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.