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.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm in an allergy-induced haze right now, too fuzzy to think clearly at this point. But you're on to something, definitely.

The phrase "viral" comes to mind. Like perhaps the future of television isn't selling billboards, as much as, as you point out, finding these kinds of shows that hit with somewhat niche markets.

Not sure of the economics of it all: Are Whedon fans a market enough to pay the bills? How many Dollhouses does it take?

But these viral hits (and I'm sure social media sites how much to do with as well) are definitely something the teevee execs are looking at. (Of course, the definition of "viral" kind of means you can't plan it, but...)