Archive for March, 2012

Distribution Matters

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.

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After Avatar: 3D, Cinematic Revolution, and Digital Projection

Like Jason Sperb (who chaired my panel), Bob Rehak (who also presented on digital effects and related issues), and Steven Shaviro (whose paper on “post-continuity” cinema I missed at the conference) I’ve decided to post a draft version of the paper I presented at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston (you can find it below the fold). I ended up revising the conclusion considerably while at the conference, so I’ll quickly add that there were two or three different issues that I was trying to bring together in the article, concerns that will be addressed more fully in a couple of book chapters that are currently in the process of being published.

As audiences appear to have become increasingly disillusioned with theatrical 3D, I’ve found myself becoming more deeply interested in some of the ways in which 3D is being promoted both as a theatrical and a home format.  To some extent, that promotion has taken form through the use of auteurs to promote 3D as an idealized form for cinematic storytelling, a practice that can best be identified with Martin Scorsese’s promotion of Hugo. But there are also a number of other contradictions and challenges, most notably the news that some studios have announced that they intend to stop paying for the 3D glasses used in theaters in the United States (it’s worth noting that many European moviegoers already have to pay for 3D glasses, either through rentl or purchase). Finally, it appears that Cameron and others are now promoting the idea that 3D shouldn’t be a spectacular form anymore but that it should be normalized. Cameron, in particular, argued that once 3D TV is widely available, 2D movies will virtually cease to exist. Of course, I am far from convinced about Cameron’s arguments, but I think I’m more intrigued by the degree to which he and other 3D supporters continue to promote narratives of technological inevitability.

This draft is a bit rough and meant to provoke some questions rather than answering them, so please take it in that spirit. I’m hoping to have an SCMS wrap post soon that ties together some of the panels focused on media industries issues, but that may take a few days.

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SCMS on YouTube

Just a quick pointer to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ YouTube page, where they have compiled a number of videos from the conference. I even participated in one of them (it’s embedded below), where I talked about one of the conference panels I most enjoyed (and, no, I didn’t discuss my own).

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Politics of Entertainment

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.

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“Stop Kony” and the Viral Politics of Visibility

For a variety of reasons, I feel like the last person on the planet (or at least on Facebook) to have learned about the Stop Kony phenomenon. I had just landed in England on March 3, when the video launched, and by the time I was back in the United States ten days later, the video had been viewed an astounding 78 million times, making it one of the most viewed videos in YouTube’s history. But although the video has generated almost unprecedented attention, I’ve been watching the reception of it with a great deal of ambivalence, in part because it reveals some of the potential risks of the power of social media. But despite these risks, I think that critics who dismiss the video outright also miss out on what the Stop Kony phenomenon actually means about a nascent desire to be involved, active, and potentially, transformative.

Stop Kony, if you haven’t heard, is a 30-minute video that seeks to mobilize young social media users in an awareness campaign to get the United States government to take action to arrest Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony’s military group has brutalized villagers in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic, and southern Sudan, deploying child soldiers who have, in some cases, been instructed to kill their parents. Kony has been operating in this region for years and has, as the video asserts, benefitted from being “invisible” to the rest of the world due to a lack of interest in the (U.S.?) news media and due to the fact that Kony doesn’t really threaten American interests (the video seems to have no particular concern about whether or how non-U.S. activists should get involved).  The video, directed by Jason Russell, is up-front about its desire to affect and reach out to policy makers and to affect public opinion, gleefully acknowledging its efforts to leverage the stardom of people like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhianna to promote intervention in Uganda.

But what makes “Stop Kony” so troubling is the video’s underlying narrative structure, which seems to have more to do with celebrating the possibilities of viral activism than it does with genuinely educating the social mediasphere about Kony’s criminal activity and what should be done to stop him. In fact, the video opens with the oft-quoted statistic that there are 750 million people on Facebook and then goes on to attribute the uprisings in Iran and Egypt to social media, a somewhat dubious claim (although media journalist Sharon Waxman accepts it uncritically), before suggesting that an “older generation” is “very concerned” about losing control to a younger social media collective. From there, Russell, who narrates the video, describes and depicts the birth and childhood of his son, using his own (white, middle class) child’s innocence as a stand-in for that of a Ugandan child’s. Only about 4-5 minutes into a 30-minute video are we introduced to Jacob, a survivor of Kony’s attacks, but Russell’s promise to help Jacob, we are told isn’t about the Ugandans, but it’s “about you,” about the ability of social media activists to change the world. Russell imposes some artificial forms of urgency here, telling viewers that “time is running out” and that the movie will “expire” (be taken down? it’s not clear) on December 31, 2012. Russell underscores this activist public by showing cheering, mostly middle class crowds of young adults and teens.

From here, the video offers only the most basic overview of Kony’s tactics and activities, noting only in passing that Kony is no longer active in Uganda, while also establishing the (somewhat tenuous) thesis that if we “all” knew about Kony, then the U.S. government (again, no mention is made of non-U.S. governments, although the International Criminal Court is briefly cited) would be forced to act. In response, Russell suggests, using an interview with Shepherd Fairey, that social media allows us to “redefine propaganda,” so that people who feel powerless can make an impact. The desired actions fall into this new form of social media activism: users can sign a pledge and post their support on social media platforms, which they, in turn, are able to track. They are encouraged to donate to Tri, a non-profit involved in the anti-Kony efforts, and donors receive the “action kit” that allows them to create posters that will be disseminated all over every major city on April 20, 2012, an action that now seems redundant given the attention the cause has already received.

It’s worth noting–as Waxman observes–that the video clearly targets younger users of social media. The messaging seems designed to reach college students and teenagers and appeals to and through social media expertise. Similarly, Nicholas Kristof argues that although the video has a number of distortions and inaccuracies, it serves an educational purpose, making viewers more aware of Kony’s crimes, while adding that we “shouldn’t let nuance get in the way of action.” That being said, these simplifications and distortions reinforce a patronizing view of international politics, one that is based in colonialist discourses of a “white man’s burden” (or what the LA Times aptly describes as the “White Industrial Savior Complex”) regarding Africa. A related complaint has been that Invisible Children has an underlying (and mostly unstated) goal of promoting evangelical Christianity, a claim related by Alternet’s Bruce Wilson. That being said, Wilson’s primary bit of evidence was a talk that Russell gave at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, encouraging the Baptist student body to get more involved in the fight against Kony, so rather than viewing the video as a deliberate attempt to proselytize, I would argue that the video appropriates the evangelical language of reaching out and converting others, language that fits rather neatly into some of the more utopian accounts of using social media to effect change.

The video’s inflated sense of self-importance becomes all the more evident when we consider the fact that Russell so prominently features himself and his son as the moral centers by which we view Kony and the conflict in Uganda (a position that has become even more compromised given that as I was writing this entry a report surfaced that Russell was arrested in San Diego for a variety of crimes including public indecency, drunkenness, and vandalizing cars). The focus on Russell and on a network of middle-class social media users proved especially puzzling to the Ugandan people who were supposed to benefit from Stop Kony’s campaign of networked visibility. In an Al Jazeera report linked by Xeni Jardin, we learn that Ugandans were puzzled by the video’s emphasis on Russell and by the calls to create t-shirts bearing Kony’s image, even while the video states that its intended purpose is to make Kony “famous” in order to see him captured. Ugandans complained that the video depicts events from nearly a decade ago, out of context, and some felt it was a cynical attempt to raise money. The outdoor screening was eventually stopped when viewers began throwing rocks, and future showings of the film in Uganda were postponed.

But the biggest concern I have about the video is one that was articulated by Engage Media, which observes that the Stop Kony rhetoric frames activism in ways that are cause for concern. The Twitter hashtag #stopatnothing is most significant here. This kind of viral social media activism can often lead to some of the same forms of uncritical acceptance that we have seen in other media, and in some cases, it potentially amplifies some potentially violent rhetoric. Engage is also attentive to the fact that the videomakers should have taken into account the local groups who were affected by Kony, providing them with the tools and the platform to share their message with the world (assuming that is what they want). Russell–and others, including Nicholas Kristof, who should know better–make a number of assumptions about the desires of a potentially disparate group of people, with Kristof concluding his op-ed with the phrase “If I were a Congolese villager…”  Which, of course, reduces a diverse grouping into a homogeneous whole.

So, yes, I am disturbed by the Stop Kony phenomenon, and in fact, as I wrote, I found myself becoming even less sympathetic with the tactics Russell is using, even if I recognize that Kony is a cruel individual. I don’t like that the video positions me as an impediment to justice when I ask for more nuance and subtlety and question the video’s uncritical embrace of the Ugandan military. And, yes, I am skeptical about Russell’s self-importance. But despite the video’s numerous flaws, I still find myself trying to make sense of how the video is using and mobilizing the good intentions of an international and socially-networked youth culture to try to make a difference in the wider world. To be sure, condemning a child-killing mass murderer in Africa is a relatively easy target, and the project’s militant rhetoric (#stopatnothing) is concerning, but the questions about empowerment, activism, and collectivity should not be easily or quickly dismissed.

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Blog Silence

I’ve been doing quite a bit of under-the-radar work for the last month or so, which means I haven’t had a lot of extra time for blogging. Add to that my recent trip to England and Ireland, which Andrea and I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’m somewhat shocked to see the semester (and the academic year) quickly slipping away. But I just wanted to drop in quickly to say that I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts soon, including one on the Stop Kony phenomenon. As Nicholas Kristof explains, Stop Kony, a short YouTube documentary is one of the most watched videos in the history of that website. It has been viewed 79 million times in less than a month and has inspired widespread forms of activism. And yet, as a number of people have pointed out, the movement has been widely criticized. I’m still in the process of formulating a response to the video(and all of the framing materials that have accompanied it), but as a case study in viral distribution it is well worth investigating.

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