August 04, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Henry Jenkins' Guide to Fan-Friendly Television, Part II
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: William Uricchio on the Web's Anniversary and the Fate of AOL
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. We are honored this week to have original writing from two of the Convergence Culture Consortium's three principal faculty investigators from here at MIT featured in this update. This week's opening note features the second part of a two-part series from C3 Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins on fan-friendly television and its implications for the upcoming fall lineup. Last week, Henry wrote about five criterias he identifies for compelling "fan friendly television." This week, he applies those criteria to new shows entering the fall lineups for the five major broadcast networks. In the closing note, C3 Principal Investigator William Uricchio discusses the current status of AOL on the anniversary of the World Wide Web. As usual, the update also includes links to all the entries from the week from the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Some of you all are already contributors to the blog or else regular followers and even commenters on the blog. We encourage everyone who is part of the C3 team, including faculty and corporate partners, to engage in this public part of C3's work. 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 Weekly Update, at email@example.com.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
Professor J's Guide to Fan Friendly Television: Forecasting the Fall TV Season
By: Henry Jenkins
Last week, Henry Jenkins wrote about five properties of what he calls "fan friendly programming." These five criteria are that they focus heavily on characters and character relationships, focus on genre entertainment, provide a strong sense of continuity, contain secrets or problems to be solved, and often have strong pedigrees (particularly in relation to creators). This week, he applies these five criteria to the new programs planned for the five major broadcast networks next month.
What happens when we apply these criteria to the series announced for this fall?
First, most shows do not stand a chance of reaching this kind of committed fan viewer because they do not meet most if not all of these criteria. By my count, there are 14 shows that have the potential to be fan friendly. A surprisingly high number are explicitly comparing themselves to Lost, hoping to become mass-cult successes.
What's striking in looking at the fall lineup is that networks have gotten the idea of continuity and serialization almost too well. Many of the series are designed to last a season or even half a season. They have plots or gimmicks that are going to be compelling in short bursts but will be hard to sustain over time. Some may go the route of 24, generating a new plot for each new season. Some will be canceled before each the first story arc runs its course. And some will make the mistake of avoiding resolution and thus drawing out a plotline well past its likely audience interest. If American television operated like British television, say, where you have a firm commitment for x number of episodes going in and then a series ends, whether or not it develops strong ratings, then we would know how to calibrate expectations about these series. But, many of them are artistic time bombs which may take off strong and then blow up in the networks' faces as they move into season two. Of course in a world where the vast majority of shows never make a second season, this may not be a total disaster.
Most fan friendly shows are Six Degrees and Men in Trees. Six Degrees is here primary because of pedigree. Any show by J.J. Abrams will get at least a first look and probably several episodes pass from a healthy segment of the fan community. This show also meets many of the character-focused criteria identified above and would seem to have a strong serial hook as we sort out how these characters' lives are connected. Men in Trees makes the cut primarily on the basis of its resemblance to Northern Exposure, another fan favorite series, though my gut feeling is that it is too focused on romantic entanglement and not on the fish out of water elements to sustain fan interest for long.
This network's best shot at a fan friendly program this season is going to be Jericho - which combines a science fiction premise, a serialized plot, a focus on a community working together to overcome adversity, and a fairly solid narrative hook or secret as we try to figure out what is going on in the outside world. The other CBS dramas seem to me to have limited potential - Smith fits the genre criteria as a heist drama but early buzz suggests that it is pretty cold-blooded in dealing with its characters, and Shark has the potential to feature strong mentorship and partnership themes, but there have been very few law shows that generate this kind of fan relationship.
NBC looks like the strongest network going into the fall in terms of its potential to generate fan interests. I have written in my blog about Heroes, which is a show that has strong fan interest already and may interest many female fans because of its character focus who do not necessarily think they are interested in superhero stories per se. The series is full of smart characters and outsider characters. The key question here is what, if any, partnership or community emerges between the protagonists. Studio 60 is a show that I and most other fans are eagerly awaiting - anything by Aaron Sorkin will get a close look, its cast is full of performers fans have liked in previous roles, and all signs are that it is full of smart characters with complex motivations and relationships. This is a show that fans are going to watch but will they write stories about it or discuss it online. As I mentioned earlier, The West Wing was a strong attracter and a weak activator. The same may be true here. Raines - a quirky detective show - is a program with some fan potential, especially because of the partnership between Jeff Goldblum and Luis Guzman, but it seems to be relatively self-contained as a series, suggesting there may not be as much continuity as fans have come to anticipate in more recent years. Kidnapped, by contrast, has very strong continuity (though it is the kind of series I referenced above - one that is built for a single season) and shows signs of having compelling characters - in this case, another fan favorite theme, former partners turned rivals.
So far, I have less information about the Fox Shows than I do about some of the other networks so this is going to become more impressionistic. Standoff, which deals with partners/lovers working for the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, seems to be built on strong partnership themes - though fans have historically been much more receptive to male bonding themes than heterosexual coupling. There is such a shortage of partner-themed shows on television at the moment that a lot here will rest on how well the female character is handled. There is certainly a strong contingency among female fans who are interested in watching strong, professional women who never the less find romance. Justice gets a first pass at least based on Victor Garber (Alias) and Jerry Bruckheimer's pedigree and there's some strong potential here for a community theme to emerge but so far, nothing suggests to me that this show will break out of the pack. Vanished has strong serialization (with a plot similar to Kidnapped) and is likely to yield a steady stream of minor mysteries, secrets, and plot twists. It is like many other fan favorites in that it combines melodrama with action elements. People I know who saw the pilot at Comicon came back raving about it.
There are only two new series announced, and Runaways is the only one with any fan potential. There's a lot to recommend it according to these criteria - a focus on a community of outsiders, strong genre elements, a continuing storyline, and the likelihood for the gradual unraveling of the backstory. Whether this network knows how to sustain a fan friendly series rests on what happens to Veronica Mars this year.
If I had to pick the most likely fan favorite of the lot, I would go with Heroes, followed by Vanished, Six Degrees, Jericho and Runaways. Studio 60 is the wild card in all of this - It will certainly be watched by a large number of fans but will it motivate fanish activities. (Either way, Studio 60 is probably the new show that is going to be most eagerly awaited in my household.)
Lately, syndicated and cable focused shows have attracted very strong fan followings. I will try to weigh back in once I have more information on what is going to be offered along these lines in the fall.
Henry Jenkins is the chief faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is Director of the Comparative Media Studies program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities at MIT. His book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, is due for release at the end of the month. His blog promoting the book is available at http://www.henryjenkins.org.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture Released. Sam Ford writes about the release of C3 Principal Investigator Henry Jenkins' new book that inspired the name for the consortium.
Japanese Band Dir en grey Proves Potential of Grassroots Marketing. Sam Ford looks at the success of the band's recent tour and their signing deals for American distribution and to join the upcoming Korn Family Values tour shows the power of the phenomenon Henry Jenkins has labeled "pop cosmopolitanism."
Convergence and Transmedia in the News Industry. Sam Ford responds to a recent piece by David Hazinski in the newest Convergence Newsletter on the concept of convergence in journalism and how it is an overblown buzzword. Ford contends that the "convergence" concept is misunderstood in journalism circles and not viewed as transmedia news but rather through the idea of the uberjournalist, one journalist who is expected to provide news through every platform without having expertise in any field.
Henry Jenkins on Four Ways to Destroy MySpace. On the heels of the House's vote to approve of bans on MySpace in libraries and schools, C3's director also looks at how recent developments like the Marines' recruitment policies online, censorship from MySpace itself, and competition from myriad other social networking sites are all posing threats to the social networking site.
A Shift to a Gamer-Focused Conference? PAX vs. E3. Sam Ford writes about recent developments leading to a diminishing of the E3 gamers confernce and the potential implications for Penny Arcade's gamer-based conference.
MTV Networks Purchases Online College News Publisher. Sam Ford questions how mtvU and the College Publisher tool might be able to lead to a transmedia news operation that could better include serious news content in the programming the network provides to college campuses nationwide.
Notes from Ivan Askwith from ComicCon. Henry Jenkins publishes notes from MIT Media Analyst Askwith on his trip to the ComicCon in San Diego.
Toronto-Based Company Lanuches Online Interactive Murder Mystery Movie/Game. Sam Ford examines Mystery at Mansfield Manor and the project's melding of gaming and film footage, acting as a Choose-Your-Own Adventure online movie.
Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. Sam Ford writes about the release of the Wired magazine's editor new book of his influential marketing theory and how importance the idea of the Long Tail has been to the work of C3.
AOL Video Launching Beta Version. Sam Ford looks at the content to be available for the new AOL video portal and how the new platform compares to other online digital video distrubtors.
MySpace and YouTube Expanding Rapidly. Sam Ford looks at the fast rise of MySpace users in the past month and its implications for the development of convergence culture.
--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------
Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.net/weblog/
--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
History Lessons: On the Anniversary of the WWW (and the Collapse of AOL)
By: William Uricchio
The BBC celebrated the World Wide Web's 15th anniversary on August 6th, referencing that moment in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee publicized its existence to people outside CERN. And almost 15 years to the day later, America On-Line announced "You've Got Layoffs!" (as Red Herring put it), fundamentally restructuring its operations and laying off 5,000 workers. More than ironic, there's a lesson here.
One can certainly quibble about the date of the WWW's anniversary (others go back to the November 1990 invention of the web server and browser) but the BBC's choice has the advantage of being accompanied by a birth announcement. In a message to the alt.hypertext discussion group <http://groups.google.com/group/alt.hypertext/tree/browse_frm/thread/7824e490ea164c06/f61c1ef93d2a8398?rnum=1&hl=en&q=group%3Aalt.hypertext+author%3ATim+author%3ABernersLee&_done=%2Fgroup%2Falt.hypertext%2Fbrowse_frm%2Fthread%2F7824e490ea164c06%2Ff61c1ef93d2a8398%3Ftvc%3D1%26q%3Dgroup%3Aalt.hypertext+author%3ATim+author%3Aberners-Lee%26hl%3Den%26#doc_06dad279804cb3ba>, Berners-Lee (now at MIT) made CERN's work public, writing that the WWW would "allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation," and that he hoped the idea would spread to other areas. Sounds a lot like what we would today call social media. To facilitate this, the code was essentially open. In a move that echoed Berkeley's earlier treatment of TCP/IP networking code, Sir Tim wrote: "If you're interested in using the code, mail me.... It's copyright CERN but free distribution and use is not normally a problem." He added, "You can use this to make files available.... You can also hack it to take a hypertext address and generate a virtual hypertext document from any other data you have...." Ah, the good old days when collaboration and innovation were not blocked by the anxieties of the legal department.
Two environmental conditions are worth remembering. Hypertext was not a new idea (it was proposed by MIT's Vannevar Bush in the 1940s and developed through a number of proprietary frameworks including Apple's Hypercard) and the Web was up against mainframe-based and very expensive closed-system alternatives such as CompuServe, Genie, and - you guessed it - America On-Line (remember television shows with the AOL keyword rather than a URL?). The Web's reliance on open standards made all the difference. Within a few weeks of Berners-Lee's announcement, the word (and code) spread and the rest is history.
Some, like co-founder of the Center for the Study of Public Domain and Duke law professor James Boyle, argue that had the Web been developed today, it would have looked more like pay television or France's Minitel, something proprietary, controlled, and 'with all the excitement and creativity of a train timetable.' There are good reasons to agree, not the least of which are the systematic attempts of federal regulators to put the genie back into the bottle. Consider the recent assaults on the Web. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) by an overwhelming 410-15 majority. DOPA's goal is "to protect minors from commercial social networking websites and chat rooms" and requires all federally funded schools and libraries to block not only MySpace but blogging tools, mailing lists, video and podcast sites, photo sharing sites, and even some educational sites. Sounds more like a full frontal assault on social media. Consider the recent revelations about US surveillance of Web traffic in the interests of 'stopping terrorism' or tracking down those who trade in child pornography. With these assaults on social media (in public schools and libraries) and content (in the privacy of our homes), the current US regime seems obsessed with the business of content control. And consider the response of Google and Microsoft (to mention but two companies) to China's demands for internet regulation. Could this be a rehearsal for things to come in our content-control obsessed corner of the world? The current political climate has also given way to mounting pressure on 'net neutrality', a move very much opposed by a diverse coalition of parties who agree with Tim Berners-Lee's assessment: "I tried then, and many people still work very hard still, to make the Web technology ... a universal, neutral, platform. It must not discriminate against particular hardware, software, underlying network, language, culture, disability, or against particular types of data."
What's the take-home? There are many lessons (and ironies) bound up in the Web's short history, the tensions between innovation and control central to many of them. I'll limit myself to two. Ever wonder why the early film industry looked backwards to theater as its model, providing cheap shadow versions of stage entertainments to its mass audience rather than exploring the myriad alternatives for the moving image mapped by the medium's pioneers? Ever ask why America's NTSC television system looks so inferior to European systems? Why the FCC decided to make RCA's 525 line black and white system our norm when it had robust alternatives (680 lines color, for example)? Ever hear about radio before it became an object that you could buy at a store and before you had to sit by and listen to whatever was sent your way? What happened to the make-it-yourself radio, to two-way transmissions, to the creative programming of the at-home radio amateur? Media historian Brian Winston points to the "law of the suppression of radical potential" - the pressure from interested corporate parties and government regulators to stabilize media technologies, to shape them in ways that maximize profits and control. Seen from this perspective, the various attempts to rein-in the World Wide Web are nothing new - indeed, they are consistent with the history of our other media systems.
But beyond seeing this as a history lesson, we might ask if we've learned anything from it? Or are we doomed merely to repeat the past? This is a particularly compelling question if we consider the demonstrated strengths of the Web as a distributed and open system, a space that allows productivity and creativity, and a non-hierarchized enabler of collaborative social relations. These attributes have not always been self- evident. Like the film medium's aping of theater, we've seen the Web used as a radio, a newspaper delivery service, and postal system. But we've also seen the potentials of the Web as a platform for social media. Marked by an explosive growth of interest, non-stop innovation, and exciting new opportunities to express and communicate, the Web's social dimension is the site of its radical potential - and the target of those who would put the genie back into the bottle.
The lesson? We can sit back and watch as several powerful players attempt to transform the logics of the Web into regimes of control that are reminiscent of the old AOL. It's pretty clear where that path leads. Or we can embrace the radical potentials of the Web, continue to discover new ways of interacting with one another, and explore the brave new world of on-line social networks. The best practices for finding an audience, sharing interests, gaining an attention share, and getting the message across have yet to be determined. What ever they are (and this newsletter serves as a compendium of anecdotes, examples, and insights), they differ greatly from the old centralized logics familiar from print and broadcasting. So on this anniversary of the Web, this day after the defeat of the AOL paradigm, it's a good moment to reflect on where we are headed and how we need to continue to think through the potentials of working both across media and with the distinctive logics of the Web.
 <http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20051104-5528.html>, Jeremy Reimer, "On the 15th birthday of the World Wide Web, a look back," Ars Technica (November 4, 2005).
 <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/f3fe9c4a-4bd1-11da-997b-0000779e2340.html> James Boyle, "Web's never-to-be-repeated revolution" FT.com (November 2, 2005)
 This development also has real consequences for the notion of a 'digital divide'. For more on DOPA see <http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html>, Discussion: MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) with Henry Jenkins and danah boyd; and <http://www.henryjenkins.org/> "Four Ways to Kill MySpace," Confessions of an Aca/Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins , August 3 2006.
 For an overview of the pros, cons, and legislative history, see <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality>
 <http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/132> Neurality of the Net
William Uricchio is a faculty investigator for the Convergence Culture Consortium and is also Co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, in addition to professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Uricchio studies comparative national constructions of media, trans-national content flows, the way the media are drawn upon for identity purposes, and the transfirmation of media technologies into cultural practices.
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