Videos from The Women Who Create Television Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

by Katie Walsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bachelorette tweet

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

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

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

 

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

 


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

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

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

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

Over the past several years, my Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research group at USC has been doing case studies of innovative groups, organizations, and networks that have been effective at increasing youth engagement and participation within the political process. We’ve been sharing our preliminary research findings here as a series of white papers that have addressed the DREAMer movement to gain greater education and civic rights for undocumented youth, Students for Liberty and the movement of “Second Wave Libertarianism” more generally, and the forms of fan activism associated with the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters. Today, I am proud to be releasing the final report in this series — a study into the political and cultural lives that American Muslim youths have been defining for themselves within the context of post-9/11 America. This report was prepared by Sangita Shresthova, who serves as the Research Director for the MAPP project.

This research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the work of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics network. Having released all of our initial case study reports, the team is now turning to drafting a book which looks comparatively across these various examples of participatory politics, and seeks to address larger debates about the role of new media in contemporary political struggles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Istanbul, Turkey

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

KEA,GREECE

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

ATHENS, GREECE

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

ROME, ITALY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

POMPEII, ITALY

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

Now Available: Transmedia Hollywood 2 Videos

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

Welcome and Opening Remarks

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

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

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

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

Panel 1: “Come Out 2 Play”: Designing Virtual Worlds–From Screens to Theme Parks and Beyond

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

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

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

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists:

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

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

Panel 2: “We’re Looking For Characters”: Designing Personalities Who Play Across Platforms

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

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists:

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

TH2 Panel 2: “We’re Looking for Characters” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Game On!: Intelligent Designs or Fan Aggregators?

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

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

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

Moderator: Denise Mann

Panelists:

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

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

“It’s About Time!” Structuring Transmedia Narratives

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

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

Moderator: Henry Jenkins

Panelists:

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

TH2 Panel 4: “It’s About Time!” from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Superstar 2, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality television is often depicted as the trivialization or tabloidization of American culture. I can’t tell you how many people I know have told me with a sneer that more Americans voted in the most recent American Idol than voted in the last presidential election. It turns out to be a myth — since people can vote as many times as they want for American Idol, there’s no way to translate the number of votes cast into the number of people participating, and my bet is that if we could have voted for the candidate of our choice on speed dial in the last election, the numbers there would have looked much more impressive. Yet, the comment suggests the ways that reality television is often depicted as a distraction for democratic citizenship.

This is one of many reasons I was so interested in Marwan Kraidy’s new book, Reality Television and Reality Politics, published earlier this year, which argues that reality television has been a key vehicle through which the Arab world has been negotiating a range of social, cultural, political, economic, and technological changes and has become a springboard for significant debates about nationalism and the future of citizenship. The books offers vivid case studies over how the international formats of reality television — especially those around Big Brother and Pop Idol — have become the vehicles through which the Arab public has worked through contradictions surrounding modernity. Kraidy sees these formats not simply as another symptom of western cultural imperialism, but through the localization process, as ways that the Arab world takes measure of its own cultural practices and political traditions. These formats, and localized responses to them, force certain issues into the forefront of the popular imagination, but they also suggest a much more diverse set of worldviews at place in Middle Eastern culture than typically emerge in western representations of this region.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lahoud Nominee.jpg

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

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

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

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

Localization occurred in several ways.

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

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

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

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