Johanna Blakley

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Archive for TV

Black Twitter, Scandal & Must-Tweet TV

scandal

A few years ago I noticed a bunch of hashtags appearing in the “Trending Topics” section of Twitter that I just couldn’t make heads or tails of. Each one I clicked on revealed a sea of black faces and I thought, Oh! This is some kind of in-joke in the African American community. When I could figure out what the tweets were about (and often I couldn’t), they were often really funny, sometimes poking fun at black celebrities or taking white people to task for their ignorance of black culture and the black experience. There were also a lot of provocative topics such as #thingsblackpeopledo, which often played with sensitive racial stereotypes (think watermelon, unemployment, etc.) sometimes inverting them or re-invoking them in clever and surprising ways.

This development was really exciting to me because I believe that one of the huge social and political benefits of social media networks is that diasporic communities – dispersed groups that have shared interests – can cheaply and easily find one another, exchange ideas, build community and work together to accomplish shared goals.

Fast forward to 2013: we had just launched the new Media Impact Project at the Norman Lear Center and I was looking for a way to collaborate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab, a group at USC that had been publishing some very interesting research on Twitter. I was thrilled when Kevin Driscoll, a PhD student in the Lab, told me that he was hoping to drum up some interest in researching Black Twitter. We had both noticed that academic researchers hadn’t really grappled with the topic yet, even though the phrase was becoming more common in news media after Black Twitter was given credit for focusing media attention on the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases.

We were also a bit surprised that academics didn’t seem to be responding to studies demonstrating that African Americans were seriously embracing Twitter.  A research team at Northwestern found that black college students were over-represented on Twitter and Pew found that an astounding 28% of African Americans use Twitter with 13% using it on a daily basis. Just to give you some context, only 12% of whites are on Twitter and only 2% of all online adults use Twitter in a typical day.

Whoa. Read the rest of this entry »

How Does Media Move Us?

Paley

I was very honored to speak at the Paley Center’s International Council Summit, an annual event that brings together a who’s who of media heavyweights and impresarios. This year the topic was big data and so the conference opened appropriately enough with Hans Rosling, the infographic genius, who shamed us for our ignorance about the state of the world (you have to see the video.) Eric Schmidt (yes, that Eric Schmidt) closed the proceedings with more quotable stuff than I could tweet (e.g., “The Internet is a huge accomplishment – don’t screw with it!!”) Of course everyone wanted to hear what Nate Silver had to say about his new gig at ESPN, and now you, too, can see every speaker on the program here . . . except me. I gave the luncheon talk at the 21 Club (talk about ambiance!) and so there was no recording.

Here’s what I said:

The Centers for Disease Control found out that over half of Americans believe that the health storylines they see in entertainment programming are accurate and a quarter say that those TV shows are one of their main sources for health information.

Of course we understand the difference between fiction and reality, but we have to be awfully naive to believe that really compelling stories don’t have an effect on us.

For 13 years, we’ve been doing careful academic research at the Norman Lear Center in order to figure out exactly how much of an impact media has on us. We’ve found that a storyline on the TV show Numbers – you know, the one with Rob Morrow – convinced 10% of its viewers to volunteer to donate their organs. An HIV hotline got a record number of callers after a soapie, the Bold & the Beautiful, aired a scene in which a guy tells his girlfriend he’s HIV positive.

Whether it’s smoking or seatbelts, or Fonzie getting a library card, we know that attitudes and behaviors can shift in response to imagery on popular television.

When we asked Americans whether they had ever taken some kind of action based on entertainment programming they’d seen, 65% of respondents admitted that they had. And those actions ranged from seeking more information about the issue to making a donation to a charity (13% owned up to that).

Is it a matter of monkey see, monkey do? Nah. Humans are more complicated than that, and so are the stories we tell each other.

The people in this room know how much is at stake. Imagine if we actually knew what role media was playing in our lives? What would happen if we could accurately measure how media moves us? And what exactly it moves us to do?

Just think back to a song, a TV show, a comic book character, a movie or a book that really shifted your perspective, that set you on a new path, that made you think about yourself and the world in different way.

We’ve certainly seen stories literally save lives. A radio soap opera in Tanzania was so effective at lowering HIV rates in provinces that received the broadcast compared to those that did not, that they had to discontinue the experiment and broadcast the show to the entire country for ethical reasons.

Usually we don’t have the luxury of creating such a large and diverse control group in order to scientifically measure the impact of media. You see similar issues in the field of education, where it’s taken entirely too long, in my mind, for educational initiatives to be adequately vetted through the use of control groups.

What if we applied the scientific rigor of the pharmaceutical industry to TV programming? What if we treated media as if it were a drug: which delivery systems would prove most potent and for whom? What types of content would prove life-changing?

At the Norman Lear Center, we recently developed a pragmatic new survey methodology for measuring the impact of media. The key is addressing the self-selection bias problem. Only certain people seek out certain kinds of media based on their personal taste and access. Our new tool accounts for that bias by calculating each and every survey respondent’s propensity to have seen that piece of media. After that likelihood has been determined, we compare very similar people who were exposed to that media and those who were not. Then we determine whether exposure to that piece of media is correlated with shifts in knowledge, attitudes or behavior.

When we used this methodology on the documentary film Food, Inc., we found significant differences between our control group and those who had watched the film, who were eating healthier food, were more knowledgeable about food safety issues, and who were shopping at farmers markets more frequently than very similar people who had not seen the film. (Here’s my TEDx talk about this research.)

These days we’re more awash than ever in data about how we humans are using and consuming media. For the Food, Inc. study, it was cheap and easy for us to gather 20,000 respondents through digital platforms.

But, as you also know, virtually no one agrees on how to measure media usage, engagement, and most importantly, impact. And the stakes seem higher than ever as we witness the development of ever more intimate and immersive technologies which make that bleed line between screen time (mediated reality) and real time thinner and thinner.

Why hasn’t measuring the impact of media been a priority for us? Well one powerful reason is liability. Who wants to be on the hook for having had some kind of negative impact on people? We’ve seen these accusations play out before with kids and violent video games or heavy metal music. Unless the news is good news, the media industry doesn’t necessarily want to know.

Another problem is that there are far too many incentives built into the media business to use measurement to game the system. The media industries are, by and large, for-profit industries. If you can come up with a custom audience measurement metric that makes your company more money, then you will receive strong encouragement to continue to use that metric – even if it doesn’t do a good job of actually monitoring who encountered your media and what kind of impact it had on them. The truth has been beside the point.

There are powerful incentives to keep your methods opaque – to come up with a black box algorithm that makes it impossible for others to check your work by attempting to repeat your results. This is why many media companies subscribe to multiple social media monitoring services, all of whom use different methods and generate different results that can be cherry picked by their clients.

So we remain adrift in a sea of unverifiable data points, making it virtually impossible for scholars and researchers to find out the truth about who engages in what media and to what end. As you can imagine, foundations that fund media initiatives have been very frustrated with their inability to get accurate, empirically solid, repeatable measurements of the impact of the media they have produced. Many have concluded that it’s simply too difficult and too expensive to do; that we’ll never have numbers we can compare, and, after all, isn’t it impossible to measure shifts in hearts in minds?

This year, we entered into a partnership with the Gates and the Knight Foundations to create a global hub for media impact research at the Lear Center. Our goal is to assist all media makers to do a better job accounting for how people engage with their media and assessing the consequences of that engagement.

We’re expanding the amount and types of research that we do at USC, and we are committed to collecting and sharing best practices from all around the world, from all sectors, academic, governmental, industry. From luminaries like you.

This new initiative is called the Media Impact Project and it brings together scholars across the disciplinary spectrum to develop and share freely the best possible tools and practices. Echoing Nate Silver’s comment this morning, I hope you’ll join us in making media analytics a non-fiction business.

The Politics of Personal Taste

I recently gave my fifth talk for the TED network – this time on one of my favorite projects at the Norman Lear Center, where I’m the director of research. The Lear Center has conducted many studies demonstrating that entertainment plays a key role in people’s lives, igniting curiosity, inciting conversations, and importantly, influencing attitudes and behavior.  One of my favorites was a series of U.S. national surveys that explored whether there is a correlation between entertainment preferences, what we enjoy, and political ideology, what we believe.

One thing you learn in survey research is that it’s not very helpful to ask people to label themselves politically. So we created an instrument that would diagnose the respondent’s ideology based on their responses to dozens of statements about hot-button political issues. Using statistical clustering analysis, we discovered that three groups emerged from our national sample. “Conservatives,” as we decided to call them, “liberals” and “moderates.” These same respondents were asked about their preferred leisure-time activities and their favorite radio and TV shows, Web sites, movies, games and sports and much more.

What we found is that each of these clusters had distinctly different entertainment and leisure preferences. (For a full run-down, check out our white paper.)

Now this kind of research doesn’t allow us to determine causation: I can’t tell you whether your politics determine taste or taste determines politics. But, if I had the chance to ask you enough questions, I would be able to predict your politics based on your taste. And vice versa.

I’ve always wanted to scale up this research to a global sample, where we could see what kinds of clusters emerge on a trans-national scale. Because as you know, in a networked world, culture, media, and politics are not constrained by national boundaries. So, last Fall, I leapt at the opportunity to administer a similar survey in Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring.

Working with Mobile Accord, the company that created the SMS platform for the Haiti relief effort, we administered our survey to over 2,300 Tunisians on their mobile phones. We knew that our sample would skew younger and more Internet-savvy than the general population, which would provide us with a valuable glimpse into the mindset and media habits of a population that will most likely play a leading role in shaping the future of Tunisia, and perhaps the Middle East.

Because it was a mobile phone poll, we had to make the survey much shorter. So, in order to diagnose a respondent’s ideology we decided to focus on cultural politics. We asked questions about how their religious beliefs inform their entertainment choices, and the role that they believe government should play in that negotiation.

We also included specific questions about the controversial TV airing of Persepolis, an animated film which included an image of God, and the violent protests surrounding the anti-Islamic  film, Innocence of the Muslims.

We identified three groups that fell on a spectrum from conservative to moderate to liberal. The group that most fascinated us was the largest group: conservatives. Among these young wired culturally conservative Tunisians, we found entertainment and media preferences that we would expect from liberals in the U.S.

  • “Surfing the Internet” was their favorite way of entertaining themselves (conservatives in the U.S. had chosen “reading” as their favorite.)
  • They were more into video games than reading.
  • When they do read books, they prefer romance novels and sci fi to religious texts.
  • We were amazed to discover that they were the most passionate consumers of American entertainment,
  • They demonstrated a strong preference for Hollywood films and they had less interest in local Tunisian fare than Moderates or Liberals.
  • They were also the most likely to say that U.S. entertainment has had a positive influence on the world.

So much for stereotypes about religious conservatism and anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The picture is far more complicated than you might think. The key is asking the right combination of questions on the right platform.

We know that politics are important but we tend to be dismissive about taste and the pleasures we take from TV so bad that it’s actually good. All too often we assume that entertainment is too trivial for serious critical inquiry. But I believe that entertainment preferences often go unrecognized as powerful indicators of personal and social aspirations.  And, since the Cold War, we have found over and over again that popular culture can bridge deep national and political divides in the most surprising ways. In fact, many have argued that Hollywood films and TV shows have more impact on global public opinion than our foreign policy.

We can get so caught up in looking at people through the lens of demographics and ideology that it often obscures our view of what people really care about, what gives them pleasure. And when you know that, I believe you know the most important thing you can know about anyone.

For more results of the U.S. and Tunisia surveys, check out my TEDxOrangeCounty talk, The Politics of Personal Taste. The Lear Center site offers a lot more background materials on the U.S. entertainment and politics surveys.

Launching the Media Impact Project

MIPlogo270

Yesterday, I was very excited to launch the Media Impact Project, which aspires to be a global hub for the best research on measuring the impact of media. Supported by $3.25 million in initial funding from the Gates and Knight Foundations, I’m optimistic that the Norman Lear Center can help make media more accountable to audiences and contribute to a better understanding of the role that media plays in people’s lives.

The New York Times picked up the story and I was thrilled to see reporter Michael Cieply focus on this aspect of the program:

Read the rest of this entry »

Revisiting Primetime Terror

The Lear Center collaborated with viral video wunderkind Joe Sabia on a hard-hitting video about how the War on Terror is depicted on primetime TV. Watching the coverage of the Boston Marathon bomber manhunt, both Joe and I were instantly reminded of our work on this project. Here’s how Joe put it:

From bombings, to week long investigations, to racial profiling, to drawing assumptions, to wanted posters, to gun fights, getaways, to shutting down transportation, to Miranda rights not being read…

I could not stop

thinking of

PRIMETIME TERROR.

This whole thing was like a season out of “24″!

Tribeca Film Festival: The Art of Networking

Ironically, these pencils were a big hit at the Tribeca Film Institute's super-high-tech Interactive fest.


Film festivals are tricky events to navigate. Of course they’re about art and commerce and, for some reason, all too many filmmakers are uncomfortable with that combination. Despite the entertainment industry’s craven reputation, there are plenty of people in it – not just indie movie types – who long for something pure: complex aesthetic objects that will transport people to new places and new ways of understanding this world and the many alternate realities we’ve crafted for ourselves. That idealism, and the understandable longing for money and attention to achieve that dream, is prominently on display at fests like Tribeca. And yes, a lot of it is about glad-handing and hitting as many cocktail parties as possible (as well as standing next to the right person at the red carpet premieres), but more and more these days, it’s also about figuring out how to make movies do that the networking for you. Filmmakers who’ve managed to crack the social media code have, indeed, mastered the twenty-first century art of networking.

I thought it was terrific that Tribeca devoted an entire day of the Fest to a conference on interactive media. The event was held in Frank Gehry’s gleaming IAC building, in front of an impossibly long wall of screens. The shallow wide room was packed from start to finish with a mix of digerati (I was thrilled to meet Christina Warren the entertainment editor for Mashable) and people who’ve been toiling in the traditional media trenches all their lives. The implicit goal was to figure out how to make sure that filmmakers learn how to adapt to an increasingly interactive media space – something more easily said than done. These days, film projects of all sizes are expected to have some sort of online presence, not only for the purpose of promotion but for something far more ephemeral: audience engagement. There are generally no accepted standards to measure the latter, but it usually means that you’ve managed to convince passive potential audience members to take an active role in promoting, extending, or even reimagining the film itself or its subject.

For all too many filmmakers, a transmedia campaign includes a basic formula: a Web site, a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and the coup de grace, an iPhone app. Much to the consternation of app developers like Michelle Byrd from Games for Change, creatives working in traditional media industries often assume that audience engagement just happens on these platforms: as long as you build it, someone will come. But take a quick look at all the apps you’ve installed and don’t use on your phone, and you’ll recognize that even scoring an install doesn’t necessarily lead to one iota of “engagement.”

Learning how to port linear, narrative art forms over to interactive platforms is a tremendous creative and technical challenge. Read the rest of this entry »

The War on Drugs – On Primetime TV

Check out Joe Sabia’s video summary of our report on how primetime TV dramas depict the War on Drugs

Ever wonder what it would be like to parachute down to earth, turn on a TV, and learn about the aliens who live here? Well if someone did such a thing, and they tuned into the most popular primetime shows in America (many of which are viewed by billions of people around the world) they would see a lot of story lines about the War on Drugs. And they would probably come to the conclusion that it’s not working.

In other words, they would probably agree with the majority of Americans: in a rare sign of unity across party lines, 63% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 70% of Independents describe the War on Drugs as a failure.

This issue came to international attention last weekend at the Summit of Americas, where both current and former presidents across Latin America demanded changes in America’s conduct of the 40-year-old war that has caused decades of chaos across the continent.

On the eve of 4/20 – long associated with cannibis culture and the growing movement to legalize marjuana – the Norman Lear Center released Joe Sabia’s video summary of our research on how the War on Drugs is depicted in primetime. Major findings included:

• In TV storylines about the War on Drugs, drug users are not arrested and drug suspects are often portrayed as morally ambiguous or even heroic.
• In these TV shows, 65% of drug suspects are white, accurately reflecting that the vast majority of drug users (and likely offenders) in the U.S. are white.
• Despite the predominance of African-Americans and other minorities in U.S. prisons for drug violations, most drug manufacturers and dealers in the series studied were white.
• Prescription drug abuse and methamphetamines were depicted three times more often than recreational marijuana.

Our final report (gorgeously designed by Veronica Jauriqui and authored by myself and Sheena Nahm) contains all the key findings from both our analysis of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Check out my blog on the War on Terror findings and Joe Sabia’s excellent video summary at www.primetimeterror.com.

Hypocrisy in Hollywood

Created by: Paralegal.net

Big thanks to Peter Kim for alerting me to this great new infographic about Hollywood’s convoluted history with piracy and its battle to embrace and defang new technologies.

Remixing Mad Men

One of the highlights of a recent trip to New York was attending a Mad Men Remix party hosted by Pop Culture Pirate Elisa Kreisinger. I’m a big fan of the show and so it was great fun to watch the season finale from last year with a group of knowledgable viewers, and then to see Kreisinger’s provocative remixes of the show.

Her Internet-ready Mad Men: Set Me Free is a clever remix of the women of Mad Men singing the Motown standard “You Keep Me Hanging On.” Devised to be spreadable on social media sites, I suspect this video – which was co-created with Mark Faletti – will quickly communicate to a broad audience the painful gender issues explored in the show.

And that kind of commentary is pretty desperately needed. I recently attended a screening of Missrepresentation, a thoroughly laudable documentary about problematic representations of women in film and TV. I was dismayed to see clips from Mad Men woven into its visual tapestry of media misogyny. I had believed that most viewers of the show recognized that it was quite critical of 60s sexism, depicting it as an appalling problem and creating sympathy for the women who suffered from it (including our own mothers and grandmothers). But just a few days later I found myself having exactly this conversation with a male friend who felt guilty about loving the show because it was so sexist. He said he felt terrible for the plight of women in the show, but it never occurred to him that his response might be the one the show was hoping to elicit.

All too often, I’m afraid, people equate the representation of something with its endorsement. I often used the TV show Married With Children in my pop culture classes to address exactly this issue: the selfish and reprehensible Al Bundy was not depicted as a role model for viewers – instead we laughed at him for being a bad father, and for bringing into stark relief what a “good” dad ought to do. In many ways, Married With Children was as effective at endorsing ideals about the nuclear family as The Cosby Show was.

Pop culture remixers like Kreisinger have a tricky task on their hands, remapping cultural memes in order to draw attention to things we might not have noticed in the slickly produced pop culture objects that make up our media landscape. It is their task to shake us by the shoulders and say “What if?” Such is the case (in spades) with Kreisinger’s QueerMen: Don Loves Roger remix. Whether you believe that the remix reveals a “subconscious” sub-plot of the show or not, it gives viewers the opportunity to imagine it. This has long been the strength of fan fiction, which has been taken to entirely new and enticing levels due to ever-expanding access to bandwidth and the rise of robust social media platforms.

One troubling side effect of remixes  is that the original can seem a bit less itself after viewing them: or, at least, that was my experience watching the much-anticipated season five premiere of Mad Men last night. Where were the subtle psychological insights we’ve come to expect? Maybe we have to wait for a remix to reveal them.

Not So Super: Reading the Superbowl Ads

I had a great time this fall working with video artist Kenzo Digital to identify zeitgeist-defining ads for the TED Ads Worth Spreading initiative. I think ads have a tremendous power to shape cultural dialogue and so it’s worth our while to take a critical look at them and see what kind of story they’re telling us about ourselves. Whether we agree with that story or not, it’s an influential narrative informing opinions (and potentially fueling stereotypes) all around the world.

So I was wondering what kind of story the Superbowl ads might tell us about ourselves this year. Having seen a lot of truly inspiring and technically brilliant ads with Kenzo, my hopes were pretty high. One overarching theme we discovered was an effort to acknowledge the impact – both serious and silly – of the increasing intermingling of our digital and physical lives. Many of the cutting edge ads from last year grappled with the disconnect between the rules of our online lives and the rules that govern our physical bodies. So I was sort of surprised to see so little engagement with these ideas in the hyper-expensive A-list ads that aired during the Bowl. Instead, it was the typical mélange of cute dogs, hot chicks and childish whimsy – in other words, stuff you don’t see on the field during the game.

Clint Eastwood’s somber Chrysler commercial served as a surprising counterpunch to the seemingly endless stream of male fantasy ads – from Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller redux to the sleazy GoDaddy ads that promise a heaven filled with naked chicks and cheap domain names. Any alien tuning into this little snapshot of our popular culture might be tempted to believe the following:

  • Men eat their brides
  • Women administer head-butts for Greek yogurt
  • Kids actually try not to pee in pools
  • Kias are sexy
  • David Beckham is “misunderstood”
  • Doritos can be used as hush money
  • We’re still celebrating the demise of Prohibition

Yes, I do want my own private zipline running through Manhattan (though I’d prefer a few in LA). And I wish it were the case that babies could be programmed not to poop, that rainstorms could help people lose weight, and that DMVs would serve ice cream cones. But, boy, I’d be thrilled if some of the most-watched messages in the world told us something more substantial about who we are, where we might be going and why we should give a damn.

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