Archive for TV
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:
to provide tools on an “open-source” basis, putting socially minded nonprofit groups on a more equal footing with corporate advertisers, who use sophisticated, but expensive, measurements.
As Bill Gates pointed out recently in the Wall Street Journal, accurate measurement is the key to innovation. Without benchmarks, we don’t know where we’re going. Because media is such a pervasive presence in human life, we need reliable systems for measuring its impact. It’s difficult work, as our funders have pointed out, but with the rise of social media networks and the prospects of big data analysis the academy has an unprecedented opportunity to step up and to provide mechanisms for measurement untainted by profit motives.
The entertainment industry is notorious for adjusting its numbers to service an often inscrutable bottom line. And all of us – including everyone who variously produces or consumes media content – have been ill-served by cookie-cutter audience segmentation techniques and panel-based research methods that cannot account for what’s happening in the “long tail” of our global cultural economy. The insidious audience segmentation techniques that valorize age, race, gender and income over every other facet of human identity have contributed to a media system rife with stereotypes about how humans tick. (You can find out more about my thoughts on this in this TED talk.) The awe-inspiring data sets emerging from social media networks offer us the opportunity to understand ourselves, and our engagement with media, in a far more nuanced way.
My vision here? Ultimately, I want media makers to have the resources to make data-driven decisions. Rather than depending on their “gut” and random comments from their kids and colleagues, I want them to grapple with meaningful feedback information that demonstrates how real people have engaged with their work and what effects that interaction has produced.
I also want media makers to have a far more sophisticated and detailed understanding of their audience’s needs, values and taste. For me, it’s an issue of respect. I want our media environment to be respectful and responsive to the needs of global audiences, not just a few prized, but deeply misunderstood, demographic groups.
Looking for a job? The Media Impact Project is hiring! Find out more.
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
This whole thing was like a season out of “24″!
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.
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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.
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.
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.
I knew I had to write something in response to A. O. Scott’s Sunday New York Times piece about all the movies out right now which give an insider’s perspective on industries that we find fascinating. Moneyball and Margin Call were two of the films that inspired him to write about our perennial interest in lifting the veil and seeing what’s really going on inside baseball and Wall Street.
I don’t think the irony was lost on Scott that we like to turn to pieces of fiction in order to get the real story. And some poststructuralist scholars might tell you it’s as good a place as any to look for the truth. But I don’t think that Scott went as far as he could in establishing the tremendous power that commercial storytelling has in influencing individual attitudes and, if it’s enough of a cultural juggernaut, public opinion. We may not care to admit the degree to which our knowledge of the Holocaust, for instance, is dependent on Hollywood’s depiction of it, but often these well-produced, tightly scripted fictional narratives can do more than entertain us for a couple hours, they can fill in the blanks in our knowledge. Just think about how much you learned about global pandemics in Contagion, cancer in 50/50, the founding of Facebook in Social Network and Jim Crow in The Help… Read the rest of this entry »
Would it surprise you if I told you that Primetime TV is not depicting the racial and religious stereotypes that we generally associate with the War on Terror and the War on Drugs?
It sure surprised me.
My new report, The Primetime War on Drugs & Terror, co-authored with Sheena Nahm, offers a unique glimpse into how these wars are depicted in popular culture at a key historical moment: not only are we nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11, this year also marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs.
I was interviewed by a youth-skewing local TV show called What’s Up? during my stay in the magical city of Medellín, Colombia. This video includes my interview about the impact of communication technology and storytelling, as well as commentary from James Alliban, an augmented reality app developer. Enjoy!