Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Post-Trump TV Storytelling

Because of research I’ve done on the relationship between entertainment and politics, I’m often asked how TV storytelling will change after Trump’s election. In our survey research at the Norman Lear Center, we have found over the years that the most popular shows on primetime broadcast TV appeal most to a group we call the “Purples,” 24% of the population that doesn’t fall neatly into Red or Blue ideological buckets. Here’s a quick overview of their unique constellation of political positions:

• Deep anxiety about the economy.

• Deep skepticism about the Iraq War isn’t working.

• Strong enthusiasm for protecting the environment

• Disgust with political leadership

• Deep suspicion of Corporate America and support for regulation

• Strong belief that women and men should share household duties equally

• Strong support for public schools

• Respect for immigrants, who are here “for work, not a handout”

• Mixed feelings about trade protectionism

• Optimism about new technology

• Belief that security is more important than liberties

• Strong belief that freedom is more valuable than equality

• Strong preference for diplomacy over use of force in battles against terrorism

• Strong sense of compassion for the less fortunate

• Ambivalence about the role of religion in public life

• Evenly split on regulation of gun ownership

• Strong support for cutting taxes

A glance at their ideological positions reveals how difficult it is to appeal to them in our current two-party political system. However, primetime TV storytellers appear to have cracked their code and captured their attention: compared to Reds and Blues, the Purples were, by far, the most inclined to enjoy mainstream TV offerings.

But after the surprising election of Trump, several prominent TV producers and creators have admitted publicly that they felt the need to re-evaluate their storytelling — in part, because they didn’t feel like they understood their audience anymore.

In a recent New York Times piece, writers from Madam Secretary, Veep, House of Cards, and Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy, discussed the many changes they made to their shows post-election. Ironically, they all felt the need to remove plot elements that too closely reflected the current reality, for fear that they would be accused of simply ripping stories from the headlines (remember that stories are written long before they’re shot and aired). The general response among writers on shows that highlight the hypocrisy and corruption of Washington — Veep, House of Cards, and Scandal — was that their melodramatic and ridiculous scenarios were apparently coming true, and they were going to be hard-pressed to concoct the unbelievable storylines that they thought they were churning out before. However, Rhimes, who believes that her core audience is composed of Obama supporters, is reluctant to simply ramp up the outlandish storylines typical of Scandal.  While it was fun to tell “horror stories” about misbehavior in the Beltway while Obama was in office, she feels that her audience might not want those stories anymore:

Our show is basically a horror story. Really. We say the people in Washington are monsters and if anybody ever knew what was really going on under the covers they would freak out . . . But that was based on a world in which Obama was president and our audience was happy about what was going on in Washington and they felt optimistic. You can always tell any horror story you want to when the light is on. But now the lights are off, and now I think people don’t want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere.

Executives in Hollywood are straining to figure out how they can attract Trump voters to their fictional fare, without alienating the rest of the nation, but Rhimes — who is the current queen of primetime — has a slightly different take:

I get really offended at the concept that what came out of the election was that — how do I say this? — impoverished people who are not of color needed more attention. I thought that was kind of crazy, that they might need more television. They have television. It just felt very strange to me. And I thought really, the people who really need to be spoken to are the 50 percent of the population that did not vote at all. Those are the people who need to be more engaged

Our entertainment and politics surveys targeted registered voters, but among that population, the Purple group was the one most likely to admit to not voting. This might suggest that Rhimes is really on to something here. Could primetime fare be optimized for 160 million non-voters? And how might those stories be crafted in order to increase the liklihood of future political engagement . . . such as voting? Whoever cracks that code will not only take over Hollywood but will become the most powerful political force in this divided nation.

The Unintended Consequences of Technology

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An article of mine on the “Technologies of Taste” has just come out in Technology & Society, a publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). It’s a fascinating special issue exploring the “Unintended Consequences of Technology.” As the guest editor, Ramona Pringle explained it to me that the focus wasn’t on “the dark side” of tech, but rather the complicated nature of our increasingly connected lives.

The call for papers, however, emphasized the danger of not carefully examining our relationship to new technology:

With all great innovation comes responsibility; and with the exponential growth of technology, the window within which we can examine the ethics and consequences of our adoption of new technologies becomes increasingly narrow. Instead of fear mongering, how do we adjust our course, as a society, before it is too late?

My piece explores the role that recommendation systems play in our online pursuits of knowledge and pleasure. How is our personal taste affected by finely-tuned commercial algorithms that are optimized to sell us products and monetize our attention? While Eli Pariser and others have argued that these systems place us in “filter bubbles” that insulate us from new ideas, I argue that companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix have strong commercial incentives to develop recommendation systems that broaden their customers’ horizons rather than limiting them, effectively bursting filter bubbles rather than reinforcing them.

This couldn’t be a more timely argument considering that concerns about filter bubbles have grown exponentially during the last presidential election cycle. What complicates the debate about filter bubbles is that each site — whether it’s primarily an ecommerce, social media, search or content platform — has very different goals in mind and different proprietary algorithms in place to achieve them. I hope this article triggers a more thoughtful conversation when people claim that ideological insularity is the obvious outcome of filtering and recommendation technology.

 

Advancing the Story: The Next Chapter in Media Impact

The Norman Lear Center and the Paley Center for Media held an event on November 2 exploring how technology and storytelling are raising awareness about important social issues. I gave a presentation (which you can watch here) addressing how we can connect the dots between media exposure and social or political action. Summarizing results from the Lear Center’s impact studies of the documentary film Waiting for “Superman,” the narrative feature film Contagion, and the Guardian’s global development news website, I explained how mixed methods research can be used to assess changes in knowledge, attitudes and behavior from media exposure (You can read full-length reports here).

The evening started with a very timely panel discussion about how new technologies are informing and invigorating public discourse about social issues. Justin Osofsky, Vice President of Media Partnerships and Online Operations at Facebook, discussed how “humbled” the organization was by the profound impact that Facebook Live video streaming has produced. Wesley Lowery, National Reporter at The Washington Post and author of the forthcoming They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement, explained how his fluid use of Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope transformed his journalistic process. Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer of Frontline, weighed in on the expanding use of VR among newsgatherers, and her “Aha!” moment at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Jennifer Preston, Vice President of Journalism at the Knight Foundation, which sponsored this event, joined the panel in a nuanced conversation about the difference between journalistic ethics and online community ethics, which are becoming more deeply interwoven as citizens move to social media platforms for news.

The second panel of the night addressed the impact of storytelling in entertainment, bringing together the grandfather of social issue TV, Norman Lear; Kenya Barris, creator of black-ish; and Gloria Calderon Kellett, Co-Showrunner of the Netflix reboot of Lear’s classic  One Day at a Time. Moderated by Marty Kaplan, the group addressed the critical need for entertaining stories about real people and real problems on screens large and small. Sensitive to the historic lack of diversity on primetime TV, Barris and Kellett discussed the need to dislodge the notion that there’s one monolithic experience for each ethnic group. By injecting their own lived lives into their storytelling, all three writers felt that they could trigger conversations that could lead to social change.

Check out the lively Twitter feed from the event: #mediaimpact 

Los Angeles – The Actual & the Imaginary City

Median

Los Angeles may be the most mediated city in the world: it is the backdrop of countless media representations. No wonder we have a hard time grasping it: which part is real and which part is fake? Is it a fool’s errand to try to separate the two?

We’ll discuss this and much more on Sunday, August 7 at 4pm at the WUHO Gallery in Hollywood, which is exhibiting an experimental moving image installation called Median. Created by Bill Ferehawk and David HartwellMedian presents a Los Angeles of drive-by impressions. It distills the city into the canned personas that it projects to its passers-by and lends perspective on the everyday urban tics through which the city is read.

With Median as the backdrop, I’ll moderate a panel discussion with some keen observers of Los Angeles’s urban experience, including:

Bill Ferehawk and David Hartwell, creators of Median

Naomi Iwasaki, Program Director of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Great Streets Program

David Ulin, author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles

Andrew Wilcox, landscape architect and contributor to LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas

INFO:

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Making of Median: 3pm (LA Forum members only)

From the Street: Median in Conversation: 4pm (free and open to the public)

LA Forum Events @ WUHO Gallery

6518 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90028

Median is on view through Thursday, August 25, 2016

Gallery Hours: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, noon to 5 pm

Become an LA Forum member.

Design Patents & the Future of Fashion

 

I had to attend the Struktur conference vicariously this year, but I had the great fortune of attending this creative summit for active, outdoor and urban design last year. The organizers had approached me because of my TED.com talk on the lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry. It turned out that the active wear industry was facing a potential sea change. The news was getting out that Lululemon was aggressively pursuing design patents for their designs, effectively installing barbed wire around previous open pasture in the design community. The Struktur community wanted to know: what the hell is a design patent, anyway, and should I be getting some of them, too?

Once I knew this, It took me about zero seconds to agree to give a talk on the topic (here’s the video). I’ve been impatiently monitoring the wearable technology sector for many years now, where I see a very exciting (and lucrative) future for apparel designers. One key reason: fashion designers may not have copyright protection – which means they don’t own their designs – but they are eligible for patent protection if they can inject some unique utility into their design.

I can’t believe how long it’s taken for high-end fashion designers to get into the wearable tech game. But slowly and surely, it’s finally happening. The wearable-electronics market reached $8 billion in sales in 2014, and is expected to hit $20 billion by 2017, according to research firm Futuresource Consulting. I expect the sector to explode once customers realize that they should be getting tremendous utility value with their clothes – not just cute looks.

Editorial about wearable tech tends to be pretty snarky, but even cynical reporters are starting to warm to the idea. Athos now offers workout capris that alert you to your workout targets and tell you whether you’re favoring one leg over the other, which can lead to injury and inadequate work outs.

Emel + Aris have created a luscious cashmere wrap that’s actually a toasty electric blanket. Iris Apfel, icon of all who hope to age in grand style, has developed WiseWear cuffs that can send a message to an emergency contact if you should get in trouble. And while I’m no fan of Ralph Lauren, the Ricky bag is kind of genius, with its built in phone charger and LED lights that switch on when you open the bag.

So all of these contraptions are eligible for utility patents, which cover inventions that are novel, useful and non-obvious. So what is a design patent? Read the rest of this entry »

Talking About the Culture of Technology with Katina Michael

I had a wonderful conversation with Katina Michael, professor of Information Systems and Technology at the University of Wollongong, and editor in chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. She wanted to have a chat about my forthcoming article on “Technologies of Taste,” which explores the social impact of recommendation engines. But the conversation ranged far beyond that topic, touching on the behavioral biometrics of game play, the privacy implications of Samsung TVs that can listen to your conversations, and the attention economy as a “zero sum game.” Clearly, I may just have to fly to Australia to continue this conversation in person.

 

 

Overcoming “Development Fatigue”

How can we translate awareness into action?

If you’re a regular news consumer in the United States you might get the impression that world is going to hell. Especially when it comes to international news, you’ve probably recoiled from the grizzly headlines and wondered how on earth, in the 21st century, we find ourselves surrounded by such barbarism, poverty, and countless other intractable global ills.

Unless you’re a global development professional, or someone who’s watched one of Hans Roslings’ acerbic TED videos, you probably wouldn’t know about all of the absolutely mind-boggling improvements that have been made to the quality of life for billions of people around the globe.

Unfortunately, the great successes of the Millennium Development Goals, didn’t exactly make front page news. In the financially failing news industry, the international beat is the most expensive to cover, and with the public dead-set against increasing foreign aid and selfishly focused on its own backyard, news outlets don’t have the best incentives to report on boring things like the MDG targets that were met. Little old things like . . .

  • Goal 1: Extreme poverty was reduced from 47% to 14% in developing nations.
  • Goal 2: 91% of kids in the developing world are receiving primary education.
  • Goal 3: The developing regions as a whole achieved the target for gender equality in primary, secondary and tertiary education.
  • Goal 4: The mortality rate for children under five has declined by more than half.
  • Goal 5: There was a 45% decline in maternal mortality.
  • Goal 6: There was a 45% decrease in HIV infections, a 58% drop in the malaria mortality rate, and a 45% drop in the TB mortality rate.
  • Goal 7: 2.6 billion people now have access to better water – this target was achieved five years ahead of schedule.
  • Goal 8: Despite public opinion, we’ve seen a 66% increase in development assistance.

Pleasantly surprised? Perhaps a little more inclined to follow the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals, which just launched in January?

Well, the UN hopes you will be. But, beyond injecting capital into the news industry, how do NGOs, governments and global development activists figure out a way to reach and engage the public? Read the rest of this entry »