Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part Two)

As I read through your various examples across the book, it is clear that the concept of making a film look like a comic book means something different to different filmmakers, as comic-bookness gets conveyed through a range of different aspects of cinematic style. No one seems to try to capture every aspects of comics — hard to know what that would even look like — so what factors shape the choices of techniques to be foregrounded in any given adaptation?

 

That’s a great question and one that I could easily answer it by going the other way. What if a comic book artist wanted to make a “filmic” comic book? Would she produce a panel breakdown akin to the quick cutting and intellectual montage of Sergei Eisenstein or try to find a way to use splash pages like Jean Renoir or Jacques Tati might? I think of Chris Ware’s tribute to Yashiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or even the fantastic graphic novelization of Alien by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. The Ware piece pays tribute to Ozu’s knee-high framing, his use of reoccurring images, and the graphic simplicity of his images. In three images, we experience the profound loss of Tokyo Story – a husband loses his wife to the forward march of time and technological development in post-war Japan. Alien, on the other hand, uses an alternation between splash pages and complex multiframes with a fury of smaller panels to capture the varied temporal rhythms of Ridley Scott’s film – between the deliberate contemplation of the early scenes of the Nostromo to the more traditional “haunted house” sequences that come towards the end.

In short, I think the methods vary because the strengths, weaknesses, and preoccupations of the comics writers and artists vary. Most of the filmmakers seem to be asking themselves “What are the key characteristics of this comic?” Sometimes, the filmmakers in question are profoundly wrong in interpreting the source material. I think Frank Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit is a prime example. He has almost no interest in capturing Eisner’s style (the film looks more like Sin City than the graphically and tonally varied strips Eisner produced). While I think it’s naive to expect “faithfulness” from an adaptation in the way that term has come to be used (every narrative nook and cranny from the books must appear in the film), I think a general faithfulness to – in this case – the spirit of the work is what most filmmakers strive for and what most audience members expect (which brings us back to Nolan – it’s not as if his films were lambasted for not being “faithful”).

 

Often, remediation involves borrowing prestige from an older media form, such as the use of the leather bound book in the opening credits of film versions of literary adaptations. But in the case of comic book films, most of us would agree that the cinema has established a much higher cultural status than “graphic novels” have to date, and there’s often a hint of disdain in many of the quotes you provide here of the film’s producers when they discuss the story’s comic book origins or fan base. In this context, does stylistic remediation constitute a form of slumming it?

 

You’re exactly right – there is a cultural aspect to remediation as well. I think in the 1970s and 1980s, remediating style was viewed in relation to the 1960s Batman television show. The garish colors, the onomatopoeia, the canted angles all came from the comics. Will Brooker does a fantastic job in Batman Unmasked on tracing these aspects back to the 1960s comics, dispelling the scapegoating of the television program for introducing camp and baroque stylization to the “gritty” and “serious” world of Batman. But the legend became fact and the cultural legacy of that television show cast a long shadow over comic book movies. When you read about the production of Donner’s Superman, you can absolutely see that cultural prejudice against the comic book. The Salkinds and Richard Donner wanted to distance that project as far as possible from its “cartoon” origins, so they hired Oscar winners like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to star in it and trendy screenwriters like Mario Puzo and the team behind Bonnie and Clyde to write it.

 

But as graphic novels helped comics come to cultural prominence in the 1980s, I think that tide began to shift. It also helped that many of the directors brought on to do these projects are fans of the original texts and relish the opportunity to strike up collaborative relationships with the writers and artists while adapting the properties – folks like Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Zack Snyder.

 

That being said, I think there’s a certain paradox now and Snyder’s evolution – if we want to call it that – is indicative of it. Films that remediate comics rely on a certain amount of familiarity with comic books and their form. If the readership isn’t there – as I mentioned in an earlier answer – what stylistic primer does the audience have to appreciate a film like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? So these filmmakers are torn between making a film that represents their interests in the property and their affection for the artwork while balancing it with a budget overruns for such stylistic embellishments and walking that line between a niche and a wide audience. Notice that Snyder’s last two films – Man of Steel and Batman v Superman – look nothing like 300 or Watchmen. They’re pretty strongly in the “realistic,” “gritty,” and “serious” Nolan/Marvel camp. And there’s an aesthetic loss in serving the master of manageable budgets and appeasing a large audience – which is one of the main reasons I think so many contemporary comic book adaptations are visually boring. As fun as Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are, I cannot remember one action sequence from those films with the vividness of the finale of 300 or the race sequences in Speed Racer. Although Ant-Man and Doctor Strange were certainly a step in the right direction!

 

Throughout, you distinguish transmedia style from transmedia storytelling, noting that the first constitutes “intertextual references” but not necessarily “narrative embellishment.” Can you say more about this distinction here? What do you see as the advantages of transmedia style? How might it be related to the concept of High Concept, as explored by Justin Wyatt?

 

Transmedia storytelling requires a certain experiential buy in from the audience. As you’ve noted, in order to fully grasp the Enter the Matrix video game, you have to have seen the first film. In order to understand some of the pivots and characters in the second film, you have to have played the game and watched The Animatrix. Stylistic remediation, on the other hand, can benefit from previous knowledge but does not require it to be comprehended or appreciated. This conflicts slightly with the answer I just gave when I said that Scott Pilgrim cannot be fully appreciated without previous knowledge of the comic book, but hear me out.

 

300 is a perfect example – Frank Miller’s comic was a bit of a niche title that lacked the visibility of his work with DC or Marvel. Yet, it outgrossed more than Batman Begins. In fact, aside from the first Men in Black film, it’s the only non-DC or Marvel adaptation in the top thirty grossing comic book adaptations (and remember, 300 was rated R – not PG-13). If you go back and look at reactions to 300, a lot of the energy and excitement around the film had to do with its visual style. Like The Matrix, Snyder found a aesthetically unique way to remediate Miller’s style and that provided the Warner Bros. marketing team with a striking visual hook – the sepia toned watercolored skies and the “flat” ink splatter blood effect. This is where you can see some overlap with Justin Wyatt – the idea that there’s a strong linkage between visual style and marketing in films made after the 1970s. The advantages of transmedia style are that it provides ammunition for the marketing departments to help rope in new viewers while appeasing fans of the books. It doesn’t alienate consumers the same way transmedia storytelling can, which makes folks feel like they have to do homework before coming into the room.

 

Yet, what makes 300 and Scott Pilgrim differ is the cost of their remediations. 300 cost $65 million, Scott Pilgrim was somewhere between $85 and $90 million (both without marketing costs accounted for). Essentially, 300 was a relatively niche comic book and the film and was budgeted accordingly (at the time, $65 million was about the average for a Hollywood film and $200-250 million is the average for a superhero film). The visual hook aided it in breaking through to a popular audience. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, was a niche comic book that ballooned well beyond the average for such a film. It also didn’t help that Universal showed the film for free, numerous times, throughout San Diego Comic-Con. Needless to say, the disadvantages to transmedia style are that it can be a costly investment (Universal spent $1.5 million just on comic book transitions for Ang Lee’s Hulk) that take budgets for smaller properties well beyond their ceiling faster than a speeding bullet.

 

You use Batman 66 as an early example of stylistic remediation that has since been repudiated by many fans and critics as “camp,” a term which had a different cultural status in the 1960s than it does now. What do you make of the resurgence of interest in Batman ‘66 both through the comic series and the direct-to-video feature film recently released? One of many things that seems to be going on here is a re-engagement with the particular stylistic choices associated with the original, now being remediated back into comics.

Allow me to get a little autobiographical for just a moment. I was drawn to the Batman 66 series and film when I was a kid because of Tim Burton’s 1989 film. Yet, at the time, the series was relatively difficult for me to see. I think it ran on syndication on some local network. If memory serves, Will Brooker does a great job of tracing how DC distanced themselves from the property and suppressed it for decades because of its negative cultural stigmas. Now, they’ve recently changed direction. Needless to say, once the Burton films and the fantastic Animated Series took off, I spent a good period of my life planting my flag in the “Batman is grim and gritty! He’s serious – not campy!” trench.

 

Then we got “serious” Batman. We got him in the comics for at least 30 years. We’ve had him in the movies for the better part of 25 years. And you know what? I’m getting really bored with “serious” Batman. I awaited Batman v Superman with dread and the end result felt like I had been forced to drink the sourest of lemonades. I respect it to a certain extent for being so profoundly unpleasant, for linking Bruce Wayne to Trump (although that rings a whole lot differently now than it did last spring), and for focusing on the physical consequences of superhero action (the opening and the Scoot McNairy character), but it is not a film I look forward to re-visiting anytime soon. I never thought that after getting a Batman tattoo that I would be apathetic about an upcoming Batman film, but the DCU has gotten me there.

 

But you know what? I rewatched Batman 66 when the Blu-Ray release came out and bought the first couple issues of the comic. It’s not a flavor of Batman I want all the time, but it is a lot of fun because of its self-consciousness. The art of the comic, as you note, owns the dutch angles, onomatopoeia, cheesy puns, garish colors, and even the ben-day dot printing process that inspired the Pop Art movement that was evoked by the show. The variant cover galleries at the back of the trades are some of my favorite pieces of contemporary Batman art. They’re refreshing and I appreciate the multiplicity of Batman interpretations now. I think that’s why there has been a bit of a resurgence – something that was formerly forbidden or disavowed has made its way back into the cultural ecosystem at a time when every flavor of Batman has the same level of peatyness. Now if only we can get Warner Bros. to do a proper Blu-Ray release of Mask of the Phantasm and The Animated Series!

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part One)

Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was asked to serve on her dissertation committee at UCLA for promising graduate student named Drew Morton. Morton was putting together a committee that included that only myself but also Janet Bergstrom,  John Caldwell and Denise Mann. This committee tells you something about this range of methodologies and perspectives Morton was trying to bridge through his work. Morton’s project was trying to understand the kinds of stylistic and narrative remediation taking place as more and more comic books and graphic novels were being adopted for the cinema.

Mortin’s work was bold, original and rock solid, adding real insight to our understanding of the significant intertwining of the film and comics industries in recent years. He approached this topic with consideration of industry trends and developments but also with the formalist eye towards its impact on cinematic language, genre evolution, and authorship questions. He moved forward through a series of compelling case studies, exploring particular formal practices as they were deployed in specific films and comics. In the process, he developed a much larger framework for thinking about the remediation process more generally. In some cases he dealt with adaptations  such as Watchmen or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World but  he also dealt with more implicit influences such as the way to the comic book version of The Dark Tower may been informed by the wide-screen practices of Sergio Leone. His closing discussion of motion comics represented perhaps the most thoughtful discussion I’ve read of this new set of digital production practices which remain highly controversial among comic book enthusiast because of the way that they overwrite core aspects of the sequential art.

Morton represents a new breed of comparative media scholars who are as comfortable describing the panel breakdown or comics page as they are discussing  camera work and editing in contemporary blockbusters.  His work is deeply grounded in contemporary film and media theory and it has also been shaped by his success at reaching out key practitioners and decision-makers within the two industries. His interests are at once historical spanning back to early cinema in contemporary dealing with films of the past few seasons. He seems equally at home on the floor of the San Diego comic con as he is at the podium at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. As such he’s been able to build a solid network around his work and his emerges a major advocate for the video essay as an emerging form of scholarly discourse.

Late last year, Morton published Panel to the Screen: Style, American Film and Comic Books During the Blockbuster Era, a book which built on an extended his dissertation research. I was asked to write a blurb for the book which sums up my assessment of its contributions to the field:

“At a time when superhero blockbusters dominate the box office, we need to know much more than we do about the formal and institutional factors shaping these films. In Panel to the Screen, Drew Morton provides a nuanced account of why these films look the ways they do as producers adopt a range of strategies for the cinematic remediation and translation of comics, and in turn, he considers how comic artists absorb devices from Hollywood which make their books seem that much more screen-ready when read by studio executives. This groundbreaking book moves from one rich and compelling case study to the next and will be essential reading for anyone interested in comics, films, and the relationship between them.”

Today, I am proud to share the first installment of an interview with Drew Morton about comics and film, one that is far-reaching in its scope, touching on many of the case studies from the book but also updating the argument to describe more recent developments such as the Deadpool movie and the revitalization of Batman 66. Enjoy!

You begin the book with a basic distinction between adaptation and remediation, noting that many more superhero movies, say, are adaptations and extensions of comic book sources than seek to perform the kinds of stylistic remediation that is central to your book. Explain this distinction more.

 

First off Henry, thanks for asking me to do this. I really appreciate the mentorship you’ve provided me with while I was working on this project.

 

This is a great question – given its centrality to the book and its ambiguity. Whenever I teach remediation and adaptation in my courses, I find that it takes my students quite a while to work through the difference. If I remember correctly? It was a hard concept for me to grasp the first time I read through it. Needless to say, examples tend to help.

 

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a loose adaptation that lacks remediation. If we look at the narrative borrowings of his films, we can easily find correspondences between Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One in Batman Begins. The film focuses on Bruce’s training, why he wants to protect Gotham City, and his relationship with the officer who will become Commissioner Gordon. The Dark Knight borrows from The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween while Rises takes its central conflict from Knightfall. As I said, these are loose adaptations that broadly take plot points, characters, and themes from the original books. Most comic book adaptations do this – the “faithful” adaptation seems to be incredibly rare.

Yet, Nolan’s films owe more stylistically to film noir than they do to comic books. He does not remediate – re-represent – the comic in the film. Unlike say Ang Lee’s Hulk, Nolan doesn’t fracture the frame into a bunch of panels. He does not use speed ramping like Zack Snyder does to capture the subjective temporality of reading. His film, unlike Dick Tracy or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, does not highlight the representational artifice of cartooning. Nolan borrows the iconography and some narrative pieces, but his films owe relatively little to their original medium.

 

As we think about the emergence of the comic book movie as a major factor in film production, one could argue that comics and film needed to be ready for each other. Comics had to gain a certain stylistic self-consciousness, thematic maturity, and cultural status and films had to acquire the technical capacity to make us believe a man could fly. Would you agree with this broad strokes analysis of the factors which led to the rise of the comic book movie?

 

I would agree with this to a certain extent. If we look back at how Hollywood treated comic book properties in the 1970s and 1980s, on the cusp of the cultural renaissance that came with the graphic novel, we can see a certain amount of dismissal. In today’s climate, it seems insane that DC Comics and Warner Brothers would sell off the rights to Superman for an independent film and yet, in the 1970s, it seemed perfectly reasonable for a number of reasons. First, as you mention, the special effects technology wasn’t there yet. The Christopher Reeves Superman films went horribly over budget. Secondly, Hollywood wasn’t sure if there was a large enough audience to cover the budgets of such costly films. The Comics Code of the 1950s had recast the American comic as a medium almost exclusively made for children.

 

The irony, of course, is that comic book sales peaked in America in the 1940s and – because of competition from television, video games, and other media – have never come close to recouping. So while comic book films are incredibly financially successful, those dollars do not necessarily migrate back to the comics. Whenever I talk about comic book movies in my classes, it astounds me to find how few of my students have actually read the comics. For most consumers, the films seem to be enough for them to call themselves DC or Marvel fans.

 

Your chapter on Scott Pilgrim begin life as a video essay, a form you have been deeply invested in cultivating and promoting. So, what did you learn through this process of, in effect, adapting this essay between two different delivery platforms? What could you convey through the video essay that was hard to achieve in print and vice-versa?

 

The Scott Pilgrim chapter was a bit of an odd beast. When I planned on including Scott Pilgrim, I was in the midst of the first draft of the book and I thought it was just strictly going to be another formal analysis case study. Then I was asked to cover the film for a entertainment outlet that summer and I was given behind the scenes access. Thanks to that, it evolved from what I initially thought was going to be a forgettable chapter to one of the centerpieces.

Thanks to the interviews I was able to conduct with the creators, the chapter was really exciting to write but it was not, as I found when I initially tried to turn it into an article, terribly exciting to read. Sure, the insights from Edgar Wright and the behind the scenes anecdotes gave the chapter some life, but formal and stylistic analysis can be really hard to write well due to the confines of prose and academic publishing in general. A picture can do a lot, but we deal in moving images and texts that are – to borrow from Raymond Bellour – “unattainable.” We cannot quote a film in an academic monograph the same way a English lit scholar can quote Shakespeare or an Art Historian can duplicate a Pollock painting. So I thought I would roll the dice and take an important section of my book and turn it into a video essay, which allowed me to provide a commentary over moving images. The end result allowed me to compare and contrast the book with the comic in a way that was much more dynamic (a little music can go a long way) and I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of the large audience that was drawn to the piece (thanks to the social media savvy of Edgar Wright, Matt Zoller Seitz, and yourself!).

 

That being said, the process of adaptation was much more complicated now that I have the benefit of hindsight. The Scott Pilgrim video essay was the third or fourth video piece I had made and came after a long sabbatical from video editing, so I look back at it now and wish I had made certain adjustments. Primarily, the voice over is too dense and I talk way too fast for some of the more complicated ideas (like the adaptation vs. remediation distinction) to take root in non-academic viewers.

 

Yet, the process of making the video essay also taught me how to hone my voice in prose in ways I had not expected. I think a lot of young academics think that scholarship needs to read intelligently – there is a certain vocabulary and toolbox of jargon that comes with academia – and I found I was hiding fairly uncomplicated concepts behind complicated prose in order to sound Professorial. That type of voice doesn’t tend to fly when it comes to video essays; it’s too stilted and dominates the argument. The ideal video essay should let both the audio and the video deliver the argument (which is why I’ve experimented with text only videos in the past); it’s not a conference paper.

 

I tell colleagues and students that a good video essay owes more to a journalistic or broadcasting style. Sentences should be concise, clear, and should roll off the tongue easily (the video essay voice over is a form of performance, after all!). I also tell them that the best “first step” to take is to take the blueprint for your video (which might be an article or a conference paper), throw it away, and ask yourself how you might explain your subject to your mom or dad – someone uninitiated in the language and concepts of Media Studies. That does not mean the ideas articulated are simple or lacking in scholarly rigor – they’re accessible. Fittingly, I have always thought of your voice as being a prime example of this model. I believe, if I remember correctly, that you once practiced journalism and I think that tends to be a really productive background for academics to have because it helps us produce work that can be approached by folks outside the Ivory Tower. So the video essay ended up helping me re-write the prose version into something much more dynamic.

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.

Announcing Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” UCLA May 5, 2017.

The following is a hold the date announcement for the next Transforming Hollywood conference. Some speakers are still being confirmed as we post this. I will add their details as they get resolved.

 Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” UCLA May 5, 2017.

Co-directors, Denise Mann, UCLA and Henry Jenkins, USC 

Overview: Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” reframes Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay about technology’s double-edged sword: mechanical reproduction fundamentally alters the original artwork’s unique auratic properties but makes it accessible to the masses. According to Ted Striphas, “…the growing prevalence of recommendation features such as those you find on Amazon.com [signals the] displacement of human judgment into algorithmic form [which] raises all sorts of questions about taste aggregation — questions with which scholars in the humanities …have only begun to grapple.” Streaming on-demand services grant consumers greater choice and democratic access to media content (letting us choose what to watch and when to watch it); however, the terms of this exchange is unfettered access to our consumer impulses via sophisticated surveillance tactics that track our online activities 24-7.

 

Ted Hope, the newly appointed head of Amazon Studios’ film division, lays out the implicit pact we’ve forged with the major tech platforms: “Amazon Studios’ flood of investment in the movie business is designed to revive a market for independent films….” However, at the same time, he observes wryly: “At Amazon, to quote Jeff Bezos, we make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the (e-commerce) platform.” Welcome to the future of art (as advertising) in the age of algorithmic culture.

 

While Netflix has received the lions’ share of press and notoriety for disrupting traditional Hollywood given its $6 billion investment in original content and its global expansion to 190 territories, the “big four” tech platforms—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA)—have infinitely more capital (and data) to spare when it comes to the risky business of growing a media and entertainment industry. Each has its own core business to fall back on: Google has search and advertising; Apple has its hardware-software business; Facebook has social and advertising; and Amazon has its ecommerce business. Media, it turns out, is the ideal lure to keep users inside of their powerful digital ecosystems as long as consumers accept datavaillance as the price of admission.

 

As Hollywood and Silicon Valley battle for supremacy, the current crisis in media stems from an unmanageable sea of online content made available by competing subscription-based (SVOD) and advertising-supported (AVOD) streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Red, Vimeo, Seeso, Crackle, CBS Everywhere, HBO Go, CW Seed, Verizon Go90, and so forth. The streaming music services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Tidal, have also joined the original content derby, with Apple’s repurposing of James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke and Tidal’s exclusive streaming of Beyonce’s Lemonade being prime examples. Compounding the surplus of data-driven content churn are the millennial-facing online news formats, such as Vice, Buzzfeed, and Mic; each is disrupting legacy news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, once revered for their veteran editors who curate the news and seasoned reporters who research all sides of complex issues. The backlash that followed the recent election cycle prompted Wired to report: “There’s a very dark mood in Silicon Valley right now…. Google and Facebook also seem to be feeling a need to grapple with the role they have played. Both have undertaken highly visible initiatives to curb fake news….” While the platforms were able to scale rapidly by giving unfettered access to all forms of third-party-generated content, in their new role as original content producers, the tech founders are starting to reflect on their social responsibility to curate culture.

This year’s conference examines the legacy of Netflix and YouTube as influencers, creator-entrepreneurs, and engineers all contribute to the seemingly endless flood of scripted series and short-form, snackable content that vies for our attention. One question looms large—will flesh and blood experts or data-driven algorithms ultimately control the production, delivery, and reception of our shared cultural knowledge going forward? Welcome to the age of algorithmic culture.

 

THE PANELS:

9:00-9:15AM: Introduction: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture.

Welcome by Transforming Hollywood by co-directors Denise Mann (UCLA) and Henry Jenkins (USC).

 

9:15-10:20 AM: Keynote Presentation by Ted Striphas, “Algorithmic Culture.”

 

10:20-10:30: Break
10:30-12:00: Panel One: Playing with Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces

moderated by Denise Mann, Professor, School of Theater, Film, Television, UCLA.

 

Description: Peak TV’s premium quality TV series may be grabbing headlines, but new, addictive forms of “snackable” content have become one of the preferred ways for brands to access millennials and Gen-Z’ers—digital natives whose facility with multitasking across mobile screens means they prefer images, short videos, and emojis over lengthy (con)textual exchanges. Charles Eckert’s essay, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” reminds us that Hollywood was always inextricably linked to consumer culture since the first cameraman pointed his camera at actors standing in front of a shop-window in the 1910s; however, it is important to recognize the massive shift underway as the new “social media logic” associated with the 21st century effaces the “mass media logic” that dominated in the 20th century.

The corporate gatekeepers of the tech economy are engineering innovative user experiences (UX) and user interface (UI) features, such as touch, liveness, and VR/AR, to keep us happily engaged on their platforms for extended periods of time. Hence, we are encouraged to click, like, share, and comment on an arsenal of new, addictive, forms of online entertainment, which include: Pokemon Go, Snapchat filters, Amazon Twitch, Facebook Live, Instagram Shop Now Buttons, and Pinterest Pins. Today’s panelists represent key stakeholders whose in-depth understanding of UX/UI design elements is facilitating new forms of algorithmic culture designed to enhance our sense of play inside 24-7 digital ecosystems.

PANELISTS:
  • Rob Kramer, Founder/CEO, Purpose Labs
  • Ted Striphas, Professor, Colorado University
12:00-12:15PM Break
12:15-1:45 PM Panel Two:  “Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation”

Moderated by Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism; School of Cinematic Arts, USC.

Description: Sensationalism is scarcely new in the history of American journalism, and the circulation wars of the early 20th century contributed to the rise of “yellow journalism,” as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitizer and the other media tycoons of the era fought for the eyeballs of an expanding American readership. Today’s “fake news” also has its roots in new struggles over circulation, though in this case, the circulation of news through social networking sites. The role of “fake news” in the past presidential campaign has been hotly contested, with the current administration accusing CNN and the New York Times as publishers of “fake news,” while others point to the role which Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms played in blurring the line between reliable and questionable media sources.

 

Fake news thrives because it is often more emotionally targeted than traditional journalism: because it is designed to shock and outrage its readers, because it often conveys what people living in filter bubbles already believe to be true about the world. Fake news is news which has been manufactured to spread like wildfire without regard to its accuracy or its consequences.

 

What do we know about fake news and the people who produce and consume it? What does it tell us about the place of journalism in the era of algorithmic culture and social media? What efforts are being made by the social media companies to take responsibility over their role in the spread of misinformation? What alternative models for journalism are emerging within the same environment to insure more trusted curatorship over news and information? How are the struggles over what constitutes “fake news” shaping our current political realities?

 

PANELISTS:
  • Mark Andrejevic, Associate Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College
  • Brooke Borel, a science writer and journalist; contributing editor to Popular Science.
  • Hannah Cranston, guest host & producer, The Young Turks; host of FoxTV’s Top30TV; host and EP of ThinktankFeed.
  • Jon Passantino, deputy news director for BuzzFeed News, Los Angeles.
  • Laura Sydell, Correspondent, Arts Desk, NPR.
  • Ramesh Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts.
1:45-2:45 Lunch
2:45-4:15 PM: Panel Three: “Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing, Cultural Curators”

moderated by Gigi Johnson, Founding Director, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

Description: Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and Google Play Music are the current leaders in the subscription-based and advertising supported music streaming derby—having locked down the majority of artists through massive licensing deals with the major music labels. The current crisis facing the streaming tech giants is the glut of choice available to consumers, who are drowning in an endless supply of things to watch, read, or listen to online. As a result, the streaming giants have enlisted “an elite class of veteran music nerds — fewer than 100 working full-time at either Apple, Google, or Spotify — who are responsible for assembling, naming, and updating nearly every commute, dinner party, or TGIF playlist on your phone,” according to Buzzfeed‘s “Inside the Playlist Factory.”

Apple Music started the trend in 2014 when it acquired Beats’ along with co-heads Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor, as their ultimate marketing weapon to challenge Spotify’s lead. Iovine insists that the tech corporations use the human music experts to guide tech engineers, and not vice versa, stating:“fans can smell the difference between a service where much of the product is dictated by algorithms or charts and one that is guided by more knowledgeable but equally passionate versions of themselves.”

This panel focuses on the growing industry of cultural curators who organize playlists “by reading endless music blogs, tracking artists before they have been discovered, and by maintaining contact with artists’ managers, producers, and label representatives.” Needless to say, the economic driver of this on-demand streaming culture is consumer data analytics targeting advertising brands. Feeling lonely after a particularly bad break up? Try listening to Adele while stuffing your emotions with a quart of Ben & Jerry’s and a diet Pepsi.

 

PANELISTS:
  • Rocío Guerrero Colomo, Head of Content Programming/Curation & Editorial, Latin Global, Head of Latin Culture, Shows & Editorial-Content Programming, Spotify
  • Alex White, Head of Next Big Sound at Pandora
4:15-4:30 Break

 

4:30-6:00: Panel Four: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV.”

moderated by Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and The Showrunner’s Roadmap.

 Description: Most credit Netflix with launching the 21st century “web TV” revolution and with it “peak TV” by introducing the phrase “binge-watching” into the lexicon and by fundamentally altering the way we watch and access television online. Everything changed, according to Thomas Schatz, when Netflix “…barged into the high-stakes original series programming derby in 2013 with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.” Never have so many buyers prompted so many creators to step up and pitch original concepts. FX conducted a study and determined that in the years 2009 to 2015, the number of scripted series went from 200 to 400+.

In 2016, Netflix produced 600 hours of scripted TV and in 2017 it said it would spend $6 billion on both scripted and acquired series. The good news is the excitement associated with this ramp up of creative opportunity; the bad news is that in the current world of overabundant online content, consumers are swimming in series they’ll never see once, let alone watch in their entirety. As in previous eras, writers, actors, and showrunners with credits under their belt are in high demand and earning large salaries to attach their names to lesser known creators. At the same time, untried writers, actors, and comedians are staking their futures on self-financed webseries productions using personal funding from part-time jobs, crowdsourcing, and by promoting themselves on social media—all in the hopes of catching the lightning in a bottle success associated with Broad City, Insecure, and High Maintenance. Streaming TV is grabbing lots of attention (and subscribers), but the question remains: “Will the current boom cycle continue indefinitely or has ‘peak TV’ peaked?

PANELISTS:
  • Jessie Kahnweiler, creator, The Skinny (Hulu)
  • Zander Lehmann, creator, Casual (Hulu)
  • Dawn Prestwich, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon)
  • Nicole Yorkin, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon)

 

6-8PM Reception

You can register here for the event.

How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Three)

You and your interview subjects have a lot to say about genre across the book. Is genre still important as a means of marketing specific programs and targeting specific audiences? Are new genre categories emerging in this era of experimentation and differentiation? What genres do you see as most characteristic of the current television environment?

Marketing executives like to classify and categorize shows in order to package and sell them.  It’s often an easy “pass” (rejection) when a series doesn’t fit into one genre.  The network execs usually say: It’s too all over the place.
But now we have some phenomenal half hour dramedies that defy classification — and that happens to excite me: Atlanta, Baskets, Better Things, Louie, Insecure, Orange Is the New Black, Casual, Derek, Master of None, Transparent, Fleabag, Better Call Saul.  Even M*A*S*H blurred the line between comedy and tragedy, but was always known as a comedy series (with accompanying laugh track).
Are they comedies or dramas?  I say: who cares.  Just watch and have your mind blown. They don’t always go for the joke. They push their characters to the edge. They make us cringe and/or recoil. But I, for one, can’t look away.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke the traditional sitcom mold, in my humble opinion; it’s created a new genre unto itself.  Ditto: Baskets.  Ditto: Atlanta which features, in random measure, dark and light, funny and serious, and magical realism. It’s winning accolades and praise and deserves them all.
I don’t watch TV to see the same old, same old.  I want to be surprised!  I don’t want to fall asleep to my TV.  I want it to wake me up.
We’re also seeing more historical series (from long ago to the more recent past) and science-fiction series that defy our expectations: The Crown, The People vs. OJ, Stranger Things, Westworld.  Game of Thrones is such a game changer because it demands viewer engagement in a multi verse, and viewers of all ages are addicted to its story lines and cast of thousands.
There’s an interactive component to these out of the box genre-bending or genre-transcending series; we don;t just watch them, we discuss them. They’re in the zeitgeist.  They’re part of the national and global conversation.  It used to be that I’d ride the subway and everyone was reading a book or newspaper; now everyone is watching TV content on their smart phones, headphones on, fragmented attention spans processing.
Multitasking has become like breathing. We can consume content faster than ever and store that data for our social interactions; maybe it’s because we’ve freed up our memory by not needing to memorize so many facts and figures anymore; it’s all stored on our iPhones and available in a matter of seconds via google.  We’re distracted, addicted, restless, and need constant stimulation or else we’re bored.
Familiar genres tend to increase boredom, but familiar genres with a fresh spin can engage us in new and exciting ways.  True Detective (season one) was a tried and true detective series (the most prevalent genre), but it was an existential detective series.  Bloodline (on Netflix) isn’t just a family ensemble drama/soap opera; it’s a new genre: family noir. Mr. Robot provides us with an unreliable narrator and revels in destabilizing its viewers; the show dares us to guess what’s going to happen next.  The Leftovers (on HBO) is also it’s own genre: the rapture drama, inviting us into a world that defies explanation.  The season two opener offers a teaser that’s astonishing and rapturous.  Damon Lindelof knows what he’s doing, even though it’s not a show for everyone.

Alongside genre there is the question of format. At places, you and your subjects suggest that the procedural will die out with the generation which grew up on the broadcast networks. Why has serial television become so central to the new media economy and ecology you are documenting here? And what do we make of the return of anthology series, such as Black Mirror, or of series with short story arcs, such as American Crime Story and American Horror Story?

I covered this one above, too.  I should have read all the questions in advance, but I enjoy the spontaneity.  Sorry!  Suffice it to say, that audience engagement is stoked by the audience’s relationship with the characters.  If it’s a limited series, that relationship needs to grip us right out of the gate (such as with the exceptionally engaging The Night of on HBO).
Longer serialized shows translate to long term relationships, involving shifting allegiances, and often a love-hate dynamic.  Sometimes we root for Frank Underwood, sometimes we root for Claire.
The same applies to unscripted documentary series.  Making a Murderer was a limited series but I kept changing my mind as to Steven Avery’s guilt.  Ditto: The Jinx.  And this also applies to scripted series like The Night Of.  Give me a complicated mystery that’s smart and airtight and I’ll follow you anywhere.
The Affair on Showtime destabilizes us with multiple perspectives of the same event, Rashomon style. Sure, it’s a narrative trick, a device, but it works beautifully and pulls you in.  UnREAL also provokes and destabilizes.  It’s pitch black comedy and satire and soap opera and reality TV all rolled into one.  Black Mirror (which I refer to in my book as “The Twilight Zone on digital crack”) is just so damn disturbing because it’s not wholly science-fiction; it’s already happening, or will possibly happen soon.  It’s both prescient and portentous.  I can’t get enough.
Yes, it’s problematic that we have to wait so long for new episodes of some of our favorite series.  Between seasons of ambitious, expensive shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and House of Cards can take more than a year.  Due to Donald Glover’s busy acting schedule (hello: Star Wars), we won’t be getting new episodes of Atlanta until 2018; it’s a disruptive show that’s being disrupted.

One of the bigger surprises in recent years has been a resurgence of radio formats and genres through podcasts. Can we see the success of Serial and its successors as a byproduct of the same sea changes in production, distribution, and consumption you discuss here primarily in terms of television?

I can certainly foresee a TV version of Serial and other podcasts.  These radio programs are now valuable IP with built in audiences, and they’re also based on the irresistible allure of a great central mystery with twists and turns.  They’re both interactive (whodunit?) and voyeuristic, like the best of so-called “unscripted” TV.  It takes us inside the world of the crime and behind the scenes of the painstaking investigation. BUT ALL WITH A SLOW BURN.
Broadcast network procedurals tend to offer crime and punishment in one closed-ended episode, fast resolution, easy justice.  These serialized podcasts engage us and keep us on the edge of our seats but don’t offer black and white resolution.  The investigation usually just leads to more questions.  Justice is elusive.  These podcasts and true crime stories are grounded in realism, and hook us in based upon the vicarious thrill of both being there and re-experiencing the crime, or even by putting us in the position as viewers/listeners and thinking: What if this happened to me?

Critics describe these breakthrough programs as possessing distinctive voices or perspectives, a shift that we can see as closely associated with the rise of the Showrunner as a kind of television auteur. Many of the folks you interview are showrunners, so what insights might we get from reading the book about the emergence of author-based television production?

Great showrunners have all the power in the TV business — whether they originally created the show or have been brought in to run the operation.  Their sensibilities, leadership skills, and vision have brought them hard-earned reputations that they can and will deliver a high quality TV show on time and within a prescribed budget.  A fresh, original idea is good.  Being able to execute that idea in an exciting, authentic, visionary, accessible way is invaluable.
And several of our more famous show runners choose to run several shows at the same time: Chuck Lorre, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti. I don’t know what drives them, but running one show is arduous and requires incredible stamina.  Delegation is key.
But these show runners have stories to tell and characters to birth. They are their own brands.  We trust them to deliver on the promise of the premise.  I asked Norman Lear how he’d managed to run multiple shows.  How did he handle all the stress?  He wisely replied: “Yes, it was incredibly stressful.  But there’s such a thing as good stress.”  Those were the days….

Several of the new players you discuss in this book are moving away from the pilot process that shaped old television production. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

 
I’ve covered the wisdom behind this above.  Ted Sarandos has condemned what he calls the idiotic, fiscally irresponsible, wasteful, inefficient pilot process.  I tend to agree with Ted (hey, you can’t argue with success).  One hour drama pilots can cost upwards of $5 million — and never air.  That’s unsustainable and nutty.
But there is value in looking before you leap.  But in today’s on-demand, binge-viewing TV landscape, the demand for fresh new content exceeds the supply.  If you’re a TV network or platform, better to be first with a new series than a day late and a dollar short.  In other words, everything is moving much too fast to calculate catching lightning in a bottle.
There is no magic formula to a hit series, no matter how much a network retools an ostensibly “broken pilot.”  Mr. Robot got on the air because the assistants at USA Network and NBCU rallied for it; at first, their bosses just didn’t get it.  But the inner-office fandom was overwhelming.  Most groundbreaking shows had and have a rough road making it on the air.  But shows from All in the Family and Breaking Bad to Black Mirror and Atlanta beat the odds and entered the zeitgeist.  The rest is history.

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Two)

Your opening section pays attention to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and others who have produced television style content for the web. In what ways have these networks become game-changers in terms of what we think television is? In what ways are broadcast and cable networks responding to the alternative models they represent?

Serialized content used to scare the broadcast networks because if you missed an episode or two, they were afraid you’d never come back.  But in an on-demand landscape, no one misses anything; the modern scourge is the spoiler.
I love the paradox of today’s TV landscape in which people try to watch everything but it’s impossible due to the number of shows. So when you start to tell someone about a great new show that they haven’t seen, they usually stop you with: “I can’t wait to see it. Don’t tell me anything!”
Sony Crackle is advertiser supported, but they circumvent the pilot process and go straight to series (and then offering all episodes all at once for the binge viewing experience.  Hulu started as a second window platform, but soon realized they could only compete if they offered original series of their own.  Netflix and Amazon both complete for exclusivity and originality, but there’s a big difference between their business models; while Netflix is a media company, Amazon in a retail company.  They’re each making their own programs now and aiming to cut out the middle man studio.
But Amazon Studios exists as a magnet to their online shopping mall experience (with free shipping for Amazon Prime members).  Netflix needs to keep its subscriber base happy so they keep paying their monthly dues.  Streaming and premium cable depend on subscriptions and are considered utilities versus broadcasters, giving the subscription networks much more freedom from censorship.
The broadcast networks and basic cable networks still need to please advertisers, necessitating Standards and Practices (a form of censorship) to avoid any content that’s too edgy or morally objectionable and could taint an advertiser’s brand. The subscription networks are only beholden to their subscribers.  And so edgier, more provocative content on streaming and premium cable has pushed the broadcast networks to improve the quality of their shows; we now see riskier shows, niche shows, and bolder choices being made across all platforms.
Mr. Robot has helped redefine USA network.  It might not appeal to your typical zombie-loving fan base of The Walking Dead, but it’s certainly darker, edgier, and smarter than most basic cable shows.  Consequently, all networks are raising the bar: This Is Us (on NBC), Animal Kingdom (on TNT), UnREAL (on Lifetime?!), American Crime (on ABC) to name a few.
And with niche content attracting viewers on streaming and premium cable, we’re also seeing greater diversity and authenticity in casts, plot lines, and in writers’ rooms.  

Many of the storytellers you interviewed spoke of the differences in producing series which are meant to be binged watched. What are some of the core insights to emerge about this new form of media consumption?

When you circumvent the pilot process, you’re removing some of the fine tuning and audience testing checks and balances in the system. And when all or most of the episodes are written in advance of even starting production, the show runners have less opportunity to course correct.  Re-shoots are costly and time consuming.  To create a show that’s intended for the full episode drop for binge viewing requires a more visionary show runner than ever before.  They have to see the whole season in advance, as opposed to finding the show throughout the season and adjusting according to audience response, chemistry among actors, and latent discoveries made.

You map a complex media ecology throughout the book. How much movement is there between the different levels of media production? For example, many of us are watching Issa Rae, who you interviewed, bring Insecure onto HBO after years of being a web television producer. Are there things we can observe there which may help us anticipate further movements of this kind in the future?

The audience is in control in the on-demand world.  But the content creators are also much more in control of their destinies if they can think like creative entrepreneurs.  Issa Rae made Awkward Black Girl at her own expense; it’s funny, authentic, and she writes, directs, and stars in it.  Issa knew she had something to say and an audience who wanted to tune in. She spent her own money to make her web series, which served as proof of concept.  It wasn’t a huge leap of faith for HBO to green light Issa’s hilarious and superb series, Insecure; she already had a substantial fan base and three seasons of Awkward Black Girl under her belt.
Yes, it’s always a risk to produce and distribute a new show, but the smart money was on Issa: her authentic voice,  grace, style, and talent.
High Maintenance followed a similar trajectory (from self-financed web series on Vimeo and i.am.other to HBO series.  In the old days, you had to start off at the bottom of the food chain as a freelancer or staff writer and work your way up the ladder.  Now, first-time creators are rapidly becoming show runners.  Look at Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and Zander Lehmann (Casual).  Unprecedented.

Throughout, you have much to say about struggles over diversity, inclusion, and representation in the contemporary television landscape. This is clearly a core issue at the moment — thus our recent Diversifying Entertainment conference. What did you hear from the industry insiders that might shed light on how they are thinking about this issue? In some ways, the question has to do with rapid expansion of minority-cast programming and its audience share over the past few seasons, but as you also note, some of the issue has to do with how under-represented minorities and women are both in front of and behind the camera. What factors are determining the speed with which these changes are taking place?

Before the recent Presidential election, I was getting optimistic on this subject.  Now… it’s anybody’s guess.
We could be entering a new era of ALT RIGHT, white-washed, unobjectionable and/or purely escapist shows.  I hope not.  I think we need a national catharsis, so I’m rooting for edgy, provocative shows that stir folks up — both audiences and content creators (aka writer/producers).  We’re not going to have a cultural revolution if everyone is sitting home watching Dancing with the Stars and Big Bang Theory.
Actually, the current political climate (it’s only Trump’s second week in office) could usher in a new creative Renaissance.  Only time will tell.  But I’m an optimist.  Shows like Atlanta and Mr. Robot give me hope.  It’s not that I believe all shows needs to address the ills of our society (racism, greed, climate change), but I want to be challenged to think about my place in the world when I watch a great TV series.
I don’t want to just be a complacent couch potato.  We don’t want our country to turn into WALL-E.  We must engage, question, and resist formulaic story tropes and stereotypes.  The first question I asked Norman Lear was “Does TV reflect our lives or do our lives reflect TV?”  His response was a little bit of both, but now more than ever there are shows that reflect myriad perspectives and lives.
And TV is a global business.  Netflix is now in every country except China and North Korea.  More and more shows are being distributed in their original language with subtitles.  This also gives me hope because when we are able to get a window on people in other parts of the world, it can engender compassion and empathy.  I like to believe that storytelling can not only inspire, entertain, and delight — but also it can change the world.

One of your section headings proclaims “niche is the new mainstream.” Is that true? How would you characterize the relationship today between niche and mainstream program? As the media market fragments, is there anything that can be characterized as mainstream programming?

I addressed this above, but Orange Is the New Black is a great example of a niche series (about women in prison) that has multiple entry points to attract a wider audience.  There’s Piper, the Caucasian blond protagonist, but then there are people of color, male guards, social worker, and wardens, and many ways to connect.  Theme is also a way for showrunners and creators to broader their niche appeal.
House of Cards is not a show about politics; it’s a show about powerTransparent is not a show solely about a transgender woman, it’s a show about identity.  Theme is universal and can take what might seem like a niche show and make it go mainstream.

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

How did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part One)

When was the last time anyone you know spoke of television as “a vast wasteland”? Certainly, television today is as vast as ever was, actually probably 100 times more so, but there more outstanding television series available to us each week can we possibly could watch.

Some are describing the current moment is the era of peak television or the age of too much great TV. A complex set of factors have contributed to wave after wave of creative experimentation, often involving idiosyncratic personalities, genre bending narrative strategies, and appeals to niche audiences. First premium cable and then streaming platforms challenged the dominance of broadcast and basic cable, pushing innovation outward even to the most conservative players. The challenge has become directing attention and ensuring access to all of the innovative new content. 

Neil Landau’s TV Outside the Box offers an essential guide to the opportunities and risks facing  the creative industry at the current moment. Longtime industry insider as well as a professor at the UCLA Cinema School, Landau seemingly had access to anyone and everyone he wanted to talk to. The book includes cogent, concise, lively and thoughtful interviews with network executives and show runners alike. Right now, the book provides the back story we need to understand what’s happening with this expansive medium and in the future, the book will be time capsule that preserves a transitional moment in television history. What I would give to have an equally vivid snapshot of television’s innovators in the 1950s or 1980s.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Landau in the fall and was immediately taken by the depth of his knowledge and passion for television as a medium. We spent the entire meal tossing off one new title after another as if playing Stump the Band. This guy knows everyone, watches everything. He understands the contours of this changing landscape like no one else I have ever met. The interview that follows will give you some simple taste of his insights into contemporary television culture.

Landau is working with UCLA’s Denise man and I plan for the next Transforming Hollywood event, coming up in early May. Watch here for further details coming soon.

You seem to have been able to interview all of the key players reshaping television at the current moment. Can you provide us some sense of the scope of different players represented in the book? What can you share of the process of getting all of these folks to speak with you?

I began my research more than 3 years ago (in 2014).  I could see how the TV business was changing the way the music industry changed, first with Napster and then, of course, iTunes.  I also saw parallel “on demand” tracks in transportation (Uber) and accommodations (AirBNB) and a little voice in me said: jump on this and track where this is going to transform the TV landscape.  Honestly, I began my research with the naive idea that I was simply covering the new platinum age of great TV series.  I started out with “beginner’s mind” and decided not to draw any conclusions until I went out into the field to gather data and multiple perspectives.  I knew I wanted to interview not only trailblazing showrunners (Jenji Kohan, Beau Willimon, Jill Soloway), but also network/studio executives (Ted Sarandos, Roy Price, Andy Kaplan) and a few icons (Norman Lear, Tom Fontana, Elliot Webb) to give the whole thing a historical perspective.
What I quickly came to realize was that this project was going to be much bigger than what I’d originally pitched to my publisher.  I could foresee a Digitial Television Revolution.  Being that TV Outside the Box (TVOTB) was my 4th book, along with my pedigree as co-director of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program and the book’s sponsorship by NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives), these interviews were relatively easy for me to secure (despite the scheduling and resheduling of several incredibly busy people).
I’d first met one of my idols, Norman Lear, at the NATPE conference in Miami in 2014, and he immediately agreed to participate.  Beau Willimon was a friend of a friend, and we became fast friends. Beau strongly encouraged me to include the legacy perspective and introduced me to Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide Life on the Streets, Borgia); Oz was HBO’s very first scripted one-hour drama series. Tom Fontana’s influence over TV content cannot be overstated. He’s the original trailblazer (along with Steven Bochco and Norman Lear).
The toughest interview for me to secure was Jenji Kohan whose a total workhorse and would rather write than talk about her process; but after a cold start (and fighting exhaustion), she warmed up to me.  Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty) was the most entertaining interview that took place in a seedy bar in Eaglerock and involved several cocktails.  Ricky Gervais (The Office, Derek) was the most surprising because he was so gracious and kind (and hilarious).  Charlie Brooker & Annabel Jones (Black Mirror) was the most fascinating and scary for me due to their prescient stories.

TV Outside the Box traces the contours of what you describe as “the revolution.” What characterizes the dramatic shifts in the nature of television, its content, its platforms, and its audiences your book seeks to document? What were some of the first signs that a revolution in television was taking place?

The on-demand nature and scope is what’s most revolutionary to me.  The audience is now in control and can dodge or completely avoid commercials.  The sheer volume of scripted TV content was and continues to exponentially rise.
When I was a kid, we had three TV networks and maybe 30-40 shows on the air, scheduled in time slots.  Now we have over 440 scripted series across too many platforms to mention here.  Are we currently in a “content bubble”?  Sure.  But I’m not sure that choice is ever a bad thing.  Is it sustainable for the studios and networks: probably not.  I see a natural form of attrition happening.
The bar keeps rising on high quality, engaging, fresh content, so the mediocre shows won’t last.  In the book I refer to this phenomenon as “digital Darwinism.”
Binge viewing is also a touchstone of the digital TV revolution.  Not only can we watch what we want, when we want, without commercial interruption, we can watch the whole season of series offered on Netflix and Amazon. I can foresee HBO, Showtime, and Hulu eventually following suit.
I also saw the decline of the TV industry’s reliance on the overnight Nielsen rating system — to the point where the overnight rating is virtually an irrelevant metric of a show’s success.  Most younger viewers don’t want TV content on televisions anymore, and they absolutely don’t watch anything in its prescribed time slot — unless it’s live sporting events.  To me, the only reason linear TV still exists is for live events.
We’re still in a TV ecosystem in which viewership is segmented by age and older viewers still tend to watch their favorite series in their time slot, for free, with commercials. But the younger generations are either agnostic (they find their favorite shows and don’t care what network it’s on) or they’re only watching highlights from shows on YouTube.
A summer TV landscape dominated by reruns is also going away.  Networks and platforms always need fresh, buzz worthy, exclusive, original content — or they’re toast.
The other enormous shift in the TV landscape has been its focus from broadest and safest shows to series that might appeal to a small, but fiercely loyal and dedicated audience; a subscription, on-demand streaming network needs lots of choice, not just a series that appeals to the widest possible audience, but multiple shows that may appeal to different slices of the audience.  One of the main theses of the book is: Niche Is the New Mainstream.

You characterize appointment television as an anachronism. I’ve argued that appointment television is giving way to engagement television, which places more emphasis on the choices that audiences make about when, where, and how they chose to watch television. Engagement has been a buzz word of the industry and crops up often across your interviews. What insights can you share about the ways television producers and executives are thinking about engagement?

Audience engagement is one of the programmers biggest challenges. With so many choices, how do you break through all the noise (the glut) and actually attract an audience?  If a show is great, it will generate buzz.  But what generates the buzz is a fresh, authentic experience, something new — and it’s going to have to be provocative and controversial (aka noisy) in order to get attention from the media (critics and social media influencers).
It used to be that the major networks could program a new series in the time slot immediately following one of their biggest hits. Now the platforms need to find different ways to engage the audience via new marketing trends and via transmedia.  Some great TV series take time and patience for the audience to connect.
Breaking Bad, for example, was only a modest performer when it premiered on AMC, but it turned into a cultural phenomenon when it premiered on Netflix.  Shorter episode orders and limited/anthology series (The Night Of, Fargo, True Detective, American Horror Story) have also made it possible for big movie starts to commit to doing a TV series.
Working in TV used to be considered a form of “slumming,” but that’s also changed.  Once David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese jumped into TV, it leveled the playing field.  Now everyone wants to work in TV — but the true icons mainly want to work on premium and high quality cable and streaming.  Showrunners now have a direct relationship with their show’s fan base.  Like our new president, they use Twitter and Facebook.  They live tweet during the episode.  What was once the office water cooler conversation the night after a show aired has transformed into the global water cooler via social media.

 

Neil Landau  teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT. His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle. Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release. In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy). From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.) Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Six): Everyday Wonders

Everyday Wonders

I decided to call this installment Everyday Wonders because each of the podcasts I’m discussing here take as their core subject matter the practices of everyday life. They managed to turn subject matter that we take for granted into stories that are fascinating and engaging. In part this has to do with the skills of their hosts as storytellers and investigators. These podcasts also popularize some of the core insights of cultural studies: the culture is ordinary, that humans do not involve themselves in activities that are meaningless, and that looking beneath the surface of everyday life may help us to understand hidden assumptions and values that shape who we are and how we see the world.

I’m a huge fan of the Kitchen Sisters who were early entrants into this podcast game and they have continued to explore new subject matter in imaginative ways. I would flag two series produced by the Kitchen Sisters. The first is called Hidden Kitchens and is a global exploration of the place of cooking, food, and the kitchen. Sometimes the series takes an historical approach as with an episode devoted to the impact of the internment camps on Japanese-American cooking or a study of the bake sales held to support the Montgomery bus boycott. Other times the series explores the history of familiar objects such as Tupperware, Rice-a-Roni, or the George Foreman grill. Other episodes may deal with specific groups of people and their relationship to food — for example, the chili Queens of San Antonio.

The second Kitchen Sisters series, Fugitive Waves deals with the history of recorded sound and often brings to our attention long-lost treasures recorded on vinyl or audio tape. I first discovered the series via an episode called “Bone Music” which dealt with the underground circulation of western pop music in Cold War Soviet Union. Pirated music was recorded on on old x-rays, with the result that underground music became known as bone music. One of the first episodes in the series dealt with the ways Thomas Alva Edison promoted himself and his phonograph. Another shared some informal recordings that Tennessee Williams made goofing around one Midsummer afternoon. One of my very favorites explores the storytellers and musicians who were hired to amuse the workers at cigar factories in Havana and Miami. This series is consistently imaginative and self-aware about its own audio strategies.

I discovered the “Bone Music” episode thanks to a crossover with 99% Invisible, another long-running podcast series. 99% Invisible deals with the history of design, in particular the design of things that we take for granted in our immediate surroundings. Episodes deal with the architecture of McMansion, the history of the NBC chime, how food gets photographed for advertising, the evolution of the Monopoly game, and the conventions surrounding the design of superhero costumes. Some episodes may explore specific historical locations like the Stonewall bar, the site of some of the earliest gay-rights uprisings or the kind of fusion architecture that shapes Chinatowns in major American cities, understood here as reflecting the complex politics of racial assimilation and exoticism that has marked the history of Asian Americans.

Nate DiMeo, host of The Memory Palace, may be the best storyteller in the contemporary podcast medium. One can imagine a history of revolutions in radio storytelling that takes us from Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion to Ira Glass on This American Life to Nate DiMeo on The Memory Palace. In each case, a distinctive personality establishes a style of delivery, a rhythm, a narrative structure, and a particular voice that sets them apart from what was there before and provides a model for the next generation that will follow. The Memory Palace, as the title suggests, is fascinated with the nature of history and popular memory. Its stories are at once personal and shared. There is an overarching sense of nostalgia and yet a willingness to debunk the past at the same time. Often we are revisiting the past to discover outlaw figures who might belong in another time and place, such as the protagonist of “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted,” the story of a cross-dressing woman in the 19 century. So much can be gleaned about the tenor of the Memory Palace by reading the titles of some of their best episodes. “Notes on an imaginary plaque to be added to the statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest upon hearing that the Memphis city Council has voted to move it and exhumed the remains of Gen. Forest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forest.” “50 words written after learning that the Arctic bowhead whale can live up to 200 years.” “Six scenes in the life of William J Saitus, wonderful boy.” “A brief eulogy for consumer electronics projects.” Don’t these sound like stories you’d like to know more about?

Sleepover starts out like a reality television series brought to podcast, something like an audio version of Big Brother. Three people from radically different backgrounds, each struggling with some personal challenge, are invited to spend the night together at a sleepover in a hotel room, during which they are encouraged to provide each other with life advice and emotional support. The strength of the series lies in its casting – the characters are always three-dimensional and we are given a chance to get to know them over an episode dedicated to each. Although personal revelations occur throughout, the series never feels voyeuristic or exploitative, in part because of the host Sook-Yin Lee’s remarkable ability to bridge across differences. I leave each episode with a sense of hopefulness about our ability to overcome some of the polarization in contemporary culture. I’m especially touched by the producers willingness to treat children’s experiences alongside adult’s, and the willingness of the adult participants to treat the young ones as their equals as they work through issues together and as children offer insights well beyond their years.

Mystery Show and Heavyweight suggest the emergence of yet another potential genre in the podcast world – mystery shows where detectives deal with everyday dilemmas. Heavyweight is interested in the emotional dynamics and the psychological consequences of digging up chapters of our lives that might’ve been closed years ago. The pilot episode bring together Buzz and Sheldon, two quarrelsome brothers in their 80s who haven’t spoken to each other in decades; the host Jonathan Goldstein goes along for the ride, sometimes rattling their cages, sometimes throwing a lifeline but ultimately interested in seeing whether they can overcome a lifetime of differences. Another episode deals with Gregor who has loaned his old friend Moby a cd of American folk music and whose built up resentment over the years that the techno composer never returned his record. Sometimes Goldstein revisits his own past as in an episode where he reconnects with his first girlfriend. “Julia” explores the issue of childhood bullying and what both bullies and victims remember and forget through the ears.

Mystery Show is more interested in the detecting process as a young woman, Starlee Kine, tries to solve some very complex questions having to do with popular culture, such as figuring out what happened to a video store that seemingly disappeared overnight a decade before, tracking down the owner of a distinctive belt buckle found in the streets, or figuring out what’s going on in a particular cryptic picture on the side of the Welcome Back Kotter lunchbox. Kine is dogged in her shoe leather work and imaginative in her use of social media to solve each challenging question. The episodes are as interested in the wrong turns and red herrings as they are with the final solution, though both are of interest because of the insights they shed on the world we live in. Kine reminds me of Veronica Mars if she was given a chance to host an NPR show. Both Heavyweight and Mystery Show are a lot of fun, not the least of all because of the vividness of the characters depicted, as compared to the suspects on a television procedural.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of contemporary podcasting — having said nothing, for example, about the revival of radio drama there, a topic to which I hope to return before much longer.

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Five): Minority Reports

My interest in the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture also led me to the Still Processing podcast. Each week Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, both African-American, offer their perspectives on current events and especially popular culture. The contents might range from an in-depth interview with RuPaul to a frank discussion of our culture’s ongoing obsession with the black penis. But their strongest episode to date describes their first impressions of the new Smithsonian Museum and culminates with an extensive interview with one of the Museum’s curators which helps us to understand the logic by which the Institute set out to build and display this remarkable collection. Having gotten to know the hosts over more mundane matters, it was all the more moving to hear them describe the impact this new Museum had on their sense of themselves and their appreciation of their own history.

Given how often discussions of race in America center only on the black-white divide, I was excited to discover Code Switch, which has brought together a whole generation of young journalist of color currently working for National Public Radio. Code Switch brings a multiracial and often intersectional perspective to current events. For me, the highlight so far was an episode entitled “A letter from a Young Asian American to Her Parents about Black Lives Matter”, which was surprisingly frank in exploring historic divides between African-Americans and Asian Americans. A special holiday episode had reporters of various ethnicities describe traditional foods that cause them particular discomfort. Following the Orlando shootings, Code Switch explored what the events meant to GLBT, Latino, and American Muslim residents of the city. More recently, they launched a series examining Obama’s legacy. In the first episode they dug deep into the ways racialized rhetoric consistently shaped critiques of his public policies, including the ways that his critics crossed the lines traditionally protecting children from such public discourse. Yet they also talked about their own divided loyalties since many felt Obama had not gone far enough in addressing issues of civil rights and immigration reform.

In our recent book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, my co-author Sangita Shresthova provides an overview of the political lives of American Muslim youth. She tells us that these young Muslims were politicized in the wake of 9/11 whether they wanted to be or not: they are often forced to defend their cultural and religious identities. She describes a range of storytelling projects in the American Muslim community where these young activists find their voice and express their perspectives on changing times. Podcast are one of the many ways that we can begin to listen to what these young people have to say. #Good Muslim, Bad Muslim represents a particularly vivid example. Tanzila ‘Taz’ Ahmed is a LA-based activist and storyteller and her cohost Zahra Noorbakhsh is a San Francisco comedian actor and writer. These two young women share intimate aspects of their lives with their listeners as they describe their shared experience as Muslim women living in California. They explain the program’s title:

“To the Muslim community, we are “bad” Muslims – we listen to music, we don’t pray regularly, we date or get married to white men (Zahra), identify as punks and radicals (Taz), we perform and share our lives with comedy and writing. So we are bad. So so bad. To non-Muslims, we are “good” – we don’t drink, we don’t do drugs, we are not criminals, we are social justice activists and community leaders. We are successful, published, accomplished. But then of course, on the flipside, because we are brown Muslims living in a post 9/11 islamophobia funded world, we are also villanized by Western society, too. No matter how you look at it, we are bad Muslims. There’s no winning!!!! As Muslim American women, we are walking this fine line between what it means to be good and bad. “

What they share is funny and alarming in equal measures and that’s part of the point. Often they are turning the words of Islamiaphobes against themselves:they declare Fatawa against mundane aspects of the world around, showcase what they call Creeping Sharia — examples of support from unexpected corners, or share awkward conversations with the non-Muslim world and debunk common microaggressions directed against them.

Another useful podcast for gaining some insights into the American Muslim experience is See Something, Say Something. I especially enjoyed a series of episodes dealing with what it is to be an American Muslim fan, including one devoted to the recent Star Wars films entitled “Wookies are Muslim.” Other recent episodes of interest focused on memes as a means of challenging dominant representations or another centered on how Muslims decide whether or not to celebrate Christmas. All of these speak to the challenges of living as Muslims in a country that often wants to declare itself emphatically Christian – how to maintain your own identity while embracing aspects of the culture around you.

How to Be A Girl is perhaps the most intimate of the podcast identified today – – told from the perspective of a young mother with a transgender daughter. The podcast lacks the technical polish of the NPR podcasts but for that reason it often has an authenticity and sincerity that is refreshing as we engage in debates around gender and sexuality. We sometimes hear the young daughter’s rambling stories told into a tape recorder alongside her mother’s attempt to provide a fuller context of what it means to grow up transgender in the current public education system. A great episode has her grilling her friends with the questions she most often gets asked about how she knows her daughter’s gender and what she will do if she changes her mind later. Along the way, the mother becomes more and more of a public educator and activist around transgender issues, but she never stops being a dedicated and proud mother who was there to support her daughter during her first steps into an unfamiliar territory. Thanks to Jonathan Gray for bringing this particular podcast to my attention.

Making Gay History is an extraordinary resource for any of us who want to understand the changing sexual politics of this country. Historian Eric Marcus shares recordings made decades ago with some of the leaders and founders of the GLBT movement as part of his research for the book, Making Gay History. Each episode to date has been a treasure — a voice from the past — which provides a immediate sense of the struggle which has had to be fought to reach the current moment and how much work still remains to be done.

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Four): American Voices

In the wake of last year’s divisive election, there’s never been such an urgent need for Americans to be listening to each other. America is in the midst of a dynamic and dramatic demographic shift which is been building over the last several decades and extends into the horizon.  America is becoming a more diverse nation, one which will be minority – majority in a few more years. Some segments of the population have embraced these changes but others have been left out of this conversation, are less certain what the future holds for them, and were encouraged by this election cycle to react with fear and uncertainty. In this context, I feel an urgency to help build bridges between different communities. There is a classic story of Mark Twain hearing about the invention of the telegraph and being told that for the first time the people in Massachusetts would be able to speak to the people in California. His response was to ask what the people in Massachusetts had to say to the people in California. Today we might well ask what the people in Mississippi have to say to people in California. I’m very interested in the infrastructure and social capital that still holds the country together in the face of some of the sharpest ideological divides Americans have faced since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

It seems a terrible burden to place all of this on the back of podcasts, but because podcasts are such an intimate medium and support such diverse perspectives, they offer a unique opportunity for us to read each other’s mail. That is to say, podcasts allows us to listen into conversations that would otherwise be closed to us and as a consequence, hear perspectives we would not otherwise access. The podcasts I’m exploring today are ones that I use to bridge various cultural divides, to do my homework on race, gender and sexuality in America today, and otherwise broadened my access to minority perspectives.

Podcasts have been at the center of the movement over the last several decades to rediscover the dying art of storytelling. Alongside various forms of digital storytelling, they supported various communities interested in hearing stories of everyday life. Not since the mass observation movement in Britain during World War II has there been such a concerted effort to capture the details of how people live and make sense of the modern world. There is some tension here between podcast that emphasized the art and craft of storytelling and those which are trying for a more documentary style grittiness.

Those which emphasize highly professionalized and well-crafted stories – such as This American Life, The Moth and Snap Judgmentare often among the best-known examples of podcasting. Each has developed a distinctive voice and format but what they have in common is a fascination with the spoken word. On the other in the spectrum, I would play something like Story Corps, which sets up booths at various locations to collect more naturalistic accounts of everyday people’s experiences. Story Corps is at its best when the stories are organized around larger social themes and categories, such as an extended series they did several years ago about veterans returning from recent wars or their efforts to deal with the experience of transgendered people or any number of other projects which tackle questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity. We learn something about the value Story Corps places on voice and personal narrative by examining their standards mission statement: “StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

After the election results, many of us woke up the following morning with the strong sense that we didn’t fully understand America as well as we thought we did. Red America and Blue America were talking past each other, might’ve been doing so for many years. One of the best resources I’ve used to work through some of those feelings is a podcast that originates in West Virginia called Us and Them. This podcast explores the faultlines in American cultural and political life. It’s host Trey Kay models what I would describe as ethical yet critical listening. A progressive, he never the less is seeking out conservative voices with the goal not of knocking them down but of exploring why conservatives think what they do. He certainly doesn’t let anyone off the hook for misinformation or faulty logic. But he remains open to alternative vantage points and tries to provide some historical context for how they emerged. I was drawn to the podcast by his extensive reporting on the debates around the Confederate flag and its continual role in southern civic life. Us and Them has also done outstanding reporting on the textbook struggles in Texas, the so-called “war on Christmas”, addictions to opiates in rural America,gays living in small and rural towns, Islamaphobia and the experiences of recent refugees moving to middle America, and many other topics. I have been raving to anyone who will listen about Us and Them as a model for what other kinds of meaningful interventions might look like that bridge between different American realities. Often when people speak about the need to listen more fully to rural and working-class America – almost always read as white America – there is an anxiety that this will mean the displacement or marginalization once again of minority perspectives. This podcast continually shows shows us the importance of bringing multiple perspectives together as we try to unravel the complex history of the current culture wars. Along a similar vein, I might recommend Home of the Brave which comes from a westerner’s perspective and has been doing a fantastic job covering debates around environmental preservation and especially around native American politics. Thanks to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl from the National Writing Project for calling this one to my attention.  Both have done some compelling episodes interviewing everyday Trump supporters.

For me, as a native Southerner, part of this process has involved in thinking more deeply than I have in a long time about the American South, its culture, its politics, and its history. As I do so, two podcasts have emerged as essential listening. The first Gravy comes from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group that “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. Our work sets a welcome table where all may consider our history and our future in a spirit of respect and reconciliation.” In many ways, food is what South gets right: southern cooking bridges between different racial, ethnic and economic groups each of whom call call the South their home. My all-time favorite episode, “Southern Fried Baked Alaska” asks some core questions about what makes southern cooking southern and how “fine dining” has emerged as the South negotiates a more cosmopolitan identity. Gravy often examines the historic emergence of so-called “white trash” cooking, examining the history of particular dishes or ingredients, specifying the distinctions between different states and regions, or dealing with the history of institutions such as Coca-Cola. But Gravy offers us a vision of a multiracial South, exploring not only what black Southerners brought to the table from Africa or their experiences of slavery, but also factoring in the various foods brought to the South by immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

The second is the Smithsonian’s Folkways Sound Sessions, one of a number of podcasts that have emerged from the Smithsonian Institute in recent years. I know of no other cultural institution which has made such a deep commitment to the podcast. There are probably a dozen or more podcast representing the different museums and collections at the Smithsonian. I’ve sampled a number of them and they seem consistently strong and interesting – ranging from short videos for children about the animals found at the nation’s zoo to short docent talks about specific works found in the National Portrait Gallery. The Folkways Sound Sessions draw from a rich archive of folk music collected going back to the 1930s. I grew up listening to some of the Folkways recordings on vinyl records which I checked out of the Atlanta Public Library so some of the materials presented here are very old friends indeed. Each episode’s focuses on a specific artist, their work, and their contributions. I take great pleasure listening to their in-depth explorations of Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. But I’ve also discovered new artist such as Ella Jenkins, Doc Watson, and Jean Ritchie who would not been on my playlists otherwise. Only rarely does the podcast extend beyond American regional traditions and tap into the extensive holdings the Smithsonian has in world music. Here, we get podcast dedicated to Oud music or the music of the Silk Road. Just as Gravy allows us a deeper appreciation of what food says about the region, here we learn about the ways that music has expressed the struggles of the working class South.

While on the subject of the Smithsonian, I wanted to do a shout out to the podcast they created around the opening of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Historically Black. As part of the process of building up that museums collection, the Smithsonian reached out to everyday people in hopes that they might share family treasures that shed light on his the social history of black America. Beyond putting these objects on display, the museum also collected the stories behind them and share some of them through this podcast series. For me one of the most moving ones centered around a bill of sale as a former slave purchased his wife and children. Another must listen episode recounts the story of NASA’s human computers and provides valuable background for the current film, Hidden Figures. The others range geographically and chronologically including accounts of fiddle music in Missouri, a photographer capturing the Harlem Renaissance, and the Million Man March in Washington DC. My only regret is that the series was a special event rather than ongoing outreach. I loved every episode here but I’m sad that there were so few.

 

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Three): Television, Fandom and Popular Culture

Television and other popular culture

Maureen Ryan is quite simply the smartest person writing about television today. Her tastes are refreshingly eclectic ranging from “quality dramas” like Rectify to genre series like Killjoys without any signs of High-Low bias. She fearlessly champions the interests of television fans, which is all the more remarkable given Variety‘s history as a spokesman for the television industry. She brings a feminist politics to such topics as the representation of sexual violence on HBO dramas like Game of Thrones or the female gaze into Outlander. She has been especially vocal in advocating for more diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. And no one can take down an overrated series like she can, as she demonstrated in a long rant  about the final episodes of Westworld. So when I want to get an engaging reading on new and old shows in the era of peak television, I search out the latest episode of Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan. Here Maureen Ryan is joined by Ryan McGee for a lively discussion of contemporary television landscape. As it happens, I’ve gotten to know Maureen Ryan through our mutual involvement with the Peabody Awards Committee and I’ve never met McGee but listening to this smart series brings all the pleasure of spending time with several friends who share my passions for the medium.

Rob Cesternino has parlayed an appearance on Survivor: the Amazon into a minor podcast empire. Rob Has A Podcast is essential listening for all fans of reality television. Originally, the podcast covered only Survivor with interviews with each contestant after they were voted off the island, detailed speculation and critical commentary on each episode, and ongoing exchanges with current and former contestants. Here we get a sense of what takes place behind-the-scene: being a reality’s contestant becomes a point of entry into a larger social community. Given that I have never missed an episode of Survivor in its many years on the air, this is the place I go to really geek out about a series that is off the radar for most of the rest of the viewing public. Rob Has a Podcast has expanded its coverage to incorporate a range of other reality programs including Big Brother, Celebrity Apprentice, Amazing Race, Hunted and The Bachelor franchise, as well as a podcast that picks up on oddball current events and popular culture.

I would love to be able to recommend to you a really top-flight podcast about comics and graphic novels. There certainly is no shortage of podcasts out there featuring middle-aged fan boys talking about the guys in capes, which reproduces the experience of hanging out at your local comic shop. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any of them whose tastes come anywhere near what’s on my current pull list. My tastes in graphic storytelling are eclectic but lean toward the margins. I certainly read some Marvel and DC material every month but I like the more offbeat titles there such as Hellcat or Squirrel Girl or Ms. Marvel or She-Hulk, even Silver Surfer. More often I like comics that combine genres storytelling with a more independent flavor (think Sex Criminals or Timberjanes), Saga or Papergirls). So if any reader out there knows of a good comics podcast, I’d love a recommendation. For the moment, the best match I found has been Word Balloons, an interview program which features long – and I do mean long – interviews with top comics writers and artists. Its host John Suintres wisely allows guests to dwell on their current obsessions and offers behind-the-scenes insights into why the comic business operates the way it does. I particularly enjoyed episodes where Brian Bendis discusses his experience at the Peabody awards for Jessica Jones or Kelly Sue DeConnick discusses the feminist politics behind her amazing Bitch Planet series.

I’m still making up my mind about The Comics Canon podcasts. Here, the hosts – again two middle-aged fan boys – explore one graphic novel per week, some old and some new, to explain their impact on the evolution of the superhero genre. If you want to understand why Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, or Frank Miller matter, this is the place for you. But, With the exception of Fun Home, they don’t branch very deeply into the independent comic scene.

More recently still, I’ve stumbled onto Comics from Grownups — their selection of materials skews much more towards the works being published by Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, and other independent comics publishers. I’ve grabbed a bunch of recommendations from them already and it is doing the job of helping me find interesting titles, but oddly, I am finding what they have to say about these books less interesting than which books they select to talk about, so this has not yet found its way to the top of my list yet.

Imaginary Worlds is my favorite podcast dealing with science fiction film, television, and literature. As its title suggests, the focus here is on world building which means we may explore the construction of a Nazi 1960s America in The Man in the High Castle one week, political allegory of the Death Star the next, different theories of magic in contemporary fantasy fiction the following week. Most episodes involve interviews with writers, both academic and popular, as well as fans and creative artist. I don’t know of any podcast that gets as deep into the underlying logic of fictional worlds as this one does. Imaginary worlds has dedicated long series of episodes dedicated to various aspects of Star Wars and Harry Potter, but is also done one offs on everything from Octavia Butler, The Golem and the Jenni and The Wizard of Oz. It helps that the host Eric Molinsky in this case came with a history of having worked at Pixar and brings an insider’s take on the creative choices shaping our favorite franchises. And lately, he’s been exploring issues of race and representation in popular media, stepping aside to allow guest hosts of color to describe their relationships to, for example, Last Airbender on their own terms.


Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
features Casper ter Kulle and Vanessa Zoltan, two theologians in training from Harvard, working their way through JK Rowling’s books chapter by chapter and finding a surprising array of spiritual allegories. The two hosts are knowledgeable about the fantasy genre and its fandom and they take the books seriously in terms of exploring why they have been meaningful to so many people. On the one hand, they use the discussions of the books to explore debates about theology and moral philosophy, applying a range of different interpretive strategies just to see what will work. On the other hand, they are moving through the books in a more systematic fashion than any book club would with the result that we come away with much deeper understanding and appreciation of what Rowling accomplished with the series.

Making Oprah is a three-part series which traces the emergence of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. It touches on all the high points of Winfrey’s career for her debut on local television to her provocative dialogue with a room full of racist whites from Forsyth County, Georgia, through the debut of her highly influential book club, the mass giveaway of automobiles, and her turn toward more spiritual content. This limited series interviews many of the people who shaped Oprah’s career including an unprecedented level of access to the star herself. I’ve never considered myself an Oprah fan but I found myself consistently fascinated by the documentary series’ insights into the rise and fall talk television.

No podcast out there provides as rich and as varied a depiction of contemporary fan culture and politics as Fansplaining does. I may be biased since one of the two hosts, Flourish Klink, is my former student and my son’s professional colleague. But this is where I go to keep abreast of new forms of fan culture and emerging figures in fandom studies. I will be featuring an interview with the two host on my blog later this spring. An underlying strength has been the podcast’s ongoing coverage of the politics of racial diversity within the fan communities, with guests including a fair number of fans and acafans of color. I’m also impressed by the podcast’s ongoing coverage of research dealing with historical roots of today’s fan culture. And Fansplaning has done valiant efforts to expand the range of phantoms under consideration, dealing with fans of sports, games, and popular music alongside fans of genre fiction. Both of the hosts grew up to fandom and maintain strong identification with various corners of the fan communities. Flourish Klink now consults with the media industry as they think through new strategies for interacting with their fans. Elizabeth Minkel is a working journalist often covers fan-related topics during her day job. The result is less polished or rehearsed than some of the more professionally produced podcasts, but it comes from the heart and more importantly from the community.

I am just discovering Black Girl Nerds but so far I’ve been impressed by the scope of the topics it covers and by the originality of perspective it brings the bear on even the most familiar science fiction series. I first encountered it in a search for good discussions of Afrofuturism but my favorite episode so far have been interviews with creative artist such as Marjorie Chiu, the woman behind this years critically acclaimed Monstress series, and Riz Ahmed, the American Muslim actor gaining visibility for his appearances in The Night Of and Rogue One. In both cases, the use of critical race theory brought out aspects of these artists’ work that I’ve not seen in other conversations. Politics of diversity remains a hot button issue both within fandom and fandom studies. Most of the news has been focused on white male backlash against “politically correct” casting decisions. This focus allows the industry to go slow in embracing inclusion for fear of alienating their core market. But one doesn’t have to look far to find discussions like those on this podcast where fandom is way out of front of the creative industries in its call for greater diversity of representation within popular media.