Innovation Beyond Hollywood and
the Rise of Web Television
New York University Press (Fall 2017)
Credit: Whatever this is (2013), Rascal Department
Television, outside traditional television, is as open as ever.
My first book, Open TV, introduces a trailblazing generation of storytellers. Based on interviews with 134 writers, producers, entrepreneurs and network executives, I argue the web brought innovation to television by opening series development to producers, fans, and sponsors. Open access to distribution supported creative freedom for producers, diverse forms of storytelling for marginalized communities, and more dynamic ways of releasing and showcasing shows.
We have left the network era far behind and entered the networked era. YouTube alone hosts hundreds of thousands of showrunners, comedians, talk show hosts, video game commenters, makeup and shopping gurus, pop culture and political commentators, each with millions of followers. Beyond YouTube, producers from diverse groups and communities are making series for platforms like Vimeo and Funny or Die and user-generated networks like Maker Studios, Machinima, and Fullscreen. Netflix and Amazon reconfigure original series development by giving producers more autonomy and larger episode orders while incorporating viewer taste through big data. Social media platforms, primarily Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, give creative workers tools for speaking to and organizing fans. Kickstarter, Indiegogo and small crowdfunding sites provide platforms for efficient financing campaigns. New advertising technologies allow distributors of “spreadable” media to make money for pennies per view. Productions shoot all around the country, with hubs in New York and Los Angeles but outposts in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., New Orleans and college campuses across the nation.
The open TV market responds faster and with greater accountability to the desires – and sometimes the needs – of producers, audiences and sponsors than traditional television, where series development rests in the hands of a few network executives and the advertisers who finance series. The web and its agents inspire us with a vision of art after industry failure, where workers, fans and entrepreneurs work together to pilot stories reflecting their own interests and values. They are not the answer to the crisis in media ownership and distribution, but they suggest vitality outside a system that justifies its dominance through aggressive marketing and lobbying. Indeed, with this knowledge, the future of media is not dire or in crisis but rather waiting for the market, the state or workers themselves to restructure industry relations toward a fuller, fairer future.
For a list of the book’s contributions to television, media and communication studies, read this blog post.
Indie TV: Where Creators and Fans Pilot New Shows
For an introduction to the kinds of producers and series in the book, check out the video below from a panel I moderated at Transforming Hollywood 5, a one-day conference convened by Henry Jenkins and Denise Mann at UCLA on April 4, 2014.
Featuring: Issa Rae (Insecure, Awkward Black Girl), Adam Goldman (The Outs, Whatever this is), Numa Perrier (Black & Sexy TV), Amy York Rubin (Boxed In, Little Horribles), Jay Bushman (Lizzie Bennett Diaries), Brad Bell (Husbands)
Peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters and essays
The Value of Representation: Toward a Critique of Networked Television Performance. forthcoming. International Journal of Communication.
By changing the relations of production and exhibition, Internet or “networked” distribution – digital, peer-to-peer – offers ways to experiment with representations different from legacy “network” distribution – linear, one-to-many. To advance a theory of value in representation I founded a platform, Open TV beta, to develop queer, intersectional television in Chicago and online. I present a framework for assessing representational value through case studies of producing and exhibiting three local, queer, artist-driven pilots in Chicago. I argue small-scale development processes restructure the politics of representation in television and art, allowing us to see value and innovation where it has historically been hidden in performances of cultures, organizations, and technologies of exhibition.
One Man Hollywood: The Decline of Black Creative Production in Post-Network Television. Aymar Jean Christian & Khadijah Costeley White. 2016. From Madea to Media Mogul: Critical Perspectives on Tyler Perry. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press.
This essay explains Perry’s successful rise as inextricably tied to the growing invisibility of Black labor and audiences in Hollywood, even amidst exponential growth in production and networks for distribution. How is it that, despite hundreds of channels, only Perry and a handful of other Black producers – Shonda Rhimes, Mara Brock and Salim Akil– were able to profit from the burgeoning new television marketplace? We begin with an explanation of the past and present – the rise and fall – of the Black TV market. We then move to discuss how Perry stepped into the void left when growing conglomerates shed Black television shows and creative talent, and how his productions successfully saved or lifted those conglomerates above the fray of a competitive media marketplace. Finally we will end with an examination of the stories this marketplace supports, focusing on how Perry’s cultural politics – based on his perception of what his audience wants – creates damaging narratives that champion patriarchy, heterosexism and narrow paths to progress within Black communities.
Web TV Networks Challenge Linear Business Models. 2015. Carsey-Wolf Media Industries Project.
What is a “network” in a post-network era? This article outlines four types of networked television distributors.
Most people find web TV – television programming served exclusively via Internet protocols – hard to grasp. Typically it’s because they have not considered how “networks” function differently outside the legacy cable system. Because internet distribution gives the people critical to a show’s success – producers, fans, brands – more options, web TV networks are more diverse in their business strategies and more difficult to categorize than traditional TV networks. Because there is more supply – more producers writing series, more audiences and niches to support them, and more time and space for sponsors to buy – demand for content is more diffuse. So too is the payoff. The crisis in demand is why, as Michael Wolff recently wrote, television will likely disrupt the internet, and not the other way around.
Indie TV: Innovation in Series Development. 2014. Media Independence: working with freedom or working for free?. James Bennett & Niki Strange, eds. New York, NY: Routledge.
This chapter explores the value of independent production within America’s highly concentrated and commercialized television industry, focusing on three web series—High Maintenance, Whatever this is and Easy to Assemble—alongside other notable cases, to explore the pilot process and upfront financing, which support US television networks’ access to US$70 billion in advertising.
Any consideration of the value and function of the independent television market must contend with who has power in corporate series development and how power is brought to bear in making decisions. In traditional television, network development executives shape series pitched by producers and their companies, but executives’ clients are advertising agencies, executives at media conglomerates and, by extension, shareholders of media companies. Despite the incredible rise of fandom and independent television series production, a small group of network executives continue to hold sway over the supply (creative production), consumption (fans or audiences) and financing (brands) of television content. This power imbalance and its inefficiencies were less visible before deregulation expanded the number of channels and original series on cable and the Internet. Today it has grown irksome to nearly everyone involved in the development process, including the decision makers themselves.
Indie TV producers invert these dynamics, placing power in development in the hands of creative workers, their fans and brands. By “indie TV” I describe an under-counted segment of producers who create mostly short-form serials and release them through YouTube, Vimeo or other online platforms for web distribution. They comprise amateurs, film students and graduates, and television professionals (inside and outside Hollywood unions, above and below the line) who produce video for themselves, their communities or, most rarely, for independent and corporate online and TV networks. This sector is defined by limited access and amounts of capital, supplied by algorithmic advertising, licensing, crowd-financing, subscription or sponsorship. Extremely under-capitalized, the indie market nevertheless models the kind of open, and diverse, TV ecosystem the deregulated landscape was intended to fertilize, before corporations purchased profitable distribution channels, increasing the scale of production but not always wages, creative freedom or audience and brand input. This chapter will show how pilot production, upfront monetization and audience selling are ill-suited to an age of online networking and market fragmentation; how network control over programming falls short of balancing art, culture and commerce; and how independent television development supports innovation in series creation by empowering producers, fans and brands frustrated with network control.
Flow: Post-Network Television Series, 2013
Open TV: Rescue Pilots from Development Hell. 2013. Flow. 18(8). October 7.
Considering the limits of the pilot process for satisfying producers, advertisers and audiences and the possibility independent television might correct inefficiencies and inequalities.
The Black TV Crisis and the Next Generation. 2013. Flow. 18(5). August 27.
Considering the limits of cable distribution, how it failed to diversify television’s producers and stories, and the new generation of digital storytellers who might help shift power relations.
Zombies Beat Humans on Television. 2013. Flow. 18(2). July 15.
Considering the limits of “quality TV” storytelling for supporting representations of, and jobs for, women and minorities.
Valuing Post-Network Television. 2013. Flow. 17(11). May 6.
Considering the limits of “the golden age of television” where producers and fans supposedly have more agency.
The Web As Television Reimagined? Online Networks and the Pursuit of Legacy Media. 2012. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36 (4).
This essay explores the history of online video networks from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, from American Cybercast to YouTube. Television’s weakness at the turn of the century opened a rhetorical and economic space for entrepreneurs eager to curate and distribute web programs. These companies introduced various forms of experimentation they associated with the advantages of digital technologies, but they also maintained continuity with television’s business practices. This dialectic between old and new, continuity and change, insiders and outsiders, reflected the instability of television as a concept and the promise of the web as an alternative. Using articles in the trade press, this essay explores the history of episodic web programming—variously called web series, webisodes, bitcoms, web television and, in its earliest form, cybersoaps—as new media network executives hoped to replicate but also differentiate themselves from legacy media.
Beyond Big Video: The Instability of independent networks in a new media market. 2012. Continuum, 26 (1).
This essay explores the possibility of an online video market operating independent of conglomerations. At stake is whether new media can operate “democratically,” providing more equal distribution of control to producers and distributors within an unequal market. This is the story of a handful of these websites, all of which promise this possibility: Strike TV, My Damn Channel, KoldCast, Babelgum and Quarterlife. Their stories offer telling case studies of new media in their formative years. In the end, without industrial structures in place, independents must grapple with rapidly changing conditions, improvise business strategies and, ultimately, work with the mainstream, traditional structures to which they were, however superficially, in opposition. Independent distribution in early media emerges as a practice as much indebted to the old media as it pushes new forms of engagement, marketing and production.
Special thanks to Graeme Turner for his help with developing the article.
For a brief summary of the article, click here.
Fandom as Industrial Response: Producing Identity in an Independent Web Series. 2011.Transformative Works & Culture, 8.
This essay examines the development, production and distribution of a web series, The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else, which it frames as a fan-driven response to an industrial product, Sex and the City. As intermittent participants within the Hollywood industry, the series producers, a diverse group of lesbian and straight women of various ethnicities, positioned their series as a market-oriented product intended to reform the industry from its margins and participate in a growing new media economy. The essay calls for expanded notions of fan production, industry and fresh frameworks for analyzing the effects of digital distribution, especially for communities of color, women and sexual minorities.
For a brief summary of the article, click here.
Producing Television 2.0: Reinventing the Industry in MTV’s Valemont. 2011. National Communication Association 2011 Conference. New Orleans, LA. 17-20, November.
MTV’s web series Valemont marked a significant shift in traditional network practices: a piece of “branded entertainment” – sponsored by Verizon – and a web series with an alternate reality game featuring mobile extensions and involving Twitter, a fake university website, and, to a lesser extent, Facebook and YouTube.This essay narrates how Valemont proposed an alternative to traditional network development, production and distribution practices. First, through interviews, it introduces its production team, an independent working both within and outside the industry to reform it. The rest of the essay focuses on the series itself: its distribution platforms, its engagement with fans and its alternate reality game. ‘Valemont’ emerges as a novelty in the television landscape, an ambitious if politically limited effort to make the industry more flexible and engaged, between fans and producers, producers and sponsors, and networks and new forms of releasing content.
Special thanks to Denise Mann for her help developing this article.
Not TV, Not the Web: Mobile Video Between Openness and Control. 2012. Mobile Media Reader. Noah Arceneaux, ed. Bruges, Belgium: College of Europe.
This chapter focuses on the efforts of three distributors of independent web video – Vimeo, My Damn Channel, and Q3030 Networks – alongside larger video sites – YouTube, Hulu and Crackle – to show how navigating the mobile market involves negotiating complex industrial and technological considerations. I outline what these companies wanted from mobile distribution and how they conceptualized their needs in the months leading up to and directly following the government’s first official statement on net neutrality and its exception for wireless services.From their perspective, the realities of the mobile video market illuminate how new media arise in fractured markets, not fully open or closed to new and established entrants. This chapter analyzes a sector of the mobile video market in a specific, narrow period of time. In the end, the mobile device itself holds no inherent meaning or politics outside its market and government players, all of whom are still working out how to deliver mobile content.
Joe Swanberg, Intimacy and the Digital Aesthetic. 2011. Cinema Journal, 50 (4).
Using the works of Joe Swanberg, primarily LOL, and weaving in films from other directors, this paper argues for mumblecore as a distinct form of realism based on a “digital aesthetic,” an aesthetic not merely in style and form, but also in the themes emanating from this form. This digital aesthetic, a result of theories from film and new media history, supports what I call “networked film,” both of which make mumblecore distinct from prior attempts at realism in film and distinguish it as an early 21st century phenomenon.
Thanks to Leo Charney for advising me on this project.
For a brief summary of the article, click here.
“Real Vlogs: The Rules and Meanings of Online Video.” 2009. First Monday, 14 (11).
This paper explores what the “rules” of vlogging (video blogging) are: the various visual and social practices viewers and creators understand and debate as either authentic or inauthentic on YouTube. It analyzes a small, random set of vlogs on YouTube and highlight several controversies around key celebrities on the site. This essay concludes by challenging whether conversations around authenticity will persist in dialogues about online video.
Special thanks to Paul Messaris for his help developing this article.
For a brief summary of the article, click here.
“Camp 2.0: A Queer Performance of the Personal.” 2010. Communication, Culture and Critique. 13 (3).
Camp has a rich and complicated history, its meanings and forms periodically shifting. Camp is variously known as a style of communication, a subcultural social glue, or a political position. In its newest incarnation online, camp has morphed in ways that contradict, or at least deviate from, its historical understandings.Spurred by the structure of YouTube and broader social trends, performers are infusing sincerity, emotion and deeper meanings of selfhood into camp, breaking with historical precedent, challenging the meanings of camp and, perhaps, the nature of performance. Performers of camp must negotiate their own gender and sexual identities, their audience, their artistic style, their desire for fame, and their “sense of self” when making videos and maintaining their web presence. These interests collide to result in a form of queer performance which partially unravels, though sometimes imitates, the forms in the past. The results of these negotiations show up in both the statements performers make but also in the videos themselves – both how they are made and what content they broadcast.
Special thanks to Katherine Sender for counsel and support. Click above for a poster demonstration.
For a brief summary of the article, click here.
Independent Cinema in Hong Kong: Negotiating Independence, Navigating Global Markets and Defining the Nation. 2010. Lecture. SummerCulture Colloquium. University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, PA.
Far from its heyday as the center of Asian film production, the market for Hong Kong cinema has changed drastically over the past ten years. Independent filmmaking — locally produced and shot — is experiencing a small revival, with the participation of the government and the local industry. Yet that market faces numerous challenges: a small and insufficient local box office, the global marketing power of China and, most significantly, a still nascent notion of Hong Kong identity, all of which prevent the forms from maturing achieving “independence.”