Tuesday, May 19, 2009

television, texts, and change

There might be a new way of doing things coming. It might completely change the way the media is made. It might alter the stories we can tell...or the stories we can be told. The effects could be momentous.

And it all started with a silly name.

When I first heard it, I have to admit that I fell victim to my own prejudice. After all, I had seen enough juvenile crap at the movie theater and had no real reason to waste any more of my time on something I just knew I wouldn't like. Really, how good could something called Buffy the Vampire Slayer really be? The name alone drove me off (as it would later drive off my parents, who refused to even consider the show in spite of (or maybe because of) my suggestion). I did hear that it was originally a bad movie, so its history also worked against it. But really, more than the name or its past, I realize now that it really was my prejudice that kept me away.

But graduate school in culture studies does strange things to a person. One of my own personal projects upon arriving in Bowling Green was to open myself up to new experiences, to overcome my prejudices. This is why I started watching the various Star Trek series, why I started to follow wrestling. I wanted to know what was going on.

Eventually, this led to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of the networks (TNT, I believe) was showing episodes, 2 a day. And my schedule was, at that moment, pretty flexible, so I started to watch. I was amazed at the level of depth, complexity, intricacy, and real-world applicability this admittedly weird horror series contained. I immediately indoctrinated the spousal unit, and we both became really big fans. And while I never reached the level of obsessiveness that some Buffy followers attain, this series (and its spin-off Angel, which I actually think is a better program) made me devout followers of their creator, Joss Whedon.

Whedon, for those of you who might not know, is more than the creator of these shows. He's more than an extremely good and experienced Hollywood writer (responsible for, among other things, the script for the Pixar breakthrough Toy Story). I think he's responsible (at least in part) for signaling a change in the way television works.

A bit of Media 101 background first. One of the most difficult (and seemingly counterintuitive) facts about broadcast television networks is that even though they provide a large volume of programming, spanning multiple genres and styles, they are not actually in the entertainment business. They don't make any money by showing (say) twelve episodes of American Idol each week (with the exception of some ancillary revenue such as licensing fees). No, they get most of their money by selling advertising. They are in the business of selling ad space. In that way, they are really more like a billboard company than an entertainment provider.

The programs are only really there in order to give us reason to watch television advertisement. Show of hands: who would sit and watch commercials on television if there were nothing else beside the sales pitch? And while I realize that some of you might share my obsession with bad infomercials, that's not what I'm talking about.

No, you watch the advertisements that come on television because they happen to interrupt your favorite program. But networks realistically care more about a good audience for advertising than a good audience for, say, drama or comedy. This is not to say that broadcast television does not lead to some great pieces of art; however, their ability to draw in the 18-25 year old male demographic is the real reason for the success of a particular program, not its level of quality or insight.

(This, incidentally, is why all television seems to be marketed towards the youngish...they are the ones with disposable income.)

Cable has obviously changed the landscape, because with cable television (or its sibling, the mini satellite dish), you do actually pay for the content you watch. However, most cable networks include advertising as well. You might pay for the right to watch Cartoon Network, for instance, but the network still operates on the broadcast paradigm.

There are non-commercial exceptions, of course, networks like HBO or Showtime. They have no commercials, but you do have to pay more for them (hence the name "premium channels"). However, the content is generally movies (a medium where the consumer does pay for content). And while they have always had original programming (at least since the early 80s, when I first encountered them), that programming was always more of a filler than a draw.

But then came The Sopranos, a gritty serial drama about a mob family. It was a television show on a non-advertising-based network which really became a "destination" show. People subscribed to the network specifically to watch the show. A television show became a product rather than just something to draw in advertisers, because there actually were no adversisers. And under these circumstances, it is much easier to do Art.

The Sopranos had a real effect on how television could be produced/consumed/perceived. There are a host of other premium channel programs now, and I have many friends who alter their television purchasing options based specifically on program schedules.

There are other things changing the landscape of television, such as the digital video recorder (perhaps my favorite gadget of the last decade). There's lots of work to be done studying the ramifications of DVRs, and this is something I would gladly both read and teach.

How does Joss Whedon fit into this? Well, two things.

First off, consider Whedon's third created program Firefly, a science fiction western. It is perhaps my favorite program of all time. Unfortunately, the network did not like the show that much at all, and it was canceled after less than half a season.

However, a weird thing happened. People who watched and liked Firefly were generally extreme fans of the program. DVD sales were very brisk, more than you'd think for a show that didn't even run a full year. Furthermore, upon the show's cancellation, a letter and e-mail campaign to bring back the program, aimed towards its studio, generated an avalanche of messages, so great that Whedon was allowed to bring it back as a movie, the 2005 release Serenity. Think of the momentousness of this for a minute; A broadcast television show, which never found its audience while on the air, generated so much commitment from its fans (which should, according to the broadcast model, only really be advertising demographics) that it was made into a motion picture. It went from something used unsuccessfully to sell advertising to a commerced piece of art unto itself.

This is not the only reason I believe Whedon's works are notable, though. Also important is the recent renewal of Dollhouse. Dollhouse has not had the highest of ratings, for several reasons; it is aired on Friday night (traditionally a low-viewership night), and it does have a rather complex and morally ambiguous story (it concerns humans who get imprinted with different personalities and leased to customers) which might throw off casual viewers.

However, Dollhouse was just renewed for a second season. What is interesting about this is the resulting press coverage. Many reporters have gone out of their way to note that Dollhouse is one of the lowest-rated television programs in recent memory to be renewed. The show does do a good job of drawing in viewers either via DVR or the internet, but those viewers do not see the accompanying advertising which the network is supposedly in the business of selling. So why, if it fails at its job of bringing a desired advertising viewers, is it being renewed?

While one article quoted a network executive jokingly suggesting it was a preemptive move to stop the expected avalanche of fan letters and e-mails, most of the articles point toward the possibility of high DVD sales...as all of Whedon's shows have done extremely well in that market.

This is, I feel, why Whedon and Dollhouse are both important. Dollhouse is still a broadcast television show, but the actual broadcast and resulting advertising revenue is perhaps its weakest point. Instead, it's become a valuable program predominantly for what would normally be ancillary revenue potential. It is not used to sell something else (the ads) but instead has become a commodity in and of itself, as a piece of art, in spite of being on broadcast television. In other words, it's breaking the traditional model of broadcast television and suggesting something much more text-centric, art-centric.

This feels notable.

(note: this may eventually morph into an academic paper, a class segment, or maybe nothing at all. If anyone has any insight, please let me know.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

a political quandry

This says something about me, apparently, but my first thought, upon seeing this photo, is "are we now negotiating with with terrorists?"

Thursday, May 14, 2009

cleaning and self-realization

I determined that it was long past the time when I needed to clean my oven. So, on one of her last trips to the store, I had the spousal unit pick up a can of oven cleaner.

Tonight, I finally got around to starting the cleaning. Rather than just jump into the new can, I seemed to remember having just a bit left in a can under the sink that should probably be used up first. So I checked under the sink for said half-used can. I didn't find it, but I did find two completely full cans instead.

Apparently, every so often, I decide the oven needs to be cleaned, so I buy oven cleaner. But then I procrastinate, and eventually the can goes into storage. Time passes. Again, I decide I need to clean the oven, buy a new can of cleaner, procrastinate, store cleaner. Repeat.

This says something about me. If I was a stronger man, I might be tempted to figure out exactly what the message is.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

my American Spendor day

In some issue of American Splendor, Harvey Pekar expresses his shock at seeing someone else named Harvey Pekar appear in the Cleveland phone book, And then another appears. And another. This makes Pekar question his feelings of uniqueness and individuality, driving him to ask "Who is Harvey Pekar?"

So why am I thinking about this?

Way back in December 2007, an article I wrote on Captain America saw publication in The Journal of Popular Culture after over four years in their cue. This led, through a rambling path (one I've recounted earlier) to another essay in an anthology on Cap. Today, when the lovely spousal unit got home from work, she brought in the mail (I leave it for her, because fetching the mail gives her a certain amount of glee), and amongst the bills and assorted crapola was my copy of the anthology containing my new publication.

I instantly geeked out a little, but there was little time for a full-blown ego-fest...me and the spousal unit were out the door, onto the theater for Star Trek. Later, though, when we got home, I looked through the book more carefully and found that not only was my Journal of Popular Culture article included in the "Selected Bibliographic Essay," it was also cited by one of the other contributors. Instantly, I moved from just being a published author to a cited authority...for what it's worth.

This wasn't the end to my self-referential day, however.

I have a friend in Canada who randomly calls me up late at night. They're always fun, interesting,and informative calls, if always a little unusual and out of the blue.

Tonight's call, amongst other things, had to do with my school bio and an error within. Apparently, my friend, in researching something else, ran across my department biography by googling my full name and spotted said mistake. Feel free to go look for the error, but it is now a priority to write a new bio first thing tomorrow, so your time will be limited.

While I was talking to said friend, I also googled myself. I've done this before, but as I share a name with a former University of Alabama football coach, I never come up in the search results. However, it is scary to realize there's also a Mike DuBose whose an Austin musician (maybe an alternate reality me?) and one who's a businessman of some sort.

I know these alternate Mike DuBoses are not me. However, I think I'm going to have to start following their careers. When the musician Mike DuBose's album comes out, I need to get it. Who knows? Maybe I'll make a false cover and photoshop my face into the artwork. At any rate, it's one of the reasons I called this blog "TheMikeDuBose"...to separate myself out from all these other (seemingly more successful) versions.

Anyway, this time, I included my middle initial into the google search, and I learned a bunch of facts about myself, some of which might be a little frightening to those who know me.

  • The only poem I published in the two years or so I thought I would become a poet is still online. I thought this was, for good or ill, lost to the nether regions of the interwub. Now I know it's still up there as a potential object of either praise or ridicule.
  • The aforementioned Journal of Popular Culture article? It seems to be a part of some anonymous Ph.D. student's reading list...which makes me wonder how helpful I am to this student.
  • Furthermore, the JPC article is also a required reading for a senior level history class called Mass Culture and the Postmodern Era. Do they like me, or are they just bored with me?
  • The same article is also being used for an Arizona State University English class, as well as a few others.
  • I also saw that article reviewed on a few student web sites, including this student blog entry.

In many ways, this should be the exact opposite of the aforementioned Harvey Pekar moment...because all the references I encountered are, in fact, actually about me. On the other hand, I still have a problem reconciling them with the man who spent most of the day sitting on the couch reading, only taking a break for lunch while watching a Deadliest Catch repeat. Am I the Mike DuBose that took my wife out to see a geek movie, or am I the Mike DuBose who has 137 google hits, and who is apparently read and debated in class rooms?

I'm not sure how to feel about any of this. Frankly, I think the world might very well have imploded on itself today, and I missed it only because I was sitting on the couch.

Monday, May 11, 2009

the return of fragments

For anyone who's interested, my summer restart of scholarly activity means I am now thinking again. This means I need somewhere to ramble on, to spout out incoherent and developing fragments of thought. This means I am now posting again over at Thought Emporium. If you have any desire to see unconnected thoughts as they emerge from my reading and pondering, go, visit, comment.

hot fun in the summer

This morning, my alarm went off..and a large part of me regretted it. My first act, rather than jumping out of bed and rushing through a morning routine (speed shower, speed breakfast, speed drive across the countryside to traverse devastated roads to get to the university) was to shake the dream fragments from my head (some like B horror scenes, some like a sitcom version of my life, some of people I don't recognize, but strangely enough, no pizza making dreams) and wonder why I set the alarm in the first place. After a minute, it came to me...it was all about motivation.

During the course of the normal school year, I am up to my neck in schedules. I have my teaching schedule, schedules in each of my classes (each of which balances out my students' assignments into some master schedule), my office hours schedule, my lesson planning schedule, and others (including to, but not limited to my vague relaxation schedule). These all balance out with my lovely spousal unit's schedules. Some of these are mandated, some of these are by design, and some of these are by default. Regardless, they all rule my life in many ways, throughout the course of the semester. I don't have to question what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, because it's all mapped out.

However, the summer is quite different. I don't have a set natural schedule. I don't have any specific, gun-to-the-head obligations. I don't have anything I have to do. Everething is entirely up to my personal discretion.

At least, that's what the narrative of "teacher over the summer" says. The reality is quite different. I'm non-tenured, and I very much want to become tenured. Because I'm non-tenured, I really don't have to do service or scholarship. It's not part of my job. However, since I want to become tenured, I have to do a lot of scholarship to make it visibly apparent that I'm still an active thinker. My job allows me absolutely no time to do scholarship. So guess what I do over the summer? So I gotta do a lot of scholarship, because I want a better job, and doing the work of an assistant professor on top of doing the work of a lecturer is not optional.

Moreover, it's a requirement of my ego that I stay active. While I absolutely love teaching, I ultimately did get into this business to do scholarship, to think. If I don't do it, I feel more like I'm a warehouse worker than anything else.

And a lot of this ego-business is preemptive. On top of the pure random luck involved, my success on the job market next year will depend on how much work I get done this summer. So, while I could still possibly sit around unshowered and play video games in between watching television every single day, it would mean that much heartache and depression when the rejection letters start rolling in. Of course, getting a lot of writing done is no guarantee that I'll get a job (see the last two years), but it does make me feel that much better...okay, less whiny.

However, while my need to do unpaid work is not really optional, I still have to deal with the workload while knowing that I have no schedule. I am master of my own summer domain, true, but this only really means that I can't count on outside schedules to provide guidance. Instead, I have to set my own plans, keeping that fear and need for ego as my motivation.

So, what's on tap? How do I proceed? I have my plan lined out, step by step.

  1. I have to remember how to be an academic scholar. This basically means I have to read a whole lot of scholarship and theory so I can have quotes and experts at my disposal.
  2. I have to remember what my book is about. This means revisiting my dissertation and the pile of revision notes scattered across the study and computer...after, of course, trying to find everything and get it into a system of piles which makes sense.
  3. I have to remember what I was thinking in the big theory chapter. That means reading all the chapter-specific notes, theory, texts. It means re-reading the 50% of the chapter I've finished, hoping to get back into whatever groove I was in when I had to abandon this. It means reading my old fragment note, maybe writing some new ones.
  4. I have to finish said chapter, which takes all my theory and half of my literature review from the dissertation and pushes them through the grinder with my analysis of the novel Neuromancer. It takes on postmodernism, as well as a whole bunch of Haraway derivatives. It's also where the main point of the book comes out and moves into "this is exactly what I'm adding to the cultural conversation." In other words, it's the most important part of the whole project.
  5. I have to see if there's updated stuff I have to read for any of my other chapters...and since I've been working on this project for eons, you know there will be books galore.
  6. I have to revise everything else, getting it to read as much like a popular book while not diminishing the intricacies of the thoughts swelling around my head for the last several years.
  7. I then have to proof everything and send it off to the editor who was interested...not to mention hope that said editor is still interested.
  8. Time permitting, I have a 90% researched paper on CSI: that I would love to bust out.

Piece of cake, no? This is why I have to set the alarm, avoid hitting the snooze, and actually do something...which is cool, because I do, after all, enjoy the work.

I have to admit, however, that I still have to fight the temptation to just goof off...which is the true peril of the summer academic.