Transforming Television: An Interview with Denise Mann (Part One)

Ever since I came to Los Angeles five years ago, I have been collaborating with Denise Mann in producing the Transmedia Hollywood, now Transforming Hollywood, conferences — events which bring together industry leaders, creative artists, activists, journalists, and academics to reflect on the trends which are reshaping the entertainment industry. Mann has been the director of the Producers Program at UCLA since 1996 and brings to our collaboration a solid network of industry contacts,a front line perspective on the production process, and above all, a deep grasp of current theoretical and conceptual models within industry studies.

Mann has brought all of these things together with her new book, Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future, which brings together some of the top thinkers working on production studies, media audiences and fandom studies, transmedia and franchise entertainment, branding and labor practices. Her goal is to understanding the ways that the television industry has — and for her, more importantly, has not — changed in response to the shifting possibilities for audience engagement, alternative systems of distribution, and new creative practices made possible in the new media environment. As this interview suggests, much of her work centers around the ways that the American broadcast and cable industries have resisted change, have stuck to old imperatives and business models, even as they are confronting disruptive and potentially transformative forces in the culture around them. The focus here on creative labor is an important intervention, both in the ways it complicates sometimes reductive models based on free and precarious labor, but also because of the ways that it cautions us about being too optimistic about the creative possibilities of transmedia storytelling.

At the same time, in this interview and in the book, she’s also flagging for us alternative systems of production, financing, distribution, and consumption/reception that have emerged as new players are taking advantage of the opportunities posed by digital media to enter the industry from unexpected directions and demonstrate that things could be different. The past year or so has seen ample examples that such strategies are destabilizing television as we know it, though it is too soon to tell which of these innovations will have a lasting impact. I was struck at this year’s Transforming Hollywood conference by how many of the so-called independent media producers still measured success in terms of getting picked up by a broadcast or cable network and the ways that this desire for mainstream embrace could act as a conservative force on their alternative visions for television content or production practices.

All of this is to say that Wired TV is an important and timely book. So, I was eager to get Denise Mann to share her vision for this project and some core insights that emerged from it with my readers.

Let’s start with the title of the book. First, what do you mean by “Wired TV”? Does this refer to transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, or all of the above? Second, what significance do you attach to the concepts of “Labor” or “Laboring” to our understanding of these new forms of television as compared to what is now a more common emphasis on fandom or consumption or reception? And finally, what do you mean by an “interactive future”? What changes do you envision happening from here in terms of how we — producers and consumers — interact with television?

The title of the book, Wired TV, references all of the above—transmedia, multimedia, second screen, cross-platform delivery, twitter flows, and more. The theoretical hunch underlying the collection is that the traditional network television industry’s failure to adapt to the digital economy is a function of its over-reliance on an intractable system of workplace bureaucracies and rigid affiliations.

In Wikinomics (2006), Don Talbott and Anthony Williams argued that corporations must learn to open their doors to the global mind hive as a means to generate innovative solutions to otherwise unanswerable questions. While their conclusion is a bit simplistic overall, the central thesis is nonetheless compelling: visionary experiments, such as Wikipedia and the Human Genome Project, offer undeniable proof of the potential of mass collaborative activities undertaken on a global scale. According to the authors, even staunchly conservative U.S. organizations, such as Proctor and Gamble, IBM, and Lego,  have been able to reboot their waning industries by loosening their grip on proprietary intellectual capital—the intangible knowledge amassed by corporations to generate value.

The networks, I argue, have been notoriously “closed door” about sharing both their financial assets (their IP) and their intellectual capital (as evidenced by their over-reliance on aging, unreliable divisions, such as development, marketing, and licensing). The book’s focus on labor assumes that production studies and audience studies cannot be understood in isolation—that Stuart Hall’s notion of coders and encoders as two sides of the same coin has become even more relevant in the Web 2.0 era.

Key creative personnel associated with specific network series—Smallville, Lost, Heroes, The Ghost Whisperer, etc.—understood their primary obligation  to deliver broad audiences to advertisers; however, they were eager to embrace the creative opportunities of transmedia storytelling, even as they acknowledged its commercial upside—the fact that fans were seeding grassroots social media marketing campaigns. The economic value of these interactive campaigns has not been lost on advertisers, many of which are actively seeking to cut out the Hollywood middlemen by hiring production personnel to create interactive forms of branded entertainment (e.g., Asylum 626, and so forth).

While the creative industries scholarship generally aligns itself with a Marxist critique of the knowing exploitation of unpaid fan labor by industry, this collection offers a more nuanced view, juxtaposing essays that critique the media companies’ calculated misuse of fan labor (Levin Russo, Kozinets) with essays (Johnson, Brooker, Mann) that invoke the social value of these content-promotional hybrids. The paradox exposed across the collection as a whole is that the networks would have benefited in the long term by showing a greater tolerance for these experimental systems of exchange between creators and fans; however, the industry’s refusal to “let go” of their bureaucratic grip on their IP has undermined their ability to engage audiences as they continue to migrate online.

In the title of our recent conference, we talk about “Transforming Hollywood,” which implies that some key things are changing about the nature of this medium. How does Hollywood need to be transformed to make way for the possibilities your book considers?  What changes have already happened? In what ways has Hollywood resisted those changes?

In the latest edition of Transforming Hollywood, you and I focused less on the networks proper and more on the various innovators and thought leaders emerging in competing industries—in particular, the streaming video-on-demand companies or SVODS (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios), as well as progressive and cutting edge cable companies (BET, PIVOT), web-based production companies (Geek and Sundry, Nerdists), and scholars analyzing the consequences of this vast, cultural-industrial revolution. Aymar Jean Christian focused on a different type of revolution taking place among independent web-creators, who see themselves as artists first and foremost (although a number are seeing their work being turned into professional-length series by the cable companies and SVODS).

While the networks initially perceived YouTube’s user-generated mash-ups and illegal downloads as a flagrant violation of their IP rights, with time, the media companies embraced YouTube’s amateur aesthetic and its one billion a month user-base as a viable means of expanding their promotional reach and a way to redirect viewers back to their broadcast series.

Notably, the cable networks have been more expansive in their use of a second layer of innovative outsider—namely the transmedia producers, such as Starlight Runner Entertainment, and digital marketers, such as Campfire—who share expertise in crafting story-driven promotions. The cable networks have been more tolerant of these affiliations in large part because of their more targeted approach to audience and the positive impact of these campaigns on their subscriber base. In contrast, the networks are still reliant on delivering broad audiences to advertisers and affiliates. As a result of these age-old affiliations, the networks’ infrastructural rigidity has made them less agile in terms of accommodating the new, algorithm-curated, video-on-demand capabilities of their latest competitors: the video streaming-on-demand companies.

The growing number of programmers in the digital space has been a boon for talent, prompting the current expansion or “renaissance” in the television space—many seeing this growth as an outgrowth of the decline of independent filmmaking in the theatrical space. As Fox and other networks struggle to dismantle the highly dysfunctional and wasteful pilot system, they have been outpaced by the rapid growth of cable networks and SVODs. The latter have demonstrated a willingness to commit to full series without forcing creators to go through the typical gauntlet of development notes and arduous pilot production schedules; instead, more and more creators are able to secure deals based solely on promising pilot scripts, graphic novels, international formats, web-series, and other less expensive alternatives. In one telling instance, fans were able to exert their considerable influence on the marketplace by using Kickstarter to fund the adaptation of a favorite TV series, Veronica Mars, into a feature film. BET has benefited from its core audiences’ fascination with Twitter to expand its reach to a wider audience.

Broadcasters have watched in dismay as Netflix enlisted high-priced Hollywood creators to create House of Cards without regard to production costs as a way to strengthen their core revenue source–subscribers. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, the multi-channel networks or MCNs (e.g., Maker Studios, Machinima, and Fullscreen) have aggregated thousands of YouTube creators in order to amass tens of thousands of online users.

In my panel, I focused on this relatively new trend—the formation of a new business model around the proliferation of YouTube content creators. Most MCNs pursued this new business model shortly after YouTube started investing $100 million to augment the production budgets of a hundred or so YouTube talent partners. To serve this growing group of YouTubers with significant user counts, the MCNs inserted themselves as business allies, taking a percentage of the advertising dollars offered by YouTube and up to 50% of the IP, in exchange for providing amateur creators with these added services.

The results have been controversial, as thousands of YouTube creators have signed contracts with most earning little or no profits for their considerable efforts; in contrast, the small handful of creators, who have been able to secure a living despite YouTube’s restrictive terms, are resentful of the MCNs for profiting from their creative labor.  The MCNs—considered by many critics to be a blatant power-grab by a handful of business-savvy digital industry leaders—has raised the ire of the once democratic YouTube community by exploiting a wide swath of user-generated content creators to increase leverage with online advertisers.  At the same time, the MCNs have commanded the attention of several Hollywood media companies, which recognize their inability to access YouTube’s growing audience of online users. Notably, Disney recently acquired Maker Studios for $500 million, while Warner Bros. continues to kick the tires at Machinima.

Denise Mann has been the head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Producers Program since 1996 and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media. In that capacity, she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on contemporary entertainment industry practices as well as critical studies seminars on film and television history and theory. She is the editor of Wired TV: Laboring Over an Interactive Future (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and the author of Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Previously, Professor Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer (University of Minnesota Press, 1992).