar’s depiction of their marriage, again by cobbling together little bits that show a much bigger picture.

So, let me turn the floor over to my readers now. What do you see as the best representations of committed relationships on American television? Which couples demonstrate the capacity for trust and growth which has been sadly lacking on this season’s House? What advice would you give to the showrunners at Castle about how they might intensify the relationship between Castle and Beckett without lowering the tension or diminishing audience engagement?

I know the comments function on this blog is more or less broken due to the intense spam protection I’ve had to put on here. So, if you don’t want to fight with the submission process, send me e-mail directly at hjenkins@usc.edu and I will make sure it goes up on this site. But, tell me, what would you most like to teach the show runner of your choice about the care and feeding of actual human characters involved in committed relationships?

Check Out Student Work from Annenberg Innovation Lab Conference

Last Friday, I had the pride and joy of participating in the first conference organized by the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The Lab is a new research initiative launched over the past year, with the goal of becoming an incubator for new media practices and platforms, a space where important conversations can occur between academics and industry leaders which may help shape the future of communications.

The mastermind behind the project is Jonathan Taplin, a saavy industry veteran, who has tapped his considerable network to bring some major stakeholders to the table. He’s been working with two amazing women — Erin Reilly, who is also the Research Director for my own Project New Media Literacies, is the Creative Director and Anne Balsamo, a veteran of Xerox Parc, serves as The Director of Learning. I am proud to be working with the lab on several new initiatives which I will be talking about here more in the future, including a new platform to support our work in fostering New Media Literacies and a new eBook project which will expand the resources available to Comic Studies scholars.

They’ve pulled in many other key researchers from across USC, providing a context which supports the move from theory to applied practice. The real special sauce at the lab is going to be the ability to mix social and cultural insights with technological experimentation and innovation in a space where humanists and social scientists can work hand in hand with engineers and business people.

Between them, Taplin, Reilly, and Balsamo hit the deck running, pulling off the near impossible, in getting the center ready to share some research results only eight months after it was originally conceived.

The conference’s highlights include a conversation between Balsamo and the two authors of the important new book, A New Culture of Learning, Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown; a presentation by the musician T. Bone Burnett showing how degraded the current state of sound is within the music industry and announcing a significant new research initiative to help repair the damage of the past decade of failed digital practices; a discussion of the value of play in fostering an innovative environment whether in schools or the workplace; and some great exchanges with key thinkers and doers within the computer and entertainment industries.

But, for me, by far, the highlight was seeing the work being done by USC students as part of what the Lab calls CRUNCH sessions. Altogether, more than 60 students from 8 different schools worked over the past two terms to develop prototypes, including demonstration videos, for new projects which covered a broad range of different models of media, from innovative approaches to eBooks to new game controllers, from civic media to new kinds of visualization tools. The most amazing thing was done by the student teams fueled entirely from their own passions: the Lab provided them with a space, with brainstorming and training sessions, and with technical consultants, but they were neither paid nor offered academic credit for the considerable labor they put into the process. Most of the teams were interdisciplinary, and one of the key values of the Lab was to help match up students from across the University to work together towards common goals.

I was pleased to see how many of the students involved were people I’d been seeing in my classes and it was great to witness what they could create when turned loose on their own projects outside any academic structures. It was especially pleased to see that these projects were informed by a deep understanding of the value of storytelling and entertainment and a grasp of the actual needs of communities of users who have been underserved by the first waves of digital development.

What follows here are the five winners of the CRUNCH competition, each representing a very different model of what media innovation might look like.

NimbleTrek \ Natalia Bogolasky and David Radcliff

WeLobby \ Leonard Hyman

WeLobby from Dave McDougall on Vimeo.

Combiform \ Andy Uehara and Edmond Yee an

New Quill \ Michael Morgan

Interactive Geosurface Map — Lauren Fenton

And for good measure, here are three more projects which I thought were too cool not to include:

Love in the Time of Genocide \ Thenmozhi Soundararajan

The Mother Road eBook \ Erin Reilly

Reading the News on the Wall \ Jennifer Taylor