June 2, 2008
A Corner of the Digital Bazaar: YouTube India
By: Aswin Punathambekar
On May 7, 2008, YouTube announced the launch of another "localized" version - YouTube India (youtube.co.in). What's the difference? According to press releases and reports, YouTube India is different in that it will: (a) feature a localized home page, and (b) discover and highlight videos popular and relevant in the Indian context.
As Sakina Arsiwala, international manager of YouTube, put it, "this site contains all the videos found on YouTube's global site, except we've applied an "Indian lens" to the content, meaning that the video charts you see reflect what Indians are watching now, the featured videos are programmed to cater to an Indian audience, and we've signed up dozens of local partners who are proud to distribute their content through YouTube."
Further, given the popularity of YouTube's global (read American) site - YouTube has 5 million unique users in India, and has added 200,000 news users every month from India last year - there is no doubt that other India-specific sites such as iShare, meravideo, videodubba, etc. will face stiff competition over the coming months. Given its cachet, YouTube has already managed to strike deals with a number of prominent film and television production companies in India and ensured that YouTube.co.in will be the site where sought-after content will be available.
At first glance, this seems rather familiar and in fact, brings to mind an earlier moment of "localization" - the mid-1990s when television channels like MTV and Channel [V] went about fashioning Indian avatars in order to make their content/programming more relevant to audiences and advertisers within India (Def Leppard and Guns 'n Roses could not, at the end of the day, help MTV attract youth across the country). While this is a useful parallel to draw, there are some important differences to note. I wish to suggest that the launch of YouTube India highlights two major struggles in the Indian digital bazaar and, more importantly, signals a shift in the way we think about localization and national communities.
1. YouTube.co.in: A "Trans-national community"
The idea of a "national community," as we know, has always been central to the workings of film and television industries around the world. In the Indian context, the Bombay film industry (now Bollywood) has always positioned itself as speaking to and for a national community and so have several major television networks. Even today, emerging networks such as NDTV (ndtv.com) seek to position themselves as catering to a national community (albeit one that includes diasporic audiences). We also know that this has always been a difficult task for film and television industries.
Given that the Internet allows us to transgress local and national boundaries with even greater ease, how do we go about drawing national boundaries around YouTube or, more broadly, online communities that cohere around an astonishing range of videos? This is the problem that India-specific sites continue to struggle with. Sites like meravideo.com, aapkavideo.com, and videodubba.com defined themselves as national (and nationalist, in some cases) alternatives, in opposition to a global YouTube.
YouTube, however, has managed to position YouTube-India as a site where Indian audiences get to participate in the ongoing production of a global online video community and not just in a narrowly defined national space. In fact, when you visit youtube.co.in, there is nothing on the front page that suggests that the site is a "local" or "regional" version of a more global YouTube.
2. Making money in the bazaar
The second major problem that new media companies in India (and other comparable markets like Brazil) continue to struggle with is monetization. Internet use and broadband penetration remains low compared to other parts of the world and as a consequence, Internet advertising has not emerged as a key component of business models for new media initiatives (in 2007-08, Internet advertising in India was estimated at Rs. 225 crores/Rs. 2.25 billion). Here, the fact that YouTube's India strategy is part of Google India's larger ambitions represents a major advantage over competitors.
Instead of focusing on a short-term goal of generating advertising revenues, Google India executives have decided to perform the role of consultants who will, over the next 5-10 years, work closely with advertising and marketing agencies and advise media professionals on how online advertising can become a major element of their media planning.
As Shailesh Rao, managing director of Google India, explained, the company has already set up five "verticals" (financial services, local and classifieds, travel, media & entertainment, and technology & health communication) with experts who will "educate, train and guide businesses to leverage the most out of online advertising." It is this evangelizing mission that may, in the long run, prove to be the most important dimension of YouTube's localization.
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.
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Age and Aging on Television
By: C. Lee Harrington
At last year's FoE, I pointed to an important demographic milestone reached in 2007 -- the first cohort of Baby Boomers becoming eligible for Social Security -- and remarked that at a national level we seem fascinated by the Boomers' potential economic and political power in virtually every context except media engagement. The U.S. population is rapidly aging (as is the global population), which has obvious implications for media consumption. I'd like to follow up on this a bit, drawing on an ongoing project with my colleague Denise Brothers- McPhail on representations of, and audience reception of, age and aging on daytime soap operas.
As a long-time soaps watcher (26 years) and soaps researcher (18 years), I became fascinated by actors' experiences playing the same character over the long haul and viewers' experiences watching the same soap opera long term. What is it like to grow up and grow older taking a fictional character along for the ride? How might televised fictional narratives serve as a cultural resource to help both actors and viewers negotiate the varied meanings of aging? Long praised for intergenerational storytelling, how are soaps currently representing issues of age and aging on-screen? Our interest is rooted in both social psychological issues (what it means for actors and viewers to engage long-term with fictional texts) and the challenges an aging audience present to the daytime industry. We spoke with veteran daytime actors, long-term daytime viewers, and other industry professionals as part of our project.
One of the things we were told repeatedly is that the industry operates on an assumption that viewers want to see characters like themselves (including the same age range) on-screen -- hence the marginalization on daytime of older (50-plus) characters and storylines and the rapid aging of child characters/actors to young adulthood and the target 18-49 demographic. Anecdotally this is somewhat surprising, as some of the most popular actors in daytime are at the edge of (or past) 49 themselves, and viewers in their teens and 20s regularly post/write to on-line and print soap sites about their devotion to older couples (such as General Hospital's Luke and Tracy, Days of Our Lives' John and Marlena, and Guiding Light's Josh and Reva). When asked if there is an empirical basis (through market research) for this assumption, none of our participants seemed to know. This could indicate that such empirical grounding doesn't exist, that it exists but isn't distributed at all industry levels, that it exists but those we spoke with are unaware of it, or that it exists but is kept confidential (among other possibilities). (See Lynn Liccardo's prior posts featured on the Consortium blog here and here.)
Academic research offers partial confirmation for this claim. Scholars who examine links between media choices and social group identity find that, in general, child, young adult, and older adult TV viewers prefer watching characters their own age. However, one of the most sought-after demos, young (college-aged) adults, say they enjoy watching older characters as long as they're depicted in non- romantic (explicit) contexts. Overall, the crucial relational functions that older characters might serve in soap narratives -- as parent, grandparent, advisor, mentor, employer, friend, etc. -- are generally welcomed by viewers across the age span, as are older couples whose intimacy is not portrayed explicitly on-screen.
Most of the participants in our study -- actors, viewers, and industry insiders -- believe that storylines relevant to older adults' lives are important for soap narratives, including issues of retirement, long-term care, menopause and frailty/dependence. If soaps are meant to engage the broad realities of viewers' lives, the demographic transitions underway in the U.S. (and globally) necessitate stories focused on later-life issues. As The Bold & The Beautiful's Kay Alden (headwriter) cautions, however, the entertainment value of such narratives is questionable in an era of declining ratings:
Here is where one runs into the inevitable "business vs. art"…I think it's hard to figure out how to appeal to that [18-49] age group by telling stories that focus so much on the other end of life…They are very difficult to tell in daytime [because] you're asking people to tune in…day after day, and some of these stories are just too painful. People are living this. They don't want to tune in to see somebody having to care for their parent…(personal interview). The actors and viewers that we spoke with believe that as long as such stories aren't scripted as "depressing" (admittedly a challenge for soap writers), there is definitely a place for them on-screen.
Older audiences are historically less desirable to advertisers due to limited buying power and entrenched brand loyalty. But since at least the early 1990s, both market and academic research has pointed to the rise of discretionary income and increasing experimentation or flexibility regarding brand preferences and shopping patterns (e.g. on-line shopping) among older adults. Not targeting this audience is widely agreed to be economically illogical by both marketers and academics -- yet the marginalization both on- and off-screen persists.
A key concern of academic gerontologists is how people today are negotiating normative timetables, a term referring to shared expectations about the times/ages that important life transitions should occur. While these timetables in the U.S. have been remarkably consistent over the last half of the 20th century, gerontological research has begun to document the "dissolution" of traditional timetables, the "lack of synchrony among age-related roles" and an "absence of clear life scripts" (Settersten, 2007). The fall-out of this dramatic life-course restructuring goes far beyond "50 is the new 40" or "40 is the new 30." What these new identities mean for media engagement and consumer behavior is yet to be determined…
C. Lee Harrington is a consulting researcher with the Convergence Culture Consortium and professor of sociology and affiliate of the women's studies program at Miami University. Her areas of research include television studies, fan studies, and the sociology of law. She is co-author of Soap Fans and Global TV and co-editor of Popular Culture: Production and Consumption and Fandom.