So I have finally completed my extended abstract for #Flow12, and I figured I may as well publish it here. Any initial feedback is gratefully received, as it may help me shape my views before I present.
This is the Call For Responses that I answered:
Other Television Histories
This roundtable invites contributions from those who are interested in developing a transnational history of television as a medium that has been both national and globally networked from the beginning. The history of TV in the US and Britain has been fairly well mapped; and research on Western European TV histories is currently thriving. However, there are still only scattered resources on the development of television in more marginal, postcolonial places. I am interested in finding out what we learn when we juxtapose historical research on television in central and marginal locations. What kinds of economic, industrial, cultural and ideological exchanges become visible? How can we usefully employ existing research methods/findings developed in TV and media studies, to generate a truly “global” history of TV? How will such a globalized history influence and perhaps modify the main directions of television research, which privilege commercial and public-service broadcast models in national contexts?
Topic of interest could include analyses of industrial or ideological synergies among television systems generally thought as radically different when it comes to the role of propaganda, the relationship between education and entertainment or efforts to foster nation-building or the formation of regional or transnational identities through television. Other possibilities include but are not limited to television-mediated diasporas, program exchanges, broadcast signal-sharing across borders, the dispersion of global “modes” such as satire or and genres such as soap opera, news or commercials. Contributions that focus on how to teach the history of global television are particularly welcome.
And my response:
Looking at the television industry within New Zealand provides an interesting snapshot of a post-colonial small nation with a particularly distinct national identity, but one which is no longer served by a traditional public service television broadcast space. Public Service Television in New Zealand has always held a contested position, with the state-owned television network being funded for many years both by a licence fee, and through advertising. This led to a dual remit where public service responsibilities and the requirement for ratings clashed uncomfortably. The removal of the licence fee in 1999 saw the government providing the network with a significant annual investment in order to fulfil their public service obligations, but also expecting a significant return on investment. The launch of digital transmission was seen as offering a space for public service television, with two public service digital channels being launched, however 5 years on, the new government is no longer prepared to fund a broadcast space within a time of austerity, and both spaces are now completely commercial. Interestingly, public service radio still exists, but there is growing concern that funding for that space might also be cut. However, these changes also allow for the possibility of innovative growth. Might the internet provide an alternate space for public service content to be made available? Are there concerns over availability, or a lack of visibility of such content?
The content that is currently available on New Zealand broadcast television provides an interesting view of global television more broadly, drawing on re-broadcast content from the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, in addition to locally produced content. Having this variety of content, including both network and cable content from the US, broadcast indistinguishably from each other across the schedule, means that much of the initial coding of the original broadcast is stripped out. Thus United States of Tara might screen directly after, and outrate Glee, something inconceivable within the US market. Removing content from its original broadcast context may allow us to think about elements which are inherent within the text, but which might be obscured by our assumptions of broadcast spaces. Do audiences view cable and network shows differently when extracted from those contexts? What happens to the brand identity of series when series from CBS, NBC and Showtime all air on the same network? Do we think about television differently when a single night’s viewing on one network might screen content from four different national contexts?
A final element of television watching in New Zealand may allow us to reconsider what Tama Leaver calls the tyranny of digital distance. Broadcast models mean that international content often screens in New Zealand months, if not years, after its original broadcast. While this has traditionally not proved problematic, the rise of internet communication and transnational fan communities has made this type of delayed viewing increasingly fraught. New Zealand television networks are finally starting to respond to this, with one local network screening Homeland on free-to-air television in New Zealand less than three hours after it airs on the US west coast. This trend is also being seen with some US network content, as well as some UK cult series. The question that remains to be answered is whether this move begins to address some of the concerns that have existed, or whether viewers continue to exist in a state of temporal and geographic flux, unable to participate in live social media discussions, possibly excluding themselves from social media in order to avoid spoilers, often still unable to engage with elements of transmedia storytelling or overflow which are still fixed to geographic location. Does this move discourage digital piracy of television content, or does it only address one small reason behind these actions?
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There has been more discussion about television in New Zealand in recent months than I can remember ever before. The discussion over the demise of TVNZ7, the last true space of public service television broadcast in New Zealand, the decision by the government to only fund content rather broadcast platform, and some of the recent funding decisions made by the national content funding authority, New Zealand on Air. However, one of the things that has come through very strongly to me has been a distinct strain of anti-Reality television discourse. I absolutely understand that reality television is not to everybody’s taste, but to my mind, there have been some distinctly knee-jerk reactions, and suggestions of causality from people who really should know better.
I want to be clear, I am not a reality television apologist, although I do think it can be fascinating, and also can serve important purposes in society.
- Reality television is not responsible for the death of TVNZ7. Numerous people who entered into the debate over TVNZ7 pointed to the NZ on Air funding of The GC, NZ’s Got Talent and now The Ridges (EDIT – I am reliably informed by @dubdotdash that The Ridges did not receive NZonAir funding – but people have certainly been talking about it as if it did, which may make my point!) as something that was happening instead of funding the public service broadcaster. This is simply not true. NZ On Air could not have funded TVNZ7 if it wanted to, as it has no mandate to do anything except commission programming. They cannot and do not fund broadcasters, and the legislation which governs them prevents them from doing so.
- Reality television formats have an important place on New Zealand television. As a small Anglophone broadcast market, the economics of our situation mean that we have a large amount of cheap imported television content. Given the success of reality television formats overseas, it is only natural that many of these imported programmes are reality. There is value to us as New Zealanders to seeing New Zealand equivalents of these shows, instead of young New Zealanders aspiring to appear on American Idol, The X Factor Australia, or Britain’s Got Talent. New Zealand variants of these series maybe be (and look) low budget, but they provide an opportunity to see New Zealand voices, faces, culture, and senses of humour represented on our television screens in primetime. This plays a vital role in maintaining a sense of the unique New Zealand culture.
- Reality television suffers from elitism. There is a common discourse that reality television represents the lowest form of entertainment possible. This plays directly into a form of elitism that will be familiar to many scholars, especially those who work in the various forms of media studies. It’s the same elitism that said in the 1950s that television would kill off cinema, that said in the mid-1800s that the works of Charles Dickens were going to be the end of educated society, and that lead Socrates to decry that this new invention that would prevent the acquisition of knowledge. He was talking about the written word. Reality television is both new (although with extended roots, including cinema verite) and popular, which inevitably leads some groups of people to disparage and fear it. This form of historical amnesia has affected almost every new form of cultural product I can think of.
- Reality television covers a broad spectrum. There is a massive range of reality television. Country Calendar? Reality television. Intrepid Journeys? Reality television. The GC? Reality television. Survivor? Reality television. There is some excellent and interesting reality television. There is some reality television I couldn’t care less about. What else does that describe? Everything! For every Godfather Part II, we get a Freddy Got Fingered. For every War and Peace, we have 50 Shades of Gray. For every Harry Potter, we have Twilight. But every single one of those has a definite fan base, has people who adore the text. Your trash is my treasure. And I’m not sure any of us has the right to prevent others from enjoying their chosen entertainment.
- A lot of people enjoy Reality television. One key element of the elitism discussion above is that most of the cultural artefacts dismissed are those of mass entertainment, those that are seen to appeal to the population at large. There is an immediate backlash against anything that is seen as having broad appeal (cf the painful hipster affectation of “liking something before it was cool”). One of the elements that NZ on Air has to take into consideration when deciding what to fund is the breadth of appeal, and the viewership of many of these shows is undeniable (New Zealand’s Got Talent just received a 22.9 in the 5+ demo for its first episode – that means that nearly 1 in 4 New Zealanders over 5 years old watched it live, a frankly ridiculous figure in the fragmented distribution age).
I understand that people wish to see public service broadcasting. I understand that many people have no interest in watching The GC. I understand that many people do not see a point to reality television. But I believe that reality television, including imported reality television formats, play a crucial role in the formation of our national identity, and under the current guidelines, are certainly one of the areas that should be funded by NZ on Air. And I have been a little disappointed that some sectors (the NZ Herald probably unsurprisingly, RNZ’s Mediawatch a little more surprisingly) have jumped on the bandwagon, using phrases like “glorified talent show”, which contain a fair amount of negative subtext.
I do have some ideas for an alternate funding structure for NZ on Air, which would take into account public service programming, digital distribution models, fictional programming, and mainstream local content. This reformulation may remove a lot of the concern about shows like New Zealand’s Got Talent being seen to take money away from shows like Backbenchers. I am still working it all through in my head, but I will blog about soon.
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For me, there is a distinct pleasure in sharing items of pop culture with people. I love the act of introducing people to something they haven’t come across before, and then seeing them getting joy from it, perhaps discovering a new favourite. But when I was thinking about this the other day, I realised that the things that I often recommend are not necessarily my absolute favourites – there are things which I love that I would never think to recommend to people, because I assume that most people would have come across them already. But there are certain things, lesser known, indie, obscure, or just forgotten, that I find that I champion over and over again. So, I thought I’d put a list together. Please feel free to engage with this selection in the comments, or to recommend your own
I’ve tried to provide some sort of A/V material of each of my choices, obviously that’s not always possible.
1. Josie and the Pussycats
There’s something about this movie that just keeps me coming back and back. On the surface, it’s a very minor film. But when you give it more than a cursory glance, it is actually a fascinating look at commercialism and pop culture. Plus it’s funny. And the soundtrack is far catchier than it deserves to be. I just keep coming back to it. Plus: Alan Cumming, Parker Posey, Missi Pyle, and a Vanilla Ice cameo. Who could ask for anything more?
2. William Shatner – “Has Been”
William Shatner’s music career has long been a source of derision. His early album (along with pretty much any other musical output of his ST-TOS co-stars) has been regularly held up as an example of why actors should stick to acting. But his 2004 album, “Has Been”, defies all the precedent. This is an excellent album. Part of that can certainly be put down to his collaboration with musical genius Ben Folds, who produced and orchestrated the album, as well as co-writing most of the songs with Shatner and others. Shatner is in fine form, not taking himself too seriously, although at times really tapping into some genuine emotion. It’s not perfect – there are one or two tracks around the middle that don’t do a lot for me, but it still rates for me as one of my favourite albums, and one I still go back to repeatedly.
3. Wizard Rock
So this isn’t so much a piece of pop culture, as a phenomenon. Wizard Rock is songs written and performed by fans of Harry Potter. Sometimes they write as characters from the books, sometimes they create their own characters, and sometimes they are just meta-textual about the phenomenon itself. It is not all of the highest quality, but the creativity is amazing, and I can just get lost in Youtube loops for hours. I’ll put a Wrock link below that talks reflexively about what it means to make Wizard Rock, but a brief Youtube search for Wizard Rock or Wrock will bring up a host of others.
4. Not The Nine O’Clock News
I find that I don’t recommend a lot of the same TV regularly, mainly because I have very eclectic tastes, and also because TV series usually require a significant time commitments. However, NTNON is one series that I heartily recommend and regularly share my DVDs around. Made in the UK between 1979 & 1982, following in the footsteps of Monty Python, NTNON is deeply satirical, features a wonderful cast, and makes me laugh over and over again. There are really only two DVD collections available, so there’s not a huge amount of content to watch. And a lot is available on Youtube too.
I have a massive soft spot for music documentaries. And this is one of my favourites, charting the origins of hip-hop and turntablism. Not much to say about it, it just excites me, beyond belief. I’ll put the trailer below, but the full documentary seems to be on Youtube…
6. Ernest Cline – “Ready Player One”
I read this book for the first time about 12 months ago, and have read it twice again since then. For people who have an undying love for the pop culture of the 1980s and 90s, this book is an absolute treasure trove. It’s very hard to find a video to go with this, but it turns out, there is actually a book trailer! Also, I haven’t heard it, but the audiobook is apparently read by Wil Wheaton and as wonderful as you might imagine.
7. Leon/The Professional
This film is not necessarily unknown, but yet I am constantly amazed by the number of people who haven’t come across it, or at least had the opportunity to see it. These days, it’s best known as the vehicle that “discovered” a very young Natalie Portman. And she is superb in it, absolutely. But Luc Besson is in top form, and brings together a cast including Jean Reno in his finest screen performance, and Gary Oldman in superlative form. It is sweet, it is sad, it is disturbing, and it is wonderful.
8. The Flaming Lips – “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”
The Flaming Lips are one of those bands that has escaped a lot of people, even music fans. They have been around for so long, been so eclectic, even appeared on Beverly Hills 90210. But while I do recommend almost all their work, two of their albums from around the turn of the millenium truly stand out. First they released The Soft Bulletin, which showed a new direction, and massive potential. And then, in 2002, they released Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. And what a piece of work it is. This album never fails to make me feel happy.
I’m sure there are more, but that seems like a good place to leave it. Fascinated to hear your thoughts.
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I have a blog post on Hacktivision.org which was initially intended to discuss NZ’s impoverished position in the world of digital distribution. However, the announcement and launch of Quickflix in the past few days gave me pause for thought. However, I’m not sure that this offering, at least at it’s initial stage, is going to be the holy grail that we seek. In fact, I’m not sure that a holy grail is actually possible under the current global distribution systems, and they are showing no signs of changing!
A caveat, first up. A lot of my inspiration to discuss this came out of a Twitter discussion I glommed onto, between @ellenstrickland, @radiowammo and @paulbrislen. My thoughts are inflected by that discussion. I also don’t want to discourage people from signing up to this service. I will sign up just as soon as I can afford to (even $9.99 per month is a lot to an impoverished grad student), and I encourage any and everyone to do the same. Competition needs to be encouraged. Having said that, when you do sign up, make your voice heard. Let them know what you want.
Now, back to why I don’t think this will work in the short term, unless they have money behind them to get them through the first year or two. As I said in the Hacktivision post, QF is launching with 650ish movies, and 10 seasons of television. Not series, seasons. Netflix streaming, what we have all heard about and crave, currently offers 30,000 titles (both film & TV) with a TV series counting as one title. The catalogue of NF is constantly expanding, as I would expect QF to, but I am told that the recent NF focus has been on television – that it is television on demand, rather than film, that is really driving the uptake. This makes the initial offering from QF even more puzzling.
Abigail de Kosnik wrote an excellent piece a couple of years ago for the Convergence Culture Consortium, provocatively entitled “Piracy is the Future of Television” (PDF here). In it, she points out that many people have become habituated to piracy of television content, and although they might be convinced to pay for an equivalent legal service, the service actually needs to be equivalent. She highlights the “benefits” of piracy, which include: a single search – one place to find all your content; simple indexing; uniform software and appearance; file portability – the ability to watch what you want, on the device you want, when you want; access to global content; the ability to archive; and low cost and commercial free. Now, some of these will not be achievable by a Subscriber Video On Demand (S-VOD) service, such as the ability to archive, but if you can be relatively confident that your chosen provider will have your content of choice for the foreseeable future, I believe this becomes less of a barrier.
However, looking at the offering from QF, it fails to meet most of these barriers. It is certainly at the right price, and appears to be commercial free, which is an excellent start. However, it fails dismally on access to global content (US & UK films only, UK tv only – they couldn’t even launch with some Aus/NZ content???), the computer playback seems to require Microsoft Silverlight, there is no playback for mobile devices/tablets, no suggestion of a set-top box.
The biggest issue surrounding S-VOD in NZ, outside of the cost of broadband data, seems to be the difficulty around securing rights for it. If my twitter stream is to be believed (and these are smart people), it’s not that these rights are held by anyone, which leads me to believe that the biggest issue is that the rights need to be negotiated for each title, individually, with each distributor. And it is not always clear who the distributor is for these rights, even within the parent company. Some rights management for NZ is pushed out to an Australian office, some to the UK, some to NZ if they have a distribution office here (less and less likely). And for older content, the lines are even more blurred.
I want QF to succeed. I want them to get the rights to more content. I want those rights to not be exclusive, so that genuine competition can open up over service and price, rather than needing to sign up to multiple services to get the full range of content. I want a lot. And I think I’m dreaming. It has been repeated time and time again that NZ is too small a market for any large company to go through the hassle of negotiating all those rights. Until the models of global distribution change, we are going to see outfits like QF, giving us offerings which are well intended, but continue to fall short. And piracy, especially television piracy, will remain rife.
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Having just spent a stimulating couple of days in Portland at the What is TV conference, hosted brilliantly by the University of Oregon, I started to realise how little most of us, and I very much include myself in this, know about the realities of each other’s broadcasting systems. To try to mitigate this a little, I thought I would try to put together a quick post to provide the most basic of overviews of the shape of the NZ broadcast (specifically television) industry. By way of caveat, the NZ industry is not a direct area of expertise of mine, and so some of the details here may not be perfect, but hopefully it will be sufficient to serve as a snapshot.
Firstly, free to air. NZ currently has several channels that air free to anyone with the technology to receive them, although they do differ slightly from the US network model, as frequently one owner will have more than one competing free-to-air (FTA) channel. This proliferation of FTA channels is a relatively recent phenomenon, with NZ only having one channel until the mid 70s, and the third not launching until 1989. New Zealand’s first two FTA channels were (and still are) state owned, operating under a slightly odd mix of public service and commercial remit. How this balance has been achieved over the years has varied, with a license fee being charged until the late 90s, but commercials having been an expected part of television life for the length of my living memory, and as far as I am aware, as long as we have had the television broadcast. There has been a recent shift again in this balance, with the current government removing the public service mandate from the two main state owned channels, and putting more pressure on them to return a commercial dividend. I will include links at the end of the post to commentary far more eloquent than mine on this mixed model, and the recent shifts.
A third channel began in ’89, and although it quickly folded a few years later, it was reborn, and a fourth sister channel was added in ’97. These channels have always been commercially owned, with the current majority shareholders being CanWest, a Canadian media company who also own a large suite of radio stations in NZ.
It was in the late 80s that NZ first had pay TV options available, provided by the Sky network, which although it bears a similar name to a UK counterpart,
does not appear to be a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (A commenter below has pointed out that a check of the Companies Office does indeed show News Corp to be a significant shareholder). Significantly, to me at least, these pay channels were at that point only available over the standard VHF/UHF spectrum, mainly because there was no existing infrastructure for any other types of television delivery, a factor which has shaped the direction television and Internet access in New Zealand. This pay service was very small to begin, a single channel each for movies, sports, news, and a general entertainment channel (I really have to qualify here that my memory of this is a little vague, but it still provides an idea of the basic shape and scale). The number of channels on this pay service has risen gradually since then, and near the end, I will sketch out the current shape of the pay TV offerings.
Another FTA network launched in the mid-late 90s, but suffered from a lack of differentiation/content, and also from being available only on the UHF network, and thus mainly only receivable by those with a pay TV subscription, or those who specifically purchased the technology to access it. This channel was eventually bought out by the Sky network, but remains FTA, as a strategic position which allows them to claim (contentiously) a PSB position in NZ, and also provides a stronger bidding position for sporting events that are of national interest, such as Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and World championship-type events.
One of the big shifts in the past 15 years was the launch in 2004 of a public-funded channel dedicated to the indigenous Maori language and culture. The channel features a mix of educational programming, popular programming (especially children’s programming) dubbed into te reo (the Maori language), reality tv formats adapted to specific local and community context, and internationally-sourced documentary and feature films, often with some sort of focus on indigeneity or indigenous peoples. In recent years, the channel has also bid on some sporting content, usually providing bilingual commentary. My understanding of the funding of this channel is that it comes from a dedicated funding source for the preservation of Maori language and culture, and as such, although it is state funded, the content and structure of the channel are outside government control. In recent years, the channel has had a slightly broader focus of sharing elements of Maori culture and language with all New Zealanders irrespective of their knowledge of te reo, and a second channel has launched which is completely in te reo, designed for those already fluent in the language. Once again, I will try to indicate some links/journal articles at the end.
Along with Maori Television, the other key recent shift in the broadcast industry, as it has been internationally, has been the shift toward digital broadcast. As I said earlier, infrastructure is not in place in New Zealand to provide cable television or Internet to the great majority of the population (the central business districts of 2 of NZ’s mid-size cities are served by cable thanks to the infrastructure investment of a single telco, but it is really only a small number of people served by this). The move towards digital broadcast saw TVNZ launch two new digital channels with public service remits, one aimed specifically at children and children’s programming, the second at locally produced public service content and imported documentary content of PSB interest. However, with a change in government, the funding to maintain these channels was not renewed, and has seen the children’s channel replaced with a youth-oriented commercial channel, and the PSB content channel to be replaced later this year with a home shopping network.
Thus television in New Zealand finds itself at an interesting position in 2012. Two main state-owned channels, with a purely commercial remit, with a couple of other state-owned digital channels aimed at niche markets, a handful of privately-owned FTA channels, and a single pay television provider, offering 100ish channels, some of which are regional variants of international channels (Food Network, E!, MTV), others of which are localised and specific (5 different sports channels, 5 film channels, a new “quality television” channel etc).
I have previously covered some of the ground here, albeit with a slightly different take, a couple of years ago. The first post covers similar ground, the second looks more at content. Those posts can be read here:
Useful links/papers etc
Trisha Dunleavy on the history of PSB in NZ: http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/30/6/795.short
Geoff Lealand on the deregulation of NZ TV: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=083650075782215;res=IELLCC
Peter Thompson on the contradictions of the TVNZ Charter: http://www.mang.canterbury.ac.nz/ANZCA/fullPapers/13MedSocnewmediaFinal.pdf
Peter Thompson on the disappearing public sphere in NZ: http://unitec.researchbank.ac.nz/handle/10652/1558
Comrie & Fountaine on Public Service Broadcasting & TVNZ: http://mcs.sagepub.com/content/27/1/101.short
Jo Smith on indigeneity and Maori Television: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10304312.2011.590576
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This paper was delivered at the What Is Television conference at the University of Oregon on March 3, 2012. I believe video from the conference will be available at some point, and I will add the link here when it is easily available. As I mentioned to those present, I had a tech fail and was unable to provide the accompanying graphic – it can now be found inserted below. Although it has already been delivered, this forms a part of my ongoing work, and as such, any constructive criticism is always gratefully appreciated.
(Paper appears after the jump)
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First time trying a blogpost from an iPad, so please excuse any typos/autocorrect issues!
I’ve been slack on my blogging, as many of my blogposts begin, but I get the feeling that the blog is going to be more functional than inspirational for the next 12 months. I am now into the last 12 months of my PhD writing, which means I have a whole heap of writing to do, and am steadily running out of time in which to do it. Having said that, it’s also hugely exciting, as all the work I’ve put into the last 2 years starts to come together!
As I did last year, I’m currently teaching in Summer School, on a Video Games paper, which is equal parts fun and challenging. I love delving into the theory, which is a little outside my wheelhouse (although anything to do with pop culture is gravy in my books), but it is a bit of a challenge not being so familiar with the latest texts. Postgrad has kept me from being a gamer for quite a few years. But I find the work inspiring, it’s given me great ideas for some papers to write once I get the thesis off my plate.
I’m lecturing the course that I lecturer first semester last year again, and definitely looking forward to it. My co-convenor and I have been able to make the course a little more our own again this year, meaning I get to add a lecture on storytelling in the digital age to the 2 other media culture lectures. It’ll make for a really fun run of lectures in the middle of the semester, at least for me, and hopefully for the students as well. Engaging a little more with transmedia, and with fan cultures – I love that I get to show students some of the awesome things that can be studied if you have the desire.
I’m also looking at a pretty busy year for conferences, and hopefully for publications too. Heading to Portland in early March for the What Is TV? Conference; thinking about going to ANZCA in Adelaide in July; and finally, this should hopefully be a FlowTV year, which would see me heading to Austin near the end of the year, funds willing. In addition to that, ANZCA produces a peer-reviewed proceedings, which if I can get into, will give me my first proper publication.
What this all means is what I need to have done by early March is:
I’m thinking that should be enough to be going on with when you add in trying to keep up with all the TV content I try to follow, plus staying in touch with as many colleagues on Twitter as possible…
It’s going to be quite a year.
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