C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

This week's C3 Weekly Update features an Opening Note from C3 Consulting Researcher Aswin Punathambekar. Aswin, who will be speaking at our upcoming C3 Spring Retreat for partners and consulting researchers that we're hosting here at MIT, writes the concept of "unimaginable audiences" in relation to ethnic audiences/communities in particular. Aswin's interest here is in creating a dialogue about audiences in preparation for the session on understanding media audiences as communities he will be a part of at the retreat. Aswin will also be leading a breakout group in discussing global media flow and the changing concept of media audiences and media production internationally in the contemporary media landscape.

The Closing Note is the latest in the series of short essays written for the C3 Weekly Update entitled "Divergences," by C3 alum and current reasearcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab here at the Program in Comparative Media Studies, Geoffrey Long. Long writes about a change in the pay structure for compensating authors at HarperCollins, as well as shifts in delivery methods, and what it means for the future of the publishing industries. Geoffrey will be joining C3 Consulting Researcher and fellow GAMBIT researcher Doris Rusch to lead the breakout session on video games at the retreat next month.

Also, tonight, as is referenced in the Weekly Update's calendar, Henry will be moderating a conversation on digital culture here at MIT as part of the Program in Comparative Media Studies' MIT Communications Forum. The event, entitled "Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly," will feature Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks ad professor at the Berkman Center at Harvard, and Cass Sunstein, professor at the University of Chicago and author of 2.0 and Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. For more information on the event, see the MIT Communications Forum site and The Weekly Dig. We hope to see some of you there. For those who can't join us, the event's audio and video will be made available in the coming weeks.

We're staying busy here at the Consortium. C3 Research Manager Joshua Green has been busy putting together further analysis of the YouTube project we have immersed ourselves in this academic year, while Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins has been working with our graduate student researchers on projects on online video promotion and the concepts of "viral" and "spreadable media" that will all be presented at next month's retreat.

Speaking of the retreat, we're going to be sending out a special e-mail later this week to the newsletter's subscription list, giving all the details about our C3 Spring Retreat for partners and consulting researchers that we're hosting here at MIT on Thursday, May 08, and Friday, May 09. In preparation for planning catering and the breakout sessions which will involve the participation of all those in attendance, we need everyone who plans to attend to RSVP. All the details on the lineup will be provided in the invitation, and we'll continue to give updates between now and the event here in the C3 Weekly Update. For our partner companies, please keep in mind that anyone who is a member of your organization is invited to attend, so please feel free to forward that invitation on to others who may not subscribe to the MIT C3 Weekly Update. There is no attendance fee for the C3 Spring Retreat.

Also, again note that Futures of Entertainment 3 is now set for Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 at the Wong Auditorium in the Tang Center here at MIT.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the Update, direct them to Sam Ford, editor of the C3 Weekly Update, at


In This Issue

Editor's Note

Opening Note: Aswin Punathambekar on Audiences and the Concept of Unimaginable Communities

Glancing at the C3 Blog

Closing Note: Geoffrey Long's Divergences: Licensed to Read


Thursday, April 10, 5-7 p.m.
MIT Communications Forum: Our World Digitized: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
Featuring Yochai Benkler and Cass Sunstein: Bartos Theater, Wiesner Building, MIT Media Lab
Co-sponsored by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media

Thursday, April 24, 5-7 p.m.
MIT Communications Forum: Youth and Civic Engagement
Featuring Lance Bennett, Ian V. Rowe: Bartos Theater, Wiesner Building, MIT Media Lab
Co-sponsored by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media

Friday, April 25
Console-ing Passions 2008 Conference
C3 Project Manager Sam Ford presents "Outside the Target Demographic" as part of the Gendered Fan Labor in New Media and Old panel.

Thursday, May 08, and Friday, May 09
C3's Spring Retreat

Thursday, May 22 to Monday, May 26
Communicating for Social Impact, Conference of the Interntional Communication Association
C3 Research Manager Joshua Green will make two presentations at this Montreal event. Details forthcoming.

Thurs., June 19, to Sunday, June 22
Consumer Culture Theory Conference 2008
C3 Director Henry Jenkins, C3 Research Manager Joshua Green, and C3 Project Manager Sam Ford are going to be panelists for a plenary session at this Suffolk University event here in Boston. More information forthcoming.

Friday, Nov. 21, and Saturday, Nov. 22
MIT Futures of Entertainment 3.
The Consortium's annual public conference is scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving. We look forward to seeing a variety of our partners at the event and will have more information forthcoming after our Spring Retreat.

Opening Note

Audiences: Unimaginable Communities?

Media scholar Shanti Kumar developed the notion of "unimaginable communities" to explain how media globalization has made it increasingly difficult to draw boundaries around audiences. At the very moment we define audiences – in terms of nation, language, race/ethnicity; in medium specific ways (film or television); in varied demographic clusters (family, youth, fans, etc.) – our definition breaks down.

New media technologies, changing patterns of consumption, increasing global connectivity, and ongoing transitions in industry logics have made audiences "unimaginable." This, in and of itself, is not exactly news – from different vantage points, all of us at C3 have been grappling with this question of imagining and understanding audiences-as-communities in new ways.

But I think this notion of "unimaginable communities" can, in fact, be highly productive and not just a gloomy diagnostic term. During the upcoming retreat – the Audiences as Community panel in particular – would it be useful for participants researching different audiences communities to talk about what has become "unimaginable?" For instance, does thinking about "consumer tribes" allow us to break free of established definitions of community? What about trans-national online fan communities that cohere around music?

In what follows, I focus on the domain of "ethnic (audience) communities" to ask why they seem unimaginable and, more importantly, how we can re-imagine them.

I look forward to discussing this further at the retreat and, of course, feedback from partners and consulting researchers.

Transcultural, not Ethnic

Late in January 2008, Comcast programming executives announced that AZN – the Network for Asian America – was no longer viable. Performance reviews revealed that there was very little advertising interest and that potential for distribution growth was low as well. ImaginAsian, another well-known venture that targets the Asian-American community, is also struggling and is currently reaching about 4 million homes. And all of us are familiar with MTV Networks' decision to pull the plug on MTV World.

At first glance, the problem seems rather straightforward. In each case – AZN, ImaginAsian, and MTV World – it is easy enough to point to the fact that the actual number of Asian-Americans is low: 4.3% of the U.S. population (about 12 million), and once we begin to segment this by Chinese-Americans and South Asian-Americans and so on, it should not come as a surprise that media ventures targeting these groups are not able to generate adequate advertising interest. The hype surrounding Asian-American purchasing power does not, in the end, translate into anything tangible.

Everyone seems to agree: while worth striving for, television designed for Asian-American audiences is an economic impossibility. But is this all we have learned from such wonderful experiments as MTV-Desi? Are asian-american communities unimaginable? What if we set aside the question of economics and instead, rethink the notion of "community" – in this case, the idea of an "ethnic (audience) community?"

And where this particular notion of "community" is concerned, let us not forget the larger context: immigrants arriving after 2005, and their children and grandchildren, will account for 82% of the population growth in the U.S. between 2005 and 2050 (Pew Research Center). It is abundantly clear that media corporations will have to respond creatively to socio-cultural changes that such demographic shifts engender.

So what can we learn from the AZN, ImaginAsian, and MTV World experiments? I would argue that the only way forward is to take a close look at how migration and media globalization work to produce "trans-cultural," not "ethnic," communities.

Here, then, are three broad ideas/challenges to work with:

1. Trans-cultural, not bi-cultural

MTV World correctly recognized that satellite TV (various packages on Dish and DirecTV) channels were serving the needs of first-generation migrants, and focused their efforts on Asian-American youth. However, MTV World defined these youth cultures as being "bi-cultural," that asian-american youth culture is defined by close ties to a "homeland."

But even a cursory look at an artist like DJ Rekha in NYC tells us that ties to "home" do not necessarily imply one specific country. DJ Rekha, of Basement Bhangra fame, is influenced by music and artists not only from India but also from Britain and the U.S. Contemporary Asian-American life is decidedly trans-cultural and cannot be defined in national terms.

2. Trans-cultural: Everyone's invited

DJ Rekha's Bhangra events are certainly a space for Asian-American youth, but they are by no means exclusive. Distributing MTV-Desi via a DirecTV package or branding AZN as a network for Asian America reveals the limits of thinking along "ethnic" lines. To be sure, numbers play the most important role in distribution-related decisions, but such decisions also assume that no one else is likely to be interested.

We need to recognize the limits of niche-TV as a space for building and sustaining transcultural communities. Perhaps TV is the wrong place to start.

3. Trans-cultural: media without borders

Contemporary Asian-American media culture is an astonishing mix of content that cuts across multiple national borders. And "spreadability" (as Joshua Green and others at C3 define it) lies at the heart of trans-cultural communities. "Spreading" is what defines media consumption patterns among Asian-Americans and understanding how exactly "spreading" operates will constitute an important first step in devising programming and distribution strategies.

Aswin Punathambekar is professor of international and comparative media at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor's Department of Communication Studies and is an alumnus of the Comparative Media Studies program here at MIT, in addition to being a Convergence Culture Consortium consulting researcher. He is co-editor of the 2007 Bollywood Reader from NYU Press and also writes at BollySpace 2.0.

Glancing at the C3 Blog

NCAA/NBA Social Network for Youth Basketball. Sam Ford writes about the decision by the major professional and college basketball organiations in the U.S. to launch an online social network to help support local youth basketball movements across the U.S., reacting to his quote in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story.

A Criti-Fan Who's Yearning for the World as It Was. Henry Jenkins shares a recent essay from longtime soap opera fan and former Soap Opera Weekly contributor Lynn Liccardo about her engagement with U.S. soap operas, Sam Ford's class at MIT on contemporary U.S. soaps, and changes in the soap opera genre, cross-posted from his Confessions of an Aca/Fan blog.

Why Academics Should Blog. Henry Jenkins writes about his recently being featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education on how CMS, including the Consortium, interfaces with various audiences through their academic work.

PCA/ACA: Other Soap Opera Presentations. Sam Ford wraps up his look at the PCA/ACA conference by writing about projects on the future of the U.S. soap opera, soap opera parodies, and the role of mass media in co-creating gender and gendered identifications through storytelling.

PCA/ACA: Marsha Ducey on FCC Complaints; Other Soap Projects. Sam Ford writes about Marsha Ducey's recent project on FCC complaints directed at soap operas from 2004 until January 2008, as well as projects on developing long-term legacies in soap operas, the history of the telenovela, and the transformation of characters over time in U.S. soaps.

PCA/ACA: The Soap Opera Area and Suzanne Frentz. In the first of three posts about the soap opera area at the PCA/ACA, Sam Ford writes about the area as a whole and the contributions of Suzanne Frentz and the legacy of her leadership at this event.


PCA/ACA: Clayton Childress on Daytime Television and Pro-Anorexic Groups Online. Sam Ford writes about an academic from the University of California-Santa Barbara that he has come into contact with over the past several months who is doing projects on better understanding digital culture and the evolution of daytime television.

PCA/ACA: Louis Bosshart, Sports, and Celebrity Culture. Sam Ford writes about a longtime contact of his from Switzerland, Louis Bosshart, and Louis' recent projects on understanding how the mediation of sports changes the "rules of the game," as well as the construction of celebrity culture through a case study of Swiss beauty queens.

PCA/ACA: Bryce McNeil and Shane Toepfer on Wrestling Morality and Fandom. Sam Ford writes about an interesting new project on pro wrestling fandom and the ways in which storylines are affected by the interplay between fan roles as spectators and as critics.

PCA/ACA: Bob Lochte and Sue Clerc. Sam Ford writes about a coffee with two scholars he knows from completely different realms and the promise of having conversations stretch across disciplinary boundaries, as well as the dangers of becoming too specialized in your own interests within the study of the media industries.

PCA/ACA: Michael Duffy and Regionally Digital Filmmaking. Sam Ford writes about his meeting with Michael Duffy at the PCA/ACA conference and Michael's work on visual effects and regional filmmaking in a digital age by looking at filmmaking in New Zealand and particularly the work of Peter Jackson.

Notes from the PCA/ACA National Conference: An Introduction. Sam Ford writes about his recent trip to San Francisco for the PCA/ACA conference and the unique culture of that annual event, as well as his history of presenting at the PCA.

Follow the Blog

Don't forget – you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog.

Closing Note

Divergences: Licensed to Read

Last week, an announcement was made that sent chills running down literary spines everywhere, if you'll pardon the pun: HarperCollins is launching a new imprint that will focus on shorter, cheaper books and pay radically lower author advances, if any at all. That set the writers' circles abuzz, and the booksellers are twittering over the imprint's also abolishing the option to return unsold books for a refund.

From a publisher's point of view, these changes make sense. The publisher absorbs the most risk in our current publishing model: not only do they pony up ever-higher author advances, but they also pay to make the books (including the production of the physical objects, the marketing materials, the shipping, the promotion, and so on) and cover the returns of unsold copies (currently near a whopping 40%). This is why publishers have tended to offer such meager royalties on book sales after the author's advance has sold through: the author may have written the book, but they're not the ones left holding the bag if it doesn't sell. As with any investment, publication is a game of managing risks, and when book sales are down the publishers are left with much lass margin for error. And, as anyone will tell you, them books ain't flyin' off the shelves the way they used to.

This new publication model isn't completely self-serving, however. Heading up the new imprint is Robert S. Miller, who is better known in the publishing industry as the founding publisher of Hyperion. According to Miller, in exchange for shouldering a greater amount of the risk authors will receive a greater percentage of the reward; Miller hopes to offer authors a 50-50 split of the profits. The new imprint will publish around 25 of these shorter books a year in hardcover with a pricetag of around $20 apiece.

Of greater interest to us C3 types is how the new imprint will also make a greater effort to utilize more forward-thinking delivery methods, including "multiple physical and digital formats ... with the aim to combine the best practices of trade publishing while taking full advantage of the Internet for sales, marketing and distribution". According to The New York Times, this will extend to e-book and digital audio editions being bundled in with each book.

In response to this last bit, bestselling author Neil Gaiman posted the following to his weblog:

...It seems to me that giving away an e-book with a hardback is an excellent way to grow the e-book world, and something that a publisher could do at little or no cost. And I like the idea of essentially having bought a Heart-Shaped Box license rather than a copy of Heart-Shaped Box -- of course buying the book would give you the audio and the text, not just the object.

Gaiman is no stranger to experimental publishing models; in March HarperCollins posted a limited-time free online reading copy of Gaiman's novel American Gods as an experiment, and as a result, weekly sales of the novel went up by 300%. (Suffice it to say the author considered the results satisfactory.)

The license model is also gaining traction in the film industry. In January 2008, Fox released Family Guy: Blue Harvest, the first DVD with the new Digital Copy feature. Owners of the DVD can pop it into a compatible computer and transfer a digital copy (natch) of the film onto their computer, iTunes or compatible portable media player. The compatibility is somewhat limited (no love yet for Microsoft Zune or Sony PSP users) but a precendent is definitely being set. It's the same line of reasoning behind 'anywhere-anytime' software solutions such as TiVoToGo: we members of the Convergence Culture want our content how we want it, when we want it, and where we want it. The thrill is seeing the content publishers finally coming around. I am extremely unlikely to buy an Amazon Kindle if I have to purchase an additional e-copy of every new book I buy, but if a digital version comes free with the physical version, a Kindle suddenly becomes a much more compelling investment.

As for the publishing model, as an up-and-coming author myself (anyone know a good agent?) I think Miller's new imprint sounds like a intriguing opportunity. This new imprint combines the digerati DIY mentality with the marketing and distribution prowess of an established publishing juggernaut, minus the stigma of a print-on-demand system or vanity press. The 'shorter works' description sounds about right, as one personal draw of John Maeda's latest book SIMPLICITY is its being only 100 pages, and my own first novel currently weighs in around only 60,000 words. The 'lower price' feature also sounds about right as $20 for a slim hardcover feels like a fairly palatable price point, especially when dropped to $12-$14 after the 30%-40% discount usually offered by retailers like Amazon. The license model also feels like its time has come, and I myself would happily offer additional content, like additional chapters or multimedia materials, on my website for licensed users -- which is not entirely dissimilar from what C3 head honcho Henry Jenkins did with his outtakes from Convergence Culture.

Further, the license model also makes sense as books begin to play a more integrated role in transmedia franchises. Additional content unlocked with a paid license may very well include additional short stories, maps of the locations described in the books, biographical content about each of the characters, or timelines that describe where the events in the book take place in relation to other installations in the franchise. If authors continue to transition into roles more akin to transmedia producers, they may take greater ownership over how each component in the franchise is produced, much like Joss Whedon is currently doing with the comics-only eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

That said, this new model still clearly has a ways to go before it will be readily accepted by authors. According to one commenter at the popular blog Making Light:

"The fact that they're talking about a fifty-fifty split on profits raises enough danger signs to know it's neither a power grab nor brave new initiative, but most likely some sort of borderline legal scam."

Also, as another, more historically-minded commenter points out, this type of business model may sound much more alluring in the abstract than it would actually be in practice:

The 'new' proposed program at Harper Collins is exactly how the English publishing industry worked between the incorporation of the Company of Stationers in 1566 and the final decision of the House of Lords against the "natural right" theory of copyright in 1789. It was often the same splits; it was the same concept of splitting profits rather than proceeds; it included the absence of an advance; it was based on nonreturnable goods...
...But there is one difference: accounting. In the early English publishing industry, publishers didn't have the in-house expertise of Twentieth Century Fox in creatively ensuring that there will be no (or at least minimal) profits to share. (Remember who owns Harper Collins.) Neither did publishers have the industry 'tradition' that allows the publisher to hold money for 270 days with no penalty before giving the author her miserly share; at least in theory, they paid up every month. The six-month-plus-ninety-days-to-pay royalty cycle only came into being around the time of the great battle between Sarjeant and Macauley over extending the copyright term... in the 1830s.
'New.' 'Improved.' And no surprise at all.

Of course, as The Guardian's Jean Hannah Edelstein points out, many of the authors open to such a scheme aren't the blockbuster types at all, but the midlist authors who are more interested in publishing unique and interesting works:

"Accuse me of being Pollyanna-ish if you like, but it seems to me that these no-frills endeavours are inspired in large part by editors who would genuinely like to see more interesting books being published.
In fact, I suspect that the most old-fashioned thing about publishing in the digital age is regarding it as an industry in which there's a lot of money to be made. For the thousands of averagely successful writers who make a pathetic £4,000 (~US$7867.85 -GL) or so a year from their books, the reality is that writing books is something nice to do in your spare time to supplement your income from your actual job. And the other publishing professionals - editors, agents, and so on - would probably also be pursuing other careers if they were in it for the cash.

Even if good, solid relationships are established between the imprint and its authors, it may be the non-returnable copies that proves untenable. A bookstore might risk ordering numerous non-returnable copies of a book by a proven author like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, but not order more than one or two non-returnable copies of books by new up-and-comers or niche authors. As any midlist author will attest, one or two copies are easily misplaced inside megabookstores like Borders or Barnes and Noble -- and while one might argue that this new publishing model is meant to sidestep the big-box sales market and cater to online niche sales, that scenario lends itself more to print-on-demand services that allow authors to keep a full 100% of the profits. To be sure, a proven marketing department, book design department and PR department are worth a big something, with such a radically narrowed distribution channel it becomes increasingly difficult to actually quantify how big that something actually is.

Regardless of whether or not Mr. Martin and HarperCollins have struck upon the ultimate answer to these questions, it will be fascinating to see how this story continues to play out. The future, after all, is still being written.

Related Links:

Ault, Susanne. Fox Decodes Apple DRM for DVD Downloadable Copies., January 15, 2008.

Carvajal, Doreen. Stephen King Unleashed; He's back on the best-seller list. But now he wants more. Much more. The New York Times, November 9, 1998.

Dammann, Guy. No-Frills Publishing on the Rise. The Guardian, April 4, 2008.

Edelstein, Jean Hannah. Writing, the No-Money Game., April 8, 2008.

Gaiman, Neil. My Life in Green and Purple., April 5, 2008.

Gaiman, Neil. Scary Eyes., March 25, 2008.

Nielsen Hayden, Patrick. Pity the Times. Making Light, April 4, 2008.

Rich, Motoko. New HarperCollins Unit to Try to Cut Writer Advances. The New York Times, April 4, 2008.

DIVERGENCES is an irregularly published column by writer, filmmaker, C3 alum and Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab Researcher Geoffrey Long, a member of the 2007 Master's class at CMS. For more of his work, please visit

The Fine Print

Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium.


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