Saturday, January 31, 2015

There is a "Roots" Reboot in Development at The History Channel

The History Channel’s move from primarily documentary programming to a notable amount scripted programming is an interesting one. With this in mind, I’ve been reminded that there is a Roots reboot in development for THC, to be directed by Allen Hughes (Menace to Society, Dead Presidents, The Book of Eli). In my opinion, The History Channel should be held to a higher level of accountability, as it has historically been a channel that airs educational material.  Thus, The History Channel contributing to the entertainment world’s commitment to only addressing society’s ills with regards to race in a historicized context is just adding to media’s regressive, reductive, and played-out existence.

To also consider -- how does THC’s blurring of documentary/educational programming and scripted programming fit into the ever-changing landscape of TV (considering questions of medium specificity, increased social relevance compared to film, etc?)

More info at the link:

The Wire, Aspect Ratios, and Medium Specificity

In some corners of the internet, much hubbub was made a few months ago about HBO’s remastering of iconic show The Wire for TV marathons, digital, and DVD/Blu-Ray purchases. Essentially, during it’s original run, the show was broadcast in a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it has been be remastered to a 16:9 aspect ratio, more in line with today’s flat screen, laptop-watching, widescreen era.

Originally, Executive Producer Robert Colesberry asked HBO to shoot in 16:9, but HBO countered that it was too expensive. Colesberry and creator David Simon accepted 4:3 and ran with it, working within those parameters in a way that became artistically and thematically rich and original. After season 3, there was talk of moving to 16:9, as there was nascent trend in that direction for many TV shows at the time. The creative team fought to keep it at 4:3.

I’m no expert with aspect ratios. But the give-and-take with the aspect radio during shooting provides an interesting case study for not only cinematographic artistry and intentionality, but also medium specificity.  With regards to the latter, Simon reflects on the question of moving from 4:3 to 16:9: “ that point a collective decision then was made to complete the project using the template that we had honed, the construct that we felt we had used to good effect to make the story feel more stolen then shaped, and to imply a more journalistic rendering of Baltimore than a filmic one.” He highlights the journalistic vs. cinematic difference again with the statement: “In the beginning, we tried to protect for letterbox, but by the end of the second season, our eyes were focused on the story that could be told using 4:3, and we composed our shots to maximize a film style that suggested not the vistas of feature cinematography, but the capture and delicacy of documentarian camerawork.”

This also dovetails with the analysis that has been done about The Wire as a Dickensian piece of fiction. Or at the very least, epic in scope.  For many, The Wire is a documentary series about Baltimore(which is a whole other conversation, considering questions of race, reductiveness, etc). Thus, it’s very interesting to know that that is how Simon intended it (which I guess isn’t surprising, as Simon was a journalist in Baltimore). As a piece of journalistic fiction, one of the tools that shaped The Wire was its cinematography and presentation format.  The fact that to Simon and the creative team, journalism and realism was held in direct opposition of the cinematic form is an interesting one. Because, at the end of the day, The Wire was a fictional TV series on HBO. In Simon’s eyes, did the fact that The Wire was a TV show, rather than a film, impact it’s foundational characteristics? Was he conflating TV with journalism (and thus reverting back to TV’s origins?) And what does this mean, considering that The Wire is an epic TV show that is serial in nature?

For more information, I’ve included links below. There are original and remastered clips on some of them, and pictorial analyses on others.

David Simon. “The Wire in HD (updated with video clips).” The Audacity of Despair. December 3, 2014. Web. January 31, 2015.

CORE RESPONSE - Week 4: "I Dream of Early Sitcoms"

Core Response - Week 4: “I Dream of Early Sitcoms”
by Bobby Sevenich

Gertrude Berg suggested that her television character, Molly Goldberg, resonated with so many viewers because the character lived in the world of today but kept many of the values of yesterday” (Lipsitz, 99).  Initially, after reading Mellencamp’s assessment of comedic female roles in early sitcoms, I was tempted to say that popular sitcoms today do not construct central female character in the spirit of bygone paradigms. It seems that current female characterizations – and the scenarios that engulf them – reject past traditions in order to prove that the audiences no longer believe women/mothers/daughters/wives function best in a domestic setting. The most appealing and enduring females in sitcoms now dominate the workplace. While female protagonists in sitcoms like The Goldbergs, The Burns & Allen Show, and I Love Lucy embody humorous absentmindedness or endearing naivety; nevertheless, these characters displayed “unintentional insight” (Lipsitz, 90). That seems contradictory to present sitcoms as female characters often display more pragmatism and wit than their male counterparts. We admire Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope for their keen talents in trumping the idiocy around them.

At the same time, however, perhaps shows like 30 Rock and Parks & Recreation are indeed doing just what Berg suggested – evoking cultural practices displayed in past sitcoms to legitimize current societal tenets. These current characters my not be upholding “values of yesterday” in the same way Molly Goldberg did, but they still are the comedic centers of the shows. Mellencamp suggests that although female characters functioned in domestic spaces, like Lucy, they possessed introspective desires to transcend that household sphere; that cultural anxiety has endured. The show Weeds is emblematic of (or perhaps satirizes) this concern. In the show, recently widowed suburban housewife Nancy Botwin takes up selling marijuana in order to support her family. She negotiates the tension between occupying “the home” and harvesting entrepreneurial success.

Additionally, the male attitude that women “have too much power” (Lipsitz, 86) in the home (in shows like The Honeymooners) is has now relocated to a new space; the threats that male characters once observed in the familial setting are redirected to the workplace. Instead of women being “betrayed by irresponsible and incompetent husbands,” (87) they battle ineffectual male colleagues or bosses in an (inappropriately) alleged “post-feminist” era. 

So, is it fair to argue that today’s TV comedies embody traditions of early sitcoms or cultural values to legitimize “fundamentally new social relations in the present” as Lipsitz considers? Do our memories of the past still shape the present state of entertainment?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Extreme FLOW: TV marketing strategies in 2015

Just came across this article and found it relevant to our discussion of flow-- how Fox structured various aspects of programming and marketing to increase their profit/viewership.

This made me curious about "mid season" of the TV pulse, or is that even a dated concept now?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Man in the Box: Negotiating Ideologies

“Good Morning, Angles.” The masculine voice emanating from the speaker box at the Townsend agency assigns the detectives their next case. The female triumvirate gather around and stare at the object directing them to execute an investigation or solve a crime at the expense of their security. Women assuming important leadership roles and expressing their feminist ideologies in the late 1970s prompted television (and other popular cultural production) to react to this cultural dialogue by providing a forum for cultural critique where clashes among polar ideological blocs evinced tensions. Charlie’s Angels arrives at an important historical point in time where studies and representations about women are critically examined, thus revealing the complex nature of embracing womanhood and negotiating ideologies in a male-dominated society. Sarah Fawcett, one of the most popular Angels of the many to work for Charlie, in the public mainstream, was revered as a prototype of beauty and “power.” What power is precisely being interpreted? While this is my reading, I do not believe women were complacent with the idea that Fawcett was taking orders from a man in a box. Rather, it is possible that this intangible “power” the actress possessed was the one enacted in the television series by defying stereotypes. Her role in challenging women’s containment to secretarial work by inserting herself in a phallocentric profession enables lengthy conversations impossible to develop here. This power Fawcett radiated was one where she (along with the other Angels) paved the way for women to enter a masculine investigative field, and for television to create content around women assuming non-limited careers. Listening to a box is problematic, but negotiating and transforming a conservative ideology is the power of the expression. 

Images courtesy of Google. 

CORE RESPONSE: Who Exactly are the Agents of Ideological Hegemony in the Current Era of TV?

We are currently experiencing one of the golden eras of television. The convergence of artistry, craft, storytelling, and performance across genres, network and cable, and stories that speak to different lived experiences has cemented the commercial and quotidien relevance of television over film. Considering that we live during a time of (perceived) increased transparency with regards to corporations and state agents, it seems prudent to apply the analytic frameworks posited by Newcomb & Hirsch, as well Gitlin (with an assist from Gramsci) to case studies that will identify the agents of ideological hegemony of the shows with the most critical and commercial appeal (the usual suspects: Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Breaking Bad).

Victor Turner's "liminal stage" is a site for further analysis. It is the space in which banal and mundane is deconstructed into cultural units, which are then reconstructed into, in this case, television. (Newcomb & Hirsch 563-564) I wouldn't want to be reductive and make literal something that shouldn't be, but which people and interests are informing and dictating the negotiation of life and society in the liminal stage? Is it the content creator (writer, the showrunner, producer) or corporate interests? Or do interests and agency not even factor in this space, but rather socialization or social norms? I don't say this diminish the need for accountability of The Man, but understanding the crushing weight of oppressive social systems may be constructive.

In his section "The Hegemonic Process in Liberal Capitalism," Gitlin provides a macro look at the hegemonic process. With that as a foundation, and applying Gitlin, as well as Newcomb & Hirsch's work to contemporary television, who are the agents of ideological hegemony with the current crop of TV? Are shows that seemingly put artistry and storytelling first working for the purposes of control? (Newcomb & Hirsch 562) If so, what people and interests are negotiating a status quo reality into shows that create space for transgender people (OITNB), question the nefarious nature of the U.S. government (House of Cards [yes, even though it is a remake]), take down the White Savior myth (Game of Thrones [assuming the forthcoming seasons are critical of Daenarys as much as George R.R. Martin is]), and so on and so forth. In this vein, it seems that a holistic case study, from optioning/development to airing and marketing, of these shows, of governmental, corporate, and artistic interests is necessary.

These shows aren't bastions of radical thought by any means. But it is hard to argue with the critical nature and increased visibility of marginalized groups, that is present in today's most commercially successful shows. I'm cynical so I'm wary of The Man lulling people into complacency, but that's me.


Gitlin, Todd. "Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment." Social Problems, Vol. 26, No. 3 (February 1979), pp 251-266.

Newcomb, Horace and Paul M. Hirsch. "Television as a Cultural Forum." Quarterly Review of Film Studies.  Summer 1983, pp. 561-573.

CORE RESPONSE #1: Bigot's Carnival: Power and the Public Forum in All in the Family

One of the features complicating and balancing Newcomb and Hirsch (following Turner) that we run across watching the Betty the Engineer episode of Father Knows Best and even more emphatically in the Jeffersons’ dinner visit in All in the Family is the function of the voice of the studio audience. Certainly, under the terms of liminality Newcomb and Hirsch describe, All in the Family seems to provide a demarcated space to voice, explore, and purge difficult and antiquated ideas about race and gender. The audience’s reaction often feels like a communal act of refutation: laughing in titillation at the transgressions of Artie Bunker’s slurs and then cheering their rebuke by other characters. But in it, something more seems to be happening.
It seems particularly important that these issues are explored in the context of comedy. Over and above liminality, in this context, the public forum function looks a lot like an exercise in Bakhtinian carnivalesque. The idea, developed by the critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, notably in his Rabelais and his World, holds that historically the dominant social order used the periods of carnival (first in the Middle Ages) to regulate dangerous and subversive ideas and to rehearse progressive notions by giving them a very limited space to invert norms and speak truth to power. He extends this permissiveness to the function of comedy and fiction, which help expel or at least attenuate transgression in a socially safe manner. Under either description, Bakhtin's or Turner's, comedy in the public space serves as a carefully circumscribed means for getting bad or risky ideas out. 
They have this much in common. However, it does strike me that listening to the tone of the audience’s laughter specifically and thinking about it under the terms that come from the carnivalesque, there does seem to be a flavor of ratification in the ritual of the show. We laugh extra hard at Archie’s joke precisely because they are dangerous. They give us a spike of adrenaline-fueled pleasure. He’s crossing lines that voice ideas that are close enough to our own historical patterns of thought to feel risky but are distinct enough that they feel like the voice of an outsider. But we then laugh in a different tone and cheer the rightness of the scolding that he gets. The audience sounds like the dominant social forces congratulating themselves for their shared values and using comedy as a release valve on dangerous ideas so as to maintain order. This seems to go beyond the terms of the public forum ritual Newcomb and Hirsch describe. It’s not purely a contradictory and disinterested undertaking, but a ritual of social regulation that maintains dominant values. 

Core Response - Cultural Forum and the Super Bowl

The readings this week both challenged and aligned with my understanding of television today. In Hirsch and Newcomb’s “TV as cultural forum” I completely agree that, especially when networks dominated what views engaged with, there was an exchange of cultural discourse between the program and viewer, and assumingly amongst the viewers themselves. Their statement, “it is now our national medium” (563) resonates today, at least in my mind I consider television in the broadest sense a national medium (as it is across screens and platforms). Is this still true? Is there a new national medium? However I would push it further today in that it is not just a central process of public thinking, but an outlet for public thinking, performance, creativity, possibility and discourse.

I found the Father Knows Best episode last week INCREDIBLY charging for 2015 and found it intriguing that the writer of that episode later mentioned he didn’t like the neat little bow at the end that seemingly unraveled the entire progressive arc of the first 20 minutes of the episode. The show actively challenged a cultural norm of the family home and also gender roles and teased the viewers with the possibility… just what IF she goes through with this, only to tread lightly and ultimately let us (and perhaps those early viewers) down by retracting it’s earlier statement. But regardless it’s presence on television, in hundreds of homes enabled a discussion, a hope, an argument even for the public to “deconstruct the world of ‘common sense’” as Newcomb and Hirsch asserted.  The episode was a good example also of how far character development has progressed as shows complicated their story arcs and the flow of programming itself aided a more connected/ serialized sense of storytelling. As Gitlin mentioned, “week to weekness obstructed the development of characters”; you couldn’t really trace a character’s development over the course of an episode as you can in say, a whole binge of Sex and the City, The OC or House of Cards (254). I personally find binging on television more rewarding in that regard, rather than the older model of relying on the “previously on____” to retrace your character steps.  THANK YOU, ABC programming for enabling the more realistic character development more consistent with our world of common sense and dramatic conflict. If a character is pushed and they struggle against it, they are going to come out different on the other side. TV is now a reflection of that reality and it enables multi dimensional characters.

Changing gears, I would like to comment on Gitlin’s discussion of televised sports, given the upcoming Super Bowl on Sunday. Here is an example of a highly publicized cultural forum. The Super Bowl this year is unique in that it will be the first time the game will be streamed online. I think this is a wonderful opportunity and truly enables accessibility of many things: the game itself, the halftime show, a discussion on the game and commercials. It enables a liveness for everyone who may not normally have access to it and is also a “free” trip to the game.  Think, would you rather spend $800+ on tickets and travel only to not even have good seats, or get the game on your big screen or your tablet and be free to engage with it how you will? I agree with Gitlin’s point about TV sports as an entertainment genre and thus intertwined with commercialism. HOWEVER, I disagree with Gitlin’s point about the triviality of naming statistics and trends during the commentary, “The message is: The way to understand things is by storing up statistics and tracing their trajectories. This is training in observation without comprehension” (259). But don't we also name character traits in TV shows?  And what if you are someone ( there are a lot of these people) who don’t understand the rules or concept of the game… statistics are a tangible way of understanding. If I tell you, they’ve got a great punt return or they play T formation well, or their D line isn't effective. People may not get that. But if I tell you they’ve gained 40 yards every punt return you can understand that’s better than 20. You can see a guy who has completed 20 receptions is doing better than one with 8…. Quite simply because that is what winning is. Granted, networks have to succumb to certain commercialization ( on the field, etc.) but I can definitely say that because televised sports have remained a constant in the development of TV they’ve made the announcers more appealing (they’ve all played in the NFL or are an analyst) and are NOT as Gitlin says “not only small minded but incompetent to boot.” (259). Completely wrong in today’s playing field: they analyze during the game, and replay enhances our engagement, and enables viewers who may not understand the game to see strategy and skill. Not to mention, the creativity ( and obviously expense) that goes into the Halftime show and the commercials themselves. There is an EXPECTATION for what we will see, what will engage us, what will make us laugh and ultimately instigate participation (whether that be at a super bowl party, or on social media outlets or purchasing power). The commercials will definitely play a part on the vein of “cultural forum” and it will be interesting to see what the tone of that will be in the 2015 live TV.

Core Response 2: Cultural Interpreters

Lauren Tyler 

In “Television as a Cultural Form,” Newcomb and Hirsch reference Marshall Sahlins in their assertion that “Those who create for such media [television, film, magazine…] are…“hucksters of the symbol.” They are cultural bricoleurs, seeking and creaking new meaning in the combination of cultural elements with embedded significance. They respond to real events, changes in social structure and organization, and to shifts in attitude in value” (563). They further describe writers, producers and programmers as “cultural interpreters”(563). 

I agree with the concept that television producers and writers are “cultural interpreters.” Modern television is heavily influenced by news and cultural events. One of the more recent examples is Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live.” One of the most iconic lines from Fey’s portrayal of Palin was “I can see Russia from my house.” In Fey’s memoir “Bossypants,” she explains that her caricature of Palin was so well-regarded that many people became confused as to what Palin said in real life vs. what Fey made up. 

Modern television consumes news and cultural events and retools/reinterprets it as material for comedy, satire and social commentary. Presidential debates and snafus are lampooned on late night talk shows and by comedic hosts such as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Futhermore, shows such as “Father Knows Best” have been rendered obsolete by shows like “Girls,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Sex and the City,” “Broad City,” and more, which can all be considered shows that disseminate a very pro-feminist, empowered message about women being free to try and experiment with different things the way men do. Although we’ve made strides in regards to representation in sitcoms addressing social and political ideas, television as a whole remains very static and homogenous. 

In Gitlin’s “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television,” he writes that “It is far easier for production companies to hire writers to write for standardized, static characters than for characters who develop” (254). I think this can be expanded to include writers of color as well, meaning it’s much easier to hire writers of the majority than the minority. One of the complaints about modern shows like “Girls” is how homogenous they are. For instance, one of the biggest controversies surrounding “The Mindy Project” is that other than Kaling herself, there was only one other woman on the writing staff and no people of color. Kaling defended this as her personal choice to hire who she found funny; however, it speaks to a larger issue. If mostly white male writing rooms are what’s considered funny and safe, it leaves little room for a minority writer to break through, leaving content static and unexplored. I believe in order for television to progress as a form of cultural interpretation, more diverse backgrounds have to be represented and heard behind the scenes. 

Core response - The Cultural Forum Has Its Limits

In Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch's “TV as a Cultural Forum,” the authors argue that it is not very useful to worry about what “message” television is giving us, because television is not one, impoverished message. Rather, it is a complex and rich forum of ideas where debate and process is a key part of the medium. “The forum offers a perspective that is as complex, as contradictory and confused, as much in process as American culture is in experience. Its texture matches that of our daily experience.” (571)

While I agree with much of this and will spend a good deal of my presentation time on Wednesday applying this analysis to my own personal experience and favorite shows, I think this idea of the plurality of TV as a cultural forum has some limits, limits which Newcomb and Hirsch themselves acknowledge.

“We recognize, of course, that this variety works for the most part within the limits of American monopoly-capitalism and within the range of American pluralism.” (566) I would argue that it also exists within the limits of the storytellers' experience. If the majority of television storytellers come from similar backgrounds, it will be difficult to get that variety of opinion and experience that Newcomb and Hirsch see as intrinsic to television as a cultural forum.

Unfortunately, television has not had a great track record of diversity, and even today most of its storytellers are a relatively homogeneous group. In 2013, white males directed 73% of all television episodes. (The Directors Guild of America, press release, 10/2/13.) In 2014, minorities were underrepresented by a factor of at least 9 to 1 among creators of broadcast comedies and drama. (The 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.)

This is how you end up with so many all-white shows set in New York – Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, Sex in the City, and (for all practical purposes) Girls and Nurse Jackie. When asked about the lack of diversity in their casts, these show creators often reply that they are just writing what they know, which is exactly why diverse storytellers are so important to make television a true public forum that represents the range of our culture's stories. We still have a long way to go before the texture of television matches that of our daily experience.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Television and Negotiated Reality

by Myah Williams (Core Response Week 3)

Many of my worldly "experiences" growing up in a quaint Southern town were gleaned from what I saw on the small screen. Therefore, the concept that television engages us as an audience in a "negotiation of reality" is particularly striking. Newcomb and Hirsch observe that in a society such as ours that is permeated by television, plots and story lines become the "dramatic logic of public thought" by deconstructing and examining societal discourses (564). They examine not only the tendency for television programs to engage social themes and constructs, but also the audience's ability to digest and discern it.

Newcomb and Hirsch go on to observe the employment of genre in television and how different genres engage public discourse. For instance "situational comedy" is positioned as a mechanism to deconstruct "the world of 'common sense' in which all, or most of us live and work," (565). The episode of Father Knows Best that we screened last lecture is used as an example here. In it Betty's fight to defy gender norms and become an engineer is seemingly subverted by a traditional ending with her shedding coveralls to show off a pretty dress and impress a male suitor. However, Newcomb and Hirsch posit that the progressive themes tackled in the episode do their work simply by testing or stirring the views of the audience. The message is therefore not counteracted by the conventional ending. 

Ultimately, Newcomb and Hirsch provide that television both represents and challenges aspects of our lived experience. Audiences agree and disagree with television content for a multiplicity of reasons, all of which come with the freedom of discernment for the individual viewer. Steven Hall's dominant, oppositional or negotiated categories of interpretation imply that the reading of the television program text is not determined by the content itself, but rather by the individual viewer's point of reference (569). Therefore, we as an audience "negotiate reality" constantly while engaging with television. Reality shows such as Sister Wives and Keeping Up With the Kardashians come to mind. There are no doubt some viewers who identify with the subjects in these shows (be they polygamists or Hollywood socialites themselves), however I would argue that a significant amount of viewers either "hate watch" or approach these programs with skeptical amusement.   

Hendershot's examination of the more recent NBC Comedy Parks and Recreation raises interesting questions regarding the evolution of television as an active agent in the public sphere. Has the diversity of programming fragmented audiences? Hendershot observes that these days it is more difficult for a program to create controversy because viewers can simply ignore shows that challenge their own point of view. 

However, I see that with the rise of social media engagement such as "tweet watching" (especially in primetime blocks) it is increasingly more difficult to ignore popular shows and their impact on society. For example, Shondaland's newest drama How To Get Away With Murder and HBO's Girls or Game of Thrones among other highly "tweet worthy" shows, broaden exposure across social platforms. Therefore, even if more conservative audiences choose not to tune in to programs that promote graphic violence, explicit sex and other forms of social "deviance", Facebook and Twitter make them nearly impossible to entirely avoid. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Core Response #1: Then and Now: TV as Cultural Forum

As Todd Gitlin addresses in “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment” (1979), “”the hegemonic ideology is maintained in the Seventies by domesticating divisive issues where in the Fifties it would have simply ignored them” (255). Gitlin reaches this statement after introducing Norman Lear’s (All in the Family, and much more,) legacy on TV, stating, “where previous shows might have made passing references to social conflicts, Lear brought wrenching social issues into the very mainspring of his series..” (256).

As media students and media makers, we could see the differences between the 1950s sitcom Father Knows Best and All in the Family when considering how dominant ideologies about traditional gender roles were firstly placed into the 3-act sitcom format, and how topical tensions about evolution versus creationism were confronted head on in the Family cold open, then how race tensions in the 1970s were carried out in a post-Civil Rights America in which Archie Bunker was certainly an archetype of racist, sexist, bigoted mainstream ideologies. Bunker is like an amalgam of everything that was wrong with American mainstream thought of the time, and while he was not an evil antagonist that brought harm directly to others, he still embodies a force that many Americans had to deal with and attempt to educate and reform in an evolving US consciousness.

Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker of All in the Family.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Stumbling upon television?

One of the questions that intrigued me in this week’s readings is that of intent in relation to technology. Technological developments, argues Raymond Williams, can not be conceived outside the socio-cultural complex within which they emerge. For him, technology is not an independent sphere of human existence that plays a determining role in social change, nor is it merely a symptom of transformations already underway. Instead of attributing paradigmatic shifts to particular inventions such as television, he begins by linking it to a number of pre-existing technologies like electricity, cinema, radio, photography etc. According to him, the technological possibilities attributed specifically to television were already present. Thus, the cultural force of television derives not from its distinct technological features but from the manner in which capital and other resources were directed towards developing and distributing it as a mass medium. Williams attempts to ‘restore intention’ (6) to a process seen as accidental by pointing out the ways in the which the State and military were complicit in advancing television as a means of control and centralization. 

Marshall Mcluhan, on the other hand, offers a divergent perspective on questions of intent and control in relation to technology. According to him, the effects of a technology may be directed only to a certain extent by the functions and uses it is put to. For him, electric technology necessitates entirely new ways of thinking about cause and effect, making them non-sequential and almost simultaneous as both thought and action converge. Television, for instance, participates in a re-ordering of the senses where the viewer is not merely a passive consumer but engaged in a creative process of interplay. While Williams lays emphasis on television as ‘a new and powerful form of social integration and control’ (15), Mcluhan argues that electric technologies have an inherently decentralizing tendency that resist and undermine patterns of uniformity. The effects of the medium lie beyond conscious control and judgement as it involves a fundamental change in modes of perception. Where the political charge of Williams’ scholarship emerges from an awareness of the hierarchical structures that shape the flows of technology, Mcluhan moves towards a scholarly practice that concerns itself less with the question of origins and intent. Instead, in shifting focus to the specificity of the medium’s sensory impact and its reconfiguration of spatio-temporal categories, he foregrounds the need to develop new modes of analysis.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

CORE RESPONSE #1 You Can Flow Your Own Way: Understanding Media in a Netflix Age By Allison Ross


You Can Flow Your Own Way: Understanding Media in a Netflix Age

By Allison Ross

As I was reading Marshall McLuhan, Jane Feuer and Raymond Williams and perusing my Netflix cue, I wondered how does how we experience media now (especially streaming media, as others have posed) differ from how we experienced media when these authors were writing?  How does the fact that, for as long as I choose to watch, I can cue up what shows I watch, when I watch, and the order in which I watch change conceptions of flow and “liveness” / live on tape? 

I would like to use our readings for this week to briefly take up this question and examine one possible framework to provide a preliminary answer.  McLuhan describes T.V. as a cool medium, characterizing a study where children viewed television from a reactive subject position, “their eyes follow, not the actions, but the reactions” (McLuhan Understanding Media 309).  McLuhan states that television requires active engagement, “you have to be with it,” and states it has an ability to engage a viewer in the way “hotter” media such as radio might not (McLuhan The Medium is the Massage 125) however the information on the screen is received.  “Liveness,” described by Feuer, is characterized by an immediacy inherent in viewing something happening “now,” which Feuer contrasts with the inherent contradiction of “live on tape” (Feuer 14).  Such formulations suggest a changing definition of the “live” with evolving technologies.  Finally, Williams’ discussion of “flow” suggests a radical variation in the nature of sequences presented to us onscreen, depending on what channel we are watching (Williams 77).  I would add that this flow also differs radically depending on what platform is being used for this viewing.  The definition of flow, perhaps, is in flux.

My question, then, is what are the implications of producing our own show flow?  Does being able to program a Netflix cue, customize a Roku, or even set a DVR, make cooler the already cool medium of television?  Change our role as a viewing public?  In 1945, Vannevar Bush used the term “hypertext” to write about a form of interconnected information flow (a database) which may be understood as a series of reference points, linked and connected by the viewer / user.  I’m curious how a database-centric formulation of information “flow,” to use Williams’ term, might produce or facilitate hypertextual viewing practices, and more active viewers who facilitate their viewing experience.  Using McLuhan’s contexts, we may become more active when we take greater control, using new technologies to generate our own “flows,” creating links and connections to an otherwise received medium.  But is this necessarily a more active practice than sitting in front of a TV set?  How participatory is this new form of flow?  Or is it a repackaging of an old idea, a notion of “live on tape” which still seeks to retain an old conception of “liveness” and of more passive television viewing practices?

Works Cited

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic. 1 July 1945. Accessed Online at

Feuer, Jane. The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology. In Regarding Television; Critical Approaches – An Anthology. Edited by E. Ann Kaplan. 12-21.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Berkeley: Gingko Press, 1967.

---. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Edited by Ederyn Williams. New York: Routledge, 2003.