Johanna Blakley

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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 »

Inside TED: A Rare Glimpse Behind the Curtain

TED2013Monday is sort of a ramp-up day at TED, but this year the highlight for me was Inside TED, a glimpse into the machinations of a unique organization that’s trying to figure out how to spread ideas that are stalled or stuck in some way – perhaps they’re trapped in impenetrable jargon; maybe they’re stuck in a disciplinary silo . . . or a Nairobi slum. Regardless of the impediments, or perhaps due to them, TED aspires to create a media platform for awesome and sexy ideas to propagate.

Despite this expansive mission – based primarily on the notion that exposure and transparency are tools for solving the world’s problems – I think most TEDsters feel like there’s a tantalizing shroud of secrecy and sanctity enveloping the TED organization: exactly how many people work there? And how much money do they make from these hyper-expensive conferences (7,500 bucks a pop)? Who decides which videos are posted and featured?

Well, Inside TED was Chris Anderson’s way of opening up the ledgers and introducing the TED community to the brave (and wacky) souls who make this crazy ship run.

Some highlights:

  • Revenues? About $45 million last year, with $27 million coming from TED, TED Global, and TED Active. Anderson estimates that there are about 500 core attendees who have spent around $30,000 supporting TED over the years.
  • There are 1,400 talks on TED.com, with more than 50 million views per month. Only 200 are from TEDx events (and, so for, there have been 5,000 TEDx events with 8-10 more taking place per day.)
  • 25% of their traffic is mobile, and they also distribute their talks through radio and TV channels (they’ve even put TED talks in taxis in Mumbai). Anderson suggested that TED speakers simply multiply their TED.com views by two in order to figure out about how many times their videos have been seen (that puts my two TED.com talks at 2.2 million views. Yowza.)
  • Their brilliant open translation project involves 11,000 translators and 35,000 translations in 97 languages. (I was thrilled to hear that the Gates Foundation was a key funder for this. Go Bill!)

When someone asked Anderson about his favorite failure (and he had earlier admitted that the Bono TED Prize challenge to wire Ethiopia was a dire misfire) he ended up talking about their struggle to balance accessibility with substance. In order to get those great, inspiring ideas “unstuck” it’s essential to find a way to translate them to a larger diverse audience. The accusations, from several quarters, that TED “dumbs down” complex ideas were obviously deeply troubling to Anderson. His assertion that substance must always trump style is a challenging standard to be held to, especially for a slick global media platform like TED. And, honestly, to the rest of us bloggers and professors and public intellectuals who must find that precarious balance between accuracy and rigor and the ethical imperative to share important ideas with people who never thought they’d be interested.

If you’re at TED this week, look me up on TED Connect!

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.

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.

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