August 25, 2006
MIT C3 WEEKLY UPDATE
- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Kevin Sandler on the Disappearing R Rating
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Jason Mittell on the Lost and Survivor Spoiler Communities
--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------
Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3.This week'supdate features an opening noteby one of the newest members of C3's team of affiliated faculty across the country, Kevin Sandler. Sandler, Assistant Professor of Media Arts at the University of Arizona, writes about the film ratings system on American cinematic culture, especially on the current decline in films receiving the restricted rating.
The closing note, written by C3 affiliated faculty member Jason Mittell from Middlebury College, focuses on the differences between Lost and Survivor spoiler communities.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------
The R Rating
By: Kevin Sandler
On September 1, Kirby Dick’s documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, an exposé on the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), premieres in theaters. The film combines an investigation of the identities of the members of CARA’s Rating Board and the Appeals Board with a survey of rating controversies told mainly through interviews with disgruntled filmmakers.
While any analysis of industrial self-regulation is difficult given the Vatican-like secrecy of media conglomerates, Dick, like so many analysts before him, solely locates the institutional activity of self-regulation within the structure and organization of censor boards, isolates censorship practices from their broader social, cultural, and industrial conditions of existence. In doing so, Dick fails to account for the role played by the major exhibitors (the National Association of Theatre Exhibitors: NATO), mass market retailers (Wal-Mart, Target) and the broadcast and print media in assuring that only one mainstream film, Showgirls (1995) got released in the adults-only category, unrated or carrying NC-17 since Henry& June in 1990.
The Rating Board is perhaps the least responsible for this industrial practice as well as the surge in the number of PG-13 rated films since the turn of the century. The distribution of R-rated films declined from 212 in 1999 to just 147 in 2004 with only four films making over $100 million--Collateral, Troy, and the freak anomalies, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11. That year, PG-13 films commanded a lion’s share of the box office, grossing a combined $4.4 billion compared to PG films ($2.3 million) and R films ($2.1 million).[i] While R-rated moves are not becoming a “vanishing breed,” as Russell Schwartz, marketing head at New Line suggests in 2003, they are playing a smaller role in the theatrical behavior of the majors.[ii]
A number of causes can explain this prodigious shift in the marketplace, most notably, the voluntary guidelines adopted by the MPAA and NATO after the Federal Trade Commission’s Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children report in 2000. Conducted in the wake of several high schools shootings, including Columbine, in the late 1990s, the FTC study found the motion picture industry guilty of targeting R-rated films to minors as young as twelve-years-old through radio and television advertising, focus group research, and venues frequented by teenagers. The MPAA responded by restricting the marketing of R-rated films and dramatically reducing their output. NATO succeeded in tightening enforcement of its admission practices for R-rated pictures at its member theaters, which by 2004 comprised almost 27,000 of the approximately 36,000 screens in the United States and representing twenty-three of the largest twenty-five chains.[iii]
Other factors in the early 2000s likely led to the decline in production and box office of R-rated films as well. After 9-11, the MPAA curtailed the category’s oftentimes graphic and realistic depiction of violence. Of 2005’s top twenty highest grossing films, only Mr. and Mrs. Smith could be said to contain any “real life” violence typical of blockbuster action films in the past, most recently Collateral Damage or Tears of the Sun. The others, rated PG-13--Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Batman Begins, and Fantastic Four all took place in realm of science fiction and fantasy.[iv] Even horror films are being more and more trimmed to a PG-13 including the remakes of The Grudge (2004), The Fog (2005) and When a Stranger Calls (2006).
The decrease of theatrical R-rated movies can be also traced to the migration of explicit representations to the small screen. HBO’s The Sopranos and Showtime’s The L Word push the limits of violence and sex. Basic cable network FX feature shows like Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me after 10 p.m. EST that contain material that likely would be considered R-rated if released into theaters. Comedy Central even runs uncut R-rated movies like Clerks or uncensored versions of their original programming like the Roast of Pamela Anderson (2005) after midnight. Additionally, with the DVD market rivaling and often exceeding the box office returns for films, it became common practice to release “unrated” or “uncut” versions of R rated and PG-13 rated films on video. With an estimated 80% of total DVD sales coming from unrated editions of a title, the MPAA has simply transplanted a good portion of its audience from one media platform to another.[v]
With NBC striking deals with YouTube (Pam and Jim Moments) and Netflix (Studio 60 pilot) and My Space (see fellower C3er Sam Ford’s weblog posting on the My Name is Earl page), how close actually are we to more explicit, R-rated versions of its or other networks’ shows before or shortly after their actual airdate? The Lost: Season Two: Extended Experience already seems antiquated, and it does not come out until September 5th.
[i] Gabrield Snyder, “Don’t Give me an ‘R,’”Variety, February 21-27, 2005, pg. 8.
[ii] Quoted in Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing, “H’wood: R Kind of Town,”Variety, March 31-April 6, 2003, 1+.
[iii] Carl Diorio, “FTC Says Fewer Teens Get Into R-Rated Films,”Daily Variety, October 15, 2003.
[iv] Motion Picture Association,U. S. Theatrical Mark
[v] Susanne Ault, “Indies Rave Over Unrated; As Chains Shy Away,”Video Business, April 18, 2005.
Kevin S. Sandler is an affiliated faculty member with C3 and Assistant Professor of Media Arts at the University of Arizona. This piece is related to the release of his 2006 book The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Does Not Make NC-17 Films. Sandler is also currently working on Scooby Doo, a book to be published by Duke University Press in 2007.
----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------
Friends Talking with Martha Rogers. Sam Ford encourages blog readers to visit sometimes-C3 blogger and GSD&M Senior Planner's podcast Friends Talking for a recent interview with Dr. Martha Rogers, who created the 1to1 marketing concept and who has just published a book on the concept of Return on Consumer.
Getting Lost. Henry Jenkins writes about the recent conversation from his own blog's comment sectioninvolving various noted media scholars centered on ABC's Lost.
AOL Video Adds Significant New Content. Sam Ford writes about four new deals struck by the online content provider to expand its strong new online video distribution product, including both ad-supported programming and download-for-pay content.
CBS innertube Expanding Content. Sam Ford writes about theinflux of new content for thenetwork's online distribution platform.
Comics and Convergence, Part II. Henry Jenkins follows up on his post earlier in the week ofmore "outtakes"from his book Convergence Culture relating to examples of current phenomena occurring in the comic book industry.
TV Guide on Mobile Services. Sam Ford writes about the new availability of TV Guide services on 4INFO, a search service for mobile platforms.
Paris Hilton on YouTube: New Advertising Concepts. Sam Ford looks at YouTube's plans to expand its advertising reach, including new Paris Hilton video advertisements that allow viewers to rate portions of one of hew new songs/videos from the just-released album Paris.
Convergence Culture and Politics. Sam Ford discusses Ryan Lizza's New York Times piece about the affect YouTube is having on primary elections and the upcoming general election, particularly with Sen. Joe Lieberman's defeat and Sen. George Allen's recent racial slur at apublic event.
Personalizing Colas and Ketchup Bottles. Sam Ford writes about the My Heinz and My Jones marketing campaigns that allow customers to order bottles with personalized content on them.
Convergence and Comics, Part I. C3 Director Henry Jenkins includes some sidebars not used from his newly released book Convergence Culture, focused particularly on examples of convergence from the comic books industry.
Tension Between WGA and NBC Universal. Sam Ford writes about the continued battle between writers and producers/networks regarding compensation for new media content, product placement and integration, and other aspects of convergence culture.
EchoStar and TiVo Battling in Court. Sam Ford writes about thedisagreementsinvolved in timeshifting from current distributors and technology-makers. The two companies are battling over the right for DishNetwork to provide its customers with DVR services.
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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------
Spoiling Two Islands: Notes on the Fandoms of Survivor and Lost
By: Jason Mittell
Given that Convergence Culture Consortium’s titular book, Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, has just been published, I thought I might take my allotted space to discuss some new research I’ve conducted that builds upon Henry’s insights. Henry’s book opens with a case study of Survivor fans who engage in the consumption and circulation of spoilers, attempting to divine the events of the show before airing. In Henry’s analysis, the spoiler fans of Survivor are a manifestation of Pierre Lévy’s concept of collective intelligence, pooling knowledge for a common good (or mischief, depending on your perspective). These fans create a community, complete with its own hierarchies and customs, for engaging with the text of Survivor in an attempt to outwit, outlast, and outplay the producers. Henry’s account is certainly the most detailed and nuanced discussion of spoiler fans, yet some key questions remain.
As a scholar of television genre and narrative, I became curious as to how Henry’s account of Survivor fans might provide insight into consumption practices around television programs in a distinctly different genre and narrative mode. This question dovetailed with another interesting account of spoilers offered by Jonathan Gray on FlowTV.org – in the comments following his article, the discussion turned toward why fans would spoil a suspenseful “well-crafted” narrative. As both my research and personal fandom has recently orbited around the ABC series Lost, Jonathan (another Lost aca/fan) and I decided to forge a study of the large online spoiler community surrounding Lost. We conducted an online qualitative survey of Lost spoiler fans in May, spending the summer writing up what we discovered from the voices of the fan community. Although I do not wish to spoil our article, which is currently under review at an academic journal (and thus might find its way to publication by start of the next decade), I will highlight some of the ways that Lost spoiler fans differ from Henry’s account of Survivor fans, and consider how differences in narrative and genre might account for these divergences.
The practices of Survivor spoiler fans seem centered around what might be considered pleasures outside the core media text—while some fans are still dedicated to the show, many see themselves working in opposition to Survivor and its Executive Producer (or “Evil Pecker”) Mark Burnett. For these fans, the game has shifted from a competition watched on television to a struggle over control of the show’s information itself, creating communities built around such collective knowledge gathering. We found almost none of these extra-textual pleasures motivating Lost spoiler fans—while a few mentioned the community facet of fan boards, all of the Lost fans we surveyed felt a great affection for the show and its creators, looking to maximize their own pleasures rather than thwart the producers. The game aspect of spoilers was important, but on differing terms than for Survivor—for fans of Lost, spoilers help them better appreciate the underlying game of the text itself. Fans highlight how spoilers allow them to better pay attention to clues concerning the show’s many mysteries, attuning their attention away from the basic plot and more toward subtleties in the underlying mythology; additionally each spoiler functions as yet another clue in an elaborate narrative mystery that has extended beyond television into podcasts, novels, websites, and jigsaw puzzles.
But many spoiler fans still took pleasure in Lost’s suspenseful narrative design, as they focused their attention toward anticipating the spoiled narrative outcomes and the intrigue as to how the show would present such information. Finally, spoilers worked to better manage the anticipation between episodes that the show creates via cliffhangers and sustaining an elaborate narrative arc despite lengthy gaps between installments—via spoilers, viewers can take more control of their narrative pleasures, reducing anxiety between episodes to focus on solving puzzles, hashing out details on collective sites like LostPedia, and discussing potential theories on the boards. If Survivor fans primarily use spoilers to generate new pleasures outside the show itself, Lost fans employ spoilers as an aid to maximize the pleasures they see as inherent to the program.
Is this difference simply a case of two idiosyncratic examples, or the randomized results of selecting research subjects? I don’t think so—while both reality shows and serialized dramas offer a range of complex pleasures for viewers, their genre and narrative differences can account for some of the varying rationales for spoiler consumption. Reality shows like Survivor actively assert their own authenticity, rhetorically denying the creative hands that shape both the “real” experiences and footage into compelling entertainment—the hostility aimed toward EP Burnett stems in part from his hypocrisy in claiming to televise “reality” while manipulating the fans through red herrings and misinformation. While Lost’s producers have also dabbled in misinformation campaigns, they are always perceived as creators of a fictional universe—there is no pre-televised island that people are being voted off of, only a fictional one whose details are generated in the minds of producers. Additionally, the mysteries of Lost’s island are far more complex than who will win a million dollars—there is an elaborate mythology of information to behold and parse within each weekly episode and its multimedia extensions. For many spoiler fans, the show is too complex to be effectively comprehended the first time through; spoilers serve as a way to access the analytical possibilities of rewatching a show in a single viewing. Thus while Survivor fans seem to be using spoilers to read against the show’s strategies of presenting “reality,” Lost fans read spoilers in sympathy with the creators, as a pre-emptive CliffNotes-style overview to guide their appreciation and attention to their favorite narrative.
As the new fall television series emerges with another group of Lost-inspired complex serialized dramas, I believe the activities of such spoiler fans will begin to appear more as normal rather than exceptional modes of television consumption. With complex storytelling strategies integrating a wide range of media and styles of engagement, why should the weekly presentation of a television program to an uninformed, naïve viewer remain the dominant ideal of narrative consumption? If the experiences of Lost fans is indicative, spoiler fans can be seen as dedicated and supportive members of an audience, working to experience the textual pleasures across media, but taking control of the terms of their consumption. Via this perspective, spoiling does none of the damage that its name suggests, but rather represents another mode of engagement with the rapidly proliferating world of transmedia storytelling.
Jason Mittell is an affiliated faculty member with the Convergence Culture Consortium and assistant professor of American Civilization and Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College in Vermont and faculty adviser with the Convergence Culture Consortium. His research areas include television history and criticism, animation and children's media, genre and narrative theory, taste cultures and media, and new media studies and technological convergence.
Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (email@example.com)
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