Videos from The Women Who Create Television Conference

Last week, I shared the videos from our Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television conference. This year, we had a pre-conference event hosted at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and sponsored by the Annenberg Innovation Lab as part of its Geek Speaks series. We brought together a diverse set of women who have been showrunners, creators, head writers, and/or executive producers on television series, examining both the challenges that still confront these women working in what remains a male-dominated space and their creative contributions to the current state and future direction of this medium. The conversations which emerged were lively, provocative, and substantive: they gave us lots to think about. Thanks to all of the participants, but especially to Sophie Madej from the Annenberg Innovation Lab staff for all of her work in making the conference possible, and to Erin Reilly and Francesca Marie Smith for serving as moderators.

Geek Speaks: The Women Who Make Television (Part 1) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Panel 1 Creative Process (Moderator: Erin Reilly, Annenberg Innovation Lab) Melanie Chilek, The Ricki Lake Show, The Dating Game, Judge Hatchet Felicia Henderson, Moesha, Gossip Girl, Fringe Alexa Junge, Friends, United States of Tara, Best Friends Forever Julie Plec, KyleXY, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals Stacy L. Smith, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism

Geek Speaks: The Women Who Make Television (Part 2) from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Panel 2 Creative Products (Moderator: Francesca Smith) Jenny Bicks, Sex and the City, Men in Trees, The Big C Meg DeLoatch, Family Matters, Brothers, EVE, Single Ladies Winnie Holzman, My So-Called Life, Wicked, Huge Robin Schiff, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, Down Dog

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."

Who Reaps the Rewards of Live-Tweeting in the TV Attention Economy?

A few weeks ago, I shared the syllabus of a new class I am teaching this term in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism focusing on helping my students acquire the skills and knowledge they are going to need to put a more public-facing dimension on their scholarship. This experiment in training public intellectuals has continued with great success. Over the next few weeks, I am going to be sharing here the blog posts my students produced, reflecting a range of different research interests in media and communications. These posts should allow you to hear the voices and get a sense of the commitments which drive this generation of students. I am pleased to be sharing their work with the world and I am enormously proud of what they've been able to accomplish in a very short period of time.  

Who Reaps The Rewards of Live-Tweeting In the TV Attention Economy?

by Katie Walsh

When the newest season of The Bachelorette rolled around this summer, I was excited, not just for the male antics and cattiness I unabashedly take pleasure in as a fan, but as a writer and media studies student interested in the machinations of reality TV. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the show’s 9th season would provide a wealth of resources for my research into reality TV fans and their online productions. With the first TV spots advertising “MAN TEARS” in bold letters, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of the humiliations Mark Burnett and co. would subject to newest bachelors, feeding the needs of the tweeting, recapping viewers who tune in for the spilled tears, and not so much the fairytale romance.

I began my research into The Bachelor/Bachelorette ABC franchise as a fan (albeit as the kind of fan who tuned for the opportunities to snark with friends). Despite, or because of, my feminism, I was compelled by the showy courtship ritual-turned-competition, and the best and worst that it brought out in its participants. As an avid reader of recaps, and a live-tweeter, I wanted to understand more about how these disparate texts worked in tandem with each other. I am of the mind that the instant feedback received by reality show producers, in the form of recaps, comments, and live-tweets has influenced the shape of their product, particularly in terms of the narrative.

Anna McCarthy describes the reality TV genre as a “theater of suffering,”[1] and part of reality TV fandom is often the voyeurism and perverse pleasure in the exposure of humiliation and pain that these love-seekers go through (exhibit A, the blog Forever Alone: Faces of Rejected Bachelorettes, which consists solely of screenshots of crying women). Women are expected to perform their gender properly in order to “win” the bachelor. When they fail, often by committing the cardinal feminine sin of being “mean,” or being too sexual (or not sexual enough—just the right amount!) they are either rejected, or humiliated, or both, by both fellow cast members and producers in the way they shape the narrative. The camera invades private moments of suffering, such as the infamous reject limo shots, which shine a spotlight on the women as they mourn their rejection. This practice has seeped into the The Bachelorette, as men descend into gossiping and accusations about those who are “not there for the right reasons.” Male contestants are emasculated onscreen for their over-the-top demonstrations of emotion, such as singing embarrassing ballads, too-soon declarations of love, and crying (hence the advertised “MAN TEARS”). Both of these practices reinforce strict, and traditional, gender stereotypes: women must be nice and not too sexual, but not frigid, and men must be stoic, masculine, and controlled.

My initial assertion was that these recaps and live-tweets demonstrate the “anti-fan” readings that many fans engage in, and that they affected the show in the editing and narrative structure. But, this summer, Team Bachelorette did me one better: they slapped those tweets, good, bad, and snarky right onto the screen. The narrative structure of a show like Bachelorette is uniquely suited to a social media enhanced viewing experience, which is often a necessary part of getting through the bloated two-hour running time.  Knowing that some viewers were engaging with a second screen platform during the show, producers brought that second screen inside the screen itself, keeping viewers’ eyes on both their tweets and on advertisements. One can’t really live tweet unless one is watching during the broadcast time, which means real time ads—no fast-forward or time shifting here. This is all the better for letting advertisers know just how many activated, interactive viewers are participating—lucrative commodities for sale in the attention economy.

Bachelorette allowed a variety of tweets onscreen, in terms of content and sentiment about the show. Not all of the tweets were straightforward fan praise, so it’s clear that Team Bachelorette is fully aware of those audience members who like to poke fun at the extravagant love contest. It’s unclear how exactly they chose the onscreen tweets, many hashtagged #TheBachelorette or tagged the official account @BacheloretteABC, but this wasn’t consistent across the board. There were several tweets featured from the Bachelor “fan” site Bachelor Burn Book (their Twitter bio reads, “How many witty and sarcastic comments can we make about The Bachelor/Bachelorette/Bachelor Pad? The limit does not exist”) often snarking on the contestants’ hair or even host Chris Harrison’s shirt choices (they hate the bright colors and prints).

Part of the appeal of competitive reality shows is the viewer’s ability to participate in the game itself through technology, whether it’s determining who goes home each week on American Idol or The Voice, or voting for a fan favorite contestant on Top Chef or RuPaul’s Drag Race, a process that Tasha Oren refers to as a ludic or game-like interaction in her article “Reiterational Texts and Global Imagination.” Live-tweeting can be a way for fans to participate with a favorite TV text in an increasingly interactive culture, but that practice isn’t just simply fan-generated fun. These interactive efforts are also extremely lucrative for networks and producers vying for viewers. Oren states, “game culture and the rise of a play aesthetic have not only emerged as an organizing experience in media culture but are central to an industry-wide reconfiguration towards interactivity and intertextual associations across media products.”[2] Viewer interaction is now an integral part of television viewing, as a result of an industry-wide effort to sustain attention in a marketplace where attention is increasingly fragmented.

This attention is what television networks and producers need to sell to advertisers, which is why viewer activation is such a priority for those networks losing viewers to Hulu, Netflix, and DVR. Live-tweeting is something that fans do to enhance the viewing experience for themselves, but they’re also providing an important service to networks, offering not only feedback but numbers of engaged audience members. They’re doing the heavy lifting of audience activation by activating themselves. Their efforts are then incorporated into the show’s text, which enhances the product for the fans, yes, but they are essentially “buying” that product with their attention, twice.

This isn’t just a boon for TV networks, as social networks scramble to be the destination for television conversation, as they expand promotions and advertising within their platforms. As Twitter gears up for its IPO, its place at the top of the online TV chatter heap enhances its value. As the New York Times reports this week, “Facebook and Twitter both see the social conversation around television as a way to increase use of their sites and win a bigger piece of advertisers’ spending.” The attention of activated viewers is now being bought and sold on both screens.

The draw to interact with the text for a viewer is often the feeling of control. Audiences that feel like they can affect the outcome feel an authorship or dominance over the text. Snarky tweets about Chris Harrison’s shirt choice allow viewers to feel like ABC isn’t getting one over on them, that they are subverting the system and its production. This phenomenon is explored in Mark Andrejevic’s piece “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans,”[3] but his results are less utopian than us anti-fans might imagine: ultimately, this labor still renders the work that we do subject to the mass-mediated text itself, and the networks have created us into an army of viewer-workers, exerting effort to make these shows interesting for us, the product of these efforts splashed onscreen as part of the attention grabbing television show itself.

bachelorette tweet

This onscreen tweet campaign was not a completely harmonious union, however. As mentioned, part of the appeal of interactivity is control, and inundating the lower half of the TV screen with snarky tweets may have been efficient for viewers already used to participating in a second screen experience, but not for all. One tweet slipped through the filter, expressing not humor and snark but dissatisfaction and alienation with the format. It read, “I wish the tweets at the bottom of the screen would go away on the bachelorette. #noonecares.” Entertainment Weekly, Mediabistro, and Buzzfeed, who all reported on it, noted the irony of the dissatisfied tweet slipping through into exactly what it was complaining about in a moment of meta-textual anarchy.

While the onscreen tweet producers work on those cracks in the matrix, it seems appropriate to question the economic implications of this practice. One can argue that fans, especially technologically empowered ones, are going to produce as a part of their consumption, whether or not the networks are involved, so why should it matter if ABC decides to use the products of this practice to their own advantage? However, the exploitation of this production becomes more clear when considering just what ABC uses as a commodity to sell to advertisers: audience attention. The onscreen tweet practice is way to take advantage of that viewer attention even further. Audiences can now pay attention on two screens in order to enjoy the show, which is a value-add for the online and television presence. Are onscreen tweets simply an innocuous add-on to the text of the show itself or a way to capitalize on the increasingly rare attention commodity?

And it’s not just TV networks seeking a piece of the pie, as Twitter gears up for its impending IPO, the amount of TV viewers chattering on their social network makes their public offering even more valuable, as they add more ads and promoted content in users’ timelines. Even Nielsen is getting into the game, finally updating their ratings system with Twitter metrics this week. Though this is a case of the corporations organizing themselves and driven by the habits of consumers, it’s important to examine these practices and see where those benefits actually land in the end.

 

Katie Walsh is a writer, critic, academic, and blogger based in Los Angeles. She has contributed film reviews, TV recaps, and interviews to the The Playlist on indieWIRE since 2009, and has written about media and culture for The Hairpin and Movieline. She received her M.A. in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2013, and is currently a first year doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, focusing on television and new media.

 


[1] Anna McCarthy, “Reality Television: A Neoliberal Theater of Suffering” Social Text 93, Vol. 25, No. 4. 2007

[2] Tasha Oren “Reiterational Texts and Global Imagination: Television Strikes Back,” in Global Television Formats, ed. Tasha Oren and Sharon Shahaf (Routledge, 2011), 368

[3] Mark Andrejevic, “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans,” Television & New Media. 2008.

Between Storytelling and Surveillance: American Muslim Youth Negotiate Culture, Politics, and Participation

Over the past several years, my Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research group at USC has been doing case studies of innovative groups, organizations, and networks that have been effective at increasing youth engagement and participation within the political process. We've been sharing our preliminary research findings here as a series of white papers that have addressed the DREAMer movement to gain greater education and civic rights for undocumented youth, Students for Liberty and the movement of "Second Wave Libertarianism" more generally, and the forms of fan activism associated with the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters. Today, I am proud to be releasing the final report in this series -- a study into the political and cultural lives that American Muslim youths have been defining for themselves within the context of post-9/11 America. This report was prepared by Sangita Shresthova, who serves as the Research Director for the MAPP project. This research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the work of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics network. Having released all of our initial case study reports, the team is now turning to drafting a book which looks comparatively across these various examples of participatory politics, and seeks to address larger debates about the role of new media in contemporary political struggles.

The new report, which is shared below, centers on activists and community networks affiliated with the Muslim Youth Group (MYG) at the Islamic Center in Southern California and the Young Leaders Summits program at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), but Shresthova casts a larger net, describing a range of participatory projects through which American Muslims have sought to reshape the ways they are represented through mainstream and grassroots media.

While she is attentive to the new possibilities for voice that these youth have found through new media, she also stresses the substantial risks they face as a consequence of both formal surveillance by governmental agencies (as part of the new security establishment whose scope becomes more alarmingly clear with each new revelation) and informally through the chastising responses they received from older Muslims about the ways they represent their personal and religious identities. As a consequence, the communities she describes here constitute precarious publics, ones that can be empowering or can put participants at risk, perhaps both at the same time.

As we've been doing this research, our research team was struck, for example, by the "chilling effect" these youths experienced in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings, as the participants felt a renewed risk of retaliation on the basis of the color of their skin, their national origins, or their faith. We hope you will share our sense that it is urgent for us to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American Muslim and how these youths are battling against prejudices that have surfaced with greater intensity over the decade plus since September 11.

Sangita Shresthova's work focuses on the intersection between popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project. Based at the University of Southern California, MAPP explores innovative youth-driven media-centric civic engagement and studies youth experiences through groups and communities that include Invisible Children, the Harry Potter Alliance, and American Muslim youth networks. Sangita holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Bridging between dance, media and her Czech/Nepali heritage, Sangita is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. (www.bollynatyam.com)

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"

 

Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Turkey, Greece, and Italy (Final Leg)

  Istanbul, Turkey

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeQ-wjDH4F4

Ok, guys, repeat after me: "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)!"

We were never planning on going to Turkey at all on this trip. In fact, we had several groups from Turkey invite me to speak there and I had to turn them down because it was just one more country than it seemed realistic to reach on our already over-crowded, overly ambitious speaking schedule.

 

But, then, well, we discovered the only cheap way to get from Bologna to Athens was via Turkish Air, and they offered you the discount only if you had a layover in Istanbul -- no doubt a scam they have worked out with the local tourism bureau but okay, if we are going to be there anyway, we might as well extend the time a little and try to take in some of the local culture. So, we were in Istanbul for a good deal less than 24 hours, but we didn't actually sleep very much while we were there. :-)

And, the fun started just down the street from our hotel, where we saw this factory outlet store that sold discounted Magic Lamps (apparently) and also fez. We had to bring back a bright red fez for our son because we have it on very good authority (Matt Smith's Doctor, no less) that "fezzes are cool," and of course, they are.

 

 

And then, of course, we felt an urgent need to eat Turkish Delight on a moonlit night (hearing a certain set of song lyrics echoing in our heads), and we discovered the enormous range of different kinds of Turkish candies on offer, most of which come in long strips, which the candy butchers snip, snip, with scissors before dropping chunks into custom-selected sampler boxes.  By now, my sweet tooth is legendary all over Europe, so I was certainly not going to resist this kind of temptation.

 

 

 

 

And everywhere we went in Istanbul, we would encounter these roaming carts which sold nuts and sunflower seeds. I am a closet sunflower seed fanatic -- a "seeder" as they call us on the bags that I buy in the States -- but the process of biting open seeds and spitting out the shells is not something I'd ever consider doing in public. So, I was fascinated to see so many people wandering the streets, consuming those salty little devils, and dropping their shells where-ever they happened to be standing. It would seem Seeders in Turkey enjoy many of the same rights that smokers used to enjoy in the United States. I suppose it's only a matter of time, though, before people start to protest second-hand shells.

As we continued our walk, it took us through the grounds on the edge of the Topkapi Palace, the primary residence for the Ottoman Sultans and their Harem. At dusk, the Palace proper was closed, but the park grounds enjoy heavy foot traffic as families and young lovers had pick nicks on the grass, and as people wandered around enjoying the cool(er) summer night air.

From there, our walk took us along the rocky shores of the Bosphorus River, which forms the boundary between the part of Istanbul which is in Europe and the part which is Asia.  Some people were fishing along the river, some were roasting corn or meats, and still others were stopped to watch the sunset over the opposite shore.

 

But, everywhere you looked, there were stray cats, many of the adorable kind, who no doubt live off the scraps all of those other activities left behind, especially the fishing. Of course, if they could convince the cats to eat the sunflower shells... but that's another story. Anyway, some one told me that cute cat pictures were popular on the web, so I decided to share a few of them here.

 

 

After a late night dinner in a local cafe, as we watched the closing Euro-Cup game, we grabbed a few hours sleep and then we were at it again the following morning, when we visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (popularly known as the Blue Mosque), one of many outstanding examples of Islamic architecture to be seen in this historic city.

 

 

 

 

And, while we were exploring, we stumbled onto several more examples of the kind of warning sign slapstick we've been tracking across the trip. Here, for example, is a sign which seems to be warning us to beware of people who have really big black hands.

 

While this image would appear to either warn us that hooks will come from the sky and carry us away, or perhaps, the sign is meant to suggest that it is a trapeze artist crossing zone.

But, then, I might be misunderstanding something. I've been told for years by European that their more concrete signs, which take advantage of a universal pictorial language, do not require specific cultural knowledge, unlike our more abstract American signpost. Is it possible that, in fact, these pictures do require a certain amount of interpretive work before they make sense to people who do not come from that culture?

We lingered as long as we dare, taking in as much of Istanbul, as our very limited schedule allows. I promise my friends in Turkey that we will find a way to get back there again before much longer, and this time, we will actually let you know we are coming so we can schedule some talks.

KEA,GREECE

The thing you need to know about that day was that we had to be at the Lavrio docks by a certain time in order to take a ferry out to Kea, a small island off the coast of Athens, where my friend and colleague, Andrew Horton, owns a cottage. (Horton is among other things a media scholar who writes about Greek cinema, screenwriting, and especially film and television comedy. I wrote an essay about Mel Brooks which will come out in A Companion to Film Comedy Horton edited with Joanna Rapf, which is due out in November. Horton runs an exchange program which brings American screenwriting students to Greece to learn from some of the country's leading filmmakers, having made Greece a home away from home for most of his professional life.)

They only run the ferry a few times a day and this was going to be the last one for the night. Cynthia, my son, and I enjoy watching The Amazing Race together, so the program had become a key reference point for us all trip. The cameras on the program never show the contestants having to go through customs, opening up space to describe all of the other aspects of international travel they don't tell you about on American reality television. This day proved to be a particularly challenging one, full of obstacles of all kinds. There was a mad rush to the airport, followed by a huge line, flight delays, a flight to Athens, delayed bags, struggles to change currency, and then, by this point, it looked like there was no way we were going to get to the ferry on time. So, we sat in the back of a cab, which was racing towards the waterfront many miles away at a breathless speed, and my wife and I were rehearsing our confessionals. It's a staple at such moment on Amazing Race for contestants to reassure each other about how much it has meant to them to share this time together and see the world, even if they were unable to complete the race, and we were making jokes about being eliminated the minute we stepped outside the cab. As it happened, thanks to the reckless disregard for human life displayed by our taxi driver, we made it to the ferry station with minutes to spare.

Let's just say that Kea was everything I might have ever imagined a Greek fishing town to be like: the waters of the Aegean Sea are as blue, the churches are as white, the people are as friendly, the terraces are as steep,as anything I've ever seen in a travel brochure or a movie about coastal Greece.

We had Andrew's cottage to ourselves for several days, during which, for the most part, we slept. I have joked that our experience on this Greek island was very much modeled on the Lotus Eaters sequence in Homer's The Odyssey.  Grapes grow off his roof, and we could see the fishing village spread out below us.

 

 

We would walk down the hill twice a day to eat, then climb back up the steep, winding, path, and plop back down in the bed again.

Sometimes, we read or watched movies from his large dvd library, but to be honest, we mostly slept. By this point in the trip, I was that tired and the island was that restful.

ATHENS, GREECE

For much of the trip, we had been speculating about what the political and economic state of Greece would be by the time we got there. The Greek elections had only just occurred, and depending on the outcome, there had been much speculation about whether the Greeks might abandon the Euro, unwilling to accept the austerity measures being proposed by the leadership of the European Union. Greece had been one of the countries hit the hardest by the economic crisis, and it was not hard to see the signs of their desperate conditions everywhere you looked. Basic city services seemed to have been cut to the minimum, with the result that streets were lined with garbage and buildings were becoming overwhelmed with graffiti.

 

There were jobless and homeless people everywhere, and their plight was summed up for us by a particularly vocal old woman who seemed to be declaiming about the fates in an oratorical style that would have done her ancient ancestors proud. I have no idea what she was saying, but she hit my heart strings pretty hard, just with the rising and falling pattern of her voice, as she shouted and shouted into the face of a seemingly indifferent city.

Athens was hot -- hot as Hades! Even first thing in the morning, the sun bears down mercilessly on the Acropolis, and the reflections off the white marble of the Parthanon are blinding.

There is a classical legend about a battle between Athena and Poseidon to determine which God would rule over the Acropolis. Poseidon smote the rock with his trident and out sprang a fresh water spring. Athena, however, made olive trees grow and won the competition. We've argued that Poseidon got cheated: the olive trees really do not provide much shade on a hot day and everyone we saw on top of the mountain was carrying bottles of water. But, then, it looks like Hades rules over all, at least in the summer.

 

Here, you see the Temple of Hephastus and the Greek Agora, the other essential site for the tourist wanting to experience the world of Ancient Athens.

By the way, a funny thing happened to us on the way to the Forum. Cynthia and I were sitting on a bench in the shadow of the Temple of Hephastus, who, you will recall, was the blacksmith and engineer of Olympus, when all of a sudden we hear someone calling my name. It turned out to be Andy Lipmann, Michael Hawley, and a bunch of other faculty, staff, and students from the MIT Media Lab. I learned later that they were in Greece to attend Nicholas Negroponte's wedding. This was somehow the least likely and the most likely place to run into folks from MIT on the entire trip!

In a museum on the grounds of the Greek Agora, which some have described as the birthplace of democracy, we were intrigued to see some examples of the kinds of ballots used for voting in classical Athens. As you can see, they are little clay discs onto which were scratched the name of the candidate that each voter supported. Candidates, we were told, often created many such discs and passed them out to the voters as part of the campaign process.

These other two artifacts were found inside the National Archeological Museum. The first is an example of the kinds of masks worn by performers in the greek theater -- in this case, this is a grotesque buffoon of the kind who might appear in a Greek comedy.

 

And this is a marble statue of Hermes found in Siphnos. The sign explains, "Hermes was, among other properties, the patron of travelers, therefore herms were erected at roads and crossroads. The Phallus carved not the front face of the pillar is both a symbol of pleasure and an apotropaic element." In case you are wondering, apotropaic means that it was designed to ward off harm and evil influences, or to bring good luck.

I was hoping that Hermes would watch over us as we began to get ready for our return to the United States.

I mentioned last time that I was starting to spend more and more time hanging out in Mickie D's in Europe. As I did so, I started to develop some interest in the processes of localization and the ways that the franchise has begun to adjust its menu to reflect cultural differences in regions around the world. Here, for example, is a sign for the Greek Mac (spotted in Athens). As you can see, if you look closely, the Greek Mac consists of two hamburger patties wrapped in Pita bread, with yogurt sauce, tomato slices, and onions.

Below it, there's a sign for  Il Mac (as seen in a fast food establishment in Rome.) which uses parmesan cheese.

 

And in Paris, we saw people eating the McBaguette  -- the name tells the whole story, but here's a news clip announcing its debut, which I found on the web.

So, maybe Quentin Tarantino was onto something when he has his gangster protagonists in Pulp Fiction exploring the cultural nuances of what's on the fast food menus of Europe. Just thought you'd want to know.

 

ROME, ITALY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwmSMwXIkZQ

It used to be said that all roads lead to Rome. In our case,our entire grand tour of Europe ended up there. Cynthia and I had been boning up for this leg of the trip by working our way back through our boxed set of dads from HBO's Rome, not to mention Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday,  at night in our hotel rooms. Rome is of course much to vast and diverse a city to do justice to within a few days time, and its culture spans most of written history. We made a conscious decision that this trip we were going to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on Ancient Rome, and would hold off on Renaissance and Catholic Rome for future adventures.

But, first, I need to do two final presentations. First, I gave a live webcasts to librarians and information officers working in U.S. Embassies around the world as part of their "Window on America" series. After some brief opening remarks, the program's host asked me to respond to questions sent by Twitter from many different countries, primarily focused on the impact of new media on learning and literacy, on books publishing, and on civic and political participation.

Later in the trip, I had a chance to sit down and talk with David H. Thorne, the current U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and a key member of the Obama 2008 campaign, where we had a great exchange about the impact of new media on American electoral politics.

The U.S. Embassy also underwrote my talk at the European Institute for Design, which was hosted by Max Giovagnoli. Max has run the Ted X Transmedia conference in Rome. Here's a video of Max talking about his own work as a transmedia designer.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmsXIGwEQz8

He is also the author of Transmedia Storytelling: Imagery, Shapes, and Techniques, which takes a theoretically informed perspective on the challenges designers face in seeking to construct a transmedia narrative.  Max was a most agreeable host who, even after listening me drone on for several hours about my research, and taking us out to dinner, was nice enough to take Cynthia and I for a midnight tour, which offered us an amazing vista of the ancient Roman ruins.

The school had hired a translator who was used to working with diplomats and so was incredibly slow and precise, which drug out my talk past the breaking point, probably for everyone involved, but the audience was incredibly polite and patient, leaving quietly if they needed to do so, but a high percentage of them stuck it out to the end of the presentation.

While we were visiting the design school, I had a chance to review some of the amazing works being done by their students, who are working with games, transmedia, comics, and video/film production, and often making playful use of images and techniques from global popular culture. If you follow this link, for example, you can see a dynamic public art project developed in collaboration with Warner Brothers to mark the release of the Amazing Spider-Man movie in Rome.  After all of the many Spider-Man sightings on this trip, I am convinced that Spidey represents the modern day equivalent of Hermes, the Patron of Travellers. I also did a video interview which recently made its appearance on the web.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLe_VWsqS9o&feature=youtu.be

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuwFDnDC4bI&feature=youtu.be

Getting into the spirit of my ongoing exploration of slapstick signs in Europe, Max recently shared with me this especially vivid "No Entry" sign located near the entry to the IED.

We then had two days, more or less, to play tourists in the ancient Roman empire, and we decided to split it between seeing the sights in Rome proper and taking a day trip out to Pompeii. Here, you see me standing in front of what is probably Rome's most recognizable landmark -- the Colosseum.

 

We quickly discovered that warning signs in the ancient world are as hysterically funny as their modern day counterparts. Here's a sign, for example, inside the colosseum, which I suspect was intended as a warning for visitors not to try to feed or pet the Tigers.

And here's a mosaic which Cynthia saw at an exhibition on glassblowing in the ancient world which seems to be offering a similar message about the risks of trying to get too friendly with crocodiles.

 

And finally, here's a "Beware of Dog" mosaic from the entry way to a house in Pompeii. It actually says "Beware the Dog" in Latin, though the letters are hard to see here, as they have faded through time.

 

The message I took from all of this was that the ancient world was encountering creatures from all over the world, but they had not yet figured out that a great many of them bite.

While we are talking about animals, here's another gratuitous cat picture, this one taken amongst the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.

We saw brides and grooms wandering around a good chunk of Europe, including in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on the grounds of Versailles, under the bridge of Sighs in Venice, and I could have filled an entire blog post just with pictures we took of loving young couples, but somehow, this image of a bride and groom walking in to the future together, captured near the Roman Forum, was too special to resist.

I have always been interested in Trajan's Column since Scott McCloud described it in Understanding Comics as an important predecessor of the sequential arts. A series of carvings depicting the he epic wars between the Romans andDacians (101–102 and 105–106 AD) spiral around the 98 foot tall column. It's hard to tell from what vantage point anyone could actually process the sequence of images, but McCloud argues, convincingly, that they break the action into a series of panels, which then are laid out sequentially, so that we are invited to read across them to construct the narrative.

 

 

This memorial is not from ancient Rome, but it's a great illustration of the ways that subsequent Italian governments sought to mobilize the glory that was once Rome to create its own powerful myths of national origins. Constructed between 1885 and 1911, on the northern slope of the Capitoline Hill, Il Vittoriano manages to take every cliche about ancient Rome and pile them together to create one massive spectacle.

While wandering around the various museums dedicated to antiquities, we stumbled upon this wonderfully complicated looking Coffee vending machine. We all know how much the Italians love their coffee, but this seems to be a coin-operated equivalent of Starbucks, allowing you to order an astonishing array of hot caffeinated beverages.

 

POMPEII, ITALY

The following day, we made our way by train out to Pompeii. Somewhere along the way, my pocket was picked and my wallet was stolen, which I only discovered while I was wandering around inside the ancient ruins, so we ended up having to sit up most of the night before we left to head back home on the phone canceling credit cards (or trying to do so) and dealing with various bureaucracies, and then, trying to figure out how we were going to pay for our hotel room and our cab to the airport. It was needless to say not the most fun we had on the trip. Ironically, we made it all the way across Europe without losing a bag, only to have our luggage get significantly delayed flying into LAX, and we only had to deal with robbers our last day abroad. We must have done something to cross Hermes (or Spider-man, depending on which is now the operative deity for international travelers.)

It's hard to imagine a better last place to visit in the grand tour than Pompeii, this ancient Roman city, which was partially burried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It has both haunted (and titilated) visitors for several hundred year's now, and it offers us a unique window into the everyday life of the ancient Roman empire. Ironically, given the massive destructive force the volcano unleashed on its residents, Pompeii remains much better preserved than the ruins in Rome or Athens, both of which were subjected to human vandals through the years. Nothing I had read about Pompeii prepared me for the scale.

 

We spent an entire day wandering its streets, walking into one house or business establishment after another, from the fast food restaurant depicted here (with its multiple ovens for cooking food for commercial dining) to the public baths and the brothels (with the very explicit erotic art which scandalized the Victorians and has been tourist bait ever since.)

Part of what I will carry away with me are the brightly (even garishly) painted walls

and the well preserved murals, which give us a taste for the aesthetic sensibilities of the different classes which lived together in Pompeii.

As we were leaving Pompeii, we walked past a warehouse where the archeologists store some of the assorted old artifacts they are working with -- including a large number of Amphora, and in this case, one of the plaster bodies left behind by the city's human inhabitants. These casts were created by pouring plaster into the large number of air holes left in the volcanic ash around Pompeii, which turned out to be the airspace left behind when the victim's bodies decayed. These casts offer us an incredible glimpse into the human pain and suffering that the eruption wrought on the residents of this once great city. I had seen Voyage in Italy at the Bologna Film Festival, which has a remarkable sequence showing the casting process, which gave me an even more vivid understanding of what we were looking at here.

And this concludes Henry and Cynthia's Excellent Adventures. We will  now return you back to our regularly scheduled blog posts.

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

Now Available: Transmedia Hollywood 2 Videos

Due to technical difficulties, we've been delayed in sharing with you the videos from our April Transmedia Hollywood 2 conference, jointly sponsored by the cinema schools at USC and UCLA, and hosted this year at UCLA. We hope to be back next April at USC with a whole new line up of speakers and topics, which we are just now starting to plan. In the meantime, check out some of these sessions, which should give the ever expanding Transmedia community plenty to chew on this summer. As for myself, I'm flying down to Rio, even as we speak.

Welcome and Opening Remarks

Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Transmedia Hollywood 2, Visual Culture & Design: Denise Mann Opening Comments from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Henry Jenkins, Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC. (Some of my comments here got me into trouble at the time and I hope to post something here soon which explores the issue I raise here about the role of radical intertextuality within the same medium.)

Transmedia Hollywood 2, Visual Culture & Design: Henry Jenkins Opening Comments from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 1: "Come Out 2 Play": Designing Virtual Worlds--From Screens to Theme Parks and Beyond

Hollywood has come a long way since Walt Disney, circa 1955, invited families to come out and play in the first cross-platform, totally merchandised sandbox -- Disneyland. Cut to today and most entertainment corporations are still focused on creating intellectual properties to exploit across all divisions of the Company. However, as the studios and networks move away from the concrete spaces of movie and TV screens and start to embrace the seemingly limitless "virtual spaces" of the Web as well as the real-world spaces of theme parks, museums, and comic book conventions, the demands on creative personnel and their studio counterparts have expanded exponentially.

Rather than rely on old-fashioned merchandising and licensing departments to oversee vendors, which too often results in uninspired computer games, novelizations, and label T-shirts, several studios have brought these activities in-house, creating divisions like Disney Imagineering and Disney Interactive to oversee the design and implementation of these vast, virtual worlds. In other instances, studios are turning to a new generation of independent producers -- aka "transmedia producers" -- charged with creating vast, interlocking brand extensions that make use of a never-ending cycle of technological future shock and Web 2.0 capabilities.

The results of these partnerships have been a number of extraordinarily inventive, interactive, and immersive experiences that create a "you are there" effect. These include the King Kong 360 3D theme park ride, which incorporates the sight, smell, and thunderous footsteps of the iconic gorilla as he appears to toss the audience's tram car into a pit. Universal Studios and Warner Bros. have joined forces to create the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a new $200 million-plus attraction at the Islands of Adventure in Florida. Today's panel focuses on the unique challenges associated with turning traditional media franchises into 3D interactive worlds, inviting you to come out 2 play in the studios' virtual sandboxes.

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists:

  • Scott Bukatman, Associate Professor, Stanford University (Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century)
  • Rick Carter, Production Designer (Avatar, Sucker Punch, War of the Worlds)
  • Dylan Cole, Art Designer (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland)
  • Thierry Coup, SVP, Universal Creative, Wizarding World of Harry Potter, King Kong 3D
  • Craig Hanna, Chief Creative Officer, Thinkwell Design (Wizarding World of Harry Potter-opening; Ski Dubai)
  • Angela Ndalianis, Associate Professor /Head, Cinema Studies, University of Melbourne (Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment)
  • Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive, Disney Imagineering (elecTronica, Toy Story Mania)

TH2 Panel 1: "Come Out 2 Play" from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 2: "We're Looking For Characters": Designing Personalities Who Play Across Platforms

How is our notion of what constitutes a good character changing as more and more decisions get made on the basis of a transmedia logic? Does it matter that James Bond originated in a book, Spider-Man in comics, Luke Skywalker on screen, and Homer Simpson on television, if each of these figures is going to eventually appear across a range of media platforms? Do designers and writers conceive of characters differently when they know that they need to be recognizable in a variety of media? Why does transmedia often require a shift in focus as the protagonist aboard the "mothership" often moves off stage as extensions foreground the perspective and actions of once secondary figures? How might we understand the process by which people on reality television series get packaged as characters who can drive audience identification and interest or by which performers get reframed as characters as they enter into the popular imagination? Why have so few characters from games attracted a broader following while characters from comics seem to be gaining growing popularity even among those who have never read their graphic adventures?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists:

  • Francesca Coppa, Director, Film Studies/Associate Professor, Muhlenberg College; Member of the Board of Directors, Organization for Transformative Works
  • Geoffrey Long, Program Manager, Entertainment Platforms, Microsoft
  • Alisa Perren, Associate Professor, Georgia State University (co-ed., Media Industries)
  • Kelly Souders, Writer/Executive Producer (Smallville)

TH2 Panel 2: "We're Looking for Characters" from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Game On!: Intelligent Designs or Fan Aggregators?

Once relegated to the margins of society, today's media fans are often considered the "advance guard" that studio and network marketers eagerly pursue at Comi-Con and elsewhere to help launch virtual word-of-mouth campaigns around a favorite film, TV series, computer game, or comic book. Since tech-savvy fans are often the first to access Web 2.0 sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Second Life in search of a like-minded community, it was only a matter of time before corporate marketers followed suit. After all, these social networking sites provide media companies with powerful tools to manage fans and commit them to crowd-sourcing activities on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. Two corporate leaders--Warner Bros. and Disney -- have entered the fray, pursuing disparate routes to monetize the game industry, each targeting a different type of consumer. While WB is investing in grittier, visually-arresting, adult-oriented, console games like Batman Arkham Asylum, Disney is banking on interactive entertainment like Club Penguin's online playground built for kids and family members. Hard-core gamers worry that the kid-and family-friendly Disney approach will neuter the video game industry; however, the unasked question is whether these interactive playgrounds linked to corporate IP are training next-generation consumers to bridge the gap between entertainment and promotions.

A similar revolution is taking place in the post-network television industry as creators form alliances with network marketers in an effort to reach out to engaged fans. Many of the cutting-edge creative team at Smallville forged this path in the wilderness, creating innovative on-line campaigns that they later took to Heroes. Fans avidly pursue TV creators who incorporate an arsenal of visual design elements derived from films, comic books, games, web-series, and theme park rides in the series proper and in the online worlds. Experimenting with ways to reinvent an aging medium and buoyed by a WGA strike that assigned derivative content to showrunners, the question remains whether these creators won the battle but lost the war as more and more network dot.coms have asserted control over the online interactive entertainment space. Do web-series like Dr. Horrible and The Guild represent the next frontier for enterprising creators or can creative personnel learn to play within the confines of the corporate playground?

We will ask creators from both industries -- gaming and television--to explain their philosophy about the intended and unintended outcomes of their interactive properties and immersive entertainment experiences. Marketers clearly love it when fans become willing billboards for the brand by wearing logo T-shirts, deciphering glyphs, or joining mysterious organizations such as Humans for the Ethical Treatment of Fairies, Elves, and Trolls, and then sharing clues, codes, and supporting content across a virtual community. These and other intriguing questions will be posed to the creative individuals responsible for designing many of these imaginative and engaging transmedia worlds.

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists:

  • Steven DeKnight (Spartacus, Smallville, Buffy, Angel)
  • Jeph Loeb, EVP/Head of TV, Marvel Entertainment (Heroes, Smallville)
  • Craig Relyea, SVP, Global Marketing, Disney Interactive (Epic Mickey, Toy Story3-The Game)
  • Avi Santo, Assistant Professor, Old Dominion University (co-creator of Flow: A Critical Forum on Television)
  • Matt Wolf, Double 2.0, ARG/Game Designer (Bourne Conspiracy, Hellboy II ARG, The Fallen ARG)

TH2 Panel 3: "Game On!" from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

"It's About Time!" Structuring Transmedia Narratives

The rules for how to structure a Hollywood movie were established more than a century ago and even then, were inspired by ideas from earlier media -- the four-act structure of theater, the hero's quest in mythology. Yet, audiences and creators alike are still trying to make sense of how to fit together the chunks of a transmedia narrative. Industry insiders use terms such as mythology or saga to describe stories which may expand across many different epochs, involve many generations of characters, expand across many different corners of the fictional world, and explore a range of different goals and missions.

We might think of such stories as hyper-serials, in so far as serials involved the chunking and dispersal of narrative information into compelling units. The old style serials on film and television expanded in time; these new style serials also expand across media platforms. So, how do the creators of these stories handle challenges of exposition and plot development, managing the audience's attention so that they have the pieces they need to put together the puzzle? What principles do they use to indicate which chunks of a franchise are connected to each other and which represent different moments in the imaginary history they are recounting? Do certain genres -- science fiction and fantasy -- embrace this expansive understanding of story time, while others seem to require something closer to the Aristotelian unities of time and space?

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists:

  • Caitlin Burns, Transmedia Producer, Starlight Runner Entertainment
  • Abigail De Kosnik, Assistant Professor, UC, Berkeley (Co-Ed., The Survival of the Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era; Illegitimate Media: Minority Discourse and the Censorship of Digital Remix)
  • Jane Espenson, Writer/Executive Producer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica)
  • John Platt, Co-Executive (Big Brother, The Surreal Life)
  • Tracey Robertson, CEO and Co-founder, Hoodlum
  • Lance Weiler, Founder, Wordbook Project

TH2 Panel 4: "It's About Time!" from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

What Reality Television Tells Us About the Arab World: An Interview with Marwan Kraidy (Part Two))


Star Academy 4, 2007. Two contestants perform a Valentine's Day Tableau (celebrations of this holiday are controversial in parts of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia)

You are careful to frame critical responses to these programs as a debate within the Islamic world. Can you map some of the tensions or disagreements within that debate?

Specifying terms of engagement with Western modernity is a paramount issue that shapes a variety of debates. This has many facets. Politically, there is a debate about whether the best course of action towards the West, mainly the US, is to be an ally, like "moderate" Arab regimes, or to resist US policies and actions in the Arab world. Another debate revolved (remember that the reality television polemics occurred mostly during the G.W. Bush years) around the democratization agenda, the motives behind it, mechanisms of implementation, and its actual effects. Socially and culturally, Western influence on culture and identity remains a hot issue. There are those who argue from religious or nationalist points of view, that Western cultural encroachment must be resisted, for corrupting moral values or fomenting consumerism. Others argue that such an influence is desirable. And then there is a group that says, "well, this is inevitable, so let us figure out how to cope with it instead of attacking it." This gets tangled up in socio-economic concerns about globalization, economic dependency, and poverty.

Gender seems to be at the heart of many of the controversies you describe in the book -- whether the issue of men and women sharing the same space in Big Brother or what kinds of public voice women should have in the case of some of the talent competitions. How is reality television helping the Arab world think about the changing status of women in their society? And what does it suggest about the limits of tolerance for these changes?

One of the most rewarding aspect of researching and writing the book was my growing realization of the central role of gender in social and political life, in the Arab world and elsewhere. Reality television animated the discussion of gender by featuring unmarried young men and women dancing, singing, eating, and (in some shows) living together under one roof. Conservative attacks against these things compelled a riposte from liberals and feminists. These debates are long-standing in Arab literary and cultural fora, but this time the audience for these "culture wars" was as large as the audience for reality television--massive. So the new scale of these controversies is a signal contribution of the Arab reality television wars. In specific instances, like Kuwait, arguments about gender roles triggered by reality television were embroiled in the struggle for women's political rights, each amplifying the other. More recently, Western audiences saw that a Saudi woman can be a talented poet with an acute political sensibility. What the controversies suggest about the limits of change is that for positive social change to be sustainable, it has to be contested and negotiated internally, which is a good thing. Change can simply not be imposed from the outside.

So gender was a pivot that articulated a variety of political, religious, economic, social and cultural issues. It was not merely an issue of the representation of women. It was rather, as Joan Scott put it so eloquently in her article on gender as a category for historical analysis, a field of power. In the pan-Arab reality television polemics, rival political actors invested that field with contentious energy, even when the debate was not focused on gender issues per se.

While some of these shows seek to construct a Pan-Arab identity, they also become sites for struggles over national reputation, struggles which can become quite intense and can involve interference by governments. In what sense are these reality programs becoming a staging ground for the status of the nation state?

Arab politics has historically involved tensions between the pan-Arab realm and individual nation-states. As I was doing my fieldwork, I was amazed to hear, over and over again, rumors about heads of state getting involved in mobilizing their armed forces, politicans, or population to vote for this or that candidate.

A big part of this is the pan-Arab character of these shows. Think of the Eurovision Song Contest: Are participants perceived primarily as artists and performers, or as cultural and political ambassadors for their nation-states? Most participants in Star Academy and Superstar were defined, or defined themselves, as representatives of larger, mostly national groups. In Star Academy, many contestants had huge national flags hanging on the wall above their heads. When weekly nominees were announced, an icon of their national flag appeared next to their names and the number to call or send a text to. Program hosts also always emphasized the contestants' nationality. This was one of the ways in which producers created dramatic tension.

There were other fault-lines that came to the surface in varying degrees. One was between Gulf citizens and other Arabs. The latter perceive the former to be spoiled and arrogant because of their oil wealth, and the former often act in ways that encourage this stereotype. There is another dimension to this, in that many male participants came from socially conservative Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc, while most women came from the more socially liberal countries of the Levant (Lebanon and Syria), North Africa (mostly Morocco and Tunisia) and Egypt. Finally, there was a small vs big country dynamic that emerged early on, with alliances emerging between, for example Lebanese and Kuwaiti fans of a Kuwaiti contestant facing an Egyptian participant (Egypt's population is 30 times larger than Kuwait's). Again, what interested me was the discourses that emerged among fans of the show, echoing larger questions about big countries imposing themselves on smaller ones.

So reality shows provided a stage for national identities to be performed, and for nations to be re-created and re-affirmed. In the book I argue that the polemics under stuffy illustrate the performative, episodic and contingent nature of nationalism.

Despite strong protests from some government and religious leaders, these shows have enjoyed great popularity with Arab publics. What can you tell us about the fandom around reality television in the Arab world? How do these programs take on ritual dimensions for some of their viewers and why has fandom itself become the target of concern for some religious and political leaders?

In chapter 4, I analyze a radical Saudi preacher's sermon, titled "Satan Academy," which illustrates concerns about fan activities and rituals competing with rituals of religious and political power. This applies most clearly to Saudi Arabia, but it is relevant to other Arab countries as well. The sermon, the transcript of which reads like a passionate and sophisticated essay in media criticism, focuses on interactivity, participation and liveness as sources of danger for the prevailing social system. When viewers become involved in intricate details of a program, and when they eagerly await things to go off-script at any moment, a new affective bond is created, and ritually maintained, one based on a notion of authenticity as spontaneous, non-scripted personal behavior, as opposed to authenticity as adherence to prevailing social and religious values. This, as I explain at length in chapter 4, poses a threat to the cleric-religious system in Saudi Arabia, in which subjects constantly reenact their submission via prayer rituals, re-aired ad infinitum on television. Reality television basically creates a competing set of rituals, therefore a rival potential set of allegiances.

American reality contestants are often accused of exhibitionism, seeing their participation in terms of a personal desire for fame. Your account suggests that contestants in the Arab world are more likely to be understood in terms of struggles over representation -- as standing in for larger groups, including some which have historically been denied public visibility and recognition. Can you describe what claims get made there about their motives for participation and how they may take on larger symbolic weight?

Though a few critics made similar charges against Arab reality television participants, and though contestants expressed a personal desire for fame and producers and promoters of reality shows relentlessly stoked that desire, social and political aspects took over very quickly. In essence, candidates were hijacked by discourses swirling around these shows, as representatives of nations. Many of them played that game aggressively and courted these identifications. Shadha Hassoun, the Iraqi woman who won Star Academy 4, did everything she could to be perceived as a representative of Iraq, its tragedy and its hopes, and she succeeded spectacularly, managing to win the show. But playing with national identity is a dangerous game, especially for women, who have historically been symbolic boundary markers between groups, tribes and nations--in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Superstar 2, 2006

Syrian Contestant Shahd Barmada wrapped by Syrian flag while performing on stage

So when Shahd Barmada, a young Syrian contestant in Superstar, attempted to distance herself from Syria by asking viewers-voters to consider her "as an artist-performer, not as a Syrian," in order to stand a chance to win in an environment of political tension between Lebanon, where the show was based, and Syria, she emerged as a truly tragic figure, and lost.

Reality programs world-wide have been used to encourage the embrace of new media platforms. What does the rise of reality television in the Arab world teach us

There is no doubt that reality television in the Arab world was the crucible for a new business model premised on interactivity and various value-added gizmos, ringtones, etc, for Arab television. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation was a leader in that regard. The popularity of reality television made masses of people aware of what they could do with a mobile phone, and at the same time whetted their desire to acquire more sophisticated mobile devices. However, socio-economic standing is a big factor here, which is why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been primary markets for both reality shows and vendors of mobile devices. In other, less well-off countries like Egypt, you do meet people who have a nice looking cell phone but whose calling card has expired. This is why some Arab governments and businesses offered free calls or texting to compatriots for them to vote for their national "representative" on reality shows. In this regard, I am skeptical of a lot of the hype about the impact of the Internet on Arab societies, and I think the mobile telephone is as important, even if the scale of its use is restricted by class divides.

Marwan M. Kraidy is Associate Professor of Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Recent books include Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Arab Television Industries (British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Previously he published Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives (Routledge, 2003, co-edited with Patrik Murphy) and Hybridity, or, The Cultural Logic of Globalization (Temple University Press, 2005, single-authored). The Politics of Reality Television: Global Perspectives (Routledge, 2010, co-edited with Katherine Sender) is in press. His current book projects are Global Media Studies (co-authored with Toby Miller, under contract with Polity), and Music Videos and Arab Public Life.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

What Reality Television Tells Us About the Arab World: An Interview with Marwan Kraidy (Part One)

Reality television is often depicted as the trivialization or tabloidization of American culture. I can't tell you how many people I know have told me with a sneer that more Americans voted in the most recent American Idol than voted in the last presidential election. It turns out to be a myth -- since people can vote as many times as they want for American Idol, there's no way to translate the number of votes cast into the number of people participating, and my bet is that if we could have voted for the candidate of our choice on speed dial in the last election, the numbers there would have looked much more impressive. Yet, the comment suggests the ways that reality television is often depicted as a distraction for democratic citizenship. This is one of many reasons I was so interested in Marwan Kraidy's new book, Reality Television and Reality Politics, published earlier this year, which argues that reality television has been a key vehicle through which the Arab world has been negotiating a range of social, cultural, political, economic, and technological changes and has become a springboard for significant debates about nationalism and the future of citizenship. The books offers vivid case studies over how the international formats of reality television -- especially those around Big Brother and Pop Idol -- have become the vehicles through which the Arab public has worked through contradictions surrounding modernity. Kraidy sees these formats not simply as another symptom of western cultural imperialism, but through the localization process, as ways that the Arab world takes measure of its own cultural practices and political traditions. These formats, and localized responses to them, force certain issues into the forefront of the popular imagination, but they also suggest a much more diverse set of worldviews at place in Middle Eastern culture than typically emerge in western representations of this region.

In this interview, Kraidy talks through some of the insights one gains into Arab cultural politics by looking at how the reality television genre is being absorbed into their broadcast practices and by looking at both the content and responses to these programs. What follows will challenge your preconceptions about both reality television and the Arab world.

Your book opens with a quotation from Fatima Mernissi: "Reality and the representation of reality are always far apart. But the gap between the two reaches a breaking point when a society experiences a deep crisis in which individuals don't have enough time to formulate discourses to explain to themselves what they are doing." What does this passage suggest about the place of reality television in the contemporary Arab world?

Reality television crystallized a festering Arab malaise exacerbated by the Iraq War, Abu Ghrayb, the Danish Cartoons, the plight of the Palestinians, and an existential crisis whose scope is truly all-encompassing--ideological, social, political, economic, religious, etc. Clearly, reality television did not trigger all the above on its own, but the intense controversy it created, because it was public, transnational, and involved many sectors of society, gave many Arabs a language and a platform to voice their anger, fears and aspirations. Reality television's claim to represent the real fomented the polemic by compelling many social groups to advance multiple Arab realities. Some said: "This (young men and women living together for four months and competing for viewers' text-messaged votes) is not our reality. It is a reality imposed by the West." This prompted other Arabs to say: "In fact, some aspects of our reality are much more similar to the social interactions we see on reality shows than the reality that you--conservatives speaking in the name of religion--are in fact trying to impose on all of us."

Reality television has been deeply political in many parts of the world. HBO recently ran a documentary about Afghan Star. Aswin Punathambekar has been writing lately about the politics around Pop Idol in India. John Hartley has described how a star search program in China became immersed in democracy movements there. Yet most American critics see reality as a distraction from "real politics." Do you have any thoughts about why the U.S. response has been relatively apolitical when compared with the kinds of examples you discuss in your book?

Part of the answer may be that the ethos of reality television--cutthroat individualism, conspicuous self-improvement, ostentatious meritocracy-- reflect, in exaggerated form, what are broadly perceived to be elements of the U.S. ethos. Many writers about reality television in the US-UK nexus argued that these ideolects underpin the growth of self-governing citizens under neoliberalism. This is true to a large extent in the US and the UK where the state has ceded many aspects of social life to the private sector. But this issue is not as salient in many parts of the world, where some of the most heated debates are about what we could call basic liberal values--individual autonomy, equal gender relations, representative government, etc. This difference became manifest in a symposium about the global politics of reality television that I-along with Katherine Sender--organized at Penn last year. Aswin Punathambekar made a comment then that summarizes my thoughts on this: "neoliberalism is not distributed equally around the world."

As to the belief that entertainment and popular culture is apolitical, it seems to me it is a faith-based argument, whose proponents cling to in the face of overwhelming evidence presented by researchers in the humanities and social sciences. This is true globally, even if local manifestations of it are dissimilar. So John Stewart is political in the US context in different ways than Star Academy is in Saudi Arabia.

We can look at this from another venture, which is the contested project of modernity. Clearly, what it means to be modern is vigorously contested in the Arab world, a fraught debate animated by memories of colonialism, contemporary geopolitics, and internal social transformations alike. So when something as popular and polemical as reality television enters the scene, it provides a concrete pivot where old ideological battles are waged one more time about Arab-Western relations, gender issues, cultural authenticity, religion in public life, etc. This does not mean that modernity is not contested in the US, as the Tea Party movement (and other peculiarities of American society and politics) suggests. However, it seems to me that these debates are more heated in the Arab world because of the relatively limited avenues of participation and contestation in public life.

You suggest that the discourse around reality programs in the Arab world informed "street politics" and "chamber politics." Can you share some examples of each and reflect a bit on what connections exist between them in the Arab context?

The 2005 street demonstrations in central Beirut featured vivid reminders of the implications of reality television for street politics. Fan activities metamorphosed into political activism: like reality television fans, young demonstrators used mobile phones to mobilize and offer real time tactical information that they exploited ruthlessly. Hence the story of a group of demonstrators locating one of the army checkpoint--surrounding downtown Beirut to prevent popular rallies from coalescing there--whose commanding officer was sympathetic to the demonstrators' cause. A mobile phone blast informed hundreds of activists who converged at that checkpoint and were able to gather in the city center.

Lahoud Nominee.jpg

In the book I also show a picture of a demonstrator carrying a hand-made sign proclaiming "Lahoud, Nominee, Vote 1559." The young man brandishing the sign nominated Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president allied with Syria and reviled by the demonstrators, to be voted off the show/island/politics. 1559 refers to United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for, among other things, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Reality television was clearly involved in Arab "street politics."

In Kuwait, a small country known for a robust press and feisty legislative debates that regularly force politicians in the executive branch to resign, reality television animated "chamber politics" for several years. Contemporary Kuwaiti politics pit a powerful Salafi-Islamist parliamentary block against liberal groups including merchant families, professionals, and women's groups. When Lebanese reality shows grabbed ratings and headlines in the country, and when a concert promoter--a woman--wanted to bring Superstar finalists to Kuwait for a concert, Islamists "grilled" the sitting Minister of Information in parliament--who when not in the government teaches mass communication at Kuwait University--forcing him to resign. But they could not control the debate, and several prominent Kuwaiti feminists and liberals attacked the Islamists in op-eds and letters to the editor, as a poll in the liberal daily al-Qabas demonstrated reality television's vast popularity in the country.

Reality television has been at the center of the exchange of formats around the world. As you note, many of these reality show formats come from the west but get localized in the Arab context. Can you describe this localization process? To what degree is their western origins central to their political impact?

The localization process underpins the book's main argument that the Arab reality television controversies are best understood as a social laboratory where various versions of modernity are tested. The formats' western origins were never directly important. In the early years of Arab reality television, 2003 and 2004, critics leveled the charge that the reality television wave was another episode in a western cultural conquest trying to impose an alien reality on Arabs and Muslims.

Localization occurred in several ways.

One was a gradual take over by conservative forces. Consider the case of Algeria, where state television initially aired the Lebanese Star Academy. After opposition from Islamists, the Algerian president himself is said to have ordered it off the air, replacing it with a locally-made, ostensibly more conservative version. One season later, and the same slot was filled by a Qoranic recitation show, reality style--nominees, fan mobilization, viewer voting.

Hissa Helal, Saudi Poet who challenged harshly conservative clerics in her country on a poetry-themed reality show on Abu Dhabi TV, 2010

Two poetry reality shows epitomize another, and to me far more interesting, process of localization. Poetry enjoys a status in Arab culture that it is to my knowledge not accorded anywhere else in the world. Since pre-Islamic times, poetry is at once art form, political platform and entertainment. Numerous Arab television channels today have talk-shows dedicated to poetry, and poets show up on all kinds of talk-shows for women, youth, etc. A well-known poet in the Arab world is treated like a rock star. So here comes Abu Dhabi Television, supported by state financing, with the brilliant idea of launching poetry competitions, reality television style. The two shows, one dedicated to Arab poetry at large, the other focused on Gulf poetry, were major hits. Followers of your blog may have read recently the story of Hissa Helal, the Saudi woman who reached the finale of one of these shows, with a poem (in the semi-final) that attacked the reactionary clerics in her country, a gutsy move that was made partly possible by the venue--a public, popular poetry competition.

Marwan M. Kraidy is Associate Professor of Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Recent books include Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Arab Television Industries (British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Previously he published Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives (Routledge, 2003, co-edited with Patrik Murphy) and Hybridity, or, The Cultural Logic of Globalization (Temple University Press, 2005, single-authored). The Politics of Reality Television: Global Perspectives (Routledge, 2010, co-edited with Katherine Sender) is in press. His current book projects are Global Media Studies (co-authored with Toby Miller, under contract with Polity), and Music Videos and Arab Public Life.

Manufacturing Dissent: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with Stephen Duncombe, author of the new book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy. What follows is the second installment. I am being pressed for time this morning but hope to add a few comments to this post later today about last night's debate. You only briefly touch upon the rise of news comedy shows like The Daily Showand The Colbert Report. Do you see such programs as a positive force in American democracy? How do you respond to those who feel that the blurring

between news and politics trivializes the political process? What role does

comedy play in the kinds of popular politics you are advocating?

I love The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. As someone on the Left it is refreshing to see a progressive viewpoint expressed (even if only expressed ironically) in a way that makes me laugh and gives me pleasure. I also think that Stewart and Colbert's use of humor can be deeply subversive: they use ridicule to show how ridiculous "serious politics" is, much in the same way that Jonathan Swift's "modest" proposal in 1729 made the "rational" case for solving the problem of the poor in Ireland by eating them. The political process is already a joke, these guys are merely recognizing it for what it is.

In doing this they hold out the possibility of something else, that is, they create an opening for a discussion on what sort of a political process wouldn't be a joke. In doing this they're setting the stage for a very democratic sort of dialogue: one that asks questions rather than simply asserts the definitive truth. However, it's still unclear that ironic joking leads to the sort of popular response I'm hypothesizing above. It can, just as easily, lead into a resigned acceptance that all politics are just a joke and the best we can hope for it to get a good laugh out of it all. To paraphrase the philosopher Walter Benjamin: we can learn to find pleasure in our own destruction.

However, I think we need to take Stewart at his word: he's just an entertainer. It's really up to the rest of us to answer the questions he poses. Sometimes I think we ask too much of culture: we expect it to solve our political problems for us. I don't think it can do this. It can create openings, give us insight, provide us with tools, but the rest is a political process that counts on all of us.

You contrast the ways that FDR spoke to the American public with the ways that George W. Bush addresses us during his weekly radio-casts. What do you see as

the primary differences? Most contemporary politicians who attempt to

"explain" complex policy issues in the way FDR did get accused of being

"wonks." What steps do you think could be taken to create a new political

rhetoric which embraces the ideal of an informed public but doesn?t come

across as patronizing or pedantic?

The brilliance of FDR is that he and his New Deal administration, like King and his fellow organizers, recognized the necessity of spectacle in politics. Because of this they worked hard to re-imagine spectacle in a way that could fit progressive, democratic ends. The 1920s were an era much like our own in its worship of celebrity: a mediated world of movie stars on the silver screen and sports heroes in the new photo-tabloids. But instead of merely condemning this state of affairs, New Deal artists and administrators re-imagined it, using photographs sponsored by the Farm Securities Agency and murals painted by artists of the Works Progress Administration to recognize and display a different sort of American: the dust bowl farmer, the southern share cropper, the factory worker, the rootless migrant. By creating these counter-spectacles they tried to turn the public gaze from stars to everyday (albeit romanticized) people, essentially redefining "The People" in the popular imagination. Make no mistake, this was a deeply political move, as valorizing everyday people was essential for garnering political support for New Deal political and economic programs.

Roosevelt's "fireside chats" also put the lie to the myth that spectacle has to run against reason. Over thirty times during his presidency FDR addressed the American public on the radio. He would always begin these speeches with a warm "My friends." But what followed this simple greeting was a sophisticated explanation of the crises the country faced: the banking collapse, currency concerns, the judiciary, world war. This was propaganda. The speeches were scripted by playwrights who dramatized the case for the president's politics, and FDR spoke to people's fears and desires in a folksy, personalized language, but these fireside chats also took for granted that citizens could be reasoning beings with the ability to understand complex issues. In other words FDR believed that rationality and emotion could exist side by side.

I wish contemporary politicians would learn from this. Instead, we get the "man of reason" like John Kerry, or the "man of fantasy" aka George W. Bush. Politicians need to understand - in a way that I think many producers of pop culture already do - that you can speak to reason and fantasy simultaneously. It's an Enlightenment myth that truth is self-evident: that all you need to do is lay out the facts of your argument and immediately people will acknowledge and embrace it. What FDR and King understood is that the truth needs help. It needs stories told about it, works of art made of it, it needs to use symbols and be embedded in myths that people find meaningful. It needs to be yelled from the mountaintops. The truth needs help, but helping it along doesn't mean abandoning it.

You discuss the public desire for recognition as the flip side of their

relationship to celebrity culture. What lessons might progressives draw from

reality television about this desire for recognition?

If there are two things that those on the Left love to hate (while secretly enjoying) it's celebrity culture and reality TV. These play to the our most base political desires: celebration of an ersatz aristocracy and cutthroat competition; the driving fantasies of Feudalism and Capitalism respectively. True, true. But it's a mistake to write them off as just that, for they also manifest another popular dream: the desire to be seen. What do stars have that we don't? Wealth and beauty, yes, but also something more important: they are recognized. What is reality TV about? The chance for someone like us to be recognized.

What sort of a politics can be based in a recognition that we desperately what to be recognized? First off, policies that make it easier to be seen and heard. Community TV, micro radio, free internet access, net neutrality, and so on. If the populist Huey Long once called for a "chicken in every pot," in the mass mediated age our slogan ought to be "every person an image." But it goes deeper than this, for the popular desire is not just about being seen as an image on a screen. This, in some ways, is just a metaphor for a far deeper desire: being recognized for who we are and what we are, our opinions and our talents -- and this is the core of democracy.

The democracy we have today has little place for our opinions and talents. Our opinions show up as abstract polling data, and the only talents our political process asks for is our skill at forking over money to professional activists and campaigns or our dexterity in pulling a voting lever. This professionalization of politics, whereby democracy becomes the business of lobbyists, fund raisers, and image consultants, has fundamentally alienated the citizenry from their own democracy. It's no wonder that we turn to culture to find these dreams of recognition expressed.

This issue really gets to the core of my Dream. My book is about learning from popular culture and constructing ethical spectacles, but the lessons that I hope are learned will lead far further than making better advertisements or staging better protests for progressive political causes (though that wouldn't hurt). What I'm arguing for in my book is a reconfiguration of political thought, a sort of "dreampolitik" that recognizes that dreams and desires, ones that are currently manifested in pop culture, need to be an integral part of our democratic politics.

Sanjaya Malakar, Leroy Jenkins, and The Power to Negate

mainsanjaya2.jpg As a long-time American Idol fan, I am watching the current controversy about Sanjaya Malakar with morbid fascination. For those of you who are not following the plot, Malakar is a relatively untalented contestant who is surviving week after week as much more widely praised rivals are biting the dust. Simon Cowell this week went so far as to suggest that nothing which the producers on the show said about his performance would make any difference in the outcome of the voting: "I don't think it matters anymore what we have to say, actually. I genuinely don't. I think you are in your own universe and if people like you, good luck!" Elsewhere, Cowell has fanned the flames by threatening to quit American Idol if Sanjaya wins.

Regular readers of this blog will have already suspected some of the forces going on behind the scenes here to essentially "spoil" American Idol and can only imagine the choice words that Simon and the other judges are uttering behind the scenes. I reported here last summer about a group called Vote for the Worst which has adopted an interventionist stance towards reality television programs. The group has taken credit in the past for the surprising longevity of AI contestants, such as Scott Savol and Bucky Covington[See note at end of post], as well as having gotten a number of lackluster contestants onto Big Brother's All Stars series last summer. Here's what the group has posted over on their home page:

Why do we do it? During the initial auditions, the producers of Idol only let certain people through. Many good people are turned away and many bad singers are kept around to see Simon, Paula, and Randy so that America will be entertained.

Now why do the producers do this? It's simple: American Idol is not about singing at all, it's about making good reality TV and enjoying the cheesy, guilty pleasure of watching bad singing. We agree that a fish out of water is entertaining, and we want to acknowledge this fact by encouraging people help the amusing antagonists stick around. VFTW sees keeping these contestants around as a golden opportunity to make a more entertaining show.

They have a point: research suggests that American Idol attracts essentially two different viewerships. There are people who watch the first part of the series -- up until Hollywood -- enjoying the "gong show" like segments where bad singers get spotlighted. (That's why William Hung remains one of the most infamous contestants to ever appear on the show and why the producers consistently replay the footage of his mangled and tone-deaf performance of "She Bangs.") And then there are the people who tune in once the producers have gotten all of that out of their system to watch the talented few compete, get feedback, and try to win the hearts of the American public.

So, it is hard for the producers to claim that "vote for the worst" is not in the spirit of the show. The Vote for the Worst fans are simply acting out of turn, asserting their own right to pick which bad singers should get on the air and how long they should last.

Vote for the Worst, by itself, probably doesn't have the clout to really carry this very far, in the end, but this time around, the site has won the support of Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media," who is using his satellite radio program to encourage listeners to vote to keep Sanjaya on the show. Stern has drawn real blood in the past. In 1998, Stern ran a successful effort to get a regular on his program, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, selected as one of People Magazine's list of the most beautiful people in the world. This was an early experiment in the use of the web to encourage reader participation. Hank won over Leo DeCaprio, the pretty boy actor who was then riding high off his Titanic appearance, and the dwarf got a lot angrier and perhaps a little drunker when the magazine refused to feature him inside the print edition of their publication.

Of course, as with this earlier election, the whole process exploits several bugs in the system: first, it takes advantage of the fact that viewers can call in more than one vote. It is not just that a relatively small but determined number of people could indeed cast enough votes to keep Sanjaya at the middle of the pack but it is also the case that people can vote for Sanjaya and not sacrifice their ability to also vote for a favorite performer. So, it becomes a no cost gag vote, which can turn out to have bad consequences for individual contestants who have off weeks and end up going while Mr. Malakar remains. Of course, all of this might end quickly if viewers voted to eliminate contestants, rather than to keep them. Surely, there are more people who want Malakar off the show than want him to remain on the air. But the producers have consistently argued against having people vote to eliminate contestants, feeling that would bring a negative tone to the proceedings.

As this has occurring, there have been growing expressions of outrage among fans of the program. Vote for the Worst proudly posts a segment from The O'Reilly Factor during which civil litigator Danielle Aidala tries to argue that the fan's efforts to keep Sanjaya Malakar on the air represent speech that should be exempt from First Amendment protection -- comparing voting for the worst to inciting a riot. For once, O'Reilly comes across as the most rational voice on the program!

And check out the ways that YouTube is responding to the Malakar Matter, including what we can only hope is a tongue in cheek promise to go on a hunger strike to encourage people to vote him off the air.

So, what of the fairly sweet and relatively harmless young man caught in the center of this whole brouhaha? At first, it was pretty clear he was clueless about these efforts on his behalf, shocked when he stayed on the air in the face of seemingly inevitable elimination, seeming fragile in the face of the judge's withering comments. One news story quoted a family friend: "He's so young and so sensitive, it's hard for him to go out on that stage and not have that devastation affect his performance."

By this week, when he appeared in a campy Mohawk and mugged throughout his performance, it seemed to me that like William Hung before him, he had caught onto the joke being made at his expense and was willing to ride things out as long as it kept him in the spotlight. My wife thinks he is still playing to win and is under the mistaken belief that he really does have an army of teenyboppers behind him. Watch the clip for yourself and see what you think.

How might we make sense of all of this?

For starters, we are witnessing the public's periodic fascination with its power to negate. "America", as the Idol judges like to call us, at least when they are happy with our decisions, has a stubborn streak. There have certainly been cases when the public votes to keep someone on the program precisely because the judges were harsh to them and long-time Idol viewers have long speculated that the judges use this power to condemn tactically to generate public support behind certain contestants they want to keep on the air. The fans are also deeply suspicious of other efforts by the judges to game the system and there have been, as I outlined in Convergence Culture, ongoing controversies about the reliability of the voting system itself. In what other context would we trust the results of an election when no vote totals were ever released? And there are certainly cases where backlash emerges when the judge push a contestant too heavily and at the expense of fan favorites. It is telling that the winner of American Idol often sells fewer records than the also rans, suggesting that to the bitter end, the public wants to exert its ability to cancel out whatever the judges tell us to do.

I certainly saw Hank the Dwarf winning People Magazine's contest over Leo DeCaprio as a kind of populist response to the culture of glamor and celebrity -- as a push towards the anti-celebrity, the anti-heroic, the anti-glamorous, and the untalented as emblematic of a segment of the population that feels under-represented, under-counted, and under-appreciated.

In that sense, Hank and Sanjaya might be compared to LeRoy Jenkins, the hapless World of Warcraft player whose misadventures have developed a cult following among hardcore gamers. I was recently asked by a reporter to comment on the LeRoy Jenkins story -- assuming of course that I had to be a Jenkins expert (Can't imagine why?)-- and I suggested that we might see him as a new kind of American everyman, an embodiment of our collective feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. I remarked on the odd happenstance that the American everyman of World War II was Kilroy -- with G.I.s scribbling "Killroy was here" across the landscape as they recaptured Europe from the Nazis -- while the American everyman of the current war in Baghdad might be LeRoy, the guy who never had a chance. As I explained to the reporter, ""For the first time, we as a society get to decide who's famous. Having gained the right to project celebrities forward, we often choose losers, because in the past it was always success that connoted celebrity. If Leroy Jenkins can become a celebrity, anybody can."

Of course, the populist underpinnings of all this are tainted, I would argue, by the fact that this is being taken out of the hands of the grassroots Vote for the Worst campaign and transformed into a battle between two media powerhouses: Cowell vs. Stern.

And here's a question I have been struggling with. My sense is that Stern's listeners were laughing with Hank as he walked away to victory over the Hollywood hotshots, while they are laughing at Sanjaya Malakar as he remains uncomfortably caught in the spotlight, in way over his head, on American Idol. So, how do we account for the difference?

How long will all of this last? It's anyone's guess. My hunch is that it will last another few weeks in any case -- until the pack thins out a bit more -- and then the number of fans needed to stay on the program will grow well beyond the reach of Vote for the Worst and Howard Stern. There are probably a lot more people who want to see some of the other contestants win than want to see Sanjaya stick around but for the moment, the votes are split and so he will outlast many more worthy contestants. Could Howard Stern pull it off with American Idol as he did with People? Probably not. For one thing, the number of votes being cast on Idol far outweighs the number needed to win a web-based contest in 1998 and for another, Stern doesn't have nearly the reach he once did, given the lackluster revenue being generated by Sirius Radio at the present time. At the end of the day, Malakar is going down and Cowell will be able to once again play king-maker on his own program. And if he doesn't? Well, he won't be the first winner on American Idol whose record sales didn't reflect his standings in the competition. And even if Malakar won the contest, the producers would be able to make a mint off some of the other talent in the competition.

Editor's Note: Readers correctly point out that Bucky Covington was never a target of the Vote for the Worst campaign. I have left the original reference so that their comments would make sense and so that it would clarify a common misconception. I have read multiple news reports which did list Bucky as a VFTW target but I can't find any trace of him being so on the actual site. Sorry for any offense caused to his loyal fans. As it happens, I kinda like the guy myself.

Broadway meets Reality Television

As an American Idol fan, I have been very pleased to see Jennifer Hudson get such wide-spread acclaim for her performance in Dreamgirls. Hudson got bumped prematurely from the Idol competition during the season which I document in Convergence Culture and it is delightful to see her get a second chance at success and really knock the ball out of the park. Beyonce's performance in the film seems surprisingly subdued while Hudson gets all of the showstopping moments (or at least all of the ones not commanded by Eddie Murphy!) And of course, now both Hudson and Murphy have walked away with Golden Globes and seem destined to be "players" in the Oscar race. I was curious, however, to see how her performance was being perceived by perhaps the most exacting fan audience for this particular film -- the community of enthusiasts of Broadway shows, many of whom have firm memories of the way this same role was handled by another Jennifer, Ms. Holliday, who won a Tony for playing Effie in the original stage production. So, I asked my friend and longtime collaborator, Alex Chisholm, himself a seasoned First Nighter, to suggest some places where I might get a taste of Ms. Hudson's reception. He directed me to the discussion over at Broadway World, a leading forum for fans of the American musical theater. The verdict is definitely split -- perhaps along generational lines -- with many of the younger fans knowing Holliday's performance only through the soundtrack album or glympses captured on the Tony Award show rather than from first hand experience. Here are just a few of the more thoughtful posts on this issue:

Holliday's voice barrels rapidly up and down the notes in AIATY in such a way that that I get a sense that she's truly feeling something powerful and emotional course through her body while she's singing. I find her singing on all of the other songs to be quite stirring also.

While Hudson's voice is astounding to me, she comes off more like she's decided how she wants to sing the song from the start and that's also how her singing on most of the soundtrack feels to me. However, I'm not exactly sure whose vocals I prefer. I love the way Hudson sings "that would be just fine" in I Am Changing.

*************************************

I do not think that Jennifer Holliday was a very good actress and soley won the tony for her amazing singing in the part. Hudson, on the other hand, blew me away as a first time actress and her rendition of the songs, I felt, were more emotionally charged and controled.

*************************************

How can you say that Hudson's a good actor. Don't get me wrong I loved the movie and her performance of the song but her acting was nothing special. Now, I've only seen Holiday's Tony performance and I think her acting is a little crazy to but her overacting works on stage Hudsons lack of acting isn't good for film.

Now as for the song itselfs, I have to say Hudson was amazing and killed it, but Holliday destroyed it. Holiday's version is clearly better in my opinion and I will always consider it her song.

**********************************

I saw Dreamgirls on broadwy with Holliday and just loved the whole thing. It was a dream for me. I was 10 and it was like this is what my life is all about. She will always be my dreamgirl.

BUT... Jennifer held her own. In many ways, it is different. Maybe not vocally as they both belt out a storm and take full control of it but with Holliday, there is a desperation in her voice, perhaps a I have ALWAYS been in control and she ain't going to take it lying down. Hudson's is more of a mental breakdown.. the hysterical kind..

I loved them both.

************************************

Holliday was a force of nature on stage. I would venture to say her sheer power and vocal energy can never be topped. She can't even get to that level herself anymore. She was 21 back then, and heavier, and both helped her to explode with the unmatchable excitement of "And I'm Tellin' You." It was as if she was self-destructing in front of you. Tearing out her voice like that, every time. It worked in a HUGE way, but it also took its toll on her.

Hudson is fantastic on that song too, but she doesn't reach Holliday's power. Close! But no cigar. She doesn't push off the deep end into self-destruction.

However, Hudson gets my vote OVERALL, because her acting is much better than Holliday's ever was. Later in Holliday's run you even got the sense that she was almost "marking" the show to save herself for "And I'm Telling You" and "I Am Changing." She kinda walked through the rest of it, a bit. And it's understandable. She was like an athlete pacing herself for the triple somersault.

***************************************************************

Hudson's work is on film, and I don't think she could do any better sustaining Effie on stage than Holliday did, plus she already can't deliver the song with THAT much power (nobody can). She had multiple takes, and didn't have to worry about pacing herself for the rest of the show. So I'm already "discounting" my choice...

But since I'm basing my ultimate decision on the impact of the entire performance, I'm picking Hudson (qualifiers and all).

***********************************

I saw Holliday in Dreamgirls back in 1982 for me (and most others who saw her) there's really no comparison between the two performances -- Holliday owns that role. She embodies Effie like no other and the passion, pain and sheer power she brought to her performance is unparalleled. She was a force of nature and her raw intensity was so emotionally overwhelming, I can recall literally shaking afterwards (several people around me were actually in tears). No performance by anyone I've ever seen (and I've seen over 1000 shows) has had the same impact.

Hudson was fine -- quite solid in fact -- and gave the sort of very committed, but scaled down kind of performance that the screen demands. It's an appropriately strong Effie, but not an overwhelming one, which works well for the film. But, out of the dozen or so Effies that I've seen (including about 5 during the original Broadway run, another two for the '87 revival, and the others during the various national tours and regional productions), I'm not sure she'd even be in my top 5 -- and again, I say that realizing that making comparisons between stage and film can be rather unfair.

Nevertheless, Hudson deserves all the accolades she has received and I, for one, would be happy for her if she ends up nabbing an Oscar for her performance. But, at the same time, I would never begin to compare her performance to Holliday's which was the stuff of legend and in a different category altogether.

What surprised me is that there seems to be no real backlash here based on the fact that Hudson is known primarily as an American Idol contestant and is not a Broadway veteran. Chisholm notes that there has been so much crossover from American Idol to Broadway in recent years, including cast members on Rent (Frenchie Davis ), The Wedding Singer (Constantine Maroulis), Bombay Dreams ( Tamyra Gray), and Hairspray (Diana DeGarmo). Some have even gone so far as to cite A.I's influence on the new production of A Chorus Line which is more a showcase for singers than dancers.

A more heated controversy about the relationship between reality television and the Broadway musical is brewing around NBC's new series showing the casting process for a revival of Grease. Some Broadway fans have embraced the strategy, supporting anything which will get people into the theaters at a time when large scale musicals remain a highly risky proposition:

If anything, BROADWAY and the theater arts and those aspiring to be a part of that world will have weekly exposure to the United States. And, if it does well in the ratings, can be nothing but a positive thing. Hopefully it will inspire a new generation to embrace theater and the arts even more, and possibly stem the tide of diminishing Arts programs in schools and communities.

Others see a range of reasons for skepticism, each reflecting some of the tensions points which surround efforts to broaden the commercial appeal of the stage musical:

The reason for doing a revival is "usually" because someone has a new vision or something fresh to bring to an old show. But this revival is only being done to promote another reality TV show.

*************************************************

The only problem with it I have is the fact that there are many Broadway actors/actresses who are "established" and been in the biz for years, worked hard, auditioned, Equity card holders ect. and this gives Joe and Jane Everyday a chance to slip in and take two primo, well know roles in a beloved classic as they bring it back to Broadway. Which in itself is all good: bring in new blood, find new Broadway talent, yes... But not American Idol style. It's over done.

*********************************************

They could have also picked something that would allow non-white people to actually participate in.

*********************************************

Could they have picked a better show?

Something that's NOT done every year around the country by high school?

Of course, one could argue that it is precisely because Grease is so familiar and because there is a generation of high school cast members fantasizing about repeating their roles on Broadway that it makes sense to use it as the platform for a reality television series. Grease represents the kind of show that many middle Americans want to see when they go to the Big Apple for the first time -- they know the songs, they like the movie version, and they know they will be entertained.

Something that's becoming clear is that when there are more opportunities for new talent

to emerge through both mass media properties on network television or online through

social spaces such as YouTube and MySpace (the new hit Spring Awakening turned to MySpace to find young performers who could sing and act) there is a greater chance that someone extremely talented and completely unknown one minute can get a lucky break and become something of an overnight sensation, whether on a large scale or within smaller communities that become devotees of a particular contestant. One doesn't have to be the "understudy" who takes over for the star in 42nd Street or the wannabe actress who has to lie to get what she wants in Applause, which was inspired by the classic All About Eve. Rather, in this age of participatory culture, audiences exercise a louder voice in choosing whose name goes up in lights on the Great White Way or at the cineplex. In the end, we all get to play casting director and critic for a day.

The World of Reality Fiction

In Convergence Culture, I included a sidebar about the remarkable fan fiction produced by Mario Lanza. Lanza is a fan who gets to consult with and often receive fan letters from the characters who populate his stories. Lanza writes fan fiction involving the contestants featured on Survivor -- a series of engaging, richly detailed, psychologically nuanced original "seasons" cast with "all stars" known to readers from their previous appearances on the series. At the time he started writing reality fan fiction, the idea of combining elements of reality television with narrative fiction might have seemed more than a little odd. Today, though, there is a growing body not only of amateur but also professional fiction which borrows elements from reality television. I asked my son, Henry Jenkins IV, to share with my readers some of his impressions about this emerging genre. Henry recently graduated from the University of Arizona where he studied media and creative writing. He has already published several essays of his own media analysis, including one in Nick Sammond's anthology, Steel Chair to the Head, which traces his experiences growing up watching professional wrestling, and another -- a father/son dialogue on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- which is included in my new book, Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers. He has been very active in the spoiling and fan writing communities around Survivor through the years and so brings an insider's perspective to this topic.

What follows are his thoughts about reality fiction:

To the impartial observer reality television fiction sounds about as reasonable as tofu turkey. Both are wince inducing contradictions of an irreverently modern consumer culture in which seemingly clueless marketers cater to niche audiences with a cheeky disregard for tradition. The same literati crowd who rolled their eyes and sighed when CBS producers borrowed George Orwell's phrase to create the low culture Big Brother would probably sniff indignantly at me if I told them about my efforts to write an original Survivor novel. "Reality cannot be fictional. Please, go away."

But on the Survivor Sucks message boards, by far the most active for reality television fandom, dozens of amateur writers have tried their hand at penning the next great American Survivor novel. Only a few have produced novel length works of any real literary value but much like science fiction fandoms, for which zine trading has at times been a viable cottage industry, the interest is there and a cannon of great fan authors, archived works and literary conventions has been compiled by consensus.

The earliest Survivor fan fiction, not surprisingly, was badly written pornography. But Mario Lanza, a family man, computer programmer and aspiring comedy writer from Southern California, was the first to really popularize fan fiction in reality television circles. His four novels, All Star Survivor: Hawaii, All Star Survivor: Alaska, All Star Survivor: Greece and Survivor: Okinawa, were all of a Stephen King-esque length (about six hundred pages) and are still considered the gold standard by which all other authors are judged.

The All Star novels speculated about what might happen if the best and most memorable characters from the early seasons of the show were put into competition with each other. They were sort of the equivalent of comic book fans speculating "Who would win in a real fight, Batman or Aquaman?" They could also very easily be perceived as having generated the fan buzz producers' cited in their decision to try the concept out during their eighth season.

Mario's fourth novel, Survivor: Okinawa, cast real fans (including myself) in the role of the castaways, chronicling a month long game that took place online. The contestants competed in real time with the conditions mirroring those of the real competitions as closely as possible considering that we were all stationed thousands of miles apart. Daily reports were required explaining how we had contributed to the work around camp, strategy meetings took place off and on all day, a certain number of points could be allocated or reserved from each competition and most importantly the tribe that lost the Immunity Challenge would have to vote one of their members out of the game.

The mood of the game was surprisingly, at times almost disturbingly intense with real egos at stake. The knowledge that every word one said had the potential to be judged by the entire fan community put a lot of pressure on people to avoid being played for a fool and the result was a constant atmosphere of paranoia. Almost all of the contestants participating ended up with very mixed feelings about having done so. The ones who were voted out early were embarrassed and the ones who lasted the longest endured such prolonged angst that they needed a vacation by the end of it. Mario unflinchingly turned thousands of pages of conversation transcripts and emails into his most ambitious novel yet and the competing fans developed fans (and detractors) of their own.

As a side note, Mario was not the first to hold such a competition. He himself had only recently been a competitor in Survivor: Tonga, a game run by a Brown student named Rafe Judkins who would shock everyone when he himself was chosen as a contestant on the real life Survivor: Guatemala. Many both in the online community and the cast of the show consider Judkins the best strategist of his season and his online game no doubt allowed him to run an insightful simulation of what might occur on the island

Afterwards many tried to follow in Mario's footsteps but very few succeeded because no template was established for what Survivor short fiction would look like (nor for any other reality series) and the commitment and endurance necessary to write a six hundred page novel was simply beyond most of the amateur writers. Countless projects were begun and then abandoned a few chapters in (to a chorus of boos). A climate of cynicism reigned among readers who had been suckered in once too often and the low readership further discouraged fan authors.

One of the few truly successful efforts to follow Mario's was a series started by a young fan known only as GuatemalaFanfic or GF. He used a different template than the All Star model that many had attempted to emulate and instead of writing the story as literature he attempted to recreate the style of the show as accurately as possible. He wrote his episodes in sixty minute script format, throwing in moments of inaudible dialogue, background conversation and song cues. He also took careful analysis that other fans had done of the way that the producers told stories - when they focused on the characters that would succeed and when they focused on those who would fail - and challenged his readers to observe what templates his was using and how the game would play out. He also differed from Mario's formula in that instead of bringing together characters from different seasons of the show he used all of the characters of the season that was currently being broadcast, writing a kind of alternate history with a different set of storylines and outcomes.

Much like GuatemalaFanfic I had been an avid fan of Mario's All Star novels, enjoying them at times more than the actual series, and like GuatemalaFanfic I was determined to beat the master at his own game. So I began writing Survivor: Belize, a novel adhering as closely as possible to what I imagined the standards and specifications of original television novels to be, with the hopes of selling it for publication to CBS' publishing company. Because it would most likely have been perceived as slander to put words in the mouths of real life individuals I created a completely original cast of characters.

My biggest challenge came in introducing sixteen characters at the same time without the audience throwing up their hands in frustration. This is, of course, a challenge any reality series faces but I didn't have the benefit of using audio/visual clues such as contestants' faces and voices as memory jogs. I eventually decided on a two pronged approach for tackling these issues. First, I wouldn't try to familiarize audiences with all sixteen characters at the same time. I would take a page from the series' book and focus only on a manageable number of characters in each episode, working everyone in eventually as the numbers began to dwindle later in the story. Secondly, I would use visual clues by inserting a section of my contestants' headshots and biographies, mirroring the CBS.com website in style and content. Since most of the characters were based on people I knew, anyway, finding appropriate models wouldn't be hard.

I was in the middle of working on my project just before Christmas last year, toggling between my word processor and my online shopping, when I ran into a product line that made my jaw drop -original Survivor novels. There they were on Amazon.com, recently released. Not sure whether to be encouraged or discouraged I ordered a set to put under the tree.

This set of novels differed significantly from my own idea in that they were aimed at preteen readers and they followed a Choose Your Own Adventure format. Since I'd been a huge fan of the Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was in grade school these provided a charming bit of nostalgia but my concern that making the castaways all ten or twelve years old would really water down the story proved valid. Not only did the writers' take the teeth out of the game - providing the contestants with lots of kid friendly food, having them compete in little mock challenges and leaving strategy simple if explained at all - but the character development was wafer thin.

The most interesting thing about the books was easily the format, which allowed the reader to flip to one page or another depending on who they wanted to be booted from the game or which challenge they wanted the castaways to compete in. But because the writers tried to cram so many different possible routes into a 120 page book they had to cut each version of the entire game down to a miniscule number of pages that could not sustain a solidly built story. While aiming the series at younger readers is a surprising but not inherently stupid idea I feel like the series' editors choice to low ball the series was ill advised. A notable percentage of Mario Lanza's All Star novel fans were of the age that these books seemed to be aimed at but they never complained that they were overwhelmed by the difficulty of the content or bored by the grown up nature of the contestants.

A few weeks ago I ran into a book review in Time Magazine for Carolyn Parkhurst's Lost and Found, a literary novel about "an Amazing Race style reality show" which, we were told, explored the human condition in a way "crappy" reality series never could. Despite being annoyed at the anti-popular culture bias of the review and mildly disappointed that someone else had once again preceded me I was dying to pick up the book on my next trip into town. I wanted it to succeed where the young reader novels had failed, to capture the sense of excitement of great reality television, the immediacy and unpredictability. I wanted to see how Parkhurst tackled all of the questions I'd been working through in the first hundred and fifty pages of my spec novel. Would she capture the impression of reality with adverbs and imagination?

The answer? Only somewhat, but Lost and Found is a pretty good book anyway. Where it succeeds is in vividly portraying a small number of core characters' psyches, a crucial aspect of almost any story. Where it fails is in capturing the appeal of reality television as distinct from other forms of storytelling. There's virtually no suspense about the outcome of the game in the entire novel. A lot of the supporting characters are never so much as given a chance to speak. That obviously isn't a goal the writer sought and failed at, it's something they never tried to do.

The book's ambivalence towards the subject matter was fairly interesting and from my vantage point seems frank without being unfair even if it came across as slightly apologetic. Parkhrurst's reality television producers are cold blooded and opportunistic but her other characters understand that and, in all but one case, don't seem offended by it. They all have motivations of their own for taking part. Just like in real life some, such as the so-called 'ex-gays', compete in order to present a sociopolitical agenda before an international audience; others, such as the former child stars, do it to gain visibility in the entertainment world; while still others, such as the mother and daughter team, do it for the adventure and the escape from their ever day lives. In order to gain a sense of perspective on the industry Parkurst collected stories from two former competitors, Shii Ann Huang (Survivor:Thailand and Survivor:All-Stars) and Zachary Behr (The Amazing Race); and consequently some of the details, such as the camera operator who no one wants to work with because of his offensive smell, ring true.

One creative choice Parkhurst makes that seems a central issue of such novels is to focus on the mechanics of the production directly (and constantly) rather than avoiding the subject. Crew members such as camera people and handlers are supporting characters. The host is frequently described while she prepares for her next monologue. A production meeting is transcribed at one point. The Survivor Choose Your Own Adventure novels, by comparison, act almost as though there was no television production, focusing exclusively on the action 'inside' the TV box.

I myself found it useful at points to reference stages of the production that didn't appear on screen such as the casting interviews and the airing of the episodes but considered that level of self-reflexivity fair game because the show's host, Jeff Probst, talks openly about such things in media teleconferences and at the live reunion shows. Parkhurst tends to use descriptions of the production primarily in the pejorative sense to talk about the artifice of reality television where as I am more interested in the dual experiences of the castaways who are both experiencing some very real challenges such as hunger, exhaustion and the social game and at the same time going through the emotional mill of being put on display in front of seventeen million people.

At one point one of my characters is really torn between voting out a woman who shares her mother's cultural values or one who's everything her mother is against. She knows that her family and their entire neighborhood is going to one day be watching this play out on television and they're going to judge her for the choices she makes; and that leaves her sleepless at night. To me putting the game in such a context doesn't detract from the reality of the emotion, it adds to it.

Reality television fiction is at a really interesting point right now because the rules haven't been established yet. Does one use the same number of contestants as you would on a reality series or is that too many to keep track of? Do some shows work better for prose than others or not at all? If a short format isn't going to try to cover an entire game then what should it look like? How does one write a novel covering an entire game without exceeding a standard 350 page book length? Can new series be created for fiction and, if so, could a work of reality fiction ever be optioned for television production? With Battle Royal and Series 7 we're already starting to see how movies could recreate reality TV. But what other types of movies could be written that playoff of that idea? The opportunity to shape the conventions of the micro-genre is there for whoever steps up to the plate.

Survivor: The Race Wars?

Last week, the producers of Survivor announced that this season, they would feature what is almost certainly the most racially diverse cast in the history of reality television. The contestants would initially be organized into four tribes defined around their race -- African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and White-American. The announcement has provoked controversy from the very outset with even CBS Early Show host Harry Smith challenging Survivor M.C. Jeff Probst about the story line on the air. Today's post is intended as a primer of sorts to the debates about race which this announcement have set into motion.

Casting for Diversity

We can understand the producer's decision in the context of several variables surrounding race and reality television. First, shows like Survivor and American Idol are among the few on American television that perform more or less equally well among white and black viewers. (I don't have access to data on other minority groups). For the most part, American television is already segregated with very few shows being shared cultural reference points amongst racially diverse audiences. Reality television also probably already provides greater representation of minority groups than the vast majority of American programs -- which tend to be all white and more rarely, all black casts. But this is a sad commentary on the number of minority performers on network television since the percentage of minorities on Survivor has consistently been much lower than their relative percentage in the American population.

The producers have directly acknowledged at least some of these factors in explaining this new "twist" in the series.

Probst argued that the decision emerged from the production's efforts to respond to long-standing criticisms that minority contestants were under-represented on the program:

"The idea for this actually came from the criticism that Survivor was not ethnically diverse enough, because for whatever reason, we always have a low number of minority applicants apply for the show... So we set out and said, 'Let's turn this criticism into creative for the show.' And I think it fits perfectly with what Survivor does, which is, it is a social experiment. And this is adding another layer to that experiment, which is taking the show to a completely different level."

Probst added that the casting directors for the series actively recruited from local community centers within minority neighborhoods, seeking contestants who represented the diversity within these different racial groupings and trying to significantly broaden the range of people represented on the series: "We really just took off all blinders and said we want to find 20 people to play this game and we're really gonna have to source them out." Fans of the show believe this will add some fresh energy to the series because these participants are so different from those on previous seasons and because they are less familiar with the well-worn strategies and tactics deployed by previous contestants.

Probst has also described the way that cultural differences matter in terms of behavior within the game: "Suddenly you have new slang, new rituals--people doing things like making fire in ways that haven't been done on Survivor. I think we have a season where people will say you can never go back to what you were before."

Producer Mark Burnett has argued that the series is much more apt to challenge rather than reinforce existing racial stereotypes:

"We're smart enough to have gotten rid of every racist person in casting...There's no one race or sexual preference or other group who have an exclusive on being an asshole or being nice...Maybe that taboo (of race) could disappear through this."

Segregation Island?

In some quarters, the news of racially-constituted teams has provoked horror and dread with critics describing the new series as "segregation island." New York City councilman John Liu has launched a campaign to pressure CBS to pull the series from the air: "The idea of having a battle of the races is preposterous. How could anybody be so desperate for ratings?"

Pop Culture scholar Robert Thompson has attacked the series for an "unseemly interest" in race: "It's like a return back to segregated leagues in sports."

Hispanics across America founder Fernando Mateo told Reuters, "Survivor is not reality TV--it's racist TV. The participants will be held to the daunting and unfair challenge of representing an entire race of people. What will it mean for a team--a race--to fail in a battle of wits and strength against another race?"

James Pritchett, professor of anthropology and director of the African Studies Center at Boston University, told The Boston Herald on Thursday. "This program is drumming up every old stereotype, and I don't think it is going to be useful at all. What next, a show pitting Jews and Muslims and Christians against each other?"

Fans are quick to note that Survivor has previously cast teams based on gender differences (twice) and age differences without provoking this same level of controversy -- and The Apprentice has used thinly veiled class differences (Street Smarts vs. Book Smarts).

"I can't decide if the producers are completely naive and clueless or completely soulless," said Lisa Navarrete, vice president of the National Council of La Raza.

Nationally syndicated columnist DeWayne Wickham accuses the producers of trying to "stage a race war" with a program "that will appeal to the unspoken racism that festers just below the surface for many people in today's more tolerant society."

Perhaps making Wickham's point that the program could invite a range of racist responses, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has unleashed a series of racial stereotypes that have themselves provoked intense backlash. Among other things, Limbaugh argued that swimming competitions could be unfair to African-American contestants, that Hispanic contestants have "probably shown the most survival tactics," including " a remarkable ability to cross borders" and that they can "do it without water for a long time, they don't get apprehended, and they will do things other people won't do," that Asian-Americans will be the "brainiacs" in the group and can outsmart the other contestants, and that the white tribe would first dominate and then provide government support to the various minority groups. There's no question that what Limbaugh said publicly is no doubt being debated in living rooms around the country -- with some people mindlessly repeating stereotypes and others reflecting more deeply upon the place of cultural and racial difference in American culture today.

A Teachable Moment?

Defenders of the program don't necessarily think that the conversations the show is likely to produce will be a bad thing for the country, feeling that Americans tend to remain silent rather than openly discussing and working through their feelings about race. In an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans aargues, "Burnett is going to make race a front-and-center discussion, after years of shrugging off the implications of his portrayals."

There's no question that the production decision has already provided a context for some thoughtful discussions of the place of race in contemporary American society, with a number of activists and bloggers finding this a "teachable moment."

At her blog, Rachel, a sociology professor who works on race, discusses her own mixed feelings about the "twist" on this season's Survivor:

I don't want to get too deep into the problem of how they are going to assign people into racial categories, but I'm very curious who they are going to assign to the Asian and Latino categories. I supposed they don't even realize the dramatic ethnic variation within those categories. I also wonder how they will assign mixed race contestants (of course, maybe they just eliminated all mixed race people from the casting).

I do see a few upsides to having a cast that has more than a token representation of Blacks, Asians, and Latinos. I think when various racial and ethnic groups are represented in more than token numbers people can get a better sense of the diversity and variety of views within racial groups. The TV pundits were proposing the idea that this is exploiting racial tension. Assuming the tribes are separated in the beginning, this may have the opposite effect. The biggest tensions and rivalries will be within race, at least until the tribes merge.

As Rachel's comments suggest, the most sophisticated comments -- both the most nuanced defenses and the most complicated critiques -- have come from those who are most familiar with the genre conventions and history of reality television. One could expand Rachel's analysis to suggest that the program reflects two important debates about race: first, the idea that America should be seen as a multiracial rather than biracial culture -- the inclusion of Latino/a and Asian-American contestants complicates the usual black/white construction of race, even if, as some critics have noted, it doesn't reflect the full range of ethnic groups in American society. Even a superficial review of the cast suggests an effort to show the range of different ethnicities within these broadly constituted racial categories including a fairly nuanced range of different "white" ethnicities. At the same time, the casting -- where only five out of twenty participants are "white" -- suggests recognition of demographic trends that suggest that the majority of Americans in the not-so-distant future will be "non-white" or as some are putting it, we will become a "majority minority" nation.

As many defenders of the series suggest, the rules of the game will force alliances as the series continues amongst people of different racial groups. The winner of the game will necessarily have to appeal across racial categories and be capable of navigating through cultural differences. The most divisive figures of any racial group will alienate the other players whose votes they have to receive in order to win.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Tony Pierce argues that critics simply don't understand the rules of the game:

Each tribe doesn't literally beat up their competitors -- they square off in puzzle-solving games or obstacle courses or tests of endurance, like standing on a beam for the longest amount of time. Unless one desperate dude on a pole drops the N-bomb to distract his opponent, it's difficult to see how race would even come into the game until the second half of the season, when the tribes all merge into one. And even then, the way to win is not by hurling slurs but by getting along with your new tribe and otherwise laying low, as the troublemakers and superstars almost inevitably get voted off.

In Survivor, if there's going to be any hate going on for the first half of the season, it will be self-hate, as the tribes get to learn all the little irritating things about one another rather than focus on the contestants they don't see very often. It's not the person with the different skin color, it's the guy on your team who eats the last scoop of rice, or that other guy who doesn't seem to ever work around the camp, or the alpha leader who runs around shouting orders.

This stage of the show is where you might see the Japanese American dig at the Korean American (helping people understand that not all "Asians" are the same), or the Mexican American diss the Cuban, who'd probably be put out at being called "Latino" anyway....

What tribal Survivor has a real chance of showing us is how much race isn't an issue when it comes to the bare necessities of living on an island for 39 days; how much race is an issue when talk show hosts want to artificially spice up their debates; and that teamwork, communication and trust are the foundation of great teams, not skin color.

Crash?

But again, we don't want to simply celebrate the kinds of inter-racial politics that might emerge in such a context. As Deggans predicts, "race difference plays out as a parable on assimilation -- the people of color who understand white culture and can fit in survive, often by being as bland and undistinguished as possible. Those who don't, wind up fulfilling the worst stereotypes. Their exclusion makes them racially paranoid, their inability to bond with their teammates makes them look lazy and their defensiveness looks like an empty excuse." Of course, with whites in the minority on the series, it just as likely that the winner will form a "rainbow coalition" across different minority groups as it is that they will assimilate into white society.

Guy Aoki, founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, has said he was "withholding judgment" until he watched the show: "It could be interesting. A lot of people put down reality shows. But if they're done well, they can be very interesting sociological experiments. You see people's first impressions of each other based on race. I'm not alarmed by it." Yet, he expressed concern that Survivor "would turn into that Crash movie, in which everyone clashes with each other and hurls racial slurs."

Aoki's analogy to Crash is provocative: after all, while the characters in the film display many different forms of racial divisiveness, many regard the film itself as encouraging an anti-racist attitude. It is not simply a reproduction of racism; it is a reflection upon it. Could reality television operate in the same way, encouraging us to reflect upon the way race operates within American culture? Industry research suggests that the overwhelming majority of reality television viewers engage in conversations about the ethical dimensions of the series -- more, in fact, than discuss strategy or the personality of the contestants. Reality television generates a series of ethical dramas which encourage us to share our own values and perspectives about both decisions made by participants within the series and decisions made by the program producers. While reality television often depicts amoral aspects of human interactions, the discussions around the series are often highly moralistic.

The format of reality television may offer some unique vantage points into how race operates -- taking viewers into a series of racial enclaves that might otherwise be closed to view and at the same time, using confessionals to show the same conflict from multiple perspectives. Despite Burnett's claims to have weeded out the racists, we know racism takes many different forms and there's no question we will see it at work in many different ways in the course of the series. Yet, as with Crash, there is the possibility that we will learn more about how it operates both within and outside our own communities.

As one African-American blogger notes, race has always played a role in shaping her identifications within the series, but , because reality television deals with real people and not fictional characters, she has also identified across racial lines:

If anything, this season of Survivor has the potential to build racial pride. More often than not, I tend to root for Black people when they are contestants in these television reality shows. Even though I get nothing when they win, I want to see Black people compete and win sometimes. I was glad to see Randal Pinkett become the first African American winner of The Apprentice...I rooted for Rueben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino (site) to win American Idol. So, yeah I admit I like to see someone who looks like me compete against people who don't look like me and win. But, what Wickham seems to miss is that Americans don't necessarily root for people of their own race. I was glad to see Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth get booted off The Apprentice. And if the Blacks team on next season's Survivor rub me the wrong way, or seem to be weak, or do something to shame the Black community, I'll have no problem rooting for another team."

We have similarly seen contestants on the series rise above their own prejudices -- most famously in the alliance between the homophobic Rudy and the openly gay Richard on the original Survivor series -- and in the process, model ways that the groups they represent can get along. Critics often assume that reality television brings out the worst elements in human nature: they don't acknowledge that it can also bring out the best in people with surprising moments of personal growth and self sacrifice being emotional highlights of many seasons. Contestants often go on the show to explicitly challenge the audience's stereotyped assumptions about their group with varying degrees of success (especially given that the editors play an enormous role in shaping how we perceive any given character). Indeed, Probst has suggested that they were led to the decision to divide the tribes by race because racial pride had been such a consistent theme in their interviews with these contestants.

All of this is the say that the value of a program like Survivor is in part the fact that it forces us to talk about the ties and divisions within human society, forces us to think about the attitudes and practices by which different groups interact with each other. On one level, Survivor may be the worst possible program to get us to think about race in America. On another, it may be the perfect vehicle. I have profoundly mixed feelings about the decision -- which is one reason why I am trying to lay out all sides of the argument here in order to encourage a deeper level of discourse than the first round of responses. But, I think there is plenty of evidence that even the idea (let alone the reality) of a racially divided Survivor is forcing us to think and talk about race in ways we normally avoid -- and I have to think that's a good thing, even if or maybe precisely because there are going to be some cringe-worthy moments from all camps before this series (and the controversy around it) has run its course. If it rigidifies or simplifies our views on race, that's a bad thing, but the show forces us to dig a bit deeper than that (and reality television at its best certainly can do that much), then it will have a more positive influence. I don't think it is going to live up with Burnett's odd prediction that Survivor will make the taboo of race disappear (whatever that means) nor do I think it is apt to provoke race riots as some have predicted. It may make us think a lot and talk a little.

Let me give the last word to Reality News Online columnist David Bloomberg who argues that Survivor will read race through its own particular lens: "we'll see a diverse group of people trying to stab people in the back, lie to them, and metaphorically cut their throats no matter what race they belong to." And maybe this is a step past the rhetoric of "can't we all just get along" which in the end means can't we just pretend that race will go away if we don't talk about it very much. Cultural critics have talked about the "enlightened racism" that shapes our modern moment -- we pretend to be "past" racism and resent efforts to re-introduce race into our conversations, but the effects of racism are still felt in potent ways in our everyday lives.

Thanks to Henry Jenkins IV for help in developing this article.

Behind the Scenes: Spoiling Survivor: Cook Islands

Welcome Survivor fans. Many of you might be interested in seeing some of my other posts about reality telvision, including this one about the racial politics around Cook Islands and this one about the behind the scenes politicing that shaped Big Brother: All-Stars. Now back to the original post:

Most of you probably don't have a clue where the next Survivor series is going to be set (answer: Cook Islands). Yet, there is a hardcore group of fans which has already pieced together detailed information about the location, including photographs of the Tribal Council site and the location of the first challenge. From these pictures, the Survivor fan community will be able to piece together a great deal about the forthcoming series. Even as we speak, other members of that community will be trying to ferret out the names and identities of the contestants (well before they are announced by the network) and others still will be trying to extract information from people on the ground in the Cook Islands who might have seen something or overheard something during the production. They call themselves spoilers.

Mark Burnett acknowledges this contest between producer and fans is part of what creates Survivor's mystique: "With so much of our show shrouded in secrecy until it's broadcast, it makes complete sense that many individuals consider it a challenge to try to gain information before it's officially revealed - sort of like a code they are determined to crack. While it's my job to keep our fans on their toes and stay one step ahead, it is fascinating to hear some of the lengths these individuals are willing to go." From the beginning, the producers have run misinformation campaigns to throw fans off their tracks. There is a widespread rumor within the fan community that the producers now offer bonuses to cast and craw for every boot or event in the series which doesn't get "spoiled" by the fans. If true, this policy reflects the reality of a world where fans pool money and send reporters to snoop around the location, pumping hotel clerks and maids for anything they can learn.

I devote a chapter to "Spoiling Survivor" in my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. The chapter takes you deep inside this fan community, showing some of their techniques for getting information, and discussing some of the debates that erupted when a guy who went by the user name "ChillOne" claimed to have known the outcomes of a Survivor season before it even reached the air. The ChillOne story, which structures this chapter, focuses attention on the issue of whether spoiling is a goal (that is, find out what you can how ever you can) or a process (put your heads together with lots of other people and solve a puzzle). Some have argued that ChillOne broke the game -- making it a contest to see which individual can access information rather than an issue of how a collective intelligence community can solve complex problems through collaboration and information sharing.

Wezzie and Dan Bollinger run a site called Survivor Maps, which is primary focused on the locations where the series takes place. But their maps become important resources for all kinds of other spoiling activities. Here's a little of what I say about them in the chapter:

"Wezzie" is one of the most respected members of the Survivor spoiling community. She and her partner, Dan Bollinger, have specialized in location spoiling. Offline, Wezzie is a substitute teacher, an arboretum docent, a travel agent, and a free lance writer. Dan is an industrial designer who runs a factory which makes refrigerator magnets. They live half way across the country from each other but they work as a team to try to identify and document the Survivor location --- what Mark Burnett calls "the seventeenth character" -- and to learn as much as they can about the area. As a team, Wezzie and Dan have been able to pinpoint the series location with astonishing accuracy. The process may start with a throwaway comment from Mark Burnett or a tip from "somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody, who works for CBS or a tourist company." Wezzie and Dan have built up contacts with travel agencies, government officials, film bureaus, tourism directors and resort operators. As Dan notes, "Word gets around the tourism industry very quickly about a large project that will be bringing in millions of American dollars."

From there, they start narrowing things down by looking at the demands of the production. Wezzie describes the process, "We look at latitude, climate, political stability, population density, road system, ports, accommodations, attractions, culture, predominant religion, and proximity to past Survivor locations." Dan notes, "In Africa I overlayed demographic maps of population, agricultural areas, national reserves, tourism destinations and even city lights seen from satellites at night. Sometimes knowing where Survivor can't be is important. That's how I found Shaba Reserve." Wezzie is the people person: she works their network to pull together as much data as she can.

"Then Dan works his magic!" Dan has developed contact with the Denver-based Space Imaging Company, owner of IKONOS, a high resolution commercial remote sensing satellite. Eager to show off what their satellite can do, IKONOS took snapshots of the location for Survivor: Africa Dan had identified from 423 miles in space, and upon closer scrutiny, they could decipher specific buildings in the production compound including the temporary production buildings, the tribal council site, and a row of Massai style huts where the contestants would live, eat, and sleep. They take the snapshots from space because the security-conscious Burnett negotiates a "no fly zone" policy over the location.

Dan uses the comsat images and sophisticated topographical maps to refine his understanding of the core locations. Meanwhile, Wezzie researches the ecosystem and culture: "[On Survivor: Marquesas] I spent approximately 3 hours every day, 7 days a week on the computer or studying maps and travel guides.... I studied a topographical map of the island to familiarize myself with the roads, horse paths, rivers, waterfalls, bays, beaches, reefs, settlements, mountains and hills....I researched the marine life, diving spots, water temperature, tradewinds, windward and leeward sides of the island, the effect that goats have had on the island, the local artisans and businesses, local sports clubs, Marquesan dance, tattoo, rock art, tiki, tapa, cannibalism, ancient sports and games, eatable plants, flora and fauna, local government, studied the Polynesian voyages, learned about copra, monoi oil, and nono's, and followed the route of the tramp steamer, Aranui. I kept a dictionary of terms, e.g., "meae", "tohua", "heva", "paepae", "tahuna", "mana", and "tapu". All that I learned I shared on Survivor Maps and other internet websites." Such information helps viewers to develop a deeper appreciation of what the contestants are going through and what kinds of resources they might draw upon.

And, after all of that, they still sometimes get it wrong. For example, they focused a lot of energy on a location in Mexico, only to learn that the new series was going to be filmed in the Pearl Islands near Panama. They weren't totally wrong, though--they had identified the location for a production company filming another reality television series.

This weekend, I caught back up with Wezzie and Dan Bollanger, to learn about what is going on as fans gear up for yet another installment of CBS's still highly successful reality television series.

What are we looking at when we see these new images you have posted on your site? What can you tell us about where these images came from?

Dan: Most of the images we post are taken by locals and tourists visiting the location. If we are lucky, we get a few people who like a challenge of taking photos of the excitement in their neighborhood.

What kind of response have you gotten from the fan community?

Dan: For the most part, we get rave reviews. Spoiling the location is something that generally ocurrs between airings, so there isn't much going on in the online forums. And, people get excited learning about the new location and theme. At the same time, there is some competition between the various websites since each wants to be the first to uncover some new information and claim the credit. Despite what others may say, the spoiler websites guard their sources well.

What kinds of information have people been able to gather from these photographs?

Dan: You name it, they find it. I'm often amazed at what people read into a blurry photograph. This time around we've learned what Tribal Council and Exile Island will look like, which reveals the theme. And, from the photo of an early challenge, it appears that it begins with four tribes, since there are four 'masts' each in a different color.

What will be the next steps for you in tracking down additional information about the Survivor location?

Dan: Right now, we have called it quits for S13. We have done what we set out to do. Find the location, get the maps, find the camp locations, and get the first photos of Tribal Council. We'll be gearing up for S14 in a few months. The summer is Survivor duldrums for Survivor Maps.

The book describes the way spoiling operated during Survivor:Amazon. What changes have taking place in the spoiling world since that season?

Dan: I don't see changes happening in a Darwinian sense. It is not like spoiling is evolving and refining. Rather, at least for Survivor Maps, we work with what resources and leads present themselves and do the best we can. For instance, contacting tourism officials for information may work one time and not another. Topo maps may be available online for free, as was the case for Cook Islands where I obtained the map in a matter of minutes,

while for Marquesas I had to wait for four months and could only pay with Francs.

Wezzie: Something interesting happened during and after Survivor Palau. A newcomer named mersaydeez posted every detail of the show (who won rewards, where they went , what they ate, who got booted, etc) week after week. Many fans enjoyed reading her posts, particularly those who were playing the fantasy games. Other fans were not as pleased.

While mersaydeez was treated respectfully, in the months following, a number of fans complained that they didn't like having spoilers handed to them on a platter. They'd enjoyed being part of the spoiling (guessing) process, and mersaydeez's posts had made the process obsolete. Spoiling Survivor Palau was not collective intelligence gathering. Many left the community. Others formed private boards to discuss the show with a few friends vs on the public board, Survivor Sucks.

I left the Spoilers section of SurvivorSucks and joined The MESS Hall Tribal Council, where the motto is, "May we always be a little bit wrong.". MESS, as it's called, does old-style spoiling, e.g., vid cap analysis. Despite what has been posted on other boards, MESS members take pride in the fact that they come to their own conclusions. They collaborate, discuss, research and share. MESS is an intelligent and cooperative community that is gaining in popularity.

Thanks to Wezzie, Dan, and Henry for their help in pulling together this post.

Democracy, Big Brother Style

When Americans get the choice [on American Idol]...they constantly surprise the producers and the celebrity judges. They go for gospel singers and torch singers and big band singers. They vote for fat people and geeky people and ugly people. They go for people like themselves....This is the most important thing that any business can learn from the first wave of this revolution and its impact on entertainment. We want the power to choose....In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us.

-- Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's campaign manager More People Vote for the American Idol Than...

A lot of fuss has been made lately about the "fact" that more people voted for the most recent American Idol than voted in the last presidential election. This is seen as a signpost of a decline of civic responsibility on the part of the current generation of American youth. I have been asked about this phenomenon everywhere I've spoken in recent months.

The claim just doesn't happen to be true. True, there were more votes cast for the recent American Idol contest than in the last presidential election but since there is no restriction on voting multiple times and since it is well known that some young voters use redial or text-messaging (not to mention other more elaborate electronic devices) for repeated voting, we have no reason to think that anywhere near as many people participated in this process.

Of course, if we could have cast multiple votes for our favorite candidates in the last election, there's no question that the folks at Moveon.org and Salon and... would have stood there all day casting their ballots for John Kerry or that churchs would have weighed in even more heavily across the Bible Belt.

The Case of Big Brother: All Stars

We can get a better understanding of how reality television show voting is and is not like real world democracy by looking at issues that have surfaced this summer around the selection of contestants for Big Brother: All Stars.

Big Brother has had difficulty with American's erratic voting habits from the get-go: during the first season, Americans routinely voted out the most colorful characters, gradually ridding the house of all interesting conflict, with the result that the contest became one of the survival of the blandest. After that, the producers re-invented the contest's mechanics so most of the voting occurs within the house and the public only got to decide weighty issues like what piece of exercise equipment the contestants got to use.

Everywhere else in the world, the public decides who stays and goes. As far as the producers are concerned, Americans aren't ready for that responsibility.

Last season, the show allowed the public to vote a booted guest back into the game -- with surprising results. The public overwhelmingly voted an Iraqi-American (Kaysar) back into the house over his arch-rival, a New York Fireman (Eric). For once, the producers should have been pleased because Kaysar was a colorful character who introduced a great deal of drama into the series. Unfortunately, the other houseguests voted him right back out again as soon as he was eligible for eviction.

The Power of Gossip

Reality television is an ideal form for a networked culture. As more and more of us move on line, we find ourselves engaged in conversations with people who know very few if any of the same folks in common. Yet, there remains a core human desire to gossip. Sociologists tell us that gossip serves a basic human need for the sharing of secrets and the making of evaluations. Who gets gossiped about is less important than the bonds that get formed between those who are sharing gossip with each other. Reality television is designed to produce moral conflicts and ethical dramas involving real people who become shared reference points for gossip amongst people nationwide. In effect, the houseguests (as the producers call them) or "hamsters" (as some fans call them) have agreed to allow the rest of the country to gossip at their expense.

So, how do you campaign for such a position? Look at the kinds of statements made by the candidates in this election:

Well, I caused a lot of drama in season 4, basically because I was dating a schmuck. But now things are different. I've matured and found the love of my life! Most of the HouseGuests from my season left hating me. It changed me, and it made me a stronger and better person. (Alison)

Don't vote for me... I dare you. You are looking around at the other options, and the truth is they all fall short. If you want the most entertaining contestant, you need look no further. You know it and I know it. (Will)

If I get in the house, you'll get the same competitor you saw last season. Love me or hate me, I'm here to play and here to win. (James)

Well, you get the picture -- each has presented themselves as offering the most opportunities for gossip.

Fan Politics

From the outset, the producers were hedging their bets -- hand selecting the nominees and then allowing the public to chose half of the contestants, reserving the right to cast the rest and thus counterbalance any strange patterns in the voting. Networks still tend to think of television viewers as socially isolated individuals, making decisions from their couches without much interaction with others. Maybe they were hoping that we would debate this around water coolers. Maybe they would imagine that we might vote along identity politics lines, voting for the African-American or Hispanic candidates, or amongst the gay candidates, with the hopes that the population of the house would look something like America.

But, where there are elections, as our founding fathers well knew, there are apt to emerge political parties -- efforts to combine votes for maximum effect. So, online, various hardcore fans began to campaign amongst themselves to cast their votes together to shape the outcome towards one or another favorite candidate, hoping to produce "the best show ever." Many of them were already calculating which candidates the producers would prefer and then pushing their votes towards weaker but interesting candidates who wouldn't get into the house otherwise.

Vote For the Worst

And then there was the Vote for the Worst party. Vote for the Worst first emerged as a player in reality television fandom around American Idol. Here's how the group characterizes its mission:

The show starts out every year encouraging us to point and laugh at all of the bad singers who audition. We want this hilariously bad entertainment to continue into the finals, so we choose the contestant that we feel provides the most entertaining train wreck performances and we start voting for them.... Vote for the Worst encourages you to have fun with American Idol and embrace its suckiness by voting for the less talented contestants. We rally behind one choice so that we can help make a difference and pool all of our votes toward one common goal....Our aim isn't to win every single week, but to get a bad contestant as far as possible. If our VFTW pick is ousted from the competition, we'll move onto someone new. If we can help someone undeserving inch a spot closer to winning, that's a great success! We care less about succeeding every single week than we do just enjoying the bad performances as they happen.

Some argue that the Vote for the Worst folks have their own aesthetic -- they are simply the folks who think it is more fun to see bad singing than to try to take the contest seriously on its own terms -- and their own politics -- they are the folks who don't want the producers and judges to tell them who they should vote for. (Interestingly, the movement got picked up and promoted by more explicitly political groups, including some which were involved in the intellectual property law suits against the RIAA. Anyone who wants to screw the recording industry was seen as an ally.) Critics, on the other hand, describe it as pure negation -- an attempt to exploit the public's right to choose in order to inflict as much damage on the show as possible. Critics claim that many of those participating in Vote the Worst are not even regular viewers of the show.

When the Vote for the Worst movement became public knowledge during the last season of Idol (and when some of its candidates seemed to remain on the air well past their logical rankings in the pecking order), the network executives and producers were quick to dismiss the idea that Vote for the Worst was having any real impact on the results. Here's part of the Fox Network's official statement:

Each week millions of votes are received for each contestant, and based on the tiny number of visitors this site has allegedly received, their hateful campaign will have no effect on the selection of the next American Idol. Millions of fans of American Idol have voted for their favorites so far this season, and that success speaks far louder than any vicious and mean-spirited website.

For their part, the Vote the Worst people have questioned how Fox could call them "mean spirited" when the show itself makes fun of bad performers like William Hung. Indeed, the early shows featuring bad performances often receive higher ratings than all but the last few weeks of the actual contest.

Chicken George's Revenge

Yet, speculation has run high among hardcore reality television fans that the group could have an impact on Big Brother which has significantly lower ratings than American Idol and might be predicted to have a much lower vote count overall.

Here's what they were advocating for the Big Brother election:

Vote for Chicken George to go back into the Big Brother house! The man cracked under the pressure of BB1, not even really having to evict people. Putting him back in the house would be excellent. Also, his wife staged the first ever VFTW by getting an entire town to vote for someone else to save George. We owe it to the chicken family to make the crazy chicken man an All Star.

Why "Chicken George"? Once again, there's a history here: during the first season, a fan campaign sought to smuggle messages into the house, where guests were allegedly kept in isolation, renting planes to fly over, lobbing balls containing messages inside, trying to convince the houseguests to walk out in mass and leave the producers holding the bag. If you've seen The Truman Show, you've got a pretty good idea of what this campaign looked like. Chicken George emerged as a key player in that effort -- the person most shook up by the messages they were receiving and the person who almost led the walkout of the program, before the producers succeeded in talking everyone into staying. Can we perhaps see the Vote the Worst campaign as a more refined strategy for foiling the plans of the producers and wrecking a primetime network series?

Suppose we applied the Vote for the Worst approach to national politics, the Democrats would have nominated Dennis Kucinich and the Republicans would have -- well, come to think of it, the outcome wouldn't have been radically different after all. :-)

Battle of the Autobots

Elsewhere, rumors surrounded other Vote the Worst efforts as contestants widely regarded among hardcore fans as bland, colorless, dumb, or annoying seemed to move up on the polls at the expense of long time fan favorites which others hoped to get into the house. (Keep in mind, though, what happened on season one when it turned out that these were the kinds of 'houseguests' who consistently got the most votes from the viewing public. Maybe we just want to vote for folks who don't cause trouble.) All of this might be passed off as simply partisanship among rival fractions within the fan community if it were not for the fact that the Vote for the Worst people were actively and openly deploying autobots to cast as many votes as they wanted:

Click here to open up an autoscript that will continue to vote for chicken George every few seconds. Get it set up on every computer that you can, it will vote without you having to do anything.

There is some dispute about how effective such devices may be. The official website urges viewers to vote once a day, implying that only one vote per machine counts in any 24 hour period. Yet, the site seems to register multiple votes on the same visit, and the best of the autobots will switch aliases from vote to vote, making it much harder for the vote counters to dismiss its input. But suppose that they work: a small number of people, consistently using such devices, could overwhelm a much larger majority of voters, trying to cast their preferences within the system.

The fans, themselves, are speculating about whether the network will want to discount all of those autobot votes. On the one hand, counting the votes may allow the producers to have an inflated vote count, implying greater public interest than really exists for the show. We've already seen how American Idol likes to use the most inflated numbers possible and loves the analogy to the 2004 presidential election. Others think they will discount bots because such votes may distort the results and end up with a program which has little or nothing to do with what the public wants to see. Because reality shows rarely announce the actual vote spread (using only raw numbers of the total votes cast), many viewers distrust the results on general principle, suspecting that the whole is simply a smokescreen that allows the producers to more or less do whatever they want. We have enough trouble trusting the results in national elections when we count every hanging chad -- imagine if they just announced which candidate won and didn't give a vote count. Which scenario is true? It all depends on how cynical you are -- and in what direction your cynicism takes you.

<Exporting Democracy

As always, these issues of participatory democracy are taken more seriously everywhere else in the world except in the United States.

The Chinese equivalent of Idol, the curiously-named Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Supergirl Contest, has run aground with the Communist government. The American news coverage has emphasized the debate about manners and language displayed on the show but my friends from China tell me a somewhat different story. The show generated enormous public interest and resulted in huge levels of voter participation. After all, for many of the Chinese viewers, it was perhaps the first time that they had been allowed to cast a vote in a contest where there was more than one candidate on offer. The show became the focus of enormous public discussion, emerging as a metaphor for the hopes of democracy within China. Here, there can be no question that reality television has explicitly political effects. But then, they seem to take democracy more seriously in other parts of the world than we do in the United States.

Happy Independence Day, Mr. and Mrs. America.

Thanks to Henry Jenkins IV for his help in preparing this entry.

Update: The cast of Big Brother: All Stars was announced on thursday July 6. Chicken George did indeed make the final cut as did several of the others who had been the target of vote for the worst campaigns, such as Alison Irwin and Diane Henry. Many of those supported by some of the other leading factions -- especially the team of Howie Gordon, Kaysar Ridha, and Janelle Pierzina -- also made the cut. The network expanded the number of contestants in the house from 12 to 14, possibly to accomodate the feedback from fans (though spoilers note that there was a picture showed in earlier previews with the series which, if frozen and scrutnized, showed 14 slots for pictures, suggesting this may have been part of the plan all along.) The show said that they received 15.7 million votes, which is lower than some of the estimates that circulated among those who had used autobots to cast votes.

Oreos, "Wal-Mart Time", and User-Generated Advertising

Driving around earlier this week, I happened to hear the distinctive voice of American Idol's Randy Jackson ("Yo, Dawgs") on my radio, telling listeners about a national contest for the best amateur rendition of the classic "Oreos and Milk" jingle. Jackson's participation in an advertising campaign is hardly surprising in and of itself-- after all, we got to watch Simon Cowell endorse Vanilla Coke and we've seen Ford run a series of spots featuring Idol contestants which become part of what fans evaluate as they judge who should win the talent competition. From the start, American Idol has been closely tied to a range of new marketing and branding strategies.

Upon further investigation, I found the Oreo site online. It turns out that Kraft Foods, the company which makes those delightful chocolate wafers with the vanilla cream inside, is hosting a national competition to identify musical groups who can put their own spin on the advertising ditty. The winning group receive $10,000, the opportunity to record an Oreo radio commercial and hang out with Randy Jackson in Los Angeles in August.

A panel of judges winnowed down the original submissions and now the public is being invited to go to the web and vote on the five finalists. There's Acappella Gold, a group of soccer mom types in zebra-skin pants suits, doing it up barbershop quartet style. There's the Chris Allen Band which gave the song a bit of Reggae backbeat and Odysy who perform it with a mix of hip hop and street harmony. The Oreo Cousins do it as a blues number and The Three belt it out to acoustic guitar and percussion.

Each of the videos has the ear-marks of amateur made media -- the kind of stuff the RIAA wants to take off of YouTube: most of them have fixed camera positions, poor lighting, and are shot in rec-rooms or other cluttered domestic spaces. The performances that made it this far are pretty good -- each has its own flavor and each set of performers seems to be really enjoying what they are doing. The website features a selection of the folks -- good and bad -- who got cut from the competition along the way.

Everyone Likes Oreos -- in Their Own Way

Kraft can be seen as the latest in a long series of advertisers which have embraced user-generated content as a means of generating buzz around popular brands. Such campaigns seek to tap the passion consumers feel towards cult brands and use it to draw other consumers into the fold.

I confess -- I enjoyed spending time with these entries. A great deal of the interest lies in the diversity of musical traditions represented. This makes me skeptical of the plans to select one winner and feature them on television. Each of these performers embodies different consumer niches and there's a message to be had in seeing the Oreos message translated in so many different musical languages. It seems silly to start with such multiculturalism and end up with a monovocal message -- no matter who ends up winning.

I am not sure whether Oreos represents a cult brand (perhaps it's simply a comfort food that reminds all of us of good times we had as kids) but I know that I am susceptible to peer pressure where Oreos are concerned. Some years ago, I was getting on a TransAtlantic flight to the U.K. and I saw someone sitting across the aisle from me loading a huge carry-on bag filled with Oreo Cookies which she was apparently taking back with her to England. I snorted smugly to the person sitting next to me about the degree to which some people become addicted to their favorite products. But once I got to London, I started craving Oreo cookies and couldn't find them anywhere -- at least at that time a decade or so ago -- and when I got back stateside, the first thing I wanted to do was stop at the local 7/11 and buy some Oreos and milk. I hadn't had one of those cookies for months prior to the trip but somehow traveling through a world without Oreos left me really desperate.

"It's Wal-Mart Time"

Of course, Youtube shows us that consumers will make videos about the most popular brands, even in the absence of formal contests and prizes. Just as fan communities will use the web to build visibility for their favorite media properties, brand communities celebrate their connections to their favorite brands.

Take the case of Wal-Mart -- scarcely a brand that might be expected to generate a high degree of passion or be regarded as hip. Yet, you can find countless examples of amateurs who have made media -- sometimes ironic, sometimes dead serious -- to celebrate the Wal-Mart shopping experience. Many of these videos are shot illicitly with cameras smuggled into various Wal-Mart outlets, often taking advantage of the products on display as unpurchased props. These can be snatch and grab affairs or much more elaborate. This parody of Eminem's song, "Just Lose It," involves elaborate production numbers, presumably filmed under the watchful noses of Wal-mart's ever attentive and friendly welcomers. I'm not sure that the brand managers would jump from joy to see Wal-mart associated with white trash lifestyles, cheap merchandise, shoplifting, and parking lot fisticuffs as occurs in "Wal-Mart Time", but it's hard to deny the vibrancy of this particular video. Even if we don't want to see these spots as actively promoting the brand's own agenda, they have a kind of affection for the store as a public space which contrasts sharply with the anti-corporate messages one associates with the ad-buster or culture jammers movement.

His First Oreo Cookie

And of course, look around a little deeper and one will find similar spots for other products, including a whole range of videos featuring people consuming or playing with Oreo cookies. This one is overly long but it does convey the idea that how one eats Oreos is part of standard cultural lore and that people can have a good time standing around twisting open cookies and dipping them into milk. The message here may be more mundane, more ambivalent, than what you are likely to see on a television commercial. But then, that's how we live with brands in the context of our everyday life. We snuggle down with them at the end of a hard day -- we are unlikely to speak in the hyperbolic language of television spots.

These unregulated consumer-generated segments suggest just how carefully filtered and fully scripted the official competition really is. Traditional notions of brand management stress the careful control over the brand's core messages -- every image, every bit of text gets scrutinized to make sure that it reinforces the core themes of a particular campaign. You can bet that anything that made it this far in the official Oreo jingle competition was put through that same process. The finalists were chosen as much for their reverence for the product as for their musical talent. The radio spot I heard features an unlikely Polka style version but it doesn't show people talking about being allergic to chocolate. We don't even see anything as awful as those William Hung style performances American Idol likes to play over and over on the air.

These other videos probably couldn't get assimilated into the official campaign, but then, they may be all the more powerful as brand statements because they are clearly unauthorized and outside the company's control. This could be another one of those spaces where official and unofficial culture co-exist within the crazy, mixed up world of convergence culture.

I am indebted to CMS graduate student Ilya Vedrashko for directing my attention to the amateur made Wal-mart spots. The Oreo material I found on my own.