C3 Weekly Update

Editor's Note

MIT6 is here! This weekend the C3 team will be busy with the 6th bi-annual Media in Transitions Conference: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission. This year's event draws together the largest number of national and international scholars in its history, including Rick Prelinger, (Prelinger Archives), Persephone Miel, (Berkman Center, Harvard), and Richard Wright, (BBC Information & Archives). Many C3 consulting researchers will be presenting at the conference as well. Full details and conference papers are available online.

Our first piece this week comes from C3 Consulting Researcher, Jason Mittell. Mittell recently published a television studies textbook, entitled Television and American Culture. Below you'll find a brief excerpt from the introduction to the book. You can read the entire introduction on Mittell's blog.

In our second piece, David Edery considers digitally distributed video games in terms of both spreadability and Chris Anderson's "Long Tail" approach to marketing.

This issue of the C3 Weekly Update was prepared by Sheila Seles. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to email her.


In This Issue

Editor's Note

Jason Mittell: Television and American Culture

Glancing at the C3 Blog

David Edery on digitally distributed video games


May 7 & 8
C3 Retreat 2009. Research updates, roundtable discussion and more. MIT Campus, Cambridge, MA.

May 22
Julius Schwartz Lecture: J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the cult science fiction hit Babylon 5. Hosted by CMS, The Julius Schwartz Lecture is an annual event honoring an individual who has made significant contributions to the culture, creativity and community of comics and popular entertainment. Full details are available here.

Opening Note

Television and American Culture

Author's Note:

In late 2004, I started the long-term project of writing an introductory television textbook. It struck me both that the field of television studies had advanced to the point that introductory courses were common place, and that there was a clear lack of a book that could adequately synthesize the scope of television studies using contemporary examples and up-to-date connections to new technologies, industrial structures, and scholarship. This spring, Oxford University Press published Television and American Culture, my attempt to fill that gap - and grapple with the enormous transformations that have occurred within television and media during my writing process. The book strives to introduce readers to the breadth of American television and various approaches to study it. While designed for a pedagogical purpose, I do think the book would be useful to researchers and practitioners, many of whom never had any formal study of television themselves. I am eager to hear from people working within the media industries as to how this book lays a foundation for understanding the world of media today. I offer the introduction for C3 readers to get a sense of the book's tone and scope. Please visit the book's website for more information about the book, feeds of recent news and updates, and an opportunity to leave feedback about the book and its approach - or visit to order your own copy!

-Jason Mittell

What is television?

At first glance, the answer might seem obvious, especially to anyone who has grown-up in a television-saturated society. But the question is trickier than it may appear, as television is far more multifaceted and complex than we tend to imagine it. For a useful parallel, imagine that you are on television-as a contestant on the popular game show Jeopardy! This show's gimmick is that contestants must respond to a given statement by posing the correct "question" for that "answer." So if faced with the statement "a domesticated bird known for laying eggs," the correct response would be "What is chicken?" But you could provide this response to a range of statements, as the question "what is chicken?" actually has many potential answers, depending on the context or your frame of reference-chicken could be "the most popular poultry meat," "a slang term for a coward," "a game where two people drive cars at one another," "a mild form of pox common to children," "a novelty dance popular at weddings," "a kind of wire commonly used in gardens," or "the mascot of the San Diego Padres." All are potentially correct ways to answer the question "What is chicken?"

But this is a book about television, not chicken. So what Jeopardy! statement might prompt the question of "What is television?" Television could be defined as "the most powerful and prevalent mass communication medium in America (and the world)," but other more specific definitions show how television's commonplace role masks its multiple roles and structures:

Television and American Culture Cover
  • Television is an enormously profitable industry, grossing over $100 billion annually through advertising, cable fees, DVD sales, and other sources of revenue.
  • Television is part of democracy, informing American citizens and serving their public interests through news and electoral coverage, and governed by public policy decisions and regulations.
  • Television is a unique creative form, with a distinct narrative structure and set of genres that distinguish it from other media.
  • Television is a mirror of our world, offering an often-distorted vision of national identity, as well as shaping our perceptions of various groups of people.
  • Television is a part of our lives, as viewing and talking about television plays a central but underexamined role in our everyday routine.
  • Television is a technology, serving as the central screen for a number of digital entertainment and information media in the home, from DVDs to videogames.
  • All six of these definitions of television are central to its function in American culture-the main point of this book is to explore television in each of these crucial functions: as a commercial industry, a democratic institution, a textual form, a site of cultural representation, a part of everyday life, and a technological medium.

    Few people would disagree with the claim that television functions in these six ways. The stickier point involves relative importance-which aspects of television are most vital to study, and which might be downplayed or ignored altogether? Different academic traditions emphasize various facets-economists focus on how industries generate profits, political scientists look at democratic institutions, anthropologists foreground everyday life, and film scholars analyze media texts. But even interdisciplinary approaches to television have their points of emphasis and blind spots-mass communications researchers examine institutions, politics, and the quantifiable effects media have upon audiences, while cultural scholars of media generally focus on representations, texts, and audience practices. This book tries to bridge these gaps, highlighting how each facet of television is vital to a broader understanding of the medium, and no single point of emphasis takes priority over others to understand the complex functioning of television in American culture.

    Continue reading the introduction to Television and American Culture on Mittell's blog.

    Jason Mittell is Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. He is the author of Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004), and Television and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is currently writing a book on narrative complexity in contemporary American television.

    Glancing at the C3 Blog

    Report From the Land of Acai Berries and "Cheesy Tecno". C3 Graduate Researcher Ana Domb provides insight into the research she did on Technobrega in Brazil.


    The Electronic Intifada and the Challenges of Online Journalism (Part 2 of 2) C3 Graduate Researcher Sheila Seles presents the conclusion of her interview with Maureen Murphy, Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada, a nonprofit online publication that features news, opinion, and analysis about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    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

    In the raging debate over the legitimacy and consequences of the "long tail" theory, few markets have received more attention than those dedicated to digitally-distributed video games. Proponents of the long tail have argued that digital distribution will finally turn the historically hit-driven game industry on its head - that future revenues will be driven by consumer activity distributed across a huge catalogue of video games, developed, in large part, by independent game developers as opposed to titanic publishers. That it will prove consistently more profitable to focus on niche audiences in this new world of digital game distribution, rather than to focus on the development of broadly-appealing hits. And (for those of us interested in the spreadability model) that a new generation of empowered consumers will actively seek out and promote the highest-quality content, driving revenues to the most deserving game developers and leading to a healthier and more vibrant video game ecosystem overall.

    There can be no doubt that encouraging signs of this have begun to crop up everywhere. Many now-prominent independent game developers, such as The Behemoth and 2D Boy, have leveraged console-based digital distribution platforms like Xbox LIVE, Wiiware, and the Playstation Network (PSN) to reach markets that were previously only accessible via the long arm of a traditional publisher. These developers have not only created award-winning games that have generated significant amounts of profit - they have, in many cases, retained the rights to their IP and have operated with near-total independence; an unthinkable situation for small console game developers only a few years ago. And while digital distribution on the console typically generates the most buzz, independent developers have made equally great strides on the Web and the PC thanks to a wide variety of channels (portals like, services like Steam, and more generalized distribution networks like Facebook, to name just a few.) Most recently, attention has been diverted to mobile application stores like that of the iPhone, where independent developers have also made a name for themselves and have, again in many cases, retained the rights to their IP in the process.

    These happenings, while extremely encouraging, mask some of the current realities and challenges faced by digital game distribution systems. As many prominent journalists, analysts and scholars have recently argued, it turns out that hits are no less important in the new long tail world. As Lee Gomes argued in the Wall Street Journal, in 2006 still derived 75% of its book sales from just 2.7% of its titles. True, 2.7% of 3.7 million books is nearly 100 thousand books - a great deal more than the total offered by any brick and mortar store - but that doesn't change the financial situation for the authors of the other 3.6 million! Gomes also noted that, wherever he looked, hits remained vitally important to a given ecosystem (or in his words, "iTunes looks like Billboard, not some paradise of niches.") And research by Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, has shown that in some long tail markets, "success" has begun to concentrate in progressively fewer best-selling titles. Professor Elberse also found that, in some digital markets, independent artists have actually lost share to major labels. This is not the indie paradise that Chris Anderson promised us.

    The phenomenon studied by Gomes and Elberse appear to be repeating themselves in digital game ecosystems. While, unfortunately, no verifiable public sources of information exist for the sales of iPhone, Steam, Wiiware, PSN, or Xbox LIVE Arcade games, it is widely believed that all of these ecosystems have become more competitive and more hit-driven over time. Where once any game had a reasonably good chance of reaching a sizeable audience, thousand of games (most especially on the iPhone) now go entirely unnoticed. This was the inevitable and unsurprising result of the initial supply/demand imbalance that characterized each of these digital ecosystems upon their births. Millions of consumers, eager to download content on their exciting new game consoles or phones, poured through initially-limited game catalogues and purchased everything in sight. Dramatic sales were trumpeted by indies, by the press, and by the platform holders themselves, spurring huge increases in content supply which inevitably pulled each ecosystem back towards the more familiar hit-driven model. However, these ecosystems also display (to varying extents) the hallmarks of the long tail; some hit and niche titles continue to generate a significant amount of revenue despite having been launched two to three years ago. That's an extremely rare feat in the land of retail games.

    To a limited extent, the platform holders who drive these digital game ecosystems can be held responsible for the speed with which they have evolved into hit-driven businesses. As of the time of this writing, Steam, Wiiware, PSN, Xbox LIVE, and the iPhone do not enable consumers to both freely rate and comment on content and - crucially - to sort the title catalogue by those ratings. (The iPhone does, at least, enable and encourage ratings.) Consumers are also unable to filter the title catalogue by the subset of games that their friends rate highly - the most important ratings of all. Furthermore, none of these ecosystems currently possess a recommendation engine of the sort that has proven so useful and wildly successful on The consequence, unsurprisingly, is an increasing tendency for consumers to steer towards titles they recognize, which means games based on well-known IP and/or games that have received substantial promotion by the press and user communities. For example, most of the recent, publicly-heralded hits on Xbox LIVE Arcade, such as Braid, Castle Crashers, and Street Fighter 2 HD Remix, are all games that were promoted years in advance of their public release or were (like Street Fighter) based on venerable IP.

    However, it would be terribly unfair to blame the platform holders for the ultimate evolution of their digital ecosystems into hit-driven businesses. As noted earlier, even, with all its supremely-refined tools and merchandizing mechanisms, has not managed to avoid the realities of a hit-driven business. More importantly, research has indicated that - given fundamental characteristics of human decision-making and interaction - it simply may not be possible to avoid hit-driven market dynamics in a digital ecosystem. Professors Duncan Watts, Matthew Salganikand and Peter Dodds recently demonstrated that, in a digital music ecosystem devoid of traditional marketing signals and recognizable IP (but possessing a public rating system), not only did "the hits get bigger," but popularity was essentially random. A song's popularity depended entirely on the first few users who happened to notice, rate and download it; a song that was #1 within one test ecosystem was bottom of the barrel in another. Of course, one could view this not as randomness, but as the ultimate validation of the spreadability model. That is: if a tiny group of initial consumers in an (admittedly rarified) digital ecosystem can have total control over the fate of a product, perhaps media companies have underestimated the importance of every consumer's voice. Perhaps active user communities - even very small ones - hold the key to success in this new long tail age. It's an age in which hits still matter (perhaps more than ever) but also in which indies have a better chance to make an impact on consumers and society at large. It may not be the long tail age that Chris Anderson promised us, but it is an exciting one nevertheless.

    David Edery David Edery is an independent consultant focused on the business and design of online and digitally-distributed games. Prior to starting his consulting firm, David was the Worldwide Games Portfolio Manager for Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade service. Before moving to Microsoft, David worked for the MIT CMS Program, during which time he helped co-found C3. He is co-author (with Ethan Mollick) of "Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Future of Business"  (FT Press, 2009) - a review of the ways that games are helping companies to connect with customers, to attract, train, and motivate employees, and to boost productivity.

    The Fine Print

    This issue of the C3 Weekly Update compiled and edited by Sheila Seles ( for the Convergence Culture Consortium.


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