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The Disney & IRTS 2008 Digital Media Summit, Part 4

August 21st, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

The Thin Line Between Content and Promotion

I’ve waited a bit to post what follows, since it’s still thinking in progress. But, hey, that’s what a blog is, right? So here goes anyways:

All panels circled around issues of monetization in one way or another. Back during the strike, I was frustrated by the degree to which Disney and others suggested that new media were good only for promotion, and that they were barren when it came to revenue generation. This seemed a bad faith bargaining position, to say the least. But at the DMS, new media was again and again talked of as a site for promotion, for brand management, of the shows, yes, but even moreso of Disney, ABC, and ESPN, following a directive from on-high (Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO) that these core brands are what’s being sold. Thus, while I’m not ready to completely drop the bad faith notion, I do see things differently now. I think what we have is a profound shift in business logic, which results in a profound shift in languages used too. Let me explain, and in the process I hope to challenge that new logic somewhat:

If the brands are what Disney thinks it is selling, not the shows per se, then it’s meaningless to make distinctions between new media and those shows. If the “old” job of the network or media conglomeration was to attract viewers to advertisers by producing great shows, then those shows deserved special treatment, and we could easily make distinctions between shows and promotion. But if the “new” model is to regard all elements of the corporation as engaged in the same process of selling the Disney, ABC, and ESPN brands, then everything is promotional. Your station identification snippets exist on the same level as your shows. And so if you’re Disney, and you don’t pay royalties to those who make the station idents, it must seem unreasonable and annoying to have to pay those other “promo” makers, the writers, directors, and actors.

While there’s something to this logic, there’s also something wrong with it. The former first. As you may have gotten by now if you read this blog, I’m a big believer in the creativity in and importance of all sorts of paratexts. I think that designing a good trailer is a creative act. Ditto with movie posters. Even hype campaigns. If it’s done well, it contributes to the text. It doesn’t just sell the text – it makes the text. So I’m sympathetic to the notion that we should or could start to break down the conceptual wall that exists between promotion and creativity, realizing that often the former is an involved part of the latter.

However, precisely because I’m arguing that good paratexts don’t just sell the text, they make it, rather than remove the semblance of creativity from writers, directors, and actors, I’m more comfortable with making creativity a larger umbrella that also covers good trailer makers, good poster designers, etc. In other words, while Iger’s philosophy risks leading naturally to the notion that “creatives” get rolled in with “promotion,” mine is that “promotion” could be rolled in with “creatives.”

There’s a key problem here, though. Above, I wrote of good paratexts. “Bad” paratexts are just promotion. Paratexts can contribute to a text, but they can also contribute nothing. But this can be extended to the shows themselves, if we regard them, as Iger’s philosophy suggests, as promos for the brand. Good shows do contribute to the brand, and sparkle with their creativity. Bad ones don’t: they just sap money and labor, with no good return on investment (for industry dollars or viewer watching hours). Of course, different viewers will disagree on what is good and what is bad, but since I’m not using specifics here (I’m avoiding referring to Cavemen or Big Shots, in other words), that’s by the by. What I’m getting at instead is that it is only good, creative shows and only good, creative paratexts that will help or sell the brand. Reworded, as much as it may seem this way to some observers, it isn’t promotion that helps or sells the brand, it’s creativity. I can open my window right now and yell to all of Sunnyside, Queens that they should watch a certain show, but that doesn’t sell the brand. Only creativity will.

I said I wouldn’t talk specifics, but to break that rule and return to the Digital Media Summit, the panel that examined Lost as a case study was telling. Carlton Cuse noted the challenge to get good content into marketing, and many of their examples suggested that they have succeeded. Lost’s ARGs, evocative promotions, and so forth all impressed the room of largely non-Lost-watchers. Both Lost AND its paratexts sell the ABC brand, since both are good (and if you disagree that they’re good, well that doesn’t hurt my point, since that only shows that they don’t help your notion of the brand).

Going back to the WGA and negotiations in an economy where promotion and creativity are merging moreso than before, good paratexts (frequently produced by non-unionized workers) profoundly challenge the line between the supposed “creatives” and the supposed promotional side of the business. This allows the industry to conflate the two, and see the differential treatment as silly, thereby justifying (in their eyes) lowering creators to the level of promotion. Bad texts similarly (or even especially?) inspire the conflation, since a good paratext/“promo” can do more for the brand than can a bad text. But only good stuff, only creativity, will truly help the brand, and hence it needs to be compensated as such. And only royalties do this, since otherwise you are paying the producers of shows that contribute nothing to your brand the same as you are paying those of the shows that help your brand.

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Snippets, 2/18/08

February 18th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray
  1. Ken Levine’s blog tells the very amusing story of numerous prominent writers getting rejection letters from the studios now that everyone’s back in business. So efficient are the studios, though, that their rejections (along with criticisms for, for instance, not being female-friendly enough) are going to writers who didn’t actually submit pitches. David Lavery and Angela Hague have an amusing book called Teleparody with academic reviews of television studies books that were never written, but now the studios seem able to reject pitches that were never even written. Welcome to Hollywood, I guess.
  2. Wanna know when your favorite shows are back on air? A few helpful links here and (for CBS) here. I’m fascinated to see if the hiatus has any effect on quality – did writers have more time to think through plot points? Will Samantha Who actually be funny when it returns? Do Cuse and Lindelof now know what the numbers mean? Stay tuned.
  3. When Jericho was cancelled, fans sent nuts en masse to CBS to demand its reinstatement. Inspired by this, Friday Night Lights fans are sending mini footballs, light bulbs, and/or eye drops to encourage NBC to renew the show, as Sam Ford explains over at the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. All of which makes me wonder what fans of other shows would send should their show face cancellation. Horn-rimmed glasses for Heroes? Old pieces of pie for Pushing Daisies? Thank you letters for Grey’s Anatomy? Dexter fans might worry me the most.
  4. Speaking of Dex, a fun Dexter-related bit of transmedia can be found here: enter your name and details, then watch as a news clip announces you to be the next likely victim of Miami’s Dark Defender.
  5. The Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull trailer is now out, with the final line a great one for any adjunct faculty member. Consider me well and truly excited.

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Adopt a Writer

January 25th, 2008 | Jonathan Gray

Just a quick shout-out to the Adopt a Writer project put together by a coalition of TV bloggers. The idea is simple: because the mainstream media tend to be focusing only on big name writers, the writers end up sounding like whiney, greedy pigs (“JJ really needs more money, does he?”) … so they’re interviewing lesser-known, jobbing writers. The aim is to let readers get a better sense of the writers, why they write, what they’re striking for, etc. Neat idea, and the first writer to be “adopted”/interviewed is Jasmine Love. Go read.

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Surviving the Strike: TV Comics

November 12th, 2007 | Derek Johnson

Buffy Season 8 #1       BSG #12

Need new narrative television content, but not sure where you’re going to get it if, come January, the strike is still on and the tap runs dry?  You might try your local comic book shop-where you can find illustrated versions of such shows including Battlestar Galactica, 24, Heroes, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Star Trek, and CSI.  So I thought I’d offer a strike survival guide and introduce Extratextual readers to a couple of these tie-in titles–perhaps soon the only place where new “television” is being written, though not without its own set of constraints. 

Read more…

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Living Through the Strike

October 22nd, 2007 | Jonathan Gray

writer.jpgWith the possibility of a Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike becoming more and more a reality, especially after a hefty 90.3% strike authorization vote from WGA members, and given the rather nasty posturing from both sides, I started wondering what a network head should do if (when) the strike does indeed happen. Let’s consider some of the options for how to keep primetime running (though bear in mind that I’m not a lawyer, and don’t know what’s legal during strikes, so perhaps some of these are not kosher? Please tell me if they are).

1. Put on lots of reality shows. This would seem the obvious way to get lots of new shows without needing writers per se. Ever wanted to be in a reality show? Wander around Southern California on November 2nd and you might find a lot of casting going on. Or turn on the TV at 8pm on a weeknight in January and you may see Knitting with the Stars.

Pros: Because of the elongation of time that most reality shows introduce, turning two weeks of real time into three or four months of show, reality shows could be produced at relative speed. There are also a large number of shows already in the books, so the networks wouldn’t even need new concepts. If some of these catch on, they might even help the nets build up audiences for shows that they might want to use as summer fillers after the WGA’s back.

Cons: If, as Jason Mittell writes, television genres follow a cycle of innovation–imitation–saturation, a fair argument could be offered that we’re well into the saturation phase for reality shows, with many longtime favorites experiencing dips in ratings. Thus the industry might want to tread carefully: my suspicion is that three hours a night on all networks of endless reality shows could be the final spin cycle of saturation that finishes a lot of those shows off. Running that many shows could also test America’s supply of loud, annoying, and objectionable human beings.

2. Get serious about news journals like 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20/20, and so forth. Make them two hours long, and give them more money.

Pros: This is a pipedream, but it might be nice if networks actually gave a damn about investigative journalism (even if only by force). January will bring the beginning of the primaries, too, so there will be no shortage of national news. The nets might even be able to siphon some of the big bucks spent on fictional television into getting some decent international news going. Hollywood would likely balk at this suggestion, but if you look at countries that put news on and that do it seriously during primetime, their ratings aren’t horrible, and sometimes they’re high. Maybe people will actually start to like the news, if it’s actually any good.

Cons: Given the kind of news programming that Americans are usually offered, we can surmise that most network heads have little to no respect for their audience’s intelligence. So this seems an unlikely strategy. I also worry that because of this lack of respect, the two hour specials would just be on the history of the bikini, or bio pieces on Britney Spears.continued below the fold… Read more…

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