Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathabekar (Part Three)

Despite your description of the range of media industries and practices which construct Bollywood today, it is clear that cinema remains the center around which all of these other media systems operate, and you also argue that cinema remains core to understanding the connections between Indian diasporic identity and media. So, what accounts for the continued centrality of cinema to the narrative you are constructing, given the other pressures towards transmedia and transnational logics you describe?

There are several reasons for the privileged position cinema occupies. The first is simply the enduring popularity of films and film music (mainly Hindi language cinema from Bombay) among South Asian families who migrated to the U.S. following changes in immigration law in 1965. From the late 1960s, when enterprising families began screening films in university halls and other venues, to the recent forays into film exhibition by Bombay-based media companies like Reliance Entertainment, Hindi-language Bollywood films continue to dominate the Desi mediascape.

These film screenings were usually held in university halls rented for a few hours during the weekend, with films screened off 16mm, and later, 35mm reels. These weekend screenings, with an intermission that lasted 30-45 minutes, were an occasion, apart from religious festivals, for people to wear traditional clothes, speak in Hindi or other regional languages, and participate in a ritual that was reminiscent of “home.”

During a period in which there were no cultural institutions in place, and little on offer in mainstream media that resonated with their emotions, nostalgic longing, and cultural values, leave alone addressing the difficulties of life in a new cultural space, these screenings were marked as an exclusively Indian space, away from mainstream society, where families could meet and participate in a ritual of sharing personal and collective memories of life in India.

A second reason that films and film music figure prominently in discussions of Desi youth culture relates to Desi youth appropriating and re-mixing film songs and dance sequences in college events, dance clubs, and so on.

Third, it is in and through cinema that diasporic writers and directors like Hanif Kureishi, Mira Nair, and Gurinder Chadha began addressing the complexities of claiming and defining South Asian identities in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.

But you’re right that we are beginning to see some major changes in the diasporic mediascape. One question to ask is: do we even have a space for diasporic south asian films?

Mira Nair’s The Namesake does deal with diasporic themes, but it is a Bombay-based company that produced and distributed the film. Further, we are not at a point in the cultural life of the South Asian diaspora where media from the Indian subcontinent is only one part of a very diverse mix. Finally, with a range of actors of Indian-origin making their way into American and British public culture, one might argue that the diasporic sensibility that marked the work of cultural producers during the late 1980s-mid-1990s has given way to engagement with mainstream media.

 You begin your discussion of Bollywood fans by setting up the contrast between grassroots forms of media circulation that get labeled “media piracy” and various forms of industry cooperation which get labeled “crowdsourcing.” Is there a meaningful “space in between” these two paradigms? If so, what does it look like?

Part of the difficulty involved in charting the terrain of participatory culture surrounding Bollywood, especially in an era of networked audiences and publics, stems from the sheer range of sites and modes of participation one encounters. And in the Indian context, our understanding of participatory culture remains tied to a very specific history of fan associations and their links to electoral politics in south India. This narrative of fan/cine-politics has been so dominant that other modes and sites of participatory culture have not been considered, leave alone studied in systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly “non-political” character.

In fact, the topic of fan activity has not even been raised in relation to Bollywood. So in the book, I drew on some research I’ve done on fans of A. R. Rahman to argue that we need to move beyond narratives of political mobilization. The major Rahman fan community online includes fans who are primarily interested in film music, fans based in Malaysia for whom participation in the Rahman fan community is part of a larger process of claiming a Tamil ethnic identity, fans in India who work with Rahman, some fans who are, yes, “pirates,” and some who go so far as to police music stores (makeshift stores set up on pavements in busy shopping areas, in shopping complexes, and so on), threatening to call the police if pirated CDs of Rahman’s music are not taken off the shelf.

This is, as you put, a very complex “space in between” piracy and crowdsourcing. And we simply do not have the critical vocabulary to describe and theorize what’s going on in this space.

While my own recent work has sought to map the emerging links between fandom and activism, you argue that these links have totally dominated discourse around Bollywood film fans to the extent that they crowd out understandings of film consumption in the context of everyday life practices. American fan studies has often been accused of not being sufficiently political, of being too interested in the personal, cultural, affective, and social dimensions of popular culture. What might these two groups of scholars learn from each other?

The crucial difference we need to first acknowledge is between film studies and TV/media and communication studies in the Indian context. Film studies is the disciplinary location within which there has been at least some discussion of fandom, even if it has been studied primarily in the south Indian political context.

TV/media studies in the Indian context is yet to take the question of participatory culture seriously. I do not know of a single book-length study of participatory culture surrounding television in India. This is beginning to change in part because the past decade in India has been marked by some very interesting instances of participation surrounding reality TV, for instance, that has intersected with larger political issues.

In my own work in this emerging area, I’ve tried to be very careful to not make easy ‘political’ readings simply because I know next to nothing about the sociable dimensions of participation. And this is what I admire so much about scholars’ work on pleasure and participation in the American context.

As I see it, what we have here in the US is a wealth of historically grounded material on audiences and fans that provides a necessary foundation for examining links between participation and politics. But despite this archive that we have to work with, I feel strongly that it is only when we fully comprehend how participation and everyday life – say, in relation to our current digital and mobile context – are braided together that we can meaningfully pose questions about political impact.

 Your final paragraph includes a very provocative statement, which I was hoping you might expand upon here: “to look broadly at fan participation is to imagine transnational media worlds that are intimately tied to, but not always constrained by, statist or industrial imperatives.” Do tell.

As I’ve already explained, fan activity surrounding cinema in India – south India, in particular – has always had very close connections to the realm of politics. This cine-politics take on fandom has tended to dominate our understanding of participatory culture in India.

However, this cine-politics frame has given way to an extent under the influence of the incredible expansion of the mediascape since the mid-1990s. One of the key changes that the proliferation of television channels engendered was a shift in how audiences were imagined. Television channels like MTV-India, Channel [V], Star Plus, ZEE, and others invited audience participation. Of course, audience participation was tightly controlled and managed expertly – from talent shows to programs like Lift Kara De that leveraged fan labor for ostensibly humanitarian ends.

These changes made it clear that fandom was now an integral part of the corporate media apparatus. What I tried to signal with that last statement is the need to look beyond these two dominant frameworks – politics/state and market – without ignoring their structuring effects. I wanted to make a case for approaching fandom in India from a position of trust rather than suspicion (as my friend and colleague Paddy Scannell argues, media studies tends to operate with a hermeneutics of suspicion). Or to draw on your work, I want us to hop on this realm of pop, not stomp all over it.

For e.g., there is a group of fans who have painstakingly collected and subtitled numerous videos – film clips, TV appearances, interviews, advertisements, etc. – of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. For anyone who might not understand the Hindi language, this website – srkpagli.net – was a wonderful resource. To approach the work that these fans have done by – a) dismissing it as apolitical or b) as simply a part of the Shahrukh Khan/corporate Bollywood system – is too reductive. I simply wanted to clear the space so we can begin to acknowledge the astonishing range of practices that constitute ‘fandom’ in the Indian context, and in doing so, develop richer and more nuanced accounts of participatory culture.
Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part Two)

You spend a significant amount of time in the book exploring the role that MTV India has played in shifting how films are marketed and how Bollywood understands its audiences. What factors have allowed MTV India to become a core player in this space? What has been their impact on Bollywood’s media strategies?

MTV did play a crucial role in shaping Bollywood’s industrial identity and marketing strategies, but it didn’t happen overnight. A range of new television channels that entered the Indian market during the mid-1990s attracted audiences with a range of film-based programs. ZEE, Star Plus, and other channels introduced a number of innovative film music-based shows like AntakshariSa Re Ga Ma, and Videocon Flashback, weekly countdown shows like BPL Oye and Philips Top Ten, and shows that reviewed popular films and evaluated their box office performance.

In fact, MTV-India went off the air for a period of two years and returned in 1996 with a redesigned brand identity and, most crucially, with the recognition of the importance of Hindi film music and “localized” programming to its fortunes in the Indian market.

Suggesting that the makeover was not exactly an easy process, one MTV-India executive explained to me that the decision to start with the “look” of the channel, especially the on-air promos, turned out to be the right one and crucial in terms of reaching out to directors and producers in the Bombay film industry who were skeptical, if not dismissive, of music television. As this executive put it, their goal was to “dovetail cool with Bollywood.”

Beginning in 1997-98, with a clear mandate to forge ties with the film industry, MTV-India executives began initiating conversations with a range of producers and directors in the Hindi film industry. And it took well over two years before the film industry began responding to television executives’ overtures. Once they had their foot in the door, however, MTV-India began making the case that their particular brand identity and programming sensibility would make the difference in what was a very cluttered television landscape. And by the early 2000s, Bollywood producers began setting aside a larger percentage of the budget for marketing and promoting films.

 

What roles did the internet play in shifting the relations between domestic and diasporic audiences for Bollywood films? To what degree is the contemporary media industry being shaped by a desire to court and capture “NRI Eyeballs”?

The trouble with saying anything about Bollywood-internet connections is the pace at which things change! My research does not take into account the impact that social media has had on marketing, stardom, participatory culture, and so on. But I can say that dot-com companies did play a central role in establishing the “overseas territory” as a key economic and cultural site for Bollywood. Simply put, television and marketing professionals working in Mumbai were not in a position to shape Bollywood’s relationship with overseas markets.

Speaking a language of web-metrics and capitalizing on the growing interest in marketing and promotions, dot-com companies began generating knowledge about overseas audiences’ engagement with Bollywood that was hitherto unavailable to filmmakers and stars operating primarily from Bombay. More crucially, dot-com professionals were able to forge connections and establish themselves within existing social networks in Bombay’s media world. And in doing so, dot-com companies emerged as powerful knowledge brokers who shaped the imaginations and practices of film industry professionals for whom envisioning an overseas territory had come to constitute an increasingly important dimension of going global.

Exploring this terrain raised a very interesting question for me regarding the dynamic relation between the expansion of capital into new territories and the work of rendering those new territories more imaginable. What Bollywood got was, in fact a very limited “spatial fix” as dot-com companies interpreted and resolved the problem of space—of imagining the overseas territory—in terms of overseas audiences’ cultural temporality with the nation. In other words, these companies only thought about the overseas territory in terms of non-Resident Indians. It is only over the past 4-5 years that these industry professionals have begun taking into account Bollywood’s popularity beyond South Asian communities.

 

What do you see as the use value of the concept of “transmedia entertainment” for exploring the ways that convergence has impacted the Bollywood industry? What do you see as missing from such an approach?

 

I don’t think “transmedia entertainment” is particularly useful at this point. I have yet to see a media producer in Bombay truly grasp the potential for transmedia storytelling. At the moment, it is largely driven by a marketing sensibility: pushing Bollywood content across platforms. To be sure, there have been a handful of interesting marketing campaigns and there was also an ambitious attempt to draw on India’s rich mythological tradition to drive film content. But we are yet to see a major push for storytelling across media.

Writers have started to talk about “Bollystan” to describe this new configuration of diasporic cultural identity. What does this term mean and is it a good description of the changes you are discussing in your book?

 

The term comes from a widely circulated article titled “Bollystan: The Global India,” in which the author Parag Khanna reflected on how processes of globalization had reframed relations between India and the vast Indian diaspora. Khanna wrote: “Increasingly linked by culture and technology, they form a Global India, which I call Bollystan. ‘Bolly’ connotes culture (e.g., Bollywood), and ‘Stan’ (Farsi for “land”) represents the transcendence of borders and sovereignty.” Khanna’s neologism first appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Another Magazine, a now defunct publication targeted at “young, upwardly mobile South Asians.” Featuring Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai on the cover, the magazine declared: “Bollystan is a state without borders, defined by a shared culture and common values.”

Using the term Bollystan to refer to a vast space of trans-national cultural production that included everything from henna tattoos and remix music to literature and films, Khanna and other writers sought to map how rapid flows of people, culture and capital across national borders have rendered difficult any easy separation between nation and diaspora. In fact, Khanna proceeded to argue that Bollystan is “cosmopolitanism’s inversion: instead of one person being at home anywhere, it is re-rooting Desis everywhere in a real and imagined shared cultural space.”

But the fact is that where commercial media ventures are concerned, Bollystan has a very specific Anglo-American cultural geography and as a consequence, re-roots only certain kinds of Desis. The network of cities that are part of diasporic entrepreneurs’ imagination of Bollywood’s global reach include cities such as London, New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto but not, for instance, Durban in South Africa. And even within these cities in the Global North, it is only a certain narrow, largely middle and upper-middle class cultural sphere of South Asians that informs the imaginations and practices of media industry professionals.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

Situating Bollywood: An Interview with Aswin Punathambekar (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books we have published through the PostMillenial Pop series which I co-edit with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. 

I have known Aswin Punathambekar since he was part of one of the first cohorts of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, where he did an ethnography/oral history of the experience of South Asian diasporic audiences in Boston as they impacted the reception of Bollywood films. He continued his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where his dissertation focused on the online fandom around Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman. He has made some key contributions to the project of expanding the study of fandom and participatory culture beyond its origins in Western Culture, as reflected by articles published in Transformative Works and Culture and Popular Communication.

In a relatively short period of time, Punathambekar has developed a scholarly profile that is at once programmatic (in that he continually  deepens our understanding of media production and consumption in India and its global diaspora) and expansive (in that he has used his expertise on Bollywood to bring a much needed non-western perspective to work on a range of topics, including fan studies, participatory culture, media convergence, narrowcasting, mobile media, and digital citizenship, which have been central to media scholarship in the 21st century.) Punathambekar  has expanded upon his initial focus on audience studies to develop a mixed methods approach, which is at once theoretically sophisticated and historically informed.

His new book, From Bombay to Bollywood is a tour de force, one which connects Bollywood decisively to larger conversations about our current moment of media change, one which moves incorporates close readings not only of texts but also of media rituals (informed by the best work in Production Studies), to explain the larger contexts through which Bollywood operates as a global media industry, one that moves backwards from Bollywood’s relationship to digital networks to explore the historic role in radio in helping to shape the circulation of Indian film music.  This expansive understanding of what once might have been treated purely through a lens of “national cinema” was anticipated by his Global Bollywood anthology, which he co-edited with Anadam P. Kavoori. Global Bollywood brought together established scholars with younger researchers, many of whom received their first publications under his leadership, to create an important and groundbreaking exchange around how Hindi Cinema reflects and drives larger developments in the global media scape.

In this interview, he situates Bollywood at a series of intersections between film and other media, between local, regional, national, and transnational industries, between domestic and diasporic audiences, and between producers and fans.

You begin the book with the suggestion that Bollywood should be studied across media rather than through more traditional paradigms of national cinema. What factors have contributed to making Bollywood a particularly rich case for understanding contemporary convergence culture?

I worked out this perspective of media convergence or inter-media relations in part by revisiting a question that several scholars have tackled: how did Bombay emerge and maintain its position as the pre-eminent media capital in India? Film and media scholars have identified a number of key factors: the city’s position as a center of trade and commerce, and the influx, through the decades, of mercantile capital into film-making; its status as a vibrant cultural center, with established theater movements initially providing the film industry with a range of creative personnel; the use of Hindi which accorded the Bombay-based film industry (located in a multi-lingual city and in a state where the official language is Marathi) ‘national’ status whereas film industries in cities like Madras and Hyderabad were ascribed ‘regional’ status; and the impact of India’s partition on other centers of film production, most notably Calcutta and Lahore, and the migration of a number of producers, directors, actors and technicians to Bombay during this period.

I argue that there is another important factor: the role played by new media—radio, television, the internet and the mobile phone—in enabling the Bombay film industry to consistently imagine and mobilize a national and now, transnational audience. Moving past a film-centric approach, the case studies of television and dot-com companies’ relations with the film industry that I develop in the book invite us to consider how various ‘new media’ have, historically, reconfigured the cultural geography of Bombay cinema and Bombay’s status as a media capital.

Considering the case of Radio Ceylon, which broadcast a range of film-based programs that reached audiences across the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, and even some cities in east Africa, encourages us to ponder how other technological and institutional developments influenced the circulation of films and film music, transforming the Bombay film industry’s spatial coordinates and engendering new sites and forms of consumption. This does not necessarily mean that we think only about continuities from the 1950s to the present. Rather, my goal is to open up a space for more grounded explorations of the interwoven histories of different media technologies and institutions and, in the process, expand our understanding of the histories and patterns of media convergence.

So at a basic level, the ‘national cinema’ paradigm isn’t productive given Bombay’s position as a media capital that has always been shaped by trans-national forces and factors.  I’ll say more about the limitations of a strictly ‘national’ framework as I answer other questions here. But I should also point out that film historians like Priya Jaikumar have argued very convincingly that we need to move past the national cinema framework to understand how aesthetics, regulation, and other dimensions of the cinema in India have always been worked out in relation to various trans-national forces and factors.


You note that most work to date within the production studies tradition has focused on western and for the most part, American contexts. So, what might production studies as an emerging paradigm gain from a more thorough exploration of media production in India?

 

This is a crucial question not only for production culture/industry studies but media studies at large. Too often, “global media studies” serves as a mere placeholder for media studies outside Anglo-American academic settings, with “global” gesturing towards studies of “Other” media ecologies. Such studies are often understood as mere case studies that test and refine theoretical concepts developed within media studies proper. In writing this book, I have tried hard to steer clear of fitting what I observed into existing theories of production culture while at the same time avoiding celebrations of local difference.

For instance, I take into account the enduring power of long-standing social and kinship relationships in the Bombay film industry and, equally important, the creative ways in which small-scale, family-run businesses have responded to changes in the global media landscape and calls for corporatization. Examining the impact that the discourse of corporatization has had on the film industry by analyzing the construction of industrial identities suggests that the narrative of transition from one established mode of production to a new one, say Fordism to post-Fordism, does not adequately explain the industrial logics and practices that characterize Bollywood.

In fact, Madhava Prasad’s observation that the Hindi film industry adopted a “heterogeneous form of manufacture in which the whole is assembled from parts produced separately by specialists, rather than being centralized around the processing of a given material,” troubles stagist narratives of media industries in the non-Western world catching up with those in the West. After all, the dominant mode of production in the Bombay film industry could be described using terms like flexible accumulation and de-centralization that theorists like David Harvey use to describe the logics of late capitalism in the West. In other words, the particular histories of capital in Bombay cannot be easily set aside.

But this does not imply documenting a set of practices that are somehow essentially Indian. A closer look at the operations of family firms suggests that production relations defined by mercantile capital and kinship networks are neither static nor contained within national boundaries. And when we move beyond family businesses to consider a wider range of companies and professionals, it becomes clear that every domain of Bollywood including production, distribution, marketing and promotions, and exhibition involves negotiations among actors and institutions enmeshed in multiple, asymmetric, and seemingly incongruent cultures of capitalism.

You link the global extension of Bollywood to shifts in national cultural and media policy in India over the past decade, policies which involved a greater state role in the financing of media production, the regulation and “corporatization” of the media industries, and a recognition of the core cultural mission which film plays in shaping communication between the South Asian Disapora and the mother country. During this same period, though, we’ve seen a growing crisis in state funding and support for cinema, television, and other media across Europe. What might we learn by looking at developments in India and Western Europe side by side as we think about the place of state funding for media production in the 21st century?

Situating the emergence of Bollywood within the socio-historical conjuncture of the past two decades helps us understand how the state worked out its relationship with the cultural industries. Let’s not forget that even though Bombay had emerged as major center of film production during the 1930s and 40s, the Indian state did not regard filmmaking as an important industrial activity or as central to the project of defining national culture. What changed during the late 1980s and early 1990s?

This was a period that witnessed a number of socio-cultural and political transitions engendered by the Indian state’s adoption and gradual legitimization of neo-liberal economic policies including the privatization of different sectors of the economy and, broadly speaking, attempts to integrate the nation into a global economy. Among other arenas of cultural production, Hindi-language films and television shows played a crucial role in mediating these concerns. So one way to understand the state’s overtures towards the media industries is in terms of the media industries having become useful to the state. This is, of course, a global story. For instance, we see this kind of strategic alignment of state-media relations in the UK and Australia under the “creative industries” banner.

But in the Indian context, the usefulness of the media and entertainment industries was articulated in more than just this economic sense. If we consider Bollywood’s presence in settings such as the World Economic Forum (at Davos), we can see that the transformation of the Bombay film industry into Bollywood was caught up in a larger process of the state re-aligning its understanding of ‘culture as resource’ away from well-worn developmentalist paradigms towards meeting the demands of new circuits of capital. While development-oriented media production had its own shortcomings, it wasn’t beholden to commercial mandates. If anything, it is all the more difficult now to imagine carving out a space for independent and public media production.

It is also important to keep in mind that this particular re-alignment of state-media relations ended up privileging Bollywood as the global (Indian) media industry. The Tamil and Telugu language film and television industries based in Chennai and Hyderabad, for instance, are anything but “local.” The use of the term “regional” to mark these industries’ position within the Indian mediascape and the Indian state’s material and symbolic investments in Bollywood underscore the continued relevance of the “national” as a scale where the politics of media globalization play out.

Aswin Punathambekar is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is the author of From Bombay to Bollywood: The Making of a Global Media Industry (2013), and co-editor of Television at Large in South Asia (2013)and Global Bollywood (2008). He is now conducting research on the politics of mediated activism in India as part of a collaborative SSRC project on “Media, Activism, and the New Political.”

What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part Two)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of “sports entertainment,” which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know it. Tom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry:  As a writer of transmedia I want to think about the biggest, most creative ways you could use the WWE Network. But realistically there are a host of factors that limit what a producer is going to want to do. Budget is one of those factors. You can’t spend the money that the WWE Network will make when so far it hasn’t made a cent. It won’t start selling subscriptions until late next month. Man hours are also an issue. They’e already producing six hours of TV every week, and it’s going to be a massive undertaking just to get the infrastructure working and the archive available online. But here’s another recent story that would play on my mind if I were them.

The WWE has a reality show, Total Divas, on the E! Network. The writers weren’t finding enough time to flesh out the female wrestlers’ characters on their main shows, so they created Total Divas as a way to build relationship-driven, soap operatic stories around those characters. On the surface it was a brilliant move. Two of the main characters of Total Divas, identical twin wrestlers Brie and Nikki Bella, had come across poorly for years, but became genuinely likable stars on Total Divas. Just one or two episodes completely changed the way I felt about those characters. The show did good ratings. Online fans seemed to like it. So the WWE took the obvious next step: They pushed The Bella Twins to the forefront on their wrestling shows. They got crickets. Nobody cared.  It baffled me for a second, but then I think everyone realized what the problem was. Most of their fans still weren’t watching Total Divas.Only a subset of the WWE’s global following had been necessary to make Total Divas a success, and the people who were interested in watching the women’s wrestlers plan their weddings weren’t necessarily the ones going to the fights. The show was on a different network, at a different time. The people who hadn’t seen the Bellas in a likable light yet hadn’t changed their opinion. They booed the Bellas. So in a way, the show had only accomplished half its goal. It had given the divas more time to develop their characters, but hadn’t noticeably effected their popularity at the live events.

Total Divas was originally conceived of as a WWE Network program, and you can see the logic. The WWE has about 80 wrestlers on their active roster. They’ve got 24 hours of programming to fill. Better start utilizing everyone. They’re using the Network as a chance to showcase NXT – the minor leagues of pro wrestling. Commercials and online videos have explicitly reminded fans that the top stars they love began their careers in NXT, and told them to watch the next stars’ rise to glory from the very beginning. Another move that echoes real sports, where fans are often excited about their team’s young prospects. One could imagine a reality show that focused on following tag teams. Do they get along off stage? Do they have fights right before they have to team up on camera? Or do they love each other and have lots of fun together that we never get to see? With the WWE already airing six hours of programming on cable, and now posting thousands of hours on their archive, can they count on a significant percentage of their audience seeing any one show? And if not, then is producing more programming necessarily going to deepen the audiences’ understanding of the master narrative in any consistent, meaningful way? Can the narrative ever become so big it’s unwieldy? I don’t think the WWE has an answer for that yet, and until they do creating a lot of new programming risks spinning their wheels.

Sam Ford: Agreed, Henry, that the WWE has to be awfully careful about crafting its programming in a way that allows for various depths of viewing. They will have this always-on network of programming. They will continue to have their “big” monthly shows. They will continue to have their website that they update 24/7. And they will have their programming on other networks that will continue. No one fan can possibly watch everything they put out there…but that has always been the case with WWE. I can’t imagine there is already any one fan who has seen every tweet every wrestler has put out, every archived show available in their online and video-on-demand “WWE Classics” programming, watched every hour of first-run television they’ve created, and so on.

Instead, what WWE needs to create is a storyline that makes sense for fans who, say, only will watch Monday Night RAW and the PPVs and intermittently drop in on everything else.  But it needs to create almost two tracks of experiences with everything else:

  • deeper continuity and new meaning that can be gleaned from fans who want to view additional original programming that gives more depth to certain characters, or provides historical context to something currently happening on screen, etc.
  • supplemental experiences or pleasures, for fans who like WWE and don’t want to extend the narrative further but rather the experience of watching WWE. In this case, it might be more “features-like” programming that have no bearing at all on storyline, or it might be interactive programming of some sort, etc. In Spreadable Media, drawing on Alex Leavitt’s work, we look at how Glee does this to a degree—embracing and drawing on participatory programming (fans doing covers of songs from Glee, for instance) or inviting fans into the experience more deeply in a way that extends the feel of the story world rather than anything about the progression of the narrative in the story world.

It’s important to keep in mind that WWE is contemplating the launch of this new network alongside another significant change. The company has set the contracts for its various first-run programming so that it all runs out at the same time: their weekly 3-hour Monday Night RAW on USA Network; their show Main Event on ION; their show Friday Night Smackdown on SyFy; and their show on E!, Total Divas. In addition, they had let the contract run out on their children’s show, Saturday Morning Slam, on CW Network. Their plan is to go to a family of networks and sell all of that programming in as a package deal, to try and command the sorts of prices that sports leagues do for packaged programming with a media conglomerate.

It remains to be seen if that approach will help them negotiate a better deal, but WWE would be in an interesting position if they have a really deep partnership with one centralized distribution company for its weekly first-run programming and then its own WWE Network for its monthly big shows and all its supplementary content. Should WWE get that sort of arrangement in place and have success using the launch of its network in the build-up to Wrestlemania this year as a way to get subscribers (who will sign up for an initial six-month subscription), it might allow them to think about the sorts of questions you pose here—how they craft a narrative that one can follow across watching only its most central of texts but find ways to provide depth and value across various experiences.

There’s another challenge we have to think about here, though. WWE fans both love and are often frustrated by the company’s creative direction. Of course, you can never satisfy all fans, and WWE certainly has very different fan bases to satisfy. But one frustration across the board by WWE fans who have moved from a casual to a more in-depth relationship with the brand is that there is often a lack of attention paid to detail and continuity with the company’s storytelling, as the ability WWE has—through its live programming—to overhaul and shift its creative direction quickly can be a double-edged sword….leading to shows getting rewritten often and a lot of second-guessing of creative directions.

For WWE to take full advantage of garnering the sort of in-depth loyalty from its fans to make the network idea work in the long term, it has to create a product that the fans feel confident in investing in. I would guess WWE’s hope is both to draw a greater number of its casual fans into a deeper relationship with the company and also to draw lapsed fans back in, in part by creating deeper connections between WWE’s current content and its content from yesteryear. That all makes sense, but fans have to develop a level of trust with the organization to deepen or renew that commitment. Many more casual fans may have not gotten more deeply involved with the WWE because of frustration with that lack of continuity, and many lapsed fans may be wary of re-committing due to those continuity concerns.

In short, WWE has a lot of business and creative potential with this network and its related packaging of all its cable network TV programming. But the quality of it will also come through the details, so they are better served to do all they can to deliver a great narrative experience for their primary narrative, and finding connective tissue between that primary story and all this supplementary material…than they are to develop too many supplementary shows, a la Total Diva, in the formative months of the network and dilute their focus.

From a storytelling standpoint, I’d love for WWE to use their network to:

  • help further build the story of their big events. More traditional “sports analysis” sorts of shows might help better tell the story of the history of certain rivalries, etc., that are leading to a match at an upcoming big event than can be accomplished on the live nature of a MondayNight RAW or a Friday Night Smackdown. History pieces about the ways two rivals have crossed paths in the past, featuring original studio interviews with them, etc., is something WWE could benefit from more of.
  • connect current WWE programming to events from the past. If one of the commentators makes reference to a wrestler from yesteryear or a match from the past during a show, WWE Network could feature those matches in its on-demand programming later in the week for fans who wanted to see more. For shows like Smackdown that aren’t aired live, they could even provide pop-ups during the programming to drive people to the WWE Network to check out what was just referenced.
  • provide more interest in what happens at WWE Live Events. One of the challenges WWE has is that its live arena shows that aren’t televised have little meaning around them. But the WWE Network might allow them to have something happen (an interview; a skirmish; etc.) at one of those live shows that has some impact on what happens on next week’s Monday Night RAW. The WWE Network might be the place where that can play out and that story could be told. These could be developments that don’t have deep narrative importance, in that you won’t be lost if you don’t watch it. But, for those who are more deeply immersed in the WWE narrative universe, it might provide greater interest in connecting the story.

Henry: I totally agree. My sense is that the larger the canvas, the more the WWE needs to discipline their story from the top down. Conventionally in the industry they would plan narrative arcs in advance, draw a flow chart of some sort showing how each storyline will play out across all of the different media channels, and find a fresh and interesting part of the story for each one to tell. WWE RAW and Smackdown would drive the narrative week-to-week. They would function like the weekly episodes of any other dramatic serial, furthering the storylines and ending with cliffhangers. Much as series like The Walking Dead and Doctor Who seasons are sometimes split into two half-season arcs, the WWE season would be split into 12 monthly mini arcs. The pay-per-views would be 12 mid-season finales. Can’t-miss special episodes. You’d have to watch them to see the storylines resolved.

With the WWE Network’s current price point they should be affordable and available to working families and young individuals. Even kids should be able to afford it with their allowance. That’s important from the perspective of serving the public, but it’s also important from the perspective of retaining viewers. Everyone will have more reason to emotionally invest in RAW and Smackdown if they know they’ll be able to see the payoff. WWE.com would do for pro wrestling what ESPN.comdoes for traditional sports. It would post small news bulletins as often as possible, and provide expert analysis and commentary on everything that’s going on.

That sounds like a complete circuit right there, but it’s not. I actually think WWE Network and social media have the coolest roles to play, and they really go hand-in-hand. That’s where everything takes on a third dimension – depth. At its worst, pro wrestling has cardboard cutout characters. At its best, it has real human beings that you can follow over their entire careers. At it’s worst, it has paint-by-numbers stories. At its best, it’s one epic story that has spanned over 50 years continuously.

WWE Network lets you watch a documentary like CM Punk: Best in the World and find out his whole life story. Twitter lets you continue following the story through Punk’s day-to-day experiences in real time. WWE Network should let you see Punk’s greatest matches. Twitter should let you know how he did tonight in Poughkeepsie. Although there was recently a History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment DVD set, it’s the WWE Network that’s the living history.If they can manage to keep all the balls bouncing, the WWE can also use the network to go two important steps further.

`1) The WWE needs to use their original programming like Total Divas and NXT to target certain demographics, but they can’t count on them to change the overall audiences’ perception of a character. For example, my guess would be that Bella Twins have more Twitter followers and better merchandise sales than ever, particularly among women, because fans who have seen Total Divas are identifying more personally with those characters. Even though the Bellas aren’t getting huge crowd reactions at live shows, they’ve got more devoted fans now, and that’s good enough. If the global mainstream audience starts cheering for them too because they’ve heard the Bellas are cool, that’s the icing on the cake.

2) Original dramatic series that star the wrestlers could also give audiences a new way to enjoy the WWE’s talent. The company has been trying to make movies for years, and they haven’t been box office leaders. I think TV is a better medium because it demands a somewhat smaller audience, and asks them to come back week after week. That’s what WWE fans are good at.

The WWE already has more or less the infrastructure I just described. They should keep sharpening their process. What’s holding them back right now are the stories. Under the hood the infrastructure could be as fine-tuned as an Aston Martin. The graphics and set design can be as beautiful as that car’s body too. But if the stories suck, the car is going to be running on fumes.

Last week the WWE brought back Batista. I dislike him, but RAW got the highest ratings in 10 months. I’m not excited for it, but that tells me they should be pushing him. By the same token, Daniel Bryan is getting the loudest crowd reactions of anyone on the roster, including John Cena. If he main evented Wrestlemania the WWE wouldn’t have to fight an uphill battle by going against the fans’ wishes. They’d be driving downhill, with the full momentum of the crowd propelling them.

On a more general level, though, if the WWE wants to be respected in the same way as other mainstream shows, their stories need to be as intricate and well-structured as those shows.  Because they’re trying to do so much more than those shows it’s going to be really, really hard for them to pay the same attention to the craft of each script. There are a lot of people working on all of the WWE divisions who need to be on the same page, and a lot of important production people who are understandably going to want a say. I don’t envy the McMahons in having to organize that labor. But the fact remains that if the scripts aren’t well-written, the entire operation is going to be spinning its wheels.I think there is fan energy behind this Sunday’s Royal Rumble, but the storylines are frankly terrible. Batista is the only person who’s been written in such a way they could credibly win the Rumble match. John Cena and Randy Orton have just had a TLC Match, so putting them in a standard match without a brilliant new wrinkle in the story is anticlimactic. Brock Lesnar had a five star match against CM Punk at SummerSlam in which he was victorious, and fans wanted a rematch, but instead they’re getting Lesnar/Big Show. It just isn’t a good story. The WWE Network is a powerful tool. Everyone is excited about it. It can transform the landscape. But if the stories don’t get better, it’s not going to achieve the effect it could.

Sam: I think you’re right, Henry, that—in the end—it all comes down to story quality. The WWE, when it’s at its best, tells compelling stories that gets its fan base talking, that gets people excited, and that builds a narrative over time. Sometimes, that means doing a “variation on a theme” of a classic pro wrestling storyline: the slow build toward getting the title, while overcoming all the odds; the breakup of longtime partners, which leads to a heated grudge match; the brutal attack and injury, which leads to the triumphant return of a hero after the performer gets a much-needed vacation to rest his body.

One of the problems, though, is that the WWE has struck on a model these past several years where it is driven by a few major stories, with most of the other people being “programmed” into a series of matches with the same opponent but without much story driving it. Compare this to other periods in WWE’s history, for instance in the late 1990s, where it seemed there was significant thought being put into the stories of people, even at a mid-card level. If WWE wants to see fans engage more deeply, there has to be more story to find there. It’s true that people may decide to buy a PPV only on the merits of its top couple of matches, but to sustain long-term fan interest and to take advantage of this subscription model, I think those fans are going to hope to find depth in what they get in return.

Since WWE doesn’t have to worry so much about trying to get people to buy each show as one-off, I hope that frees up their creative resources to focus on finding stories and putting thought into people throughout the roster. That doesn’t mean everyone has to get pushed equally; but it does means that fans of the Bella Twins or fans of Kofi Kingston can watch that character’s journey and part of the story in particular and find deep narrative pleasure in that.

Here’s where WWE can learn a lot from the soap opera world where soaps, when they are at their best, have characters that cycle from front-burner to back-burner status in the story over time, but who always play a crucial role and aren’t just on the screen as filler between two important TV segments.

I often argue that WWE is a property that serial narrative storytellers or people who champion “transmedia storytelling” should be taking a close look at because of the depth of its storytelling potential. But I must admit that prompt is hobbled by the lack of quality in WWE’s storytelling. The WWE waffles between taking its own stories seriously, on the one hand, while drawing great attention to its artifice, on the other. The creative team often sours on an idea part of the way through and drops it, in ways that trains fans to be hesitant to invest that deeply and to believe that tracking the nuances of a story will actually have any sort of payoff.

In short, WWE has a narrative world that could be the stuff of truly great storytelling that would put any entertainment franchise in awe. But it has to put a deep commitment to quality storytelling at the forefront to take full advantage of that opportunity. I’d love to see WWE ranking as a serious contender for creative awards and to see the TV critics and others start paying attention to what WWE is doing. The WWE has barely scratched the surface of the depth of the immersive stories they could tell. And the way they can draw the audience into that story, and take advantage of being a story told in real time and in the real world…just as they have even more they can do with the depth of live fan engagement on social media. See my Fast Company piece about how WWE has used listening via social media to correct storyline continuity errors within the course of a single episode. I’d love to see even more of this from them.

From my perspective, WWE in 2014 sets in front of a boundless storytelling potential. I don’t know if “the world is watching,” to steal a former WWE marketing phrase, but I know the wrestling fan base is. And I think anyone interested in entertainment and storytelling should be as well.

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts – first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article “Growing Up and Growing More Mature” for Nicholas Sammond’s collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in “Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.

What World Wrestling Entertainment Can Teach Us About the Future of Television (Part One)

The following exchange is between my son, Henry Jenkins IV, who is a Creative Development Coordinator at the Alchemists, a transmedia company, and Sam Ford, who is  Director of Audience Engagement at Pepercom Communications, a strategic communications firm. They are both life-long wrestling fans and regular contributors to this blog. They are sharing their thoughts here about some significant new developments in the world of “sports entertainment,” which constitute another of those factors this past year, which are transforming television as we know itTom Phillips,  Senior Research Associate contributing to research at University of East Anglia and University of Edinburgh, has written a thoughtful response to this blog post, which can be read here

Henry: World Wrestling Entertainment recently announced the launch of the WWE Network – a 24 hour programming track, and an online archive, that audiences will access through their computers, smart phones, video game systems and DVRs. Many of you may not be wrestling fans, but read on, because this case study has big implications on the future of television and fandom. I’m excited not only as a lifelong fan but as a Hollywood transmedia writer who grew up as the son of Professor Henry Jenkins. I immediately reached out to my longtime friend and colleague, Sam Ford, who I consider to be the world’s foremost professional wrestling scholar, and I asked him if he wanted to write a public dialogue with me about why this is such a game changer in and outside of the wrestling world.

If you can’t quite picture what the WWE Network will be like, that’s because there’s never been anything like it before. The closest comparison would be to Netflix, which can be accessed through many digital devices, but does not show their content over the air. The WWE is likewise putting their entire archive of 100,000 hours of shows on the server for fans to play with. But unlike Netflix, they’re also going to be airing content 24/7 on a cable-style channel,  with a slate of original reality shows and sports desk shows, which you access through your iPhone, Android, Playstation, XBOX, Roku, Apple TV, etc.

This isn’t the first time that the WWE has driven a new TV format. In 1982, Vince McMahon acquired the WWF from his father. The company had been a popular regional promotion in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states since 1963, and his dad intended for it to stay grassroots. His son had visions of national fame, so in 1985 Vince essentially spent the company’s entire fortune putting on a one night show, Wrestlemania. But in a bigger gamble, he relied on audiences to use a relatively untested technology – closed circuit television – in order to watch. The technology was so new that in many cases the WWF had to buy the equipment for the theaters. The gamble paid off. Cinemas coast-to-coast sold out showings of the event; just two years later, closed-circuit theater broadcasts were overtaken by pay-per-view in homes; and now the WWE charges fans $55 a showing to watch 12 pay-per-view events a year. They built their company, but they also created a demand for a new way to watch sports.

The biggest headline for many fans now is the change in price structure. Buying 12 pay-per-views at $55 each costs $660 a year. There are also a limited number of people willing to do it. The WWE Network costs $10 a month – or just $120 a year – and expects to attract six or seven times as many viewers. Cash-strapped families and young fans who cannot spend $660 have been left out, while many adults have turned to illegal downloads. But those same people have been blown away by the possibility of spending $10 a month to get the same content. A weird analogy: The economics of it sound like Obamacare. If millions of people who are currently paying nothing now start paying $10 a month the WWE can afford to charge the average customer less.

Although many sports fans don’t know it, Major League Baseball already has a digital channel. It is not hard to believe that if the WWE Network is successful, other brands will follow suit. Just like movie studios made pay-per-view a part of their business model – releasing films there after theater runs but before DVDs and TV debuts in order to milk additional revenue – it is easy to imagine Warner Bros. putting their entire film and television catalogue on a subscription-based digital archive. Well, the WWE is now removing most of their offerings from Netflix and making them exclusive to their service. What would happen if a company like Warner Brothers did the same? Sam?

Sam: Thanks for inviting me to take part in this dialogue, Henry. Like you, I’ve been a long-time viewer of pro wresting and—while there are a long list of reasons I would hardly call the pro wrestling industry as a whole a progressive one—it certainly has been transformative in the way it deals with storytelling. For those who don’t watch WWE, let me back up for a moment and explain exactly why a 24/7 storytelling model makes particular sense for the WWE and why I think it behooves both those working in the media industries and media scholars to pay especially close attention.

First, pro wrestling has the opportunity to conduct storytelling on multiple levels simultaneously:
  • The pro wrestling match is a narrative into itself—the fictional depiction of an athletic competition with a beginning, middle, and end—governed by rules that have remained fairly consistent across the history of this “sports entertainment” performance genre. So, as opposed to any other sort of fictional programming, almost any individual segment of any pro wrestling show is, in itself, a discrete chapter that could be watched on its own as a “mini-episode.”
  • Then, there is a narrative that spans the course of an individual show. An episode of WWE RAW or WWE Friday Night Smackdown or a PPV event all takes place, typically, in one arena, in front of one live crowd…like an individual sporting event…and there is a script that connects all of the matches and “segments” taking place in any one night together into a discrete whole, as an episode of television.
  • At the next level, there is the ongoing story arc of the WWE, which is typically built in one-month increments and which leads to a climax with the pay-per-view event. In other words, the month of programming leading up to a “big show” basically is designed to set up the rivalries, the tensions, and the background story to get people to tune into the major show that resolves all the questions that the programming has built up to. In the days before there was closed circuit and PPV, this is the same model wrestling promoters like Vince’s father used to drive people to go to Madison Square Garden or the other big arenas in his regional circuit—Boston, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, etc.—to see the big rivalries taking place at the moment. The TV programming plays a promotional element to drive people to the most important shows, where typically the best matches take place, where the championships are most likely to change hands, and where, traditionally, the biggest moments would take place.
  • But, at the next level, of course the storylines coming out of one PPV event typically role right into the next, so WWE maintains a “TV season” that runs all year long—that means there are 6 hours of WWE TV shows on network/cable every week, along with a range of internet, DVD, and on-demand shows—with no “re-run season.” For WWE, the climax of each “season” is Wrestlemania, so the typical flow is that the new WWE season in a way begins the night after Wrestlemania, dealing with the aftermath of the biggest show of the year, and everything from that point forward slowly starts to build to the next Wrestlemania.
  • Finally, since WWE’s season never really ends, there are “meta” narratives that spans the course of time. Since WWE has the advantage of both having a deep well of serialized stories that go back for decades—with at least most of the previous decades’ archives saved—as well as the fact that most of those individual units—matches, interviews, etc.—can be treated as their own discrete segment—they have a way of drawing from their archive that few can. They can tell the story of the evolution of a particular character through the course of that history…and, since they have bought the archives of many of their competitors now out of business, that story can be told by even looking at their history as they’ve jumped from one part of the “pro wrestling” narrative universe to another. They can also tell the history of particular time periods in wrestling, of particular promotions, of particular types of matches, of particular rivalries…there are a wide range of ways they can slice and dice—and move through—their history.
Second, WWE has a unique ability among entertainment franchises in terms of creating an “immersive storyworld.” Elsewhere, I’ve defined “immersive storyworlds” as narratives which include the following attributes:
  1. expansive backstories which can’t be neatly summarized
  2. a vast set of ensemble characters, including a few who may front burner at the moment but with a wide variety who may only show up from time to time
  3. tying current storylines to the extensive history of the narrative world
  4. managed by multiple creative forces, often both at any one time and also through generations of storytellers who have controlled the property at one point or another
  5. a hyper-serialization
  6. a sense of permanence to the narrative world
For WWE, this is conducted by mimicking the sports world. Elsewhere, I’ve called WWE “the world’s biggest alternate reality game,” because they are a fictional story that uses all of the tropes of a real sports league to basically turn our “real world” into the story world for a fictional narrative. Often, wrestlers compete under their real names or draw on a range of elements from their real lives, blurring the line between fiction and reality. The core and longest-lasting part of the pro wrestling business model is the live event, which means stories are told about these wrestlers as they travel from arena to arena—and they are telling stories about themselves through social media accounts that the performers themselves run—as they carry out in real time, in the same world the WWE’s audience lives in. And, if you purchase a ticket, you can even go and watch the next installment of the story live.
This means the potential WWE has for being the true masters of “transmedia storytelling” is unmatched. However, the issue WWE has faced until now is that they have spent much of the past two decades distancing themselves from the sports background—emphasizing the “entertainment” over the “sport.” Now, they are trying to shift that pendulum back and to think through what the unique advantages are of being a fictional property purporting to be a sports league. As they see MLB, NFL, NASCAR, and others negotiate massive TV and sponsorship deals, they realize that they could forge a path between “sports” and “entertainment” that might take advantage of both in a way no other storytelling company could.
Through that lens, I’d say that every other media/entertainment company—and sports company—should watch what WWE is doing because they could perhaps learn a lot from it. However, on the other hand, the potential WWE has here is unique to them, because no other narrative out there is better suited to move to this sort of model. No other narrative has the potential to both take advantage of its video archive in the way WWE does, nor to tell ongoing stories through this sort of model.
But these observations speak primarily to how WWE is uniquely suited to draw on its archive and to move its current way of storytelling to a unique online video distribution model…and why the rest of the entertainment world…as well as media scholars…ought to pay attention to what’s happening here. The question remains…for those of us who care about pro wrestling narratives themselves…what are the narrative potentials this new model affords? What are the narrative challenges? And what will be WWE’s mentality of making the most use of those potentials? As someone now working in the entertainment and storytelling business, Henry, I’d be curious your take on what this might mean for WWE in particular.

 MORE TO COME

Sam Ford has been a fan of professional wrestling since his youth. His fan activities has ranged from fantasy wrestling leagues to putting on costume wrestling shows with his high school friends to even, for a time, being a licensed professional wrestling manager in the state of Kentucky and playing the role of owner of the local “Universal Championship Wrestling.” He has taught courses on pro wrestling in U.S. culture at MIT and at Western Kentucky University and has written about wrestling in publications like Fast Company, CommPRO.biz, Cinema Journal Teaching DossierIn Media Res, and in an essay in the 2012 book Bodies of Discourse. His undergraduate honors thesis at Western Kentucky University was entitled “Grappling with Scholarship on Pro Wrestling: Comparative Media Studies Inside the Ring.” Sam is Director of Audience Engagement at Peppercomm, an affiliate with MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of the 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Henry Jenkins IV is a devoted fan, and critic, of professional wrestling. The son of Professor Henry Jenkins, he dressed up as The Undertaker for Halloween as a child; wrote scripts as an apprentice promoter with the Carolina Wrestling Federation after college; and will attend his eighth Wrestlemania in New Orleans this April. He previously wrote memoir accounts – first of being a child fan in the 80s in the article “Growing Up and Growing More Mature” for Nicholas Sammond’s collection Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling and then of a recent trip to Wrestlemania with his dad in “Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29. He is a transmedia producer and write for The Alchemists whose credits include The CW drama Cult and the Hulu original series East Los High. He has also written numerous unproduced television pilot scripts which lay the groundwork for transmedia franchises. Last year he performed a five month study on The 20 Greatest Franchises of All Time and summarized his findings in a proprietary white paper for The Alchemists. He ranked the WWE near the top.

Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics: First Sessions As Seen from the MAPP Situation Room

The following post was written by my Civic Paths research team, including Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Sam Close, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Raffi Sarkissian.

Last Tuesday, the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) team here at USC kicked off our webinar series on Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, and the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. This webinar series examines the role of storytelling as a practice that bridges cultural and civic/political engagement, particularly in the context of digital spaces. The webinars bring together participants from different groups which have been innovative at using storytelling for their civic and political goals. The webinars, co-hosted with Youth Radio, have gotten off to a great start, spurring some very thought-provoking conversations among a stellar group of diverse participants (Webinar 1 Speakers; Webinar 2 Speakers).

In addition to the awesome moderators and speakers, a dedicated team of researchers and graduate students affiliated with the MAPP initiative has been holding down the “situation room” , live-tweeting the event and participating in the Livestream chat.* The full recording of each webinar is embedded below.  But, if you don’t have time to watch the whole conversation, the behind the scenes team has included highlights here, often identified through moments we all tweeted at the same time!

The team hard at work in the “situation room” during Webinar 2

 

Webinar 1: Finding Your Story

 

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com
Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

The first webinar focused on how participants identify and frame stories that engage their communities. Some highlights include:

  • Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell tells how personal experiences in Uganda opened his eyes to the problem of child soldiers at 9:30 minutes into the video.

  • DREAM activist Erick Huerta uses the internet as a “message in a bottle” to reach undocumented youth and other Dreamers; see at 12 minutes into the video.

  • See Carol Zou from the public fiber arts collective Yarnbombing LA explain how story helps her group build their internal community.  Panelists explain the benefits of using story in activism from 20 minutes into the video.

  • Moderator Derek asks the activists about identifying target audiences in story-based activism at 27 minutes into the video.

  • Jason responds to some critiques of his organization’s largely white American audience, pointing out that stories are based on experience: “You write and create what you know and what you experience, and that creation or that story is a direct reflection of the audience that’s going to hear you.”  See at 35 minutes into the video.

  • Livestream chat participants pose an interesting question to the panelists: How do you protect your stories, prevent misappropriation, and counter hostile remix? How do you tell your own stories versus others’ stories? See their responses at 38 minutes into the video.

  • Starting from 43 minutes into the video, panelists respond to the suggestion that hard facts and data, not stories, create actual change. Monica Mendoza from Youthspeaks argues that “stories are what attracts people to issues” and are “the backbone to a lot of social movements.”

  • Hear Matt Howard from Iraq Veterans Against the War talk about how his group made sure mainstream press coverage included both them and their Afghani partners at a protest. At 48 minutes into the video, the activists share more thoughts about how to keep a story on track and negotiate telling the stories of others.

 

Webinar 2: Making Your Story

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

The second webinar examined how to best give shape to stories for civic purposes. Some highlights include:

  • Musical artist Dorian Electra and Tani Ikeda from imMEDIAte Justice Productions share notes on creating projects that use media as a catalyst to engage youth in “boring” issues like economics and health education.  Hear all the panelists describe a project their group has created from 5 minutes into the video.

  • “It’s pretty hard to explain to a freshman ‘you’re being segregated.’ It was something so complicated, but when they saw it on a map they saw that it was real.”  High school students Roxana Ayala and Uriel Gonzalez tell their story of using GIS maps to explain de facto segregation to fellow students and community members at 21 minutes into the video.

  • At 25 minutes into the video, activists discuss the skills they had to acquire to make stories that matter. For Charlene Carruthers from the Black Youth Project’s BYP100, a key skill is facilitating conversations with people with diverse views and creating a story that touches a diverse group.

  • Hear cartoonist Andy Warner describe how he uses story characters to create a call-and-response dynamic with his audience.  From 37 minutes into the video, the activists give advice on how to create narratives and use aesthetics to make stories resonate.

  • Ever heard of “cultural acupuncture”?  Lauren Bird from the Harry Potter Alliance explains how it helps her organization create campaigns with wide cultural resonance.  Panelists debate whether stories should be of the moment or meant to stick around from 46 minutes into the video.

Join us for Webinar 3, “Spreading Your Story,” tomorrow, January 21st at 10:00 am PST and Webinar 4, “Considering Your Story’s Digital Afterlife,” next Tuesday, January 28th at 10:00 am PST. You can watch the webinars live and ask questions via Livestream.  Also join in the conversation on Twitter via #civicpaths and #connectedlearning. There’s sure to be even more interesting insights generated in the weeks to come!

*The support team includes: Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar), Raffi Sarkissian (@rsark), Karl Menjivar-Baumann (@newclearistbau), Liana Gamber-Thompson (@lianathomp), and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (@Netakv).

 

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Three)

In many ways, children’s television (and media more generally) has been the testing ground for franchising strategies. What is it about this genre/market which lends itself to this mode of production? How have children’s franchises represented the merger of logics from multiple industries?

I argue in the book that, in some ways, the franchising model is an extrapolation of the episodicity of television, where one episode is meant to lead viewers into the next.  In franchising, this just functions across multiple markets and media.  In children’s television specifically, this structure has combined with marketers’ desires to use one media to drive kids’ interest in consumer experiences in another.  That is, of course, how US commercial television approaches all its audiences more broadly.  But television for children has been regulated differently; our concerns about children as a special, protected audience has led to increased activism in an attempt to protect children from this kind of coordinated commercialism.

I don’t really make this claim so explicitly in the book, but it strikes me now that these regulatory attempts at protection may have helped feed the very franchising strategies that anti-commercialism activists would (and did) decry.  When you had Action for Children’s Television pushing for tighter restrictions on how toy companies could advertise their products on television, and succeeding in getting “program length commercials” like Hot Wheels pulled from the air, companies like Hasbro adapted.  While they couldn’t produce television based directly on their toys, they saw no regulation against advertising comics, so they created a partnership with Marvel Comics to create a GI JOE title that could tie-in with a television program.  They now had not just a TV show, but also a comic, both which would help create visibility for the TV.

Of course this only created a model for Transformers and other TV-comic-toy partnerships to follow, and it was really the deregulatory atmosphere (and not attempts at greater protection of kids) that weakened the rules and set off the wave of franchising to follow (where the comics intermediary wasn’t so necessary).  And at the same time as we try to protect kids from commercialism, it’s also common to assume kids don’t have well developed sense of taste—so alongside the impulse to protect them, we could shrug and ignore moves toward commercialization as indicative of the poor taste of kids.  But in either case, we tend to look at kids as special or essentially different, and I think that franchising strategies developed in these sectors in specific relationship to that cultural belief.

Other important factors here, thinking more long term, have to do more with nostalgia. Transformers may have been highly franchised back in its original 1980s incarnation too, but its persistence as a franchise today is tied very heavily to Hasbro’s “transgenerational marketing” strategies whereby adults are encouraged to share their childhood culture with their own children.  (Marvel has just started a similar “Share Your Universe” campaign meant to transfer parent tastes to a new generation of comic readers).  In the long term, focusing on childhood culture now creates the possibility for new iterations in a generation’s time when your original audience procreates.  The reproduction of franchising is in that sense tied to the reproduction of people.

I should also mention, in terms of creativity, that because we tend to delegitimize the tastes of kids, those working in children’s media sectors aren’t often accorded the greatest status and capital within the industry.  Regardless of what you think about it’s commercial motivations, the franchising of kids’ media led to a lot of experimentation with how you could tell an ongoing, collaborative story, and the familiarization of children with more serialized production strategies in the 1980s must have certainly helped create a literacy for the (far more critically endorsed) serial storytelling we see in some parts of “adult” TV today.  There were a lot of people working in children’s TV who still considered themselves creative and innovative despite wider industrial and popular perceptions, and from an insistence of that may have come a lot of new ideas about how to reach kids—both in a marketing and narrative sense.

I’m trying to zero in on this question of childhood in my current research, so I find this connection to be worth exploring with more care than I have here.  But I think there’s definitely an important relationship for us to see there.

Some have seen the franchising system as one more device which American cultural industries use to exert their dominance over the global media imagination, yet you stress the ways that they operate within a transnational context. How might we understand what others have discussed as the transnational exchange of television formats as part of a logic of franchising? What role does localization play within the franchising process?

I’m not sure I want to suggest that franchises are not in fact such a device, but it is more complicated than that critique usually allows.  Television formats, as I mentioned earlier, allow television to travel in localized ways, where instead of the US sending completed episodes of Friends to every nation on earth, the idea for shows like Big Brother are traded amongst different television markets to be remade and localized to suit specific cultures.

One of the most interesting things about the format market is that the dominance of the US is far less clear, with companies like Endemol from the Netherlands having become big players in the market for localizable concepts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the old import/export market is dead—NBC’s The Office was formatted from the BBC version, as were series in many other nations, yet in international television sales, the American version is still able to find a global market, playing alongside the other localized versions that do not travel as freely (including the British original).  Formatting allows us to have Law & Order in many different incarnations travel through the global market, but also to develop localized offerings like Law & Order: UK.

But while American power persists amid formatting and in other kinds of franchising more broadly, I think that the processes by which formatted local uses are incorporated into the system challenges our ability to talk about franchising in terms of purely national origins.  In the television format, the innovations introduced locally can often become a part of the overall formula to be fed back into all the other contexts in which it is used.

In that sense, the formats sold by Endemol are not specifically of “Dutch” origin, but over time become the product of a transnational exchange of culture.  This is what I see in the global exchange of properties like Transformers that operate at a level beyond the single television format.  Given the complex history of exchange and shared innovation of a concept between toy companies and television producers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, it feels over-simplistic to say that Transformers is either a Japanese or an American property.  I think we understand that franchise much more effectively if we see it as the product of these more complex relations and exchanges between transnational industries. And that might help us better understand globalization more generally.

I was struck by your use of the term, “enfranchisement,” in your closing chapters to describe consumer relations to media properties and your insistence on a more “ambivalent” account of what it means to be a fan of some of these series.  You write, “In the end, we have to ask not just how end users might occupy the spaces of cultural production once controlled by media industry, but also how those media industries might occupy the spaces of play and creative labor in which users participate.” What do you see as a way forward for cultural theory in response to these contradictions and ambivalences? Is it possible for us to acknowledge the grounds gained and lost through these negotiations without coming across as wishy-washy and indecisive?

I suppose that the way forward I hoped to find in that passage was one where were could recognize the agency of consumers and their participation in cultural production while at the same time recognizing how that pleasurable, playful participation can function as a part of industrial economies. I’m taking cues there from a number of inspirations, from your own work to that of Marc Andrejevic.  What I hoped to accomplish on a theoretical level with this idea of enfranchisement, however, was not just to recognize the role of consumers’ playful, pleasurable participation in industry, but to start thinking by implication about the work of professionals too as a form of collaborative participation both playful and uneasy (where the ideas about design and world-sharing can often turn us).

In the shift to thinking about “participatory culture” that your own work helped inspire, the focus of participation often remains on the audience.  By considering the identities and subjective uses of media by audiences in relation to industrial production, I think that my hope was that we could equally conceptualize the work of professionals and amateurs as “participatory,” as a way of using the media with pleasures and forms of engagement tied to their identities and communities as participators as well as the institutions that give them license to engage in these practices (extending of course the important work that John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, and so many others have already done to connect production, labor, and identity).  One way forward for cultural theory, therefore, might be to continue to deconstruct hierarchies of production and consumption (as much as I feel continued, focused attention on production is a significant priority) and to focus on how creativity and participation more broadly turn on relations of power that manifest through identity, meaning, labor and other vectors of cultural struggle.

I don’t think that risks wishy-washiness or indecision, so much as it is asking for a paradigm shift, where we stop thinking about industry work cultures and amateur participation as all that different, and instead look at both production and consumption together as sites where identities and meanings form in relation to the participation structured by relations and institutions of power.  Instead of juxtaposing industry and audience or production and consumption, we might think about them more in terms of their commonalities.

How do you see Amazon’s new Kindle Worlds program in relation to the contradictions about audience “enfranchisement” that you describe in your closing chapter? It is not, strictly speaking, “free labor,” since fan authors are paid royalties based on their contributions, yet it also represents potentially an extension of corporate control over audience fantasies since writers need to work within prescribed rules and boundaries and be granted authorization before they can contribute their stories to this program. Does this make fans part of the “world-sharing” process you describe here?

 Exactly—it’s not free labor, but it is enfranchised labor, where the participation and labor of these users comes under the terms of the contract of the Terms of Service of End-User License Agreement to which one must consent to participate.  Fans would absolutely become implicated in the world-sharing process with which I am concerned.  Much like any licensee, these fans would, as sanctioned contributors to the franchise, become subject to the same kind of stringent approvals and conditions described by MJ Clarke in his book Transmedia Television.  That might seem counterintuitive given that we probably imagine Amazon playing a pretty heavy intermediary role between fans and rightsholders—but Clarke reminds us how rare it is for professional licensed creators to communicate directly with license holders either.

The collaboration behind this kind of licensed enfranchisement is not based in significant communication, so much as taking up a prescribed role within a shared economy of creation.  Given the restrictions that the Content Worlds contributors will face, I would expect participants to adopt many of the same world-sharing strategies that any professional licensed creator would.  Expect plenty of continuity-mining.  Again, I think this helps us to try to think around some of our binaries between production and consumption, or professional and and amateur, in that we can think about similar subject positions, identifications, and negotiations of creativity, participation, and convergence operating across both sets of terms.

 

You end the book with this provocative sentence, “it is at the point where collaboration stops, however, that new alternatives might emerge.” Do you have any sense of what those “new alternatives” might look like? Is cultural production possible without collaboration – in the multiple senses you are using the word here?

 

My intention in talking about collaboration in that chapter was to consider it both in the creative sense of shared effort, and in the political sense of complicity with an occupying regime.  In that final sentence imagining an end to collaboration, I may have been leaning slightly more toward that latter sense of the term, given that collective participation may be not just political advantageous, but also, as your question and much of the book itself suggests, inherent to cultural production more generally (even something as seemly authority-driven and corporately-controlled as media franchising).

You’re right that it is difficult to imagined cultural production without the social dimensions of exchanges and sharing we’re been discussing.  But what I think I was getting at speaks to the way in which I understand collaboration in relation to franchising more generally; I’m not insisting that these things are collaborative in the sense that franchise participants all get together and have open conversations about how to make a shared work—in fact, I think this is very much the opposite of what happens given the cultural and economic obstacles to that kind of cooperation.

Again, the collaboration that I see happening here is one where people who do the work of cultural production, professionals and amateurs alike, enter into a shared economy of creation by taking up one of many specific positions within an industrial set of relations.  The “end” of collaboration I’m talking about then is one in which those roles are perhaps not accepted so easily, and the terms of participating as a “user” or “sharer” of something like a franchise get renegotiated (both economically and in the sense of how we identify with and in relation to that cultural work).

I’m not sure that’s a very specific answer, but I’m imagining possibilities where we start to challenge the system that tells us who does and does not have the right to participate in culture in what prescribed ways.  If nothing else, this could be a refusal to abide the roles that EULAs and licensing contracts give us in making sense of our productive contributions to popular culture. The end of collaboration, in this sense, would be a form of cultural production where the users of culture are active in determining what their roles might be, where enfranchisement leads not just to agency participation in a set creative relations, but the reimagination of what those relations are.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

 

What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?

 It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.

But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.

 

I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?

This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).

The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.

What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.

I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.

Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.

One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.

 

Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?

 

I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.

What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).

Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.

I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.

In the process of discussing “over-design” as an industrial process, you’ve developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on “special effects” as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as “designed” rather than “authored?”

Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.

I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.

 

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the “Value” of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part One)

This is another in a series of interviews with the authors whose books have been published as part of the Post-Millenial Pop book series which Karen Tongson and I edit for New York University Press.

I have followed the career of Derek Johnson since he was an entering Master’s Student. We were foolish enough to have rejected Derek when he applied to be part of one of the first classes accepted into the MIT Comparative Media Studies program — it is not a mistake I would make again, because I now see Johnson as one of the most impressive cultural scholars of his generation. I admire his commitment to test theoretical frameworks against carefully documented case studies and his refusal to take an either-or position in our ongoing debates about structure and agency. He is someone who pays attention to points of negotiation or, his term, “collaboration,” where different participants in the processes of cultural production meet each other with differing stakes and differing degrees of power and control.

His strengths as a theorist and researcher are aptly demonstrated in his new book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. The term, “franchises,” has been used loosely in media studies for years, but no one has systematically developed a framework for understanding its historic emergence, its discursive implications, its relationship to other industrial practices, and its consequences for what media content is produced and how it is marketed and consumed. Johnson’s work here is multidisciplinary — including a focus on the management of media systems, archival research and interviews with industry insiders, textual analysis, and audience research, all in the service of understanding the logics shaping contemporary media production. The book makes a vital intervention into ongoing discussions around transmedia storytelling and places a new emphasis upon the role of production design and world-building in the contemporary entertainment industries. I have already incorporated this book in my own teaching and writing, especially his work on “world-sharing” within the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek universes. His writing is clear and accessible enough to satisfy many undergraduate students and sophisticated and provocative enough to generate heated discussions in graduate seminars, a hard balance to achieve.

The following interview focuses  on some of  the book’s core concerns, since there is so much there which will be of interest to the various communities that follow this blog. But, you need to know that Johnson is now producing scholarship at an astonishing speed on a broad range of contemporary media practices — from My Little Pony to Lego culture — and topics — including an important new collection on media authorship and another book in the works that deals with the processes and structures of media management. His recent work has especially engaged with issues of gender, sexuality, race, and class, as they relate to the development of children’s entertainment properties.

As you note, the concept of media franchises involves “a migration to the media industries of market logics from other business sectors.” What can you tell us about how the concept of media franchises emerged and what do you see as the implications of using the same concept to discuss the production of “McDonald’s, Mr. Goodwrench and Chicken Delight” and of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica?

There’s at least two levels at which I think it’s important for us to draw this connection between the production of entertainment and these kind of business formats often used in the retail sector.  At the most basic, economic level, a franchise is a business arrangement where one party extends to another party the right to use some kind of idea or intellectual property in a new market.  In the mid 20th-century, McDonald’s and other franchisors increasingly looked to sign a bunch of independent franchisees across the country (and later the world) to extend the corporate footprint with little risk and investment (since the financial burden for operating these new locations fell on the franchisee, who actually paid the franchisor a fee for this right).  This is a very similar arrangement to what we see with media licensing—film rightsholders, for example, extending production responsibilities for video games or comic book tie-ins to third parties who absorb the production costs and risks.

Of course, media licensing is a practice with a long history predating the post-WWII franchise boom (see Avi Santo’s excellent work for this), so I’m not claiming that this kind of arrangement was fully inspired by McDonald’s and the like.  But I think it’s an important connection to draw because there’s a large literature in organizational communication, business, and other non-media fields that have reflected on the social dynamics of franchising structures.  Retail franchisors and franchisees have not always worked in unison; instead, franchisors are always working to assert their authority over independent outlets they cannot fully control, and franchisees seek to assert their local agency in a larger corporate culture (in a way a bit more complex than George Ritzer’s notion of the “McDonaldization” allows). It’s exactly the kind of question of power and negotiated struggle that I think speaks to cultural studies of the media.

What I do think is perhaps more “new” is the way this franchise boom in the latter half of the 20th century helped to shape the way in which the production of media entertainment would be increasingly imagined.  Media licensing, and even formatting (in the sense Albert Moran researches, where ideas for TV programs are exchanged between different local markets) were not new to the entertainment media of the 1950s and beyond, but came to be understood through this same “franchise” imaginary.  As Moran tells us, Romper Room was a 1950s children’s television series that was originated in one local television market, and then spawned new productions in others—with the creators having looked to fast food franchising as an alternative model to network distribution.  It is by the late 1980s and early 1990s, of course, that the language of franchising enters common usage for making sense of entertainment media—where we start to understand “franchise” as a commonsense descriptor for things like Star Trek, Batman, and others that cross multiple sites of branded production and consumption.

I think it’s particularly crucial to understand this connection because the franchising metaphor also shapes our critical orientations to these entertainment brands.

Calling something a “franchise” is not a neutral declaration: it prompts us to think about the media in the same terms that we think about McDonald’s.  There is a recognition of the industrial basis for that culture and its hyper-commercial, systemic mode of multiplication and maintenance over time.  Often that comes with an implied critique as well, where acknowledging something as a “franchise” product suggests that its existence is based on market calculation more than creative expression.

When I first offered franchising as a site of analysis at a conference many years back, one colleague advised me to come up with a different term because of the very economically determined, delegitimating connotations it had.  The link between McDonald’s and media in franchising, therefore, is one that makes cultural production meaningful, and it does so in ways that are not always flattering and make it a source of tension and struggle for those involved or invested in that production.  My interest was not to take the economic determination implied by franchising for granted, but to think about how those implicated in and by that term work to negotiate those meanings.

 

You argue that franchises are not “self-propagating” phenomenon. So, where does agency lie in our discussion of franchises?

In the people who do the work of that propagation.  I consider franchises not as produced by corporations who own the rights to media properties, but also all the other stakeholders who seek to get something out of the work of expanding production and making more of that cultural product.  This could be the producers hired by major media conglomerates to take the reins of a particular franchise—author figures like Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica) or JJ Abrams (the recent Star Trek films) or the long line of different comic book authors and editors hired by Marvel or DC to be steward of their ongoing superhero narratives.

Despite whatever authorship and genius we might recognize in these folks, they are still “for hire” workers with only a very bounded and limited (often contractually temporary) claim to authority in the franchise.  The site of agency could also lie in the less visible below-the-line labor of production designers, musicians, and technicians who are asked to recognize the vast histories and networks of collaboration surrounding a franchise in the course of their work.  And it could also extend to the licensees who are contracted to produce ancillary materials meant to work in some relationship to other products, but produced from a position outside more privileged sites of creativity and subject to the stringent approvals of rightsholders and other authorities.  I also want to locate agency within the consumer as well, as fans and other audiences do a lot of work to help these franchises move across markets and persist over time.

 

The idea that a popular narrative is a complex mix of commercial and cultural motives has been one of the most long-standing themes in film studies (going back to the auteur theory), so why has it been so hard for some people to accept the idea that “franchise properties” might also be culturally meaningful? In what sense are the properties you study “creative”?

 

In that there’s a lot at stake in the ability of people working in these contexts to be able to lay claim to the idea of creativity.  On the one level, I definitely acknowledge and am fascinated by the capacity for franchising to support complex storylines, design histories, and capacities for expression.  But on the other, I see “creativity” not as an essential truth but as a status and subjective identity that media producers and workers would claim about themselves (“I am creative; I do creative work”).  Particularly because the hyper-commercial realm of media franchising is so critically delegitimized, I’m particularly interested in how those involved with franchising might position themselves in opposition to that franchising and assert their uniqueness, authority, or vision.

Think JJ Abrams and not only his choice to replace the old Star Trek continuity with the new one, but also the distance he puts up between himself and the original series (he prefers Star Wars), and his tendency to retroactively disavow ancillary video games (he just claimed to have “dropped out” of producing the 2013 Star Trek video game despite his co-producers’ participation in the development stages, distancing himself from perceptions that it was nothing but a cheap cash grab)

One of my other favorite examples is how Dirk Benedict, the original Starbuck from the 1970s Battlestar Galactica, attacked the new series by emphasizing its “franchise” status and casting the mass production of franchising as part of a gendered war on masculinity.  The commercialism of franchising raises the stakes for media workers to position themselves as creative and as different from all the others that use the same idea or premise or property toward this ongoing commercial end.  It helps to position one’s self as such if you actually do innovative things, and I think we do see that a lot in media franchising given this imperative for differentiation.

But sometimes that differentiation comes as much in the identity claims of specific contributors as it does the product itself (and as the case of Benedict and what Suzanne Scott calls the “fanboy auteur” suggest, these franchise identity claims are often explicitly gendered).  As much as franchise products may or may not be indicative of creativity, I see franchising more broadly as a site of struggle over creativity, what it means, and who can claim it in industrial contexts.

You describe in the book interviews you have done with media industry insiders who want to deflect or disavow the concept of franchising as informing their creative decisions. Why do you think the term produced such discomfort? What alternative models do they draw on to describe their work?

 

Similar to the above, I think it’s because when you’re talking about creative decisions, the idea of franchising (and all the economically-determined calculation it implies in popular and industry use) calls the potential creativity of those decisions into question.  So what I found were often appeals to reassert creativity—and often singular authorship—in opposition to the idea of franchising.

While this wasn’t one of my own interviews, Lost is a great example of this, where the conclusion of the series generated all kinds of industry and critical speculation about franchise potential, and the producers repeatedly came out to publically state that they would have none of it and that theirs was “definitive” version of Lost.

To me that’s what fascinating about franchising—it is both a logic for multiplying media production, but also a meaningful discourse for making sense of and assigning value to that production.  It forces producers to confront the fact that they don’t have creative monopoly in the for-hire work they do for corporations.  It also forces them to position themselves and their work in relation to that of others who come before, after, and in parallel.  That can create contradiction and discomfort around the idea of creativity, which leads to that disavowal.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children’s media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO’s licensed film and comic minifigures.

“Engage!”: Reflections on My Public Intellectuals Class

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The cartoon above was created for the USC Annenberg Agenda, the newly revamped newsletter for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Jeremy Rosenberg, the school’s Assistant Dean for Public Affairs and Special Events, commissioned Chandler Wood, an LA-based comics artist, to sit in on several sessions of my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice class and capture something of the spirit of our ongoing conversations. Wood was the author of Another LA Story, a comic which ran in the LAWeekly from 2005 to 2011. A storyboard artist and designer of many a commercial and the occasional film (most recently 47 Ronin), he is nearing completion of his first graphic novel, Tonight There’s Gonna Be a Jailbreak, co-authored with Darren Le Gallo. I thought he did a brilliant job in conveying something of the core of the class and capturing some aspects of my personality and persona. This is the first of what the school hopes will be an ongoing series of cartoons focused around some of the innovative teaching within the school.

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know about this class. You can find the syllabus here. And you may well have seen the series of blog posts my PhD students generated as part of the class activities (running between October 8 and October 28.

As I look back at my experiences teaching the class last term, I consider it one of my peak intellectual experiences in a classroom. This was an extraordinary group of students, who came from diverse backgrounds in Communication and Cinema Studies, and many of them came to the class with some practical experience at translating their ideas into language which might effectively reach some public beyond the academy. Some already had blogs, some had been journalists, some were already appearing on television interview programs, and some have worked on student radio. But, all of them grew enormously over the course of the semester as a result of paying close attention to issues of writing and self-presentation and especially in being reflective about their own goals and about what their desired public might expect from them. Some were studying and theorizing communication practices that they had not yet applied to their own work, and sometimes, they were struck by the contradictions between what they knew conceptually and what their reflexes were as a scholar in training. By the end, all of them seemed to have grown enormously — it is too easy to say they found their own voice, since most of them had a powerful voice before, but they learned to use their voice more effectively in the service of their personal and professional agendas.

I was struck by the urgency of the students’ desires to talk through these issues of “professional development” which extended beyond recommendations that grew out of the “publish or perish” tradition. They knew a fair amount about what was involved in submitting conference papers and journal articles, but most of them hoped that there could be more to their professional lives than these scholarly pursuits. Many of them had strong political motives for wanting to speak out to a large public about their research — students working on how to create environmental awareness or shape educational policy or challenge efforts to regulate the content of video games or challenge various forms of privilege and overturn negative stereotypes. Some of them, perhaps most, had creative urges which were not going to be satisfied by producing sometimes deadening academic prose. Some of them wanted to forge strong alliances with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, political parties, labor unions, or media production companies, which would allow them to not only study the current media environment, but also to help transform and reshape it. Many of them were struggling with deep ambivalences about whether they wanted to pursue a career in academic life or whether they wanted to make a difference in some other sector. But, they had found it hard to talk about these conflicting goals and ambitions in their other subjects, had found that universities often treat PhD candidates who don’t want to became academics as failures, rather than exploring ways that scholarly skills and knowledge might become resources for a range of other activities.

I was also struck by how enthusiastic so many of our guest speakers were. I drew extensively on other faculty and researchers in the Annenberg School and elsewhere at USC who had a public-facing dimension to their work. They saw what we were doing in the class as important and they were eager to contribute. They found the class a chance to reflect deeply on their own professional practices. And they spoke frankly about the rewards and risks in pursuing these kinds of opportunities. One thing my students said again and again in their closing reflections on the class was that this approach showed them so many different (sometimes contradictory) models of how they might do work that mattered to a larger public.

An ongoing debate in the class had to do with the kinds of relationship which might exist between Communication scholars and industry, from some who held industry at arm’s length, to others who had found jobs which allowed them to move fluidly between the two. We talked about the ways that scholarship might make a difference in shaping media companies, and we talked about some of the painful compromises and dead-ends other researchers had encountered trying to do these kinds of interventions.

Speakers were frank about failures in a way which doesn’t happen very often in the classroom or in our writing, and we heard a lot about what we can learn from our own and others’ mistakes as we are taking meaningful risks in the pursuit of our work. I had colleagues who worried that I was trying to turn all graduate students into public intellectuals, but I think that the class gave students many chances to reflect on what choices are right for them and what is gained and lost by thinking outloud in public. We considered definitions of the public intellectual which involved speaking truth to power, but we concluded that in order to do this, one has to actually speak to power, and that often involves moving out of our comfort zones and dealing with people we don’t know very well or trust very much.

A key theme running through the class was the power of storytelling. Students heard from several different journalists about how they might translate their ideas for a larger audience, and again and again, it came down to telling compelling stories, often drawn from personal experiences. In doing so, we found ourselves pushing back against a generation of scholars who had been taught to distrust narrative as brushing over contradictions and not challenging established wisdom or reinforcing racist stereotypes and patriarchal pleasures. The challenge, then, was how to hold onto the underlying values which drove those critiques, while finding ways to expand the conversations those critiques grew out of. It is no longer enough to “problematize” existing frameworks unless doing so can also provide tools that can be appreciated and deployed by those who are on the front lines of these struggles.

We talked a lot about the ways that it is much easier, less risky, for some people to tell their stories than others, and this led to some frank discussions about how race, gender, and sexuality are experienced within — and beyond — academic cultures and I came to admire the good humor and civility with which everyone involved was able to share their experiences and perspectives around these often “touchy” issues. We benefited enormously from having a mix of international students in the group, who again and again forced us to acknowledge that our understanding of what constitutes an intellectual, what constitutes a public, and what we see as a desirable relationship between the two is deeply grounded in cultural traditions and political structures which differ from one national context to the next.

A key strength of the approach we took was this constant movement between theory and practice: practice understood both in terms of the front-line perspectives of our many guest speakers and in terms of the applied assignments which had students doing blog posts, op-eds, print and radio interviews, and digital humanities projects, all growing out of their own research.

A key challenge I’ve struggled with has been at what stage in a student’s career such training would be most valuable. On the one hand, those students who took this class in their first term in graduate school felt that it provided them with a strong overview of the full range of opportunities and practices they might want to explore in their career. People talked about  the class as “pulling away the curtain” and helping them to see the actual work that went into becoming a scholar. On the other, some of these incoming students did not yet have a fully developed sense of themselves as a scholar; they did not have perhaps enough research of their own yet to draw upon as they started to do these more public-facing projects.

Some of the students said that others in their cohort not in the class had joked about this being a course in how to become an academic “rock star.” But, I think by the end of the term, we were all clear that this kind of public facing work occurs at every level of visibility and access. It can involve sharing what you know at a PTA or school board meeting. It can involve work within a hyperlocal community or through an online forum. These many different scales and localities of communication reflect the affordances of a more networked culture, and they force us to move from a world where public intellectuals are superstar scholars, a select few, to one where these activities are a normal part of how many if not most scholars go about their work.

There’s no question given the success I experienced in this class, and given how meaningful both my students and I found this process, that this subject will become a standard part of my teaching rotation here at USC. I am also hoping that I may inspire more faculties around the world to try teaching a similar kind of class to their students. Annenberg’s Dean, Ernie Wilson, has sparked debate recently about what is required to teach communication scholars how to communicate effectively what our field is about. I suspect that such classes might force all of us — faculty and students — to grapple with the complexities of that issue. My class worked in part because I have such a great group of colleagues here (and at other institutions who joined the class by Skype) who are applying some concept of the public intellectual in their own work. I am lucky to be at an institution which is creative and generous with each other about what constitutes scholarship and which is more open than many schools about the ways new digital platforms and practices might be expanding the arena of public discourse. Annenberg supports experimentation and innovation in ways that more conservative institutions might not.

But, I believe that teachers at many schools could look around them and find rich and compelling examples in their own backyard of scholars who are doing different kinds of work in part as a response to the expanded range of communication options we confront at the current moment. Each such course would be different, because it needs to be grounded in your own institutional context, but I hope that others will see the value in incorporating this kind of teaching into their school’s curriculum. And if you do so, please share some of your experiences with me and my readers.