Friday, June 26, 2009

Saying Our Goodbyes

It has been fascinating to follow the various responses both on TV and online to the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon. Some have paused to mourn the passing of these celebrities; others have expressed frustration that so much energy has been spent discussing such "trivial" matters.

Considering these deaths from my perspective as a media studies scholar, my reaction is somewhat akin to the response I had to the end of ER. In different ways, each of these figures represented the age of "mass" media. So to mourn the loss of these people is also to mourn, in yet one more way, the end of a specific time in media history.

Consider this: At its peak (as the #5 show on TV), more than 18 million people tuned in to watch Farrah and company on Charlie's Angels. In contrast, the #5 show on TV in 2009 -- during sweeps, no less -- was Dancing with the Stars, which was viewed by about 5.8 million people. At the time Charlie's Angels aired, reality shows were a relatively marginal format. Now several are among the highest rated of shows. In addition, reality shows serve as a primary place where new "stars" are generated. (It is quite telling that just this week reports have circulated that Dancing with the Stars' performer Julianne Hough may next appear in a new big-screen iteration of Footloose with High School Musical star Zac Efron...that is, if she can learn to act).

Similarly, The Tonight Show was the late night show when Ed McMahon served as Carson's sidekick. Interestingly, for the first time in years, The Tonight Show once again has a sidekick in the form of Andy Richter. Yet now the late night landscape is not only overrun with seemingly endless programming alternatives, but with myriad talk show alternatives. Not only do we have many more broadcast options but cable has also entered into the late night talk show fray with Chelsea Handler and (very soon) George Lopez (among others). What's more, the days of NBC/Tonight dominating the ratings are long gone. These days, we are being barraged regularly with reports (or should I say spin) of the week's reigning late night king. (Though Nightline apparently beat both on Thursday night.)

And then there's the changes in the music industry. As one of my Facebook friends noted, "all it took was for Michael Jackson to die to make MTV start showing videos again." One is more likely to find a rock star in a reality show than in a music video these days -- at least on TV. (Heck, just this week, Nick Cannon made his premiere as host of America's Got Talent.) And as is the case with all media forms online, the music industry continues to struggle to figure out how to "monetize" music videos.

If the performer(s) aren't part of a Disney Channel program (or American Idol), the chances that they will break out seem slim indeed. Speaking of which, just this week the Jonas Brothers' latest album was released. It promptly became the number one title on the Billboard Top 100. Album sales totaled 247,000 copies. It seems safe to say that these chart-topping brothers will never come anywhere close to selling number of albums sold by those famous brothers of yore, the Jackson Five.

Yep, these are different days indeed.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I was pleased to see Variety recently run an article on the current state of made-for-TV (MFTs) movies and mini-series. Compared to series programming, these shows generate very little coverage from journalists (and even less from scholars). Yet as this article notes, while MFTs no longer have much of a presence on the broadcast networks, they are alive and well on numerous cable program services, including HBO and Lifetime. (Other key places where MFTs have shown up of late include the Disney Channel, the SciFi Channel --or, excuse me, SyFY -- and the Hallmark Channel.)

One related development in recent months is the emergence of what the Hollywood Reporter calls "maxi-series." Whether this is just a new term applied to an old form (see Thorn Birds, to the left) -- and I am tempted to think it is -- seems worth considering further. One potentially distinctive element of recent mini/maxi-series is their greater dependence on financing from outside the US. Increasingly, these shows go into production with distribution in place in many other countries around the world -- but without a place on a US cable or broadcast network.

My hope is that when I complete a couple of projects I am currently working on, I can write an essay exploring more precisely how and why MFTs appear where they do on specific cable outlets. (Should you be curious, I do write about some of the key industrial reasons why MFTs have disappeared from the broadcast networks in an article coming out shortly in Convergence Media History, edited by Janet Staiger and Sabine Hake.) Though I haven't received my copy yet, I believe Erin Copple Smith also has an essay on the topic in Amanda Lotz's just-released edited book, Beyond Prime Time. (If you know of other recent articles published on contemporary MFTs, please do send them on!)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

So Long, Weinstein Company?

In the last few days, there has been heightened speculation on the Internet about the long-term viability of The Weinstein Company (TWC). The Hot Blog's David Poland offers a somewhat different perspective on the company's financial troubles than I've seen in most other places online. He notes that while some media analysts are painting the woes of the Weinsteins as a new development, the company was underfinanced from the start. Of course, a string of overpriced projects (Inglourious Basterds, Nine), underperforming films (Grindhouse, The Reader) and the broader credit crisis haven't helped matters.

I have to agree with Poland that, while some bloggers/critics appear eager to see the company fail, the potential downfall of yet another indie company is nothing to celebrate for those who hope to make (or make money from) lower-budgeted films. Nonetheless, it is just another indication -- in the wake of the recent downsizing and/or closing of Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse, Warner Independent etc. -- that the old methods of distributing niche films just aren't working any longer.

I am increasingly intrigued by the day-and-date experiments being tested by companies such as IFC and Magnolia. These companies release films via some combination of VOD (both on cable/satellite systems and on the Internet) and theatrical exhibition. It is worth noting that IFC was the most active buyer at Cannes this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.

For more on these ventures, I recommend looking at the following:

Interestingly, what looks to be the most likely "savior" for indie films at the moment isn't the Internet or theatrical exhibition, but good ole cable. Significantly, the main companies involved in day-and-date distribution at present have investments in cable program services and cable systems.

The Latest Experiment in Online Journalism

Just came across an article about the very recent launch of "True/Slant," a new site that describes itself as "an original content news network tailored to both the 'Entrepreneurial Journalist' and marketers who want a more effective way to engage with digital audiences."

According to a lengthy piece in the Washington Post, the site (which is currently in beta mode), is offering more chances for contributors to be compensated than does the Huffington Post at present. Apparently the site launched with $3 million in funding from Forbes Media and Fuse Capital and is run by a former news executive from AOL.

One of the most intriguing components is the "social" aspect of the site. As per the Wall Street Journal:

The contributors also are required to actively engage with readers on the site. They must post a minimum number of comments in reader discussions about their articles and curate the comments, giving prominence to the most interesting. They are even expected to comment on each other's posts.

It still seems too early to fully assess the site, but it will be an interesting one to monitor...