Announcing Transforming Hollywood: The Futures Of Television

UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

and

USC School of Cinematic Arts

Announce

Transforming Hollywood: The Futures of Television, April 4, 2014, UCLA 

Co-directors:

Denise Mann, UCLA

Henry Jenkins, USC

Presented by the  Andrew J. Kuehn  Jr. Foundation

Media Sponsor: Variety

Friday April 4   2014

James Bridges Theater, UCLA

Conference overview:  This year, the fifth installment of Transmedia, Hollywood has been given a new name—Transforming Hollywood: The Future of Television—to reflect our desire to engage more fully with the radical changes taking place in the American television industry for creators, distributors, and audiences. When future generations of historians write their accounts of the evolution of the American television industry, they will almost certainly point to the 2010s as a moment of dramatic change: we’ve seen the entry of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube as major players shaping the production of original programming, gaining critical praise, courting industry awards, and perhaps, most dramatically, starting to compete in terms of number of subscriptions to the top cable networks. We’ve seen Kickstarter emerge as an alternative means for “crowdfunding” television content, allowing fans to exert a greater role in shaping the future of their favorite series. We’ve seen a continued growth in the number of independent producers creating and distributing their content through the web. And with these other changes, we are seeing the industry and academia struggle to develop new insights into what it means to consume television content in this connected and yet dispersed marketplace. This conference will bring together key creative and corporate decision-makers who are shaping these changes and academics who have been trying to place these shifts in their larger historical and cultural contexts. What does all of this mean for those of us who are making or watching television?

For more information, see:  http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : https://transforminghollywood5.eventbrite.com

 

Panel one: “Virtual Entrepreneurs—Creators Who are Reinventing TV for the Digital Future.” 

9-9:10 Opening Remarks

Henry Jenkins, USC and Denise Mann, UCLA

9:10-11:00AM

Moderator: Denise Mann, UCLA

 

In the fall of 2011, Google announced plans to invest a hundred million dollars to forge talent partnerships with a number of talented YouTube creator in order to enhance the production value of their work and their value to brands. This panel gives voice to two new types of virtual entrepreneur: individual web-creators who are reinventing entertainment for the digital age, and the CEO of a new type of web-based multi-channel network (MCNs), which is forging deals with individual web-creators in exchange for providing them with infrastructural support in the form of sound stages, green screens, higher quality cameras and editing equipment, enhanced social media marketing tools, and brand alliances. Early entrepreneurs in this newly commercial, digital economy include Felicia Day and Sheri Bryant (Geek and Sundry), Freddie Wong (Video High School), and Dane Boetlinger (Annoying Orange), each of whom has catapulted his or herself into the top tier of web-celebs based on huge fan followings.  Many of these entrepreneurial web-creators have sought out deals with MCNS, such as Maker, Fullscreen, Maker, Machinima, and The Collective, in order to expand their budding entertainment enterprises. However, other creators are chafing inside these long-term contracts with the MCNs, frustrated by what they see as onerous terms—the split of advertising revenues and intellectual property rights. Today’s panel debates the viability of these new creative and business models, asking whether they represent a radical rethinking of entertainment that puts power back into the hands of creators or are they transitional systems that will eventually be absorbed by Hollywood’s big media groups.

 

2.“The Programmers of the Future: Video Streaming on Demand.” 

Moderator: Andrew Wallenstein, Editor-in-Chief, Digital, Variety

11:15AM-1PM

Overview: As consumers spend more of their free time online, viewing and sharing content on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vimeo, Tumblir, and Vine, what does this mean for the future of television? Cord-cutters and cord-nevers represent a very real threat to the current big dogs of digital distribution—the multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), also known as the subscription cable systems (Comcast, Time-Warner, Comcast), the satellite carriers (Direct TV), the telcos (AT&T U-verse), and the wireless companies (Verizon FiOS). At the same time, the MVPDs have been waging too many public battles with the Hollywood broadcasters over their high re-transmission fees, resorting to theatrics by pulling favorite sporting events and sit-coms–behavior that alienates consumers and tests the patience of government policy-makers.  At the same time, these policy-makers are making little effort to curb the reckless deal-making taking place in the video streaming on demand (VSOD) space as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and new players, such as Microsoft X-box, make aggressive moves to expand globally while freeing themselves from their dependency on Hollywood licensing deals. By creating their own libraries of critically-acclaimed original programming—House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Betas—the VSOD services are creating legions of new, loyal consumers, paving the way for a future that may or may not include Hollywood’s premium content licensing deals going forward. Furthermore, the VSOD services are attracting A-level talent by offering greater creative autonomy than their micro-managing counterparts at the studios and networks. Do these new programming and streaming options foretell the end of an era in Hollywood or the beginning of a revised set of practices for creators and additional viewing options for binging viewers? Only time will tell?

 

3. “Second Screens, Connected Viewing, Crowd-funding, and Social Media: Re-imagining Television Consumption.”  

2-3:45PM

Moderator: Henry Jenkins, USC

 

Overview:  As the television industry has been remapping the flow of media content, as new forms of producers and distributors enter the marketplace, there has also been an accompanying effort to rethink their interface with media audiences.  Over the past decade, we’ve seen a renewed emphasis on audience engagement strategies which seek to insure consumer loyalty and social buzz as a way for individual programs or networks to “break through the clutter” of the multiplying array of media options. New metrics are emerging for measuring the value of engaged viewers and the kinds of social and cultural capital they bring with them when they embrace a program. So, for example, the rise of Black Twitter has been credited with helping to rally support behind new programs with strong black protagonists, such as Scandal, Sleepy Hollow, and Being Mary Jane.  Second screen apps are becoming ubiquitous as television producers seek to hold onto the attention of a generation of viewers who are prone to multitasking impulses. The successful Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign opens up the prospect of fans helping to provide funding in support of their favorite stars, creators, or series. And the commercial success of 50 Shades of Gray, which was adapted from a piece of Twilight fan fiction, has alerted the publishing world to a hitherfore underappreciated value of women’s fan fiction writing as a recruiting ground for new talent and as a source for new creative material. Yet, for all this focus on engaged audiences, does the industry value some form of viewers and viewership more than others? Which groups are being under-represented here and why? Are the new economic arrangements between fans and producers fair to all involved?

  

4. Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows

Moderator: Aymar Jean Christian, Northwestern University

4-5:45PM

 

Overview: The Internet broke the network bottleneck. Through platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, creators release series directly to fans, who follow shows and share them with friends. Web-content creators can write stories in whatever length, style, and genre they choose, on their own schedule, and with actors of their choosing. The result is a truly open television ecosystem, where creators, talent and fans work together to realize stories they want to see. Each of the producers who appear on this panel has contributed to this new vision of television, producing series that are developed for the Internet but are also being shaped for traditional TV as well (several of these series are being developed on HBO). Issa Rae developed The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl with a small team and expanded the show using a successful crowdfunding campaign; she went on to produce a number of series with other creators,including Amy Rubin’s Little Horribles. Released by her own Barnacle Studios, Rubins sitcom became a hit with fans and critics at Variety, LA Weekly and Splitsider, among many others. Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier launched the Black & Sexy TV network to showcase indie comedy, releasing their own hit series, The Couple, and many others from emerging Hollywood talent. Jay Bushman helped The Lizzie Bennet Diaries grow into a deeply engaging transmedia phenomenon, where viewers of the Jane Austen-inspired series followed characters from YouTube to Twitter and Pinterest. As these examples convey, the internet has become an incubator for talented, next-generation web-creators and web-celebs, who, in combination with their fan followers, are reinventing television for the digital age.

 

Speakers to be announced.

SAVE THE DATE. WATCH THIS BLOG FOR FURTHER UPDATES

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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.

As the World Stopped Turning: A Conversation with Lynn Liccardo on Soap Operas (Part Two)

You provide a very personal account of your own gradual disconnect from enjoying and having an emotional engagement with As the World Turns. How would you describe your relationship to the show, both as a fan and as a critic, and how did that relationship evolve over time?

It’s ironic, and no small testament to the power of its storytelling, that I became so deeply involved with ATWT: Since it aired on the East Coast at 1:30, while I was at school, I was far more familiar with, and have far more vivid memories of, Search for Tomorrow and Guiding Light, which were on when my sister and I came home for lunch in grammar school, and Another World, which I could see if I came straight home from junior high school.

 

I only got to watch ATWT on holidays, vacations and sick days, a pattern that continued after I moved to Boston in 1973, found a full time job and worked on my undergraduate degree at night. In those pre-VCR days, what I remember more than specific stories is the familiarity of the characters, who were always there when I was able to watch. That was until I took a year off (1982-3) to complete my degree.  While I had been peripherally aware of the General Hospital phenomenon, I had  no idea that GH’s success was why the ATWT on my screen was so different from what I remembered.  But, I actually enjoyed what I saw and never considered abandoning the show. At the time, I was in advertisers’ target demo, so from that perspective, the change in direction was a success.

 

But, while I was enjoying the ATWT’s new direction, my mother was not. She missed the show she had loved for 25 years and eventually stopped watching. She wasn’t the only one; the show lost more viewers than it gained and a couple of years later (1984-5) the Calhoun-Marland team righted the ship and the show rose in the ratings. But, without my mother, although she continued to watch GL.

 

After college, the combination of a flexible job and a VCR allowed me to become a serious fan. I was writing about nursing (like soaps, strongly associated with women and thereby marginalized. Also, like soaps’ “not your mother’s soap opera,” nursing had internalized the belief that to be valued they had to become something else: “professional” nurses who didn’t want to be seen as “that kind of nurse,” dealing with bodily fluids at the bedside.”)  While writing an article for Soap Opera Weekly on how nurses were portrayed on soaps I interviewed Doug Marland. A few months later, what was supposed to be a short news piece about CBS ending its head writer training program morphed into a longer article about the paths of three head writers (including Marland), which got me thinking seriously about soaps.

 

In 1995, I began pitching a piece to coincide with ATWT’s 40th anniversary in 1996 to Smithsonian Magazine; it took over a year to convince the editor. By the time I arrived on the set in mid-March when the anniversary episode was taped, there was a new production team in place (see above) and the mantra of the executive producer, head writers and publicist was “we’re not 40 years old, we’re 40 years young.”  I could see that things were falling apart, and while I could identify bits and pieces of what was wrong, I couldn’t figure out how those pieces fit together (even if I could, I’m not sure Smithsonian would have been the right place), so I was forced to abandon the piece. I wrote one more article analyzing the demographics of soap opera audience, then turned my attention to writing a screenplay (isn’t everyone:) and short plays.

 

It wasn’t until Sam Ford asked me to be on his thesis committee in 2006 that I was able to begin identifying the “bits and pieces” that had undermined the Smithsonian piece. The task now is to integrate those elements into a cohesive framework within which to consider the full impact of soaps — a task made all the more challenging since there is no obvious hierarchical relationship among the elements.

 

The book begins with a deep look at Irna Phillips and how the details of her own life so intensely shaped many aspects of As the World Turns. You also recently published a piece about Irna for Harvard Magazine. What do you believe Phillips’ place is in the history of the soap opera in particular, and in the greater landscape of U.S. television?

 

Irna Phillips was a risk taker who, rather than fear failure, learned from it. In 1948, she wrote to P&G’s William Ramsey that she had doubts about televising soaps, suggesting that it would be some time before a televised serial could succeed. (She doesn’t explain why, but at the time there were roughly 100,00 television sets in the country, most concentrated in the New York area, up from 44,000 the previous year. As the post-war economy expanded, the number of sets increased exponentially; by 1953, over half of US household had a television.) Yet, just a few months later, in January 1949, Irna approached NBC about creating what many consider the first television soap, These are My Children. Accounts vary (some say the network pulled it after five weeks; Irna says she pulled it after 13 weeks when the network shifted its time slot), but by any measure, the television’s first soap opera was a failure. Whether the show failed because it was bad (according to Television World) or because the low viewership was a function of too few households with televisions is impossible to determine.

 

The success of two early television soaps on CBS (Search for Tomorrow and  Love of Life), convinced Irna that the time was right to move Guiding Light from radio, where it began in 1937, to television. But GL’s owner, P&G believed that only serials created specifically for television would succeed.  Undaunted, Irna revised two GL “highly dramatic” radio scripts (it’s not clear if she secured P&G’s permission), then spent more than $5000 of her own money (in 1952, the median household income was $3900) to tape the episodes and the show premiered on CBS in June, while remaining on radio until 1956 (when 71% of households had at least one television).

 

When Irna first floated the idea of a half-hour soap the suits were again skeptical. One executive told her, “we don’t believe in investing in a possible failure.” But, as with GL, Irna persevered, this time collaborating with longtime colleagues, Agnes Nixon and Ted Corday, to write and finance ($10,000) a pilot for ATWT. According to Irna, the nine cast members were so impressed, “they agreed to hold themselves available for six months” until the pilot was picked up.

 

In the early 1960s, Irna became a consultant for what would become the first successful primetime soap opera, ABC’s Peyton Place (1964-1969). She then created a primetime ATWT spinoff, Our Private World, which ran for 19 weeks (38 episodes) from May 5 – September 10, 1965. CBS’s decision to air the show over the summer, rather than launching it as part of the new fall season, likely contributed to its short run, and may also have reflected a lack of confidence in Irna. Since her unfinished memoir, All My Worlds, ends in late 1963 with her creation of Another World, if Irna had any thoughts about All My Worlds and the two shows she later created, Love is a Many Splendored Thing and A World Apart, they would be in her papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.

 

Much of your book focuses on the ways in which management practices and corporate structure in the last 15 years of As the World Turns‘ 54-year run damaged both the quality of the story and the relationship the show maintained with its fans. In the course of your research and writing, in what ways were soap opera fans drawing these connections between industry news and what played out on their screens on an everyday basis? And what can media scholars and those who work in or study other media industries learn from studying the ongoing relationship between longterm viewers and a media property like ATWT?

 

When fan magazines covering soaps first appeared in the late-1960s, soaps had been on television for almost 20 years. Those early publications consisted mainly of interviews with actors and features that took fans behind-the-scenes of the shows. It wasn’t until Soap Opera Weekly came on the scene in November 1989 that fans had timely access to industry news and serious criticism. In addition to episode recaps, Weekly published spoilers that let fans know what would happen when. According to founding editor, Mimi Torchin, fans welcomed information that allowed them to prioritize. Of course, in a extreme example of unintended consequences, spoilers have become a vexing challenge for all serialized storytelling in the digital age.

Both Weekly and its sister publication, Soap Opera Digest, included “Comings and Goings” and “The Revolving Door,” features that alerted fans when actors left roles, or were cast as new characters. This information became a form of spoiler that allowed fans to speculate outside of what they saw on the screen. Producers and writers exacerbated this phenomenon by sharing information about who the new (or recast) character would be paired with, and the direction the story would take.  With the final years of ATWT  characterized by a seemingly endless array of new characters, few of whom were connected to the core Hughes family, when fans heard the news online, many were not inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt and wait to see how stories played out before passing (usually negative) judgment.

Another factor to consider: the unintended consequences of rebranding, which requires a willingness to to alienate, and even lose, existing customers to attract desired customers. This worked brilliantly for AMC when the network shifted its focus from showing old movies to become the HBO of basic cable. But movie buffs had plenty of options; not so with soaps. Whether it was articulated or not, when ATWT shifted the show’s focus in the early-1980s to capture younger viewers, the show seemed willing to lose its existing viewers, like my mother, who left and never returned, even when the show corrected course a few years later. But, with all soaps trying to recreate General Hospital’s success, there was no place for disaffected fans to turn. So many stayed, and with the remote controls that came with their new VCRs in hand,  fast forwarded through many of the new characters that populated the ATWT canvas, contributing to the show’s increasingly fragmented storytelling. One consequence  of fragmented storytelling is a fragmented audience, with each segment expressing its own spin on the genre’s aesthetic. The result: divergent and often conflicting comments that made it difficult to interpret and apply fan feedback.

In 1996 P&G set up a toll-free number to provide viewers with inside information about the ATWT. At the end callers were asked who they wanted to see the troubled Emily Stewart paired with: “press 1 for Diego, 2 for Jeff.” Since “other,” “none of the above” or,”in the case of this particular character, “a good therapist,” were not among the choices, the results were  meaningless. And the way in which the question was posed (the only option to bypass the question was hanging up) made clear that this was not a serious effort on the part of PGP to engage viewers, but rather a ham-handed token.

Another example of the show’s tin ear was someone’s (probably not the executive producer or head writer, both of whom had worked in soaps long enough to understand the subtle intricacies of how time unfolds on soaps; depending on the circumstances, sometimes compressed, sometimes extended.) literal interpretation of a frequent complaint about soaps: “the stories move too slowly.” In 2008, ATWT abandoned soap opera’s traditional narrative structure and began a series of short-term story arcs, some of which wrapped up in a single episode. The combination of self-contained episodes and spoilers made at least one fan happy: “Not sure how or why TPTB have come up with this new concept, but is sure is working well. I think I’ve watched a total of one or two episodes in the last two weeks.” An unintended consequence that inflicted considerable damage in ATWT’s final years.

Without an understanding of not just what’s being said, but what it means, soliciting feedback is at best, futile, at worst, damaging. When it came to soap opera, however, there was no guarantee that those who were conducting the research had ever watched soaps. According to one former network executive I talked with, it was the rare researcher who even took the time to familiarized themselves with the show for which they were collecting feedback. So, while their empirical observations may have been accurate, without a shared experiential frame of reference with their subjects, researchers often lacked to tools to infer, then accurately interpret and apply how fans experience soaps.

When it comes to suspending disbelief, the very nature of daytime soaps demands more of viewers than other dramatic media. But as the genre’s scope expanded over the years, traditional elements — intimate relationships between family, friends and lovers — began to share space with time travel, the supernatural, omnipotent villains and characters whose repeated returns from the dead often defied both logic and the laws of physics. When ATWT’s James Stenbeck first reappeared in 1986 after being presume dead, he provided a simple explanation: “I had a parachute.”  But as explanations for his subsequent resurrections became more and more preposterous, some fans were angry, feeling that the writers were taking advantage of their willingness to suspend disbelief — even insulting their intelligence. Others chalked it up to a “it’s a soap opera. No one gives a shit if it makes sense” mentality on the part of writers and producers. By 2009, when Stenbeck returned from the dead for the fourth and final time, the writers didn’t bother to even go through the motions. And rather than get angry, those fans still watching responded with detached bemusement.

The number of serialized dramas has exploded in the past 15 years, so dominating television programming that a recent piece in TVGuide suggests that serial dramas may be reaching the saturation point. The challenges facing these shows — maintaining the integrity of the storytelling in the face of network interference and the shuffling of show runners, spoilers, time-shifting, and more recent additions to the lexicon, binge watching and, perhaps most important, hate-watching — all have their antecedents in soaps. Current and future storytellers facing the challenge of attracting viewers in a media landscape drowning in serial drama have much to learn by understanding how soaps and their fans have dealt with these issues.

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 Lynn Liccardo is a longtime soap opera journalist and blogger. Her critical observations on soaps – their content, the industry that produces them, and the culture that both loves them and loves to ridicule them – connect soap opera’s past and present with its future and begin to form a larger framework within which to more fully examine the genre. She released an ebook of essays detailing the final years of As the World Turns, entitled as the world stopped turning… Among her other publications are “Who Really Watches the Daytime Soaps” (1996, Soap Opera Weekly); “Irna Phillips: Brief life of soap opera’s single mother 1901-1973″ (2012, Harvard Magazine). Her essay, “The Ironic and Convoluted Relationship between Daytime and Primetime Soap Opera,” was published in The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (co-edited by Futures of Entertainment Fellows Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington).

Sam Ford is co-editor (with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington) of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (2011, University Press of Mississippi) and co-author (with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green) of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture(2013, NYU Press). He is also Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies and Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program, and a frequent Fast Company contributor. Sam serves on WOMMA’s Membership Ethics Advisory Panel and was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is a Kentucky Press Association award-winning journalist and has written for Harvard Business ReviewWall Street Journal,BusinessWeekThe Huffington PostPortfolioChief MarketerThe Public Relations StrategistPR News,Bulldog ReporterThe Christian Science Monitor, and CommPRO.biz. Sam lives in Bowling Green, KY, with wife, Amanda, and daughters, Emma and Harper.

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television (Part One)

Henry Jenkins:

When I was writing Textual Poachers in the late 1980s, I stumbled across a fascinating scheme being floated by fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, Beauty and the Beast, a series with a very committed audience, but one that was small enough that the program was always in danger of being canceled. The fans were suggesting a plan where fans would pay into a fund that would cover the cost of the series production and then would received VHS tapes of episodes once they had been made. The fans rightly recognized that the Nielsen Ratings measured the scope of viewership but not its intensity, and that the scale of success demanded to stay on network television was considerably lower than what would be required to cover the costs of production. At the time, such plans were unlikely to succeed, given the nature of the media environment: they really did not have a robust method for collecting funds from dedicated fans, the producers would not have had a viable business model for proceeding under this unstable system, and the distribution of episodes via VHS was going to be clunky at best.

We flash forward two decades and recent events suggests we have moved dramatically closer to making such a scenario possible. First, we have seen Netflix become a producer and distributor of original television content — programs that look and feel like network television (actually like HBO or AMC programming) but which are distributed digitally without ever being broadcast. Netflix’s first venture in this direction was House of Cards, which seems to have attracted a very solid audience, and their second will be the relaunch of Arrested Development, a fan favorite series that Netflix has brought back after several years in limbo. We are seeing similar moves by Hulu and YouTube, both of which would like to get into the business of producing and distributing web-based television content.

And, then, we have seen Kickstarter emerge as a platform that, with the example of Veronica Mars, has demonstrated the possibilities of fan support pushing a once canceled program back into production — in this case for the big screen. And for the Veronica Mars scheme to work, we have to assume there were behind the scenes discussions between Rob Thomas and Warner Brothers (which still owns the rights to Veronica Mars) that would allow them some basis of proceeding. We now are hearing that a range of other producers and show-runners are starting to explore whether they might deploy similar tactics to gain a second chance for their passion projects.

This week, I have gathered together three friends, who bring different kinds of expertise to thinking about the short term and long term implications of these developments.

Aymar  Jean “AJ” Christian:

Hello!

It’s been fascinating to see relationships between producers, fans and distributors reconfigured in digital marketplaces!

About a year before Kickstarter launched, I was drawn into the world of crowdfunding through Felicia Day. Day was a working actress with credits on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she decided she wasn’t ever going to get a leading role and showrunner status unless she did it herself. Intermittently unemployed as so many workers in Hollywood are, she wrote a pilot for The Guild, about a group of gamers, based on her experience playing World of Warcraft in between gigs. She and a skeleton crew produced most of the first season on a dime and then came to place a lot of indie producers find themselves: without funds to continue. But those few episodes had built a fan base, and, through a Paypal link on the show’s active website, she raised thousands to kick-start the rest. That early fan interest shocked the industry, distributors came calling, and The Guild found distribution through Microsoft, who was/is trying to build an entertainment platform outside of television. Day is now a huge source of inspiration within and outside the web television industry and a key brand ambassador for MSN.

In my years researching the “web series” or independent television market I’ve seen crowdfunding take a central place in show development (so much so I’ve tried to track it on my site). Series that built communities of fans early and quickly inevitably turned to crowdfunding. Soon shows targeting all sorts of groups dissatisfied with legacy television used sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to keep indie brands alive. Lesbian web series Anyone But Butraised over $30,000 for its third and final season; The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl ($56,000, nearly twice the ask) for its second; The Outs (over $20,000, many times the ask), a gay-led show, did it in two rounds; last year brought Black & Sexy’s The Couple ($32,000) and Latino-focused show East WillyB ($51,000), not to mention the prodigious work of Freddie Wong, whose canny, Asian-American-led Video Game High School has crowdfunded over $1 million to date (season 1season 2).

Raising money not only gave them funds to survive, and extra opportunities for press and marketing, they also let creators build a database of their strongest fans and supporters, who would then proselytize the show on social networks. This sometimes led to distribution and development deals with both online and on-air networks.

In short, crowdfunding causes us to rethink relationships in media industries, and think very specifically about the kinds of value producers and fans generate from television, as a number of scholars are exploring, from Jason Mittellto Michael Newman, to your work in Spreadable Media. For independent producers, crowdfunding rewards creators with a clear pitch to specific communities, who are in turn rewarded with a show conglomerates might be reluctant to green light. Of course, this kind of value is hard to sustain in our media landscape, and the fact that Veronica Marsraised several times more than most projects before it in 24 hours speaks to the kinds of value conglomerates are able to generate when they have already invested in marketing properties.

 

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

He began his career as an entrepreneur at the age of 15, when he developed a story-creation platform with writer Sonia Rodrigues. Used in over 4000 schools, it was licensed 8 times and used as a tool to facilitate innovation and creativity for  many top 500 companies and the UN.

 

Videos, Videos, Videos….

Today, I wanted to share with you some videos from recent events where I have participated as a speaker or moderator.

A few weeks ago, I took the stage at the Tim O’Reilly Tools for Change conference in New York City with two amazing thinkers and good friends — Cory Doctorow, science fiction and Young Adult writer and digital advocate and Brian David Johnson, the man behind the recent book, Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Travel Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology (for which I wrote an introduction).  Inspired by the Three Tenors, we jokingly billed ourselvesas the Three Geeks. In the conference context, the exchange — which spanned across everything from digital publishing to science fiction — was frustratingly short. We were just getting started, really, when the timer went off. We are hopeful we can bring a much longer conversation to some other venue before much longer.  But, in the meantime, we hope you will enjoy this video of the exchange.

Also, this past month, I was moderator for a Google Hangout discussion of Interacting with Transmedia, part of the InterActs series sponsored by . The featured panelists were:

Marc Smolowitz, Director, Producer, Executive Producer, Documentary Filmmaker

Luisa Dantas, Director/Producer/Editor, Land of Opportunity

Jo Ellen Kaiser, Executive Director, The Media Consortium

Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at Tribeca Film Institute

Danielle Riendeau, Blogger for KillScreen, Instructor of Interactive Storytelling at Northeastern University, Communications Officer for ACLU-NorCal

InterActs is a conversation series created in partnership between NAMAC and the Daily Dot. Over the next several months, these two teams will host a series of online conversations on creative expression in digital environments. Unlike many programs on transmedia that focus on Hollywood producers and franchises, this event was centered on what people have called the East Coast School of Transmedia, where there is often a strong emphasis on independent and public media production, and here, on transmedia for social change. If you enjoy this video, we hope you will consider joining us for this year’s Transmedia Hollywood event, coming up on April 12 at UCLA, where the focus will be on different models for promoting social change in a world of spreadablity and transmedia production.

This past weekend, Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I took our Spreadable Media book to South by Southwest, where we gave a talk to a packed auditorium, but also did a range of interviews. Here are a few of the ones that have already appeared on line. We note in the introduction that Spreadable Media tries to address a range of different audiences, and these interviews give some suggestion of how these various groups are taking up our ideas.

 

Here, you can see the three authors, seated rather uncomfortably on a coach, talking to a reporter from Gen/Connect about the role of the audience in creating value in a networked culture

Here are Sam and I sitting on another coach, this time in a house set up for librarians to gather and talk about the future of media. This time, the focus is on the implications of our work for education with a strong focus on media literacy, old and new.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Here, Sam and I participated in a podcast interview, speaking about the book’s implications for journalists and activists.

 

And here is me on a random street corner speaking to the folks from Leo Burnett: this time with a primary focus on what Spreadable Media means for brands and advertising.

#SXLB: Henry Jenkins, Author & Professor, USC, Pt. 1: Grassroots from Leo Burnett Worldwide on Vimeo.

We are on the road a lot these days, in various combinations, talking about the book and its implications for various audiences. I expect to share more videos before much longer.

As the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, That’s me … all over!

Announcing Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television,
and
USC Annenberg School of Communication &
USC School of Cinematic Arts

Transmedia, Hollywood 4:
Spreading Change

Presented by The Andrew J. Kuehn, Jr. Foundation

Friday, April 12, 2013
James Bridges Theater, UCLA

9:00 am – 6:00 pm

 

Transmedia, Hollywood is a one-day public symposium exploring the role of transmedia franchises in today’s entertainment industries. Transmedia, Hollywood turns the spotlight on media creators, producers and executives and places them in critical dialogue with top researchers from across a wide spectrum of film, media and cultural studies to provide an interdisciplinary summit for the free interchange of insights about how transmedia works and what it means. Transmedia, Hollywood is co-hosted by Denise Mann and Henry Jenkins, from UCLA and USC, two of the most prominent film schools and media research centers in the nation.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

Transmedia entertainment has been advanced within the Hollywood system primarily through a logic of promotion, audience building, and engagement, offering the ideal tools for capturing the imagination of networked audiences through the creation of immersive and expansive imaginary worlds. As transmedia has spread around the world, especially to countries with a much stronger tradition of public media, these same practices have been embraced as a means not of building fictional realms but of changing the world:

  • As advertisers seek to construct their own “brand communities” as a way of forging strong affiliations with their consumers, many are embracing cause-based marketing. In the process, these brand marketers are recognizing young viewers’ capacity for civic engagement and political participation, one of the hallmarks of the millennial generation. While sometimes these brand messages end up advancing cultural movements, in other instances, they simply coopt these shared generational concerns.
  • Educational approaches to entertainment, popular across the developing world, are now extending across multiple media platforms to allow fans to develop a deeper understanding of health and social policy issues as they dig deeper into the backstories of their favorite characters. Alternative reality games, which seek to encourage grassroots participation as a marketing tool, have shifted from solving puzzles to mobilizing players to confront real world problems.
  • Fan networks, organized to support and promote favorite media franchises, are taking on the challenge of training and mobilizing the next generation of young activists, using their capacity as thought leaders to reshape the attention economy by increasing public awareness of mutual concerns.
  • Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters.

Each of these productive, participatory, community-based activities have been facilitated over the past decade by a widening web of 2.0 social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. The millennial generation’s mastery of “play” has now expanded to include a growing number of apps, casual games, short-form digital entertainment experiences, and expansive alternate reality games. Millennials, who have been acclimating themselves with the tools of connectivity in times of play, now have at their disposal the means to harness a global community to solve such pressing issues as global warming, ethnic, racial or religious genocide, labor unrest, the inequities associated with class, and countless other modern-day assaults. Many of today’s thought leaders—baby boomers that witnessed an earlier social revolution during the late sixties—marvel over the subtle but pervasive shift that is underway in the web 2.0 era and beyond as social connectedness is becoming reframed as a means for large-scale community action.

Transmedia producers in Hollywood have much to learn from a closer examination of these other forms of entertainment and educational discourse, which we might describe as “transmedia for a change.” When is it appropriate for the big media companies to incorporate such themes and tactics into their pop culture franchises? And when should they tolerate, even embrace, the bottom up activities of their fans which have used their content as vehicles for promoting social justice and political change? What does it mean to produce entertainment for a generation which is demanding its right to meaningfully participate at every level — from shaping the stories that matter to them to impacting the governance of their society?

For more information, see http://www.liquid-bass.com/conference/

For conference Registration, see : http://transmediahollywood4.eventbrite.com/#

Also, that same weekend, 5D Institute, in association with University of Southern California, invites you to join us in The Science of Fiction, our first Worldbuilding festival. This groundbreaking event will take place on April 13, 2012 in honor of the unveiling of the new USC School of Cinematic Arts Interactive Media complex. For more information, see http://5dinstitute.org/events/science-of-fiction

9:00—9:10 am: Welcome and Opening Remarks – Denise Mann & Henry Jenkins
9:10—11:00 am: Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural MovementsIn the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)      

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham

CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio     

Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner     

VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph

Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

 

 

 

11:10 am—1:00 pm: Panel 2 Transmedia For a ChangeHollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications. 

Panelists

Henry Jenkins (Moderator)     

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek     

Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota     

Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren

Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi     

Founder, BoomGen Studios

1:00—2:00 pm: LUNCH BREAK
2:00—3:50 pm: Panel 3 Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY CultureA recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).

Panelists

Megan M. Boler     

Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee

Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta     

Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh

Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)

Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep     

Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International

 

 

4:00—5:50 pm: Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New PhilanthropistNonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser

Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

 

Sean D. Carasso

Founder, Falling Whistles

 

Yael Cohen

Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Milana Rabkin     

Digital Media Agent

Sharon Waxman (Moderator)

Editor-in-Chief, The Wrap

 

 

6:00—7:30 pm:RECEPTION

Spreadable Media Spreads New Joy For 2013

So, we are now roaring into 2013 with the next installment of essays associated with the launch of Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, which I co-authored with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. The book is due out from New York University later this month. Each week, we are releasing a series of commissioned essays associated with the book, written by various friends, colleagues, former students, most of whom have at one time or another been affiliated with the Futures of Entertainment Consortium. The Consortium, among other things, runs two conferences per year — one on the East Coast (Futures of Entertainment, hosted by MIT) and one on the west coast (Transmedia Hollywood, which is jointly hosted by UCLA and USC).

These essays are tightly integrated into the book’s argument, but they are also intended to stand alone as spreadable content, and we hope that you will feel free to pass them along through your various social networks.

I have been writing about the core concept of Spreadable Media via this blog for several years now, and it has already inspired rich discussion. I thought I would share with you an outstanding video, which uses Spreadable Media concepts, to explain the Caine’s Arcade phenomenon. If you do not know the original Caine’s Arcade video, check it out below.

Now, here’s the video explaining what happened produced by Stephanie Linka, a student in a class taught last Spring at George Washington University, by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism alum Nikki Usher.

How Caine Won the Internet from Stephanie Linka on Vimeo.

And now onto our regularly scheduled series of essays. Today’s crop are focused around forms of participation within a networked culture.

The Moral Economy of Soap Opera Fandom
C. Lee Harrington

Soaps accompanied my real life as a stay at home mother, chronicled my years as a working adult, kept me company when I was alone, gave me something to bond with my mother, sisters, daughters, and daughter-in-laws over.

—52-year-old soap opera viewer who has been watching General Hospital for 46 years, One Life to Live for 41 years, and All My Children for 39 years; quoted in Harrington and Bielby 2010

I have long been fascinated with daytime soap operas, both as a source of pleasure in my own life and as the central anchor of my research on media industries, texts, and audiences. Soaps are distinct from other media forms due to their longevity in the U.S. television landscape (the average age of soaps airing in 2011 was 40 years), the daily installments of “primary” text (260 new episodes per year, per soap), their celebration and magnification of emotional expression, and the possibility of lifelong relationships forming between loyal viewers, soap characters, and the communities in which those characters live and work (see the epigraph). No other form of media fiction offers comparable dailiness, intimacy, and familiarity over the long haul.

Soaps’ longevity poses challenges to researchers, who struggle with the sheer volume of textual material produced, as well as to the soap industry, which struggles with staying true to shows’ long narrative histories and developing characters in “real time” while aligning those narratives with contemporary tastes of both newbies and lifers. Balancing these potentially competing demands generates a particular moral economy within soap opera fandom. The research on soap fans that Denise Bielby and I conducted in the early 1990s (Harrington and Bielby 1995) captured the beginning of fandom’s migration to the Internet, with viewers experimenting with electronic bulletin board discussions as a supplement to their investment in other aspects of “public” fandom (attending industry-sponsored fan events, buying fan magazines, joining fan clubs, etc.). In our book, we made a distinction between legal ownership over soap narratives and what we called “moral” ownership over them—fans’ sense that soap opera communities and characters are “theirs,” rather than belonging to the writers, actors, directors, or producers.

This sense of ownership is rooted in at least three factors. First, “soaps’ very success at creating and sustaining a seamless fictional world [. . .] creates a space for viewers to assert their claims when they perceive continuity is broken” (Bielby, Harrington, and Bielby 1999, 36). Second, viewers regularly outlast soaps’ revolving writing and production teams. Many long-term fans have been invested in their show(s) longer than the people creating them (as, often, have several of the actors playing the characters, leading to interesting ownership struggles within the industry [Harrington and Brothers 2010]), and they often do know their show’s history better. (The same point can be made of long-term sports fans or movie-franchise fans, contexts in which transgenerational fandoms outlast coaches, players, actors, directors, etc.) Third, soap production schedules allow the industry to respond relatively quickly to fan complaints and concerns, giving fans a sense that their opinions can make a real difference.
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How Spreadability Changes How We Think about Advertising
Ilya Vedrashko

You can’t spell “spreadability” without “ad.”

The vision of unpaid people cheerfully passing around ads they love has been a guiding light for marketers for more than a decade now. And what’s not to like? An ad that gets passed along receives extra attention. The Good Housekeeping stamp of consumers’ approval that such transmission suggests is assumed to add trustworthiness to the message. An ad that “goes viral” scores extra eyeballs.

But while the demand and the budgets for “viral” have been growing, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find a permanent box for spreadable media on the modern agency’s org chart. While many different disciplines—creative, media, public relations, social—are claiming ownership, a systemic problem has prevented spreadability from gaining a true acceptance.

Ad agencies, like factories of the industrial era, are a particular arrangement of means of production, highly specialized labor force and scarce resources optimized around efficient mass manufacturing of a particular type of output. For agencies, this output consists of ad units placed in print, television, online, radio, outdoor, theaters, events, and so on. An average agency produces and places thousands of such units on behalf of its clients each year.

These ads—paid announcements that appear in media—come in a finite variety of formats and sizes, and their production is scalable to the point where much of it can be, and has been, automated and outsourced. Ads are designed to elicit responses along the vector “see, like, remember, buy.” The agencies are structured around maximizing the number of these responses. Media departments craft media plans that try to ensure the highest number of the right people see the ad at the lowest cost. Creative departments are judged by the number of people who like and remember the ad. Ultimately, the agency’s output is evaluated against the number of people who buy the advertised product. The more people see, like, remember, and buy, the more successful the agency is in the long run.
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Soulja Boy and Dance Crazes
Kevin Driscoll

During the summer of 2007, U.S. pop media seemed saturated with talk show hosts and pro athletes dancing along to “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy).” By the time an official music video was shot in late July, the dance craze was already approaching an apex, with new videos appearing daily on MySpace and YouTube. Close inspection of the phenomenon reveals a diverse array of overlapping audiences exploiting “Crank Dat” as a producerly framework for the expression of personal, social, and political messages. Steeped in southern hip-hop’s independent tradition, teenage rapper Soulja Boy Tell ’Em championed the songs, dances, and videos produced by these audiences in pursuit of his own commercial success. “Crank Dat,” for all its confusion, contradiction, and welcoming incompleteness, is a valuable demonstration of spreadability in practice.

In the dominant narrative of the 1990s, hip-hop was driven to pop dominance by a rivalry between Los Angeles and New York City. Excluded from mainstream media channels, artists living in the southern U.S. were forced to develop an alternative hip-hop industry supported primarily by locally grown “indie” record labels with connections to regional radio personalities, nightclub DJs, and mom-and-pop record-shop owners (Grem 2006). This independence enabled the southern artists to develop innovative sounds and styles quite distinct from their coastal peers. In 2003, with CD sales flagging, major record labels turned to these indies in search of new talent to revitalize the industry. Among the many southern styles attracting attention, snap music deviated the most from the conventional hip-hop template. Snap’s minimal drum programming and repetitive lyrics destabilized unquestioned hip-hop norms such as the value of complex wordplay and the use of funk and soul samples.
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Television’s Invitation to Participate
Sharon Marie Ross

In Beyond the Box: TV and the Internet (Ross 2008), I argued that television shows starting in the late 1990s increasingly seemed to be “inviting” television viewers to become actively engaged with the TV text, often through the Internet. I saw three forms of invitation emerging: overt invitations, where a TV show obviously invites a viewer to become involved (e.g., American Idol’s calls to phone in a vote); organic invitations, where a TV show assumes that viewers are already actively engaged and incorporates evidence of this within the narrative of the show—or, in some cases, television network (e.g., Degrassi: The Next Generation’s attention to the role of new communications media in teens’ lives, and The N network’s use during Degrassi episodes of interstitials that feature teen viewers texting and IM chatting via The N’s website); and obscured invitations, where a TV show’s narrative complexity demands viewer unraveling that drives fans to online applications (e.g., Lost’s dense referencing of philosophers and artists as clues to the “hidden” meaning of the island and its inhabitants).

In discussions with Henry Jenkins since, I have suggested that organic invitations are likely to become the dominant form of TV invitations to participation. Today’s texting, IMing, web-surfing teens will become tomorrow’s multimedia-tasking adults, who will likely only be followed by a new wave of teen TV watchers who will be engaging in yet-to-be-imagined forms of new media communication.

Such developments are reverberating throughout all of media, from increasing demands on print journalism to be more present online to the use of branding in the spread of media franchises across TV, film, and music in such a way that demands more widespread knowledge of marketing from all media professionals. And such changes tend to spread throughout the TV landscape—even CSI has popular online applications, after all.
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What Old Media Can Teach New Media
Amanda D. Lotz

While it may be the case that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the question remains whether that old dog can teach a new dog anything useful from its existing repertoire. Or, in terms of spreadable media, can the “old”—or, as I prefer, “established”—processes of media industries for creating entertainment content teach those who are endeavoring on the creation of spreadable media anything of value? In the overinflated rhetoric of new media, media revolutions, and change, too often we lose track of basics and fail to consider that most of what seems new and different isn’t really, either. In this essay, I identify some of the established characteristics of entertainment-based media industries that remain relevant in an era of spreadable media and explore how some of the strategies these industries have developed to deal with their particularities do or do not apply to the spreadable media context.

A key starting point for understanding entertainment-based media industries is acknowledging that they are different from most other business sectors—often in particularly frustrating ways for their practitioners. This “difference” of media industries means that the rules and practices that hold for and prove productive to commercialization practices elsewhere simply don’t work, or at least don’t work as effectively, for these media companies. One of these key differences is captured in the maxim “nobody knows,” also expressed sometimes as the acknowledgment that such media industries are “risky businesses.” This sense that nobody knows results from the fickleness of audiences when it comes to creative and entertainment goods. Conventional focus-group testing or the combination of known “successful” features tend not to be particularly predictive of success in the design of a new media good. In other words, you can’t test or engineer your way to a hit with any certainty.

Considering the spreadable media successes of the past few years, I suspect the “nobody knows” maxim is likely to be true of the circulation of spreadable media to the same degree it is for the distribution of established entertainment media. Try as we might to identify common features or characteristics, we fool ourselves if we think we can anticipate a formula for producing creative content likely to catch the cultural fancy of any particular audience at any given moment. But all is not lost; these media companies have developed a number of strategies designed to counter some of the uncertainty of their established platforms, and some of these strategies might prove productive for making spreadable media as well.
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For those of you who were at the Modern Language Association conference this past weekend, you might have had a chance to buy an advanced copy of the book. If you did, we’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to drop a note here or even better on the Spreadable Media website.