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Stand-Up Comedy: An Enduring Television Tradition

9 Dec

        I love stand-up comedy. There is just something about observational humor delivered by the cripplingly depressed that has entertained me my entire life. My favorite method of finals week procrastination has always been listening or watching some great stand-up comedy (anyone looking for someone funny these days should check out Hannibal Buress). So in the traditional fashion I was watching old Louis CK bits this weekend (inspired by Eric’s paper topic) when it occurred to me that stand-ups have actually had a fascinating relationship with TV in that it remains one of the last vestiges of a kind of more old-school TV programming that has generally disappeared. Simple filmed productions of stage shows have largely disappeared from TV, despite the one time dominance of comedy hours and variety shows. Even filmed theater pieces are completely absent these days. yet stand-up specials have managed to remain, almost entirely due to the strange success of Comedy Central. Comedy Central continues to air and sponsor stand-up specials as part of its brand, something it has done since its inception. Indeed stand-up and comedy news like the Daily Show and Colbert, which also feature low production values and the power of one or a few people simply making you laugh without the need for narrative, have managed to sustain this network even when its scripted comedy offerings have not. My question is simple: what is it about stand-up comedy that it is still a profitable and mainstream television phenomenon?

        This might seem like a strange question at first, but the fact is that most stand-ups still make a living primarily by touring around and performing in comedy clubs. The comedy performance at a club that serves alcohol is I imagine still a staple of most towns in America, and is definitely something that benefits from a live viewing. If we drew an analogy to music for instance, concerts and tours have also remained profitable, to the point that MTV and VH1 have largely been forced to seek out other revenue streams instead of relying on just broadcasting taped performances, and music videos gain far more from the editing and pre-planning than most comedy specials do these days. If comedy is still alive and well out in the world why are people staying at home to watch it alone? All comedy specials are performed in front of live audiences because everyone knows comedy is more enjoyable with others, but you would think that a corresponding fact would be that going to a show would be even better, and it is certainly also true that the slow turn-out of specials on cable couldn’t possibly satisfy a true fans’ need. So it seems instead that there is a demographic that likes comedy but only so much as it is free on their T.V. and doesn’t require leaving the house.

          Furthermore, it seems the comedy special has also resisted any trend towards embracing or requiring tele-visuality, instead continuing to often remain low-fi to the point that old George Carlin bits on youtube watch about as easily as modern comedy specials, a claim that cannot be made for comparing old and new televised dramas or even news broadcasts. This is certainly curious in the face of much of the reading we have done that attempts to locate and identify a certain progress in television that has certain expectations for novelty and visual growth. In accordance with this, one of the great stylistic details of Seinfeld was the fact that the show’s low-fi approach mirrored the shooting of the comedy scenes, which themselves were framed just like the contemporary stand-up specials, giving the show an earthier feel even as other shows around it were trying more aggressive and slick production styles.

         There is a classic feeling to the comedy special, an amount of expectation as to how the genre will play out in its normal role in the medium, that implies that maybe this is one of those T.V. relics that survives precisely because it doesn’t attempt to change itself. Perhaps the illusion of being in the crowd is the key element that can keep an old form alive. Perhaps if MTV had shown more live concert DVD’s it would still have music? Liveness, not as simultaneity but as the successful doing of something in one take, still clearly has an appeal. Just look to the shocking survival of SNL, or the popularity of the 30 Rock live shows? If there is one thing these stand-up specials do provide, it is the (supposedly) authentic reproduction of the pacing and feel of the comedy specials delivery and reception, a kind of communal experience that is likely lost to many people in their modern lives, but retains an appeal. Maybe some T.V. produces should take a nod from this and produce some content that is real but not reality T.V., instead a celebration of the kinds of performative artistry that is still so fascinating to us, with or without some additional modern trappings.

 

 

 

Those Old Classics

9 Dec

Having been researching adaptation theory for my final project, I have come across many an adaptation that would fit the “norm” of televisual adaptation with which I would compare with the strange adaptation that is The Corner. There were very few that were from a non-fiction source like The Corner. What I did find interesting was how many were drawing from well established sources.

The first that comes to mind is the two adaptations of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes is a work that has often been adapted (particularly in movies), but what makes it interesting is that American television would choose to do one that was not in fact a reimagining of the British Sherlock, but would rather producing a series that would draw heavy comparisons with that critically acclaimed series. Particularly so soon after Guy Ritchie’s two offerings of the text so recently being released in theaters. On top of that, the producers of Once Upon a Time, which itself borrows heavily from well know fairy tales– having branched out recently to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein– especially of the Disney variety, were asked if they were thinking of including their own Sherlock Holmes. As if there weren’t enough readily accessible to the viewing public! These two adaptations are not the only ones currently airing that are drawing from other sources. What is interesting is how many of them are drawing from well established sources such as Beauty and the BeastMerlin (re-imagining the King Arthur myth), and Revenge (drawing on The Count of Monte Cristo). I realize that these might seem flimsy, but there is definitely something to be said about the fact that these shows are tying themselves so closely to these sources. Shows like Gossip Girl are constantly referencing these works, also. To me, this sort of with the trend of “teening” Shakespeare that happened particularly in the late 90s and early 2000s with 10 Things I Hate About You, o, She’s the Man, and the like films. I don’t understand it. Is it because there is nothing more interesting to make a film/show out of? Or is there some desire to share these works with teenagers by making them “cooler”? Has this now progressed to getting the common man to enjoy the classics by making a procedural Sherlock Holmes show?

internal consistency, music, and singing teens

9 Dec

Kinda riffing off Eric’s post from earlier this week, and also off the fact that I’ve been watching Glee all weekend, which is not even a show I like at all, but, like, “watching TV can become malignantly addictive,” etc.

The level of a certain kind of “realism” in episodes or scenes that deviate from the norm of a series (so, like, musical episodes in nonmusical series) can depend on whether those deviations fit easily within the rules/worldview that the series has set up. This is a “realism” within diegetic reality rather than real-reality (whatever that is). Anything that strains credibility within the rules of what is or is not normal or plausible within the show is what is “unrealistic.”  (This is just stuff about a type of consistency, and thus I’m not being that insightful, apologies. Also, that’s a tvtropes link, which internet culture wants me to attach a warning to (itself a trope), so, like.) For example, when supposedly-set-in-the-real-world show Felicity [omg, spoilers] decides suddenly in the fourth season that magic is real, it’s very weird and disconcerting and doesn’t play well.

On to Glee (sorry).* There are a couple ways that musicals treat the relationship between music and not-music (these are really really not solid, definitive categories, just broad ideas of possible diegetic/nondiegetic relationships): the music can be integrated in the form of diegetic “performances” (musicals about people putting on musicals often do this), the music can sort of just happen and the world of the narrative is one in which people burst into song, or the music can be “explained away” (as in the Buffy episode) by some other “real” thing within the fictional world, like a spell or a series of fantasy sequences (I think House did this?). Glee, however, does all of these. Sometimes the music is performed, sometimes imagined, sometimes both performed and imagined at the same time, and sometimes it just comes out of nowhere for no reason and then everyone kind of pretends it didn’t happen. This is kind of consistent with the “reality” of Glee, which is one that oscillates wildly between total absurdity and saccharine sincerity. The series has little to no tonal consistency—the story-world shifts to accommodate anything and everything that the writers want to put in the show (A tragic car crash? Yes! Everyone dresses like a superhero for an episode? Sure!) so it makes sense that they would do this with the music as well, making Glee a show that can handle every level and type of music/narrative integration.

Glee’s only norm is its lack of a norm—its lack of a consistent tone or a stable diegesis. This creates (in me, at least) a weird kind of dual effect, where technically anything is possible and nothing really strains credulity, but at the same time, everything comes across as weird and out of place.

*Also sorry to people who like Glee and are offended by me being mean to it. If you do like it, though, you should def tell me why because srsly idk.

MTV’s Reverb

9 Dec

MY final paper is on advertising in MTV—however, 1980’s pre-reality series MTV. What I wish I could consider despite narrowness of scope is MTV in its entirety. In researching, I’ve found a few interesting themes and elements of the relationship between consumer and network in terms of modern MTV, including MTV’s new advertising product, Reverb. These coincidentally coincide with topics brought up in the last few classes before presentations.

Reverb is a tool that allows potential advertisers to simultaneously advertise on both MTV’s website and airwaves; it debuted during the 2012 VMAs. It is meant to target the multi-tasker—Wall Street Journal article I looked at (ambiguously) claimed 76 million social media comments were made about TV shows in July 2012, up from 8.8 million in July 2011. This article also said 84% of smart-phone users used their device while watching TV in the last 30-day period. So, when a commercial pops up on the network for a company, ads for that company will simultaneously appear on MTV’s website. Companies like Pepsi, Verizon, and Kraft have already bought into this advertising tool.

This brings me to the question of the future of television, and the intended audience of MTV. MTV assumes most of their audience active in both social media and using mobile devices; this makes sense as the MTV audience is a young audience (the “Millennial” audience). However, the existence of Reverb is clear evidence for the convergence of social media and internet-use and television.

Earlier in November, there was apparently conference, to address “the future of television.” What was made evident was the awareness of TV executives to “develop content to ‘live on all [digital] platforms.’” The conclusions were basically the same ones examined in class last week—specific advertising to niche markets rather than the largest demographic (like point-casting), the importance of YouTube as a television medium, etc.

An interview with Kraft VP of Global Media and Consumer Engagement, Bonin Bough, links up MTV with the Millennial customer and use of Reverb:

Adweek: How did this MTV deal come about?
As we looked across the partnership landscape, clearly MTV is one of those partners that provide a unique view into the Millennial consumer. They also provide a unique view into a multi-channel constant approach. That is one of the cornerstones of the partnership, which is “OK, how do we look at the Millennial consumer in a completely different way?” How do we continue to use and leverage the research around their behaviors? And then how do we develop multi-channel content engagement experiences?

The future of television is partly the ability to create new approaches in advertising, and the technology available to do so. Most recently this has hinged on the multi-media approach targeted towards internet and mobile device using Millenials. Advertising both helps to develop the future of television, while at the same time adapting to the changing audience and medium.

Found Photos: Television and a Shared Past

9 Dec

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Last week at her talk, Lynn Spigel discussed her new project of amassing found photos of TVs as a body of historical evidence about TV, nuclear family life, and the rise of the suburbs. By taking photos from a wide variety of sources like Tumblr, Flickr, eBay, thrift store bins, and owner submissions, she is creating an archival record of TV from roughly the 1960s to the 1980s. At one point she referred to the project as reconstructing a shared past that displays a massive range of class and taste not captured in mass media ads.

Using photography to create a historical record of TV, she has been able to look at the interplay between TV, photography, and the expectations created by advertisements during the period. A sharp distinction comes to light in comparing the candid shots of families and their TVs and the mass-market ads that inform most memories of TV in the period. Some repeated features that began to show up include the subjects of the photos looking out at the camera rather than at the TV in the frame, the TV as an “electronic hearth” (TV tops as the new mantle place), and the TV as a framing device (the subject of the image is not the TV, but the people posed near it). She actually rejects the idea that the TVs were being used in photographs as a status symbol – a conclusion that seems reasonable to me given that by the early 1960s something like 90% of American households had at least one TV. 

She also noted some physical changes that occurred in the household that the photographs documented. Items like pianos were being displaced by TVs in the living room, their most common location well into the 70s. Additionally, the expectation that family’s would not only have a TV but would place it in their living room reconfigured the logic of plug placement to adhere to the belief that objects shouldn’t “get in the way.” The flipside of this is that the placement of plugs by architects created a preordained organization of the home space around TV.

Web Series or Film?

8 Dec

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at Film to TV adaptations over the past few weeks in preparation for my final research project and I thought I would share one I found that relates to our recent conversations about TV content on the internet. While researching the crossover between film and television, I came across an award-winning indie film that is currently being released as a web series. The film, “Hand of Glory,” won awards at multiple festivals and has been nominated for many more. Rather than releasing their film in DVD format, the filmmakers have chosen to release it in the form of a web series throughout the month of December. The filmmakers claim that the film was originally planned as a web series and was later spliced together into a film. As a result it follows the form of a web series very closely including distinguishable “episodes.” While it is obviously a web series at heart, the film has made a great showing at film festivals, winning awards for it’s special effects, directing, and acting. In one case it was even considered for a Best Feature award, which indicates its success as a cohesive unit despite its original intent as a web series.

Here is a link to the film/web series Facebook page if any of you want to check it out:
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hand-of-Glory/125533334193408

I can’t say I like the film/series but I find it interesting that the filmmakers think that the most effective way to distribute their film to the public is through a web series. Also, the fact that the web series form did well under the label of “film” really blurs the line between the two mediums and raises the question of whether there is a line at all? I will be curious to see if the film is as successful in webisode form or is entered in any web series festivals.

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 Trendrr.tv “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” (trendrr.tv/solutions). 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?

It’s the EOTWAWKI, But I Feel Fine

6 Dec

Though the quarter has focused mostly on scripted drama of the recent past, I was still driven to focus my final paper on a topic near and dear to my heart: reality television. The classic arguments about reality TV are well-known by now. How real are they? How much is staged? Are the producers guiding the whole thing? These common concerns are problematized by the recent proliferation of “lifestyle reality”, TV shows that capitalize on that universal truth that fact is stranger than fiction. These shows explore the lives of people who are somehow different than “us”, living in some fringe culture or alternate world that the American viewing public will find fascinating. For some reason, we are driven to understand why some people make their living purchasing abandoned storage lockers, or why some mothers take their toddlers to beauty pageants, or how housewives in Atlanta spend their leisure time. These are loosely themed by Wikipedia as “Documentary Style” reality programs. But a strange divergence has recently developed within this category. Reality programs have told us how things have been (1900 HouseColonial House) and how things are (the aforementioned), but what about shows that ask the viewer to imagine how things might be in the future?

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic reality TV differ from the reality TV we have come to know in that they examine the subjects’ preparations for or reactions to a hypothetical post-catastrophe world. Doomsday Preppers (National Geographic) and Doomsday Bunkers (Discovery) each examine the “prepper” subculture, which consists of members who are convinced that the end of the world will come in their lifetime, and thus devote time and resources to prepare for their own survival in the event of a disaster that will end the World As We Know It. The Colony is framed as an experiment, and places ten “survivors” within an artificially constructed environment that mimics a post-apocalyptic world and subjects them to the hypothetical challenges that would face survivors in the event of a global societal collapse.

It is interesting to consider the consequences of reality television that confronts a reality that is only hypothetical. Doomsday Preppers adopts the mindset of each prepper profiled in order to discuss the specifics of their preparations, only to dismiss the likelihood of each doomsday scenario handily at the end of each segment. They weigh their subjects’ theories equally, from a nuclear holocaust or global pandemic to an electro-magnetic pulse or Chinese financial takeover. The producers end the first season by saying over voiceover that the events imagined on the show are all highly unlikely. The Colony is presented in an aggressively hypothetical tone, voiceovers by experts always beginning with, “In the event of a catastrophic event…” or something similar. It is marketed as an “experiment” about “what would happen if…”. Each season takes place after a hypothetical global viral outbreak, though only the second season forces the survivors to act out that specific events (through quarantines and constant fear of ‘infection’). This is one of the more “likely” doomsday events, but The Colony stresses that basic disaster preparation is necessary in case of natural disaster, social unrest (like the footage of the LA riots they often use as stock footage), or other difficult, but not world-ending, scenarios. Both of the programs act as a sort of hyperbole. The producers do not want you to believe that the world is going to end, but they hope that maybe you can glean the tiny bit of preparedness knowledge you might need in the unlikely event of an emergency. An episode of Doomsday Preppers (which I haven’t been able to find online yet) follows three prepper families as they flee Hurricane Sandy. It’s unlikely that they found themselves in need of their 3-year food stores or assault rifles, but their “bug-out bags” with a few days worth of food and water probably made things a little easier when they had to leave in a hurry.

Each of the shows has an overlying style that attempts to make the hypothetical world more real to the viewer. Though the producers have a knowledge that the events they portray as real risks are actually very unlikely to occur, they use common traits of post-apocalyptic scripted fiction to connect with our cultural imagination of a post-apocalyptic world.

  • Explicitly proclaimed ‘experts’
  • Hypothetical speech and all-encompassing language (EOTWAWKI)
  • Images and film of various past disasters
  • Non-diagetic militaristic/scientific screen overlay
  • Post-apocalyptic style (font, color schemes) in common with P-A scripted dramas

These specific stylistic issues will be addressed more fully in my final paper.

I hope that you all use some of your winter break leisure time to enjoy some of these apocalyptic reality programs, particularly considering that when the day dawns on December 21st, 2012, we could all be little piles of dust. Of course, that’s highly unlikely. But you might as well be prepared for the worst, eh?

For those interested, my in-class presentation can be found here. Episodes of The Colony are available on Netflix, and Doomsday Preppers is widely available through certain means. The first season of The Colony is better, and every episode of Doomsday Preppers is top notch.

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/11ROa_NOB2ueX4aywZkYPqzs5AASvaS9bZEirolPDWEA/edit

American Animation

6 Dec

A particularly interesting part about American animation is how much it has to strive for mass appeal or at least for multiple levels of enjoyment. I’m sure that it’s a common experience to watch a cartoon that you remember from childhood only to discover a whole other context that you didn’t get as a kid (see ‘90s Disney films). Whether it be through subtle in-jokes or pop culture references, children’s programming tends to find a way to appeal to multiple demographics. Ideally, while the content is aimed at children, the parents (and possibly a large portion of the internet) may find themselves hooked on cartoons.

A show like Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time with Finn and Jake has found a viewing public both with children and with young adults. The animation has been frequently described as “trippy” and part of the appeal is the style in which the story is told. In many ways, the style of a cartoon contributes to its appeal. The comedic timing or the art often draw in viewers outside the child demographic.

There are also animated programs that are held up as examples of skillful story-telling. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has built up a large fandom of adult males (bronies) who praise the show for its character development. Similarly, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender has garnered critical praise as well as commercial success for its epic scale and the long-form narrative it presented.

Something that I would have liked to explore is where animation fits into American television. I feel like it would have been interesting to go into what children watch and how unexpected communities form around it.

Abstract: Game of Thrones and Internet Piracy

5 Dec

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In my final paper, I want to explore the effects of internet piracy and web-streaming services on subscription programming, especially considering their reputation for exclusive content. By using HBO’s Game of Thrones as a case study, I want to examine how programs found on cable that attain a certain cultural significance have been consumed, particularly since it is costly to pay for a cable subscription and these programs are generally unavailable for easy streaming. I’m focusing on Game of Thrones in particular because of the attention it has gotten in popular news sources for its status as one of the most pirated shows of 2012.

The internet has affected the way many people view television, and I want to see what the economic effects are for companies such as HBO. Within the scholarly field, there are talks of HBO’s (and other cable shows) position in culture. They are typically viewed as more artistic pursuits than network shows. However, programs like HBO’s Game of Thrones or Showtime’s Dexter are among the most pirated shows of all time. How this fact relates to the cable subscription’s economic model is worth investigation. Piracy is particularly relevant to various media outlets, and the debates over payment models may prove valuable in the coming years. The research I imagine myself doing is very investigative. Again, I want to see, through the example of Game of Thrones, how cable is affected by internet piracy. To do that, I would look at how HBO has built its reputation as a provider of higher quality programming, and how that has benefited the company economically. Then I want to research what the effect of piracy has been on HBO subscriptions, and whether it has been detrimental by focusing on the production costs of a season of Game of Thrones, its reception, rates or pirating, and the DVD/Blu-Ray sales. I also want to investigate the sorts of payment options that are available and whether they would add or detract from HBO’s image, or whether or not HBO even needs to change their model.

The significance of this issue is that television and its availability over the internet have caused many reporters, advertisers, etc. to question the effect of piracy on television production. A program like Game of Thrones which has a high production cost and a large amount of cultural relevance, is also highly pirated. However, HBO appears to be largely unconcerned, especially because they make up a large part of the costs through DVD/Blu-Ray sales. I want to explore more about piracy as a perceived threat to television production.