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Before Suffering: Nickelodeon Nostalgia

8 Dec

4297264_origSince I didn’t really get to anything important in my presentation, I figured I’d make a blog post out of it.

The Teen Nick programming block, “The ’90s Are All That”, runs from midnight to 2am, then repeats until 4am. For rare special events, particularly holidays, the block runs 4 hours of unrepeated content. Since many of the programs selected for the block don’t have enough episodes to air in consistent syndication, the block cycles through the most popular shows (airing All That and Kenan & Kel for a few months, then replacing them with Rugrats and Rocket Power, for example). The site “filters the social data inputs from Twitter, Facebook, GetGlue [what?], Miso [what??], and others by location, influence, sentiment and anticipation to output real-time insights” ( This model is particularly useful for looking at “The ’90s Are All That” because the aforementioned social networking sites generated virtually all of the support for the return of ’90s Nickelodeon. The block also panders to the nostalgic with ’90s Nickelodeon network IDs, cameos of fictional programming “hosts” (like Face and Stick Stickley), and the ability to vote online for which shows will be the next part of the block (the first two aggressively establish a broadcast aesthetic, while the last undermines this work).

Using this block as a case study, but also referencing the network histories of Disney Channel, MTV, and Noggin/Nick Jr., as well as the general history of popular syndication runs, I will look at this new brand of media-exclusive (yet transmedia-enabled) nostalgia that the Millennial generation has revealed—if not engineered—with its incorporation of the Internet as a ubiquitous, everyday medium (rather than a workplace or mail tool) after being raised in a televisual world. The demand for syndication is unprecedented, and complicates the traditional diachronic pacing of nostalgia, a word whose etymology implicates a forgotten time, a time not experienced, or a time that never existed (Ignorance, Kundera). The frequency of cultural digestion, which the internet allows and accelerates, actually relocates nostalgia from a social experience to an individual one. Meme culture defines the psychology behind nostalgia—the yearning for a lack.

There are several economic questions as well. How important is the Internet in determining both volume and quality of viewership? Are Nielsen ratings more or less valuable for shows that are not only highly intertextual, but intertextual across different media? Is a broadcast aesthetic possible on the internet? To what extent does the success of “The ’90s Are All That” depend on this broadcast aesthetic, rather than the actual shows? And of course, do these (we) nostalgic Millennials watch and enjoy the reborn shows as much as we enjoy missing them?

The Public Interest

28 Nov

Spigel-Dawson’s article (Television and Digital Media) mentions the rise of niche shows and networks based on various demographic profiles: “Lifetime is the ‘woman’s network’; Bravo is the ‘gay network’; BET is the ‘black network” while other networks […] adhere to lifestyle formations and specialised [britsic] tastes” (278). At this point, the hypercompartmentalization has broken into individual programs, so much so that individual networks specialize in niche programming (or do they???* *more on that later). Here are some examples, for fun:

From TLC (The Learning Channel) 

From TruTV

This all reminded me of the most absurd example I’ve come across: a Spike TV show called MANswers. It’s a pun on “answers” you see, answering hypothetical questions that men might ask each other (e.g. What animal can give you an erection for hours? Who’s the richest bitch in America? What’s the biggest handgun you can buy? How would big boobs bounce on the Moon? Can you freeze your farts and smell them later? Where is the drunkest place in the Universe? What’s more nutritious: cat or dog? How do you survive a killer bee attack? What’s the deadliest weapon a prisoner can hide up his ass? Which method of smoking weed can get a dude the highest? Do midget hookers charge half-price? How can you tell if she’s really a he? Where have dudes make some secret sex tapes without breaking the law? How can you exercise without exercising? What’s in your ball sack?). In Spike TV we see men, who have already dominated television’s programming for all of Television Time, being treated as a niche audience. This of course is no more representative of American men as Lifetime or Oxygen is to women, BET to African Americans, Bravo and Logo to the GLBT community, MTV and Fuse to teenagers, or Disney to children. But, as Spigel-Dawson points out, it doesn’t really matter. “Rather than attempting to provide programmes that are in ‘the public interest’, these devices instead tell the public what they are ‘interested in’, and then market that knowledge as a consumer service” (282). When the model for watching television is picking from a collection of recorded material on a hard drive, there is less at stake when scheduling programming, especially when a network isn’t confident about new material. What emerges is a slew of series put virtually into immediate syndication through the cataloging of DVR, VOD, and other acronyms. And though the nature of most shows falling to rapid cancellation isn’t new (I have no means of comparing, though, perhaps there’s a natural increase even when accounting for the explosion in networks), this phenomenon opens up exploratory and ironic habits of viewership.

The easiest example is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which I, like many, began watching ironically (and which also matched President Clinton’s DNC speech in ratings). Filled with all the sentiments most other Concerned Viewers voiced, I was hesitant to admit that though I could not commit to complete sincerity, part of me enjoyed the show in a completely earnest way. Fortunately, I had the option of watching the show and the DNC speech after the fact, so could avoid that decision. The show is not alone in its obscurity, as evidenced by the current programming of TLC and TruTV (clearly valuing absurdity over the niche representation), nor is it alone in its partial viewership of irony-mongers mixed with guilty-pleasurers. To what extent are studio executives and programmers aware of this irony? The editing and social media integration of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo suggests an impressive degree of self-awareness, at least on the producers’ part, but what about when the ironic viewership (cf. Liz and Dick and Twitter) constitutes a significant part of the audience? What does this attitude—already evident in advertising’s co-option of irony—say about the way Americans treat their own digestion of media?

Innovation: uncanny immersion

25 Nov

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries press release describes the show as both innovative and immersive, touting the “modern era” adaptation “in a world of cell phones, video cameras, and social media.” The release (rightfully) boasts that the project combines “web video and social media in a way never before seen for a literary adaptation,” but skims over how important this last aspect is—the literary adaptation. A combination of web videos and social media activity has been seen for years in the viral marketing campaigns for films like Cloverfield and The Dark Knight, not to mention in the real lives of popular YouTube personalities. The vlog style that The Lizzie Bennet Diaries aims to imitate depends on a sense of (albeit creative) nonfiction (not reality), and this is why I think the series feels so uncanny to me.

Whether a vlogger has a noticeable affectation or goes so far as to write scripts for the episodes, what attracts viewers is the bait that the video is relatively raw, underproduced, and not necessarily meant for millions of viewers. That German guy talking about poop is an example that comes to mind. Interest, or at least virality, tends to fade once the illusion of nonfiction is shattered. The Diaries abandon that pursuit immediately, but not wholeheartedly. The actors are wearing makeup that is at best meant for newspeople and at worst meant for the stage, the vlog is on a super nice DSLR, and a camera operator is for some reason necessary. At the same time, we get the vlog style editing, fake YouTube description, and network of social media accounts to follow the characters. The production value of the episodes leads me to assume that they are produced before the release of the preceding episode, and so the mention of audience reactions to the “last video” is eerily stilted, like one of those roller coaster lines where you watch Area 51 footage of scientists sending get-the-hell-out-before-the-alien-attacks-you-at-the-end-of-the-ride transmissions. Not to mention the premise of being a Pride and Prejudice adaptation with a following of those who are already cozy with the novel, judging from the YouTube and Facebook comments.

This is not to say that the series doesn’t know what it’s doing. They mention scripts and acknowledge the tacky appeal of the DIY look, giving us both a handshake and some winks. However, it still feels more like a compromise between different media than an adaptation, like Twitterature, CBS’s adaptation of the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says, or Miley Cyrus’ LOL. 

The extent to which the project is able to formally update the narrative is impressive, but the ubiquitous qualities of a vlog (especially one that Goes Viral)—the status of the piece as either nonfiction or a well concealed lie, and the latent question of identity, exposure, and anonymity—are missing. I’d like to hear your thoughts on whether or not these stylistic features are important to the future of Internet TV.

Omar’s sexuality

17 Nov

Omar and Kima are The Wire‘s most popular homosexual characters. I would go ahead and say only, because I can’t remember any other characters who aren’t just the significant others of Omar or Kima, but there is the suggestion that Rawls is gay in Season 3. In each case, it is in part because of their sexuality that they are such interesting characters. Particularly for Omar, sexuality is more a political deployment than something that lends character depth.

Omar’s motivation through the first season is revenge for his boyfriend, a plot line that takes advantage of Omar’s surprise sexuality to hide the fact that blind vengeance is pretty trite. In the scene pictured we see Bailey express his distaste in gay affection, a reaction shot that likely does not categorize the sentiments of The Wire’s demographic of people-who-can-afford-HBO, but is a reaction shot nonetheless. Simon certainly expects people to think “Woah, this gangsta killer from the projects is openly gay,” and from discussion of the show I gather that not only does this moment happen for most viewers, but they are impressed by it as well. “Good for Simon to extremely defy stereotypes.”

But what does it really mean for Omar to be gay? Barksdale’s crew certainly takes advantage of his identity to tap into a separate reservoir of insults, but the more important thing is that he steals from them. That’s what gets him a bounty. We do not see Omar struggling with a partner in the same way that McNulty, Kima, Bunk, Barbara, and Daniels all poorly navigate their romantic lives. He never address, like Kima does, the social judgement of his identity; this is an especially important omission considering how bold of  Omar it is to be out in an aggressively homophobic context. This is not to say that Omar should be defined by his sexuality, as neither of the other characters are (though Kima’s sexual life is always presented sensationally, and her strength as a female character is almost exclusively determined by how manly she is considered), but when his sexuality has so little bearing on his character, we should question the writers’ treatment and intentions, and thus the nature of our own reactions.

An argument could be made that the show’s shallow treatment of Omar’s sexuality is intended to reveal the homophobia, but is this really news to anyone, much less the HBO crowd?


8 Nov

“We must ask of reality: how important is it, really? And how unimportant, really, is the Factual? Of course, we can’t disregard the factual; it has normative power. But it can never give us the kind of illumination, the ecstatic flash, from which Truth emerges.”

Werner Herzog
“On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”

Williams’ attention to the ethnographic value of “The Wire” (despite it being restricted to a space outside ethnography) endorses a paradoxical posture of the the real. (I would say representations of the real, but that would reveal the paradox too simply and redundantly.) And while paradoxes are academically sexy, Williams’ argument seems to be: the thing that’s so great about “The Wire” as an ethnography is that it isn’t one. I expected some skepticism about the biases of ethnographical studies or of the dynamics of observation and immersion/invasion. This doesn’t happen. Instead, the show’s ethnographic qualities are not only complemented, but reified, in its artistic liberties, and its artistic merit is given credence because of its ethnographic origins. This paradox appears more of a self-affirming loop than a useful analytical tool.

Bubbles is identified as the conduit between ethnography and ethnographic imaginary (which is also just ethnographically motivated melodrama? which asks to what degree does an auteur need to be In The Trenches until the show is Genius?), but his portrayal—evident in Williams’ descriptions—is that of an audience. Get rid of Bubbles, and the show lacks its conduit only in character form. What “The Wire” avoids in visual clichés and redundancy it makes up for with Bubbles’ narrative mobility. By “[allowing] Simon to develop and expand the ethnographic observation of his two initial sites into a multisited system,” Bubbles is also a tool for audience separation (and thus a source of the viewer’s driven gaze). This is ostensibly a helpful feature for the show’s ethnographic pursuits, since it allows System 1 and System 2 to morph into the more holistic System A, but Williams is assuming that this systematic or procedural coherence has definitive bearing on the show’s realism.

Simon’s techniques are not in dispute, neither is Williams’ coverage of the creative strategies. The ethnographic form, though, despite the fact that it is here undermined by virtue of Simon’s dramatic violations, is seemingly founded in an unexamined understanding of the different types of real, which is especially problematic given the essentially implicated Other(s) in any ethnographic study.