February 24, 2006


In this issue:

- Aswin Punathambekar on international fan communities
- Sam Ford on brand fandoms
- Murdoch not impressed by iTunes
- Chrysler sponsors machinima contest
- KFC creates TiVo-proof ad

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

MTV-Desi: Time to Think Beyond the Hyphen
by Aswin Punathambekar
Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In a recent white paper detailing the centrality of fan communities to media ecologies around the world, Sam Ford and other C3 advisors use the phrase “pop cosmopolitanism” to refer to youth integrating media properties from other cultures into their own everyday lives. They also write that international fan communities play a crucial role in expanding interest and the audience base for media properties, especially in the Asian case. I want to explore this idea here, and argue that examining such fan communities teaches us two important lessons:

(a)We can no longer think of culture industries like Bollywood solely in terms of “national” identity – Bollywood is no longer a film industry tethered to India and “Indianness,” and
(b)Initiatives like MTV-Desi would do well to think outside and beyond the paradigm of hyphenated identities where Bollywood is concerned.

Let me begin with my own experiences in fan communities that cohere around Bollywood. The day after I arrived in Athens, Georgia, to begin graduate studies (August, 1999), I walked to a computer lab on campus, logged on, and discovered rec.arts.movies.local.Indian (r.a.m.l.i). Over the next few months, I spent many happy hours talking about the heroes, heroines, and villains of Indian cinema with other fans (many who were immigrants like myself).

In this community, I was pleasantly surprised to see second-generation Indian-American fans, participating from their position as ethnic minorities taking to Bollywood as a resource to fashion a hybrid cultural space that was both Indian and American. What really took me by surprise, however, was the presence of non-Indians in the group. How did they learn about Bollywood? Some had watched a film at an international film festival in their city, some were fans of Hong Kong cinema and had learned about Bollwood from other film buffs, and Indian friends in college or their neighborhood introduced some to the cinema. These non-Indian fans of Bollywood watched films, reviewed them for others in the group, asked questions about the films and aspects of Indian culture they did not understand, became devoted fans of some stars, and some even went on to learn Hindi!

Today, r.a.m.l.i is not where the action is. There are countless multimedia websites, discussion forums, and blogs devoted to every imaginable aspect of Indian film culture; subtitled DVDs are available not only in Indian grocery stores, but also at your local Blockbuster and via Netflix; dance clubs regularly include Bollywood numbers; major cities in the U.S. now have cinema halls that regularly screen Bollywood films; Bollywood, in short, has more than a foothold in American public culture. This story of Bollywood’s early days in America is one that hasn’t been told, and there are some important lessons it holds for both academic and corporate worlds.

#1. Fan Studies and the Question of Global Media
Academics studying fandom often ask how fan studies can “go global.” And media companies ask how they can cash in on the current interest in Bollywood? What we need to recognize is, historically, the cultural geography of Bollywood fandom has always been global. Instead of asking how to study fandom in different media/cultural contexts, we need to recognize that a focus on such transnational fan communities will help us better understand how media circulate and get hinged to varied aspirations around the world. And crucially, how a “non-Western” culture industry like Bollywood becomes a part of the mediascape in countries such as the U.S.

#2: Beyond the National
Fan communities that cohere around the films, music, and stars of Bollywood also tell us that we need to think beyond the “national” as the most important scale of imagination and identity-construction.* Over the last decade, it has become clear that the creation of Bollywood properties – films, music, apparel, web portals, mobile games, etc. – is an enterprise that takes place in many locations around the world, and involves people with different affiliations and stakes that criss-cross regional, national, and diasporic boundaries. Bollywood, in other words, cannot be understood in terms of a “national” cinema industry limited to the boundaries of the Indian nation-state or restricted in its imagination by rigid definitions of “Indianness.”

#3: Fan Communities as Archives
The collective intelligence of fan communities can also be conceived in terms of an archive. Not only did early Bollywood fans gather and share trade and press coverage relating to films and stars, many discussions that took place in forums such as r.a.m.l.i grappled with what it meant for non-Indians to begin engaging with Bollywood. These discussions provide a very useful starting point for understanding how new cultural forms enter, circulate, and gradually become part of a wider public culture. For corporations and ethnographers alike, these conversations can provide clues into what it is about a new cultural form that fans find intriguing, what attracted non-Indians to Bollywood in the first place, what was the learning process like, and crucially, how these early adopters became opinion leaders in their homes and communities.

#4: Moving Beyond the Hyphen
At a time when Bollywood is re-imagining itself as a global culture industry, how do we understand experiments such as MTV-Desi? It is no doubt a safe strategy to tap into an identified niche market of South Asian-American youth and count on them to bring other consumers into the fold. But what the story of Bollywood fandom in the U.S. suggests is this: focusing on an ethnic market comes with the risk of neglecting attachments to Bollywood that do not follow lines of ethnicity or nationality. MTV-Desi needs to look outside the world of hyphenated identities and start paying attention to fans like Muffy Saint Bernard – r.a.m.l.i regular, author of Planet BollyBob, drag queen who has performed her Bollywood song-and-dance routine at an L.A. screening of Kaante (Thorns)), and has written about why she rejected Coronation Street and took to Bollywood instead!**


[*] Curtin, M. (2003) Media Capital: Towards the Study of Spatial Flows.International Journal of Cultural Studies, 6(2): 202-228.
[**] http://www.laweekly.com/news/3070/i-rejected-coronation-street

Aswin Punathambekar is a CMS alumnus, the co-editor of the forthcoming Bollywood Reader (out from NYU Press in 2007) and is currently working on a Ph.D dissertation on Indian cinema, new media and public culture. He writes at http://bollyspace.blogspot.com and can be reached at apunathambek@wisc.edu.

--------------- TRANSMEDIA ---------------

Rupert Murdoch said he's not convinced that putting television shows online is a good idea, "We're not knocked out by iPod so far. We've talked to them, to Google and others. But how many people really want to get video on a tiny screen when they already have TiVo or a similar service from their cable company or DirecTV?"

Delivery Agent has struck a deal with ABC Entertainment that will enable viewers to buy products that appear in series such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy."

The BoingBoing blog points to the online retailer that sells puzzle cards for the Perplex City ARG in the U.S.
"It's The Matrix meets Alice in Wonderland meets The Da Vinci Code in one of the most unusual concepts we've ever seen."

The Electric Sheep Company organized an event that brought Washington, D.C. artists into the Second World's replica of the R&B Coffee cafe. The organizers recorded video of The Happening's performances and streamed the video into Second Life.

ABC News launched a video and photo upload service called "Seen and Heard in America," and USA Networks is producing a pilot show featuring video from eBaumsworld.com.

--------------- ADVERTISING ---------------

KFC has created a new commercial that contains a message only viewable in slow motion. The message offers a coupon for a free chicken sandwich, and is targeted at ad-zipping TiVo users.

Following Volvo's lead, Chrysler is sponsoring competition for fan-made clips made with The Movies game. "Shorts created as a CITM entry must include one of the Chrysler vehicles that already are part of the more than 7,000 scenes, 45 sets, hundreds of props and thousands of costume combinations available in The Movies."

Usability specialist Jacob Nielsen predicts that "liberation from search engines will be one of the biggest strategic issues for websites marketers in the coming years." He writes that as the cost of search ads go up, marketers will increasingly rely on email newsletters, request marketing, RSS feeds and mobile features.

J.C. Penney will construct a 15,000-square-foot physical manifestation of the virtual store in which shoppers can purchase the company's full range of merchandise at interactive kiosks. The store opens on March 3, 2006 and closes on March 26. Shoppers will be able to buy everything in the store at interactive kiosks, which will feature all of the 250,000 items available at the company's web site.

--------------- FANS ---------------

By Sam Ford

As Rob Kozinets and others demonstrated in the white paper on fan communities sent out recently, fan communities and brand communities are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other. It may not besurprising that brands like Nike or Abercrombie & Fitch have had religious followings because they incorporate a whole lifestyle around the products they provide. But there are a lot of what would generallybe considered commodity goods that also have fan followings of their own and not just as an experience economy where you go to a branded store to buy them...No, these are common, everyday products that have sometimes vibrant fan communities surrounding them. And this expands far beyond the oft-cited cola examples.

A Web site dedicated to all things cereal. This is a forum where people go to discuss their favorite cereal brands, with feature articles detailing the latest cereal releases, branding changes, sales information and anything and everything else you can imagine dedicated to American cereal brands. Kellogg's, Post and General Mills fans all gather here to debate the foods which obviously mean much more thanmere nutrition for them. "The Empty Bowl" has official membership, staff writers, and scores of polls and ratings systems. One of the most popular features are "cereal reviews" of upcoming cereals, changedformulas of classic cereals and new variations of familiar brands, such as the current story about "Berry Burst Cheerios."

This Pringles site is designed to provide a place for Pringles fans to publicly display their ardent love for the stackable potato chips. Fans from around the world post their names, their location, and their contact information and personal Web site, all to pledge their support of and provide a community of Pringles brand fans. This brand community is not nearly as focused as that of "The Empty Bowl" but is much more narrow, focused particularly on the Pringles brand and not potato chips in general.

Sure, it's a little zany, and it's probably done mostly for laughs, but the Windex Fan Club on MySpace has 212 members as of this writing. The club, open to the general population on MySpace, features a picture of a Windex bottle and space for the various Windex fans to share their own Windex stories and where the product fits into the lives of those in the community. Just these movements show, though, the power thatthese everyday brands have in people's lives, that a feeling of familiarity or even humor can be achieved by rallying around a bottle of glass cleaner.

No surprise that Pillsbury has mastered the art of rallying fans around a brand that really consists of pastries and dough. That cute little doughboy makes all the difference, and he's become a symbol for many a collector who have formed fan sites about him and the company. This site provides a perfect example, linked to several other Pillsbury collectors as well.

--------------- SAVE THE DATE ---------------

Reminder, to mark your calendars for the annual C3 conference to be held at MIT April 27-28.

Compiled by Ilya, Sam, Alec, Geoff, Ivan and Parmesh
Edited and signed off by Ilya (ivv@mit.edu)

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