Johanna Blakley

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Archive for TV

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.

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 

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.

 

 

Deflating the Filter Bubble

filterbubble

I was asked recently to speak at a symposium on Media Choices at Drexel University. The event drew a fascinating array of scholars who were studying things like Internet addiction, online dating, and political polarization in media consumption.

When someone mentions “media choice” to me, I automatically start thinking about the algorithms that have been developed to help shape that choice.

I have followed avidly the growing use of recommendation systems that you see on sites like Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Pandora. I saw these mechanisms as a significant move away from demographic marketing (which I find deeply flawed) to marketing based on customer taste.

I did have my reservations though. I was very moved by Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the danger of “filter bubbles,” which effectively insulate us from opinions and content that we don’t understand or like. His talk really resonated with me because of the deeply divided ideological and taste communities that I found in a major survey research project I conducted on the correlation between entertainment preferences and political ideology (spoiler: they are even more deeply connected than you might think.)

But, when I conducted further research about collaborative filtering systems, I made some rather counter-intuitive discoveries. YouTube, for instance, found that “suggesting the videos most closely related to the one a person is already watching actually drives them away.”

Of course YouTube’s goal is to get you to sit and watch YouTube like you watch TV: to lean back and watch a half hour to an hour of programming, rather than watching for two minutes, getting frustrated trying to find something else worth watching and then going elsewhere. So, in short, it’s in YouTube’s best interest to introduce some calculated serendipity into their recommendations. Read the rest of this entry »

Participant Media’s Impact Index

TPI

The New York Times devoted significant ink this week to The Participant Index (TPI), an effort by Participant Media to quantify and compare the relative social impact of films, TV shows and online video. The article also mentioned the Lear Center’s $4.2 million Media Impact Project: I’m the co-principal investigator on that project and we’ve been consulting with Participant on the development of TPI.

Here’s a little back story: Participant approached the Lear Center because of its academic expertise in measuring the impact of educational messages embedded in entertainment content. Our Hollywood, Health & Society program (for which I wrote the initial grant) has partnered with the CDC for the last 14 years to look at how health story lines in popular TV shows affect viewers’ knowledge, attitudes and behavior. The survey component of TPI includes a combination of questions that have become standard in entertainment education evaluation: the “transportation scale” identifies the type of emotional involvement that the entertainment content triggered and the outcome questions indicate what real-world actions a subject has taken after exposure to the content. TPI combines these two measures to create a score for each piece of video content in the study. Read the rest of this entry »

Tracking “Culture”

culturetrack

I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Measuring the Impact of Art

audience

Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »