Yet another shift in the world of entertainment: HBO is now considering a deal that would allow consumers to drop their full cable subscription to pay for a package that would combine a $50 monthly Internet bill with a $10-15 monthly subscription to HBO that would also allow consumers to use their HBO Go mobile service. HBO will not go to an Internet-only subscription, but this is seen, in part, as a movie to reduce the piracy of popular HBO shows such as Game of Thrones.
Archive for Television
I just learned via Facebook friends about the launch of a new Kickstarter fundraising effort to crowdfund a Veronica Mars movie. The fundraising effort is asking fans of the critically acclaimed show, which ran from 2004-2007, to donate $2 million to support film production, which would begin over the summer if the producers reach their goal. Watching the Kickstarter page this morning, I’m pretty optimistic that the project will happen. In just about twenty minutes, the total amount pledged has increased by something like $30,000, and the number of donors has also gone up considerably (by at least 800 or so). Given that this project launched only in the last day or so, I suspect that word-of-mouth (including commentaries in the tech and entertainment press) will only increase donors’ awareness exponentially, even if the show had a relatively small fan base when it first aired.
The fundraising pitch itself is pretty savvy, using some of the self-aware techniques that fans enjoyed during Veronica’s initial broadcast run, gently mocking the characters’ personalities and making references to the show’s storytelling style. The technique also helps to establish that many of the major actors (Kristen Bell, etc) are already signed on to do the movie, as well. The perks offer a range of collectibles, and for the biggest donors, opportunities to interact with cast members (including the opportunity to have Bell or one of the other actors record a voice mail greeting) or even to appear in the film and have a speaking part (sorry, that one’s already taken).
But in watching this project unfold, it raises a few questions for me about how to think about Kickstarter. First, I don’t think that high-profile projects like the Veronica Mars movie will necessarily prevent smaller projects from happening. If anything, these projects may bring further attention to the site, encourage people to view themselves as donors, and in turn to consider funding other projects. Still, I think we may need a new term to describe the massive crowdfunding practices to contrast them from smaller scale projects that ask for only a few thousand dollars.
In fact, since I typed my original paragraph on the show, probably another 200 or so donors have chipped in. This project could open up new ways of thinking about how fan cultures can serve as a new version of the “pre-sale” model that independent studios have used to finance low-budget films in the recent past.
Here’s the Veronica Mars Kickstarter pitch:
Taking a quick break from a big batch of grading to compile some more articles about the production history and distribution narratives surrounding Netflix’s House of Cards launch:
- IndieWire interviewed Modi Wiczyk from Media Rights Capital, the company that produced the series and sold it to Netflix. A few key details: David Fincher, who directed the first two episodes, was originally slated to serve only as the series’ executive producer but he later became more involved creatively. MRC developed the series before shopping it around, and the series was originally intended to be sold to a television network, which would have been the primary window before the show got a second run via Netflix.
- John Vanderhoef of the Carsey-Wolf Center has a solid overview of many of the articles reporting on Netflix’s recent TV and movie distribution strategies. The CWC also has an interview with Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos.
- Derek Thompson of The Atlantic argues that the success of House of Cards is further indication that increasing competition is creating a “golden age of television.”
This week, my wife and I have been binge viewing season one of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ amazing drama set in the early 1900s, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. As fans of the show will know, the characters are beautifully drawn, and the show powerfully captures a pivotal historical era, beginning with the sinking of the Titanic but making reference to World War I and other historical events along the way. Much of the show’s drama hinges on issues of social mobility–the family struggles to navigate British inheritance laws that prevent daughters from inheriting property, while many of the servants reflect on desires for different work opportunities–a focus that has proven to be intellectual catnip for both of us (and obviously many, many others). But what has enabled us to become so engaged with the show so quickly is our ability to binge watch season one on Netflix, and we’ll finish the entire first season in four days (and then move to Hulu for season two).
For consumers like us, this is a great deal. We probably won’t catch up with the episodes in time to follow season three “live,” but it’s a nice way of watching, especially given our inconsistent schedules that might make live viewing difficult. There’s nothing new there, of course. DVD box sets started serving this function years ago, and people have been talking about on-demand TV and movies for a while now. It’s also not a bad deal for Netflix and Hulu to make this licensed programming available. I’ve binge watched a few other shows via Netflix, in particular, and there are usually enough movie selections to keep me engaged. But as Andrew Wallenstein and Alyssa Rosenberg point out, in a couple of sharp analyses, Netflix’s strategy of promoting binge watching may not be as successful or effective when it comes to their original programming. Although Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has touted the ability of streaming services to escape from the boundaries of linear TV programming, both Rosenberg and Wallenstein imply that the plan to release all 13 episodes of House of Cards simultaneously may work against getting maximum value for the show.
Wallenstein, in particular, highlights the dangers of “too much, too quickly” when it comes to Netflix. He points out that the goal of producing original programming (like House of Cards and the revival of Arrested Development) is to entice new subscribers into joining the service. Wallenstein then speculates that by dropping all thirteen episodes at once, Netflix may actually be encouraging people to join the service for one month, binge watch the original shows, and then cancel their subscription until a new show comes along that they want to watch. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. I suspect that, to some extent, Wallenstein is right. In an era of one-click, on-demand culture, people can walk away from delivery services like Netflix or Hulu simply and easily. Starting or quuitting a subscription service takes just a few minutes, and if House of Cards is all that somebody wants to watch, then it’s pretty simple to do that.
Rosenberg, drawing from reporting by Deadline Hollywood Daily, adds that Netflix is financing these productions, in part through the use of debt that will (obviously) eventually have to be paid down. Along with Netflix’s plans to expand overseas, this has led Moody’s to classify Netflix as a “risky investment,” and leaves Rosenberg to speculate that Netflix may have to increase its subscription rates to subsidize these costs and to keep investors happy. To avoid these problems, Wallenstein offers a somewhat compelling solution: instead of releasing all episodes of its original programs simultaneously, Netflix should adopt something closer to a linear programming model, in which it would release 3-4 new episodes of a show per month. Thus, users could engage in limited binge viewing, but they would be compelled to maintain their subscriptions for several months to follow an entire season of an original show (my hunch is that such a strategy would be less relevant for licensed shows like Downton Abbey). Wallenstein also makes the point that extending the show’s run over several months would also extend its social media presence over several months and that people who learn about the show late (as my wife and I did with Downton) could learn about the show from Twitter and Facebook posts and could catch up quickly in order to be in-the-know when the next set of episodes drops.
I have some doubts about whether Wallenstein’s proposal makes sense. If binge viewing is the primary mode through which consumers encounter Netflix, then alienating these audiences through artificially producing temporary scarcity seems uncool. In addition, I wonder how many people have the energy to start and quit Netflix every time the distributor introduces a new or original show. I’d imagine that Netflix hopes that people will be drawn in initially by an original show unavailable elsewhere and that the practice of binge watching that will keep them coming back for more. Like Wallenstein, I also wonder about the “casual viewer” who may not binge watch a specific show. It’s practice that I mention in passing in my chapter on Redbox in On-Demand Culture, but I suspect that it needs even more attention.My hunch is that the scarcity techniques will have less impact on these more casual practices. People can pick up or return to a show whenever it is convenient. More than anything, this discussion shows that there are still a number of questions that we can still ask about the viewing norms and protocols that will develop in an era of digital delivery. Binge watching is obviously the most visible form of this practice–especially when Netflix automatically redirects you to the next episode of a TV series–but this practice may eventually be subject to other issues such as changing distribution practices and limited libraries and data caps.
Via a Facebook friend, I came across Alyssa Rosenberg’s insightful post about Netflix’s announcement that they will be releasing fourteen new episodes of the cult TV series, Arrested Development. As Rosenberg points out, this is hardly big news–many in the TV industry were already aware that new episodes were being produced–but what is significant about the announcement is that Netflix may be recognizing that it is well positioned to cultivate new forms of storytelling that may not be as feasible on linear broadcast television.
For one, Rosenberg observes that Netflix can produce episodes of varying lengths, given that they don’t have to worry about squeezing eight minutes of advertisements into a 30-minute episode or even the conventions of a 30- or 60-minute episode typically seen on premium cable series. Most of the episodes will still run for thirty minutes, but some will be slightly longer, and the online (and on-demand) format enables that. In addition, Rosenberg reports that although the episodes will be linked so that events become clearer as viewers watch more and more episodes, users can watch them in any order they wish, with each episode focusing on a specific character or point of view. I’ll be incredibly curious to see how this plays out in actual practice because if it works well, it could represent a pretty powerful formal innovation in serial storytelling.
When working on my forthcoming book, On-Demand Culture, I used Arrested Development as an example of how on-demand viewing menus could be used to revive niche series, but this announcement may signal that series producers are starting to explore how these online menus of series can be used in more complex ways. To some extent, I’m sure there are a number of examples of web series that make use of variable episode lengths, but given the high-profile visibility of Arrested Development, this could help to push others to innovative storytelling techniques as well.
Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:
- I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
- David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
- Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
- Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
- For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.
One of the many compelling panels I attended was a Sunday afternoon “workshop” panel structured around the question of defining the concept of media industry studies. This question has been one challenging media studies scholars for a few years now and is a guiding question of Media Industries, History, Theory, and Method, an anthology edited by Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren. I don’t think I can possibly summarize the wide ranging conversation that took place, but some of the core concerns are worth summarizing. For one, Alisa proposed a call for what she called “distribution studies,” a focus that is central to much of the research I’ve been doing since Reinventing Cinema came out. I think it’s a useful term that allows us to take our critical thinking skills and to direct them toward a whole host of problems that are now confronting the TV and movie industries (among others). It also allows us to acknowledge that the distribution problems affecting one industry might overlap with those in others.
I found myself thinking about that panel–and I believe it is one that I will return to often over the next few months–while skimming a couple of recent blog posts that crossed my radar. First, Amanda Lotz discusses Comcast’s new Streampix service, a VOD platform that allows users to search through and watch a wide range of TV programs and movies. The problem, as Amanda observes, is that the cable interface is difficult to navigate, with episodes of TV shows (i.e., not the shows themselves) listed alphabetically with no date or episode number making it incredibly difficult to watch episodes chronologically. VOD movie distributors have made similar complaints for ages, with many people recommending that users choose a title beginning with a letter early in the alphabet to capture the attention (and digital coins) of bored scrollers. Her more crucial point is that Streampix seems to pay little attention to the cable interface while focusing intensely on making a user-friendly mobile interface, even while only a small percentage of users watch significant amounts of video content on tablets and phones.
On a related note, Cynthia Meyers offers a thoughtful critique of the rumors that Netflix is looking to be carried by cable operators. Like Cynthia, I am a little skeptical about the story, but I think that what is most valuable about her post is the way in which she parses the comparisons that have been made between Netflix and cable television. As she points out, Reed Hastings has frequently drawn a comparison between Netflix and HBO, especially in terms of their efforts to compete for consumers seeking out quality entertainment programming. But that comparison begins to fall apart when we look at how Netflix functions. Its flexible interface is far more useful than the clunky interfaces used by most cable companies. Netflix is already widely available–seeking a tiny slice of cable viewers makes little sense–and being “bundled” with other cable companies seems to offer few benefits (aside from all of the rights complications they’d face). There might be some benefit in creating a Netflix channel as a space for their limited original programming and select “long tail” titles that they want to promote, but I’m not convinced that there is enough value in that, unless, of course, they are becoming more concerned about their operating costs. But in both cases, interfaces, platforms, and other relatively invisible objects have the potential to profoundly shape how we access content, much less what we access. These blog posts clearly point towards some of the questions we ought to be asking about distribution practices.
There are some other issues that were raised in the panel that are well worth addressing, including methodological questions (How do we study it?) and even textual questions (What are we studying? Shouldn’t we still be looking at actual texts?). Those issues are beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think they need to be a part of our ongoing conversations as well.
Just a quick pointer to Jeffrey P. Jones’ insightful op-ed on the HBO movie, Game Change, which depicts the behind-the-scenes activities of the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. I haven’t had a chance to watch Game Change yet, in part because I dropped HBO a couple of years ago, but Jeffrey’s reading of the movie makes me really want to see it. Namely, he points out that politics has increasingly come to resemble reality television, while shows that are often designated as entertainment seem to be taking up the mantle of offering critical perspectives often ignored in the news media.
Jeffrey also points to a prominent interview by Rachel Maddow of Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, two of McCain’s key advisers, on MSNBC. As Rachel Maddow astutely observes, the book on which Game Change was based was widely seen as settling scores and casting blame on others for the failures of the McCain campaign, but the movie has helped to reframe the short history of Palin’s role as vice president, dramatizing the risks taken by the campaign when she was tapped as vice president.
Jeffrey’s discussion of Game Change is also making me want to go back to one of my long-term interests of writing about the politics of media. I’ve kind of put that on the back-burner for the last couple of years, but the current political campaign is reminding me of why movies like Game Change and articles like Jeffrey’s are vital, politically-important work.
With Andrea out of town for the weekend, I’ve spent much of my time attending and participating in Duke University’s Marxism and New Media Conference. While my own work seemingly places much more emphasis on the category “new media” than “Marxist,” I deeply enjoyed and benefitted from testing the limits of current conversations in media studies about the practices of production, and in my own essay on social check-in services, about the creation of value in an attention economy. I’m not going to try to read today’s links completely through the lens of the conference, but I think it has sharpened my thinking on a couple of key points:
- One quick bit of news: Star Wars Uncut, a fan film I discussed in the edited collection, Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens, has been released on YouTube in a director’s cut, one that includes more seamless video and sound editing. I discussed SWU as a paradigmatic example of a crowdsourced adaptation and still remain fascinated by it, though I have to admit that I still have some fondness for the original patchwork version that was auto-generated based on people’s votes.
- Speaking of fan responses, I’ve been interested in the Vertigo meme, in which fans, responding to Kim Novak’s complaints about the use of the Vertigo theme in The Artist (which she referred to as a “violation”), have been adding the music to a wide range of other texts. For one of the more thoughtful discussions of this project check out Jason Mittell’s discussion of how he Vertigoed The Wire and Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s announcement of the contest at Press Play. Scroll down for one of my favorite examples, in which The Big Lebowski gets the Vertigo treatment. Moments like these renew my faith in remix culture.
- This story is a few days old, but given my focus on digital cinema, I think it’s worth noting that Eastman Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
- I’m intrigued by the discussion of this screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which the pre-show advertising automatically turned on during the movie, leading to overlapping images showing Ben Kingsley talking over ads warning us to silence our cell phones, animated candy bars, and other advertising ephemera. It’s a bizarre mashup and a horrifying depiction of the automation of theatrical projection in the era of digital cinema.
- On a related note, Anthony Kaufman discusses some of the challenges for indie and art house theaters in the era of digital projection.
- Worth noting, many of the videos I’ve mentioned today would be at risk of being pulled (and their websites would also be threatened with legal action) if SOPA and/or PIPA had been passed. Henry Jenkins links to a detailed discussion of some of the creative activism that has been inspired by the anti-SOPA movement. On a related note, New Tee Vee has an article that explores some of the possible motivations for piracy, specifically the lack of available premium content via digital platforms.
- Curiously, given this complaint, however Janko Roettgers, also of New Tee Vee, argues that we are in a “golden age of content.” Roettgers uses the announcement that both Hulu and Netfix are producing original series (rather than merely serving as a portal to access content produced by others) to argue that we have far more choices for watching than ever before. Videonuze also has a discussion of “online originals.”
- On a related note, Aymar Jean Christian has announced the launch of a new academic blog dedicated to the study of the future of video and television, Hacktivision.
- This has been around for a while, but via the cinetrix, I just learned about the promo video for a planned adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1986.
- Joe Swanberg has a new film out called Marriage Material. Richard Brody reviews the film favorably and notes that it will be available to watch online for free for two weeks.
So far, the 2012 Republican primaries have offered a dispiriting display candidates who seem ill-prepared to run a political campaign (Perry’s brain lapses, candidates failing to get on the Virginia ballot), much less a country, even while those same candidates are sustained by the so-called SuperPACs that allow them to raise virtually unlimited funds. It’s dismaying to watch, for sure, which gives me an even greater appreciation for the work that Steven Colbert has been doing in satirizing the excesses of this process, in part through his own SuperPAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, as well as his appearance on a Sunday morning talk show, in which Colbert–in character–continued to play coy with his exploratory plans to run for President in South Carolina.
Part of Colbert’s political theater has involved handing over the reigns of his SuperPAC to Jon Stewart, his Comedy Central fake news colleague, with the two of them almost giddily displaying the absurdity of the idea that campaigns and SuperPACs are not coordinated. Now Colbert is using gaps in campaign finance law that allow him to broadcast advertisements in the days leading up to a presidential primary. The result is Colbert’s “Mitt the Ripper” ad in which Colbert simultaneously mocks campaign financing, Romney’s corporatism, and attack ads themselves, effectively turning Romney’s comments that “corporations are people” on its head.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Colbert Super PAC Ad – Attack In B Minor For Strings|
It’s worth noting that anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry has been exploiting the same loophole, airing an advertisement that depicts aborted fetuses as he wages a non-serious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. I’m not entirely sure what the solution is when it comes to producing more democratic elections, but few people have been more effective than Colbert at diagnosing the problems.
I’ve got another post brewing about one of my other spring courses, a reprise of my graduate-level Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, but for now I’d like to try to get back in the habit of tracking some of the links I’ve been following:
- The finalists for the most recent Amazon Studios contest have been announced. Winners receive prizes ranging from $1,000 for best actor to $100,000 for the best movie.
- Aymar Jean Christian has two outstanding posts reviewing the year in digital video delivery. The first covers some of the changes in industry practices and the second looks at the potential of YouTube as a substitute for TV. So far, most of my online TV viewing has consisted of shared Daily Show, Colbert, and SNL segments. That could simply be a product of my taste cultures, but I wonder how viable it is for longer form and narrative shows.
- Netflix inks a deal to distribute some BBC content in time for their launch in the United Kingdom and Ireland early next year. Worth noting: Love Film, the British streaming service owned by Amazon currently does not have a deal with the BBC.
- More good news for Netflix: the tide of people leaving the service seems to have slowed down. That being said, satisfaction with the service has also declined considerably.
- New Tee Vee offers some interesting viewer numbers for the music video service, Vevo.
We’re starting slowly this morning as we wait for the edges of Hurricane Irene to pass through North Carolina. For those who have asked, we’re experiencing some moderately strong winds and light rains, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for those of you living further up the coast. I’ve been pretty distracted this week with early semester business, but here are a few of the things I’ve been reading and watching over the last few days:
Representing Rebellion: Like many people, I’ve been paying attention to the discussions of the recent protests in London and watching as pundits seek to make sense of the underlying causes that have led to looting and other forms of destruction. Now, Chris Marker (a director I admire quite a bit) has made a short film, Overnight, and posted it to YouTube. It’s a powerful little film that shows several businesses before and after they were damaged during the protests. This before-and-after approach leaves us to imagine ourselves the riots and protests, which are rendered invisible, in much the same way that the protests themselves (and the anger they expressed) continue to be largely ignored by the larger political culture. Thanks to the cinetrix for the link.
Media Mobility: The cinetrix also led me to this very cool article on “Pop-Up Cinemas,” improvised theaters built in pubs, disused gas stations, with impromptu screens sometimes assembled from discarded refrigerators. These improvised screenings aren’t an entirely new concept, of course, but the Guardian article offers a nice overview of how they are becoming a more visible part of an informal movie culture.
Digital Delivery: As usual, media industry journalists have quite a bit to say about the ongoing shift toward digital delivery. Will Richmond makes the point that revenues from digital downloads and purchases remain “anemic.” Others continue to argue that we are migrating away from cable in favor of streaming. Meanwhile, New Tee Vee points out that Netflix’s growth in the United States is likely to slow down soon and that they will have to come up with new services (including their long-planned family accounts) to sustain their momentum. Finally, Focus Features, part of Comcast/NBC/Universal, has joined a number of other independent companies in creating a video-on-demand distribution platform, Focus World.
On-Time Piracy: As many readers may know, Fox has altered the release window for TV shows on Hulu. Instead of posting TV episodes on the website immediately after they air, Fox now is requiring that Hulu wait eight days before posting an episode. As a result, fans who want to remain caught up with their favorite shows are now increasingly turning to pirate sources to watch those shows. Torrent Freak has some interesting statistics on this shift. Via Tama Leaver.
Via Tech Crunch, a sketch from The Daily Show, in which Jon Stewart and John Hodgman discuss the closure of Borders Bookstores, which they attribute to internet distributors such as Amazon and e-readers such as the Kindle.
There’s even a joke toward the end in which Stewart suggests turning Borders into a historical tourist attraction (as in the Onion video about Blockbuster from a few years ago). This one isn’t as funny as the old Onion video, but I think it taps into ongoing perceptions about the decline of physical media and, in this case, about a decline in print literacy as well. There’s also the implication that bookstores are inconvenient and that people would rather stay at home (Hodgman’s suggestion that Borders could transform itself into a bunch of living-room-like pods).
It’s odd to watch the video because I don’t really see myself in the characterization they create in the video–I like going to bookstores and I’ve been holding out on getting a Kindle because I really like physical copies of books, for a lot of reasons–but at the same time, I’ve probably been in a Borders once in the last six months, and I can’t remember the last time I bought a book in a bookstore. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think Borders was solely a victim of the shift away from physical media, but their closure certainly reinforces the narratives that are being presented in this vido.
I’ve been mulling over Steven Shaviro’s fascinating blog post, in which he seeks to define the concept of the “post-cinematic.” The post serves as a response to a conversation between Steven, Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, and Nicholas Rombes about the first two Paranormal Activity films, and their exchange will be published in the online film journal, La Furia Umana. But given its widespread implications in offering a map (however tentative) of our current media moment, it has truly challenged me to think more carefully about my own attempts to work through what is happening to the concept of cinema, much less the practical changes to the movie industry in a time of rapid media change.
Steven starts by asking what happens when cinema is displaced by digital and computer-based media as a “cultural dominant” (to use Frederic Jameson’s term). Steven is careful to complicate the idea that cinema has been surpassed by digital media, but as he notes cinema’s dominance has faded, even while mass audiences continue attend Hollywood movies in theaters or watch them on a variety of smaller screens, whether a big-screen TV set, a computer, or even a cell phone. He goes on to note that this declining dominance functions economically–TV is watched by more people than cinema–and arguably in terms of prestige, as TV shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and more recently Mad Men and (maybe) Breaking Bad have begun to receive acclaim normally reserved for films. I’ve used the term “cinema” rather loosely here to refer to the institutions of movie production, under the assumption that “film,” especially in the material sense of celluloid passing in front of a lens, no longer describes most of the movies we see, either at the level of production or at the level of projection, a shift that has only been reinforced by the enforced popularization of 3D. But the more crucial point here is that movies appear to no longer have their dominant role within media culture, even if some movies, such as Avatar, are capable of attracting enormous levels of attention.
But I’m most interested in thinking about Steven’s arguments about the changing place of movies and television “in the wake of a whole series of electronic, and later digital, innovations,” starting with tools that are now taken for granted (or even apparently obsolete) such as VCRs, remote controls, and more recently, DVD players, iPads, and even distribution platforms such as Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. As Steven notes, movies and TV shows are now (apparently, at least) available in a wider range of platforms and contexts than ever before, although this distribution process remains uneven and often quite perplexing, especially outside the the United States. I’m told, for example, that renting a video from a Blockbuster in Italy costs approximately ten euros. And certainly Netflix, Hulu, and Redbox have only recently begun to move beyond U.S. borders, complicating any claims to media ubiquity (unless, of course, you go to pirate websites). So, one of the questions that has come up for me as I write is how to engage with this mythology of digital plenitude, especially when issues of digital rights management and geo-blocking arise.
Steven’s comments also helped to frame some of my recent reflections on the implications of digital production, delivery, and exhibition for social, economic, and political developments. As he points out, digital delivery can be linked to the processes of “flexible accumulation” (David Harvey’s term), while also making media labor more precarious, and enforcing more intrusive forms of surveillance (think of the elaborate terms of service agreements that many of us sign when joining social networks). In my own work, Steven’s discussion of the “precarization” of media labor seems especially acute in the independent film sector. No matter what, as Steven points out, our experience of movies changes considerably, as the cinema increasingly becomes available to us at home, on our computers, or even on our phones.
In my own work, I’ve been thinking about this in the space-time vocabulary cited by Steven (he mentions the work of David Harvey and Manuel Castells, in particular), specifically, for me, the concept of mobility. Texts, screens, and people now appear to be increasingly mobile. We are always “on-the-go” to use a phrase common to contemporary advertising discourse. We can watch anywhere; we can start a movie on one device and finish it on another; we can also gain temporal flexibility, watching a TV show on our own schedule. There are a number of factors impinging on this mobility: geoblocking, digital rights issues, some networks limiting access to their shows on Hulu until a week after they originally aired.
On a related note, media are more personalized, with all of the resulting implications. With all of the personalized screens in our household, my wife, stepchildren, and our exchange student could all theoretically watch something different while ostensibly being together. This combination of personalized mobility is often portrayed in terms of the specter of the iPad-watching commuters on the subway, alone together, but this fragmentation often takes place within the home, and in some cases feeds into more effective forms of target marketing. Personalized Netflix queues, for example, might make it easier to sell to the different tastes of multiple family members within the same household. To be sure, this personalized media mobility is often depicted as empowering (Charles Acland has a wonderful essay about this in The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry), although in reality, it is far more complicated than that.
There is, of course, a massive bibliography of boks and essays that have sought to make sense of this new mode of media consumption, many of which have tried to come up with terms that unite the combined experiences encompassed by the idea of the user, viewer, spectator, consumer, something I’ve been struggling with in the current draft of my book. In short, we need a better vocabulary for thinking about the idea of media mobility, one that accounts for this combination of textual, platform, and personal mobility and that acknowledges the range of viewing practices that encompass film and television culture today. We need to think about this not just in terms of the possibilities for interactivity and movement but also in terms of surveillance and marketing. Texts and screens have always been mobile, but our current moment offers an intensification of this process, and it is well worth engaging with the discourses of personalized mobility.
Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching over the last couple of days:
- David Leonhardt of The New York Times attributes the ongoing recession to a lack of consumer spending.
- Greg Sandoval of CNET asks whether Netflix is killing DVDs in the same way that Apple “killed” floppy discs.
- Tama Leaver links to a creative artwork that comments on the issues of digital rights.
- Anthony Kaufman mentions the release of the second edition of Ian Scott’s American Politics in Hollywood Film and asks whether Hollywood films inevitably reinforce the mainstream political establishment (and like Kaufman, I am curious to read the book).
- Kaufman also discusses (and criticizes) the proposed anti-piracy “Protect I.P. Act.” In fact, over 90 law professors have written Congress to state that the bill, as it is written, is unconstitutional. Kaufman learned about the issue from the filmmakers behind the documentary Citizen 3.0.
- Henry Jenkins interviews Brian David Johnson, author of Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices We Love. Johnson is a futurist at Intel Corporation and is interested in “reinventing television.”
- NCR may sell its Blockbuster kiosks.
- Chris Cagle calls attention to a call for papers from the excellent journal, The Velvet Light Trap, on the issue of media materiality.