Wreck-It Ralph with the Boys

I assigned my Approaches to Media Studies grad class to do a 750-1000 word audience analysis based on participant observation and/or interview research. Earlier course assignments of similar scope were industry, textual, and discourse analyses. Not having studied audiences this way, I decided to complete the assignment myself.


On Saturday I went to see an afternoon show of Wreck-It Ralph with three eight year-old boys. One of them was my son Leo, and the others were classmates of his in the third grade of a suburban public school. This account of our outing considers a handful of themes. One is the status of moviegoing as something special. Another is the way in which adults and children experience stories differently. And a final idea is the social value of media in the context of everyday life.

I first became aware of Wreck-It Ralph from a commercial on one of the kid channels my sons watch in the morning and early evening. I told Leo I wanted to see it with him, and he and his friends evidently started talking about about it at school. Leo’s pleasure in seeing the movie, from what I could tell, was to a large extent social. It was an occasion for an outing with me and his friends, and would give him knowledge and experience that might be valuable among his peers.

We saw the movie at a theater where you sit behind a long table and servers take your order. Much of the pre-movie discussion concerned food and drink. Moviegoing authorizes going out for popcorn and french fries and sugary soft drinks with friends on a Saturday afternoon. We were seeing Wreck-It Ralph in 3D, so there was also some goofing around with the glasses. One kid pretended that an image from the screen was coming after him.

The feature began and we watched in silence. Aside from some food-related whispers, and slurping sounds from empty cups, I didn’t hear my companions during the movie. This was a contrast to before and after, when they talked loudly in the theater and the car.

When the lights came on and we stood while watching the credits, I asked if anyone liked the movie and everyone did. Some parts were a little scary, but no one seemed frightened at the end. All three found it really funny, and they quoted a few of the lines they liked, over and over and over.

“Why are you so freakishly tall?!”
“Why are you so freakishly annoying?!”

Later when I asked Leo what he enjoyed about going to movies with friends, he mentioned their repetition of this freakishly annoying bit. Of course, during the movie I was preoccupied with many thoughts that never would have crossed their minds. Like wracking my brain trying to figure out which actor voiced the kick-ass female avatar (it’s Jane Lynch). I’m not even sure these kids are aware of how animated films use actors’ voices.

So in some ways, the boys seemed to have been watching a different movie. They were especially amused by a line from the commercial I heard them repeat on the ride to the theater in which the humor comes from punning on “duty”/”doodie” and the confusion of meaning between honor and excrement.  They remembered many lines that I didn't. But I remembered many of Wreck-It Ralph’s allusions and parodies.

As we were leaving, Leo saw other kids from school and neighbors from our street waiting to see Wreck-It Ralph. He got to tell them how good and funny it is. As we walked to the car and drove away I tried to initiate some post-screening discussion, asking what they liked about it. This produced more quotations but not much summary or description or evaluation. I left it at that - they were more interested in talking and shouting in the inside-joke language of kids that parents don’t understand.

The next morning, though, Leo began a conversation over breakfast. He has often found movies seen in the theater to be a rather intense experience, and for a few years was scared of dark and threatening scenarios. We avoided moviegoing. There were scary parts, he admitted, but not the parts I worried about while watching, set in a first-person shooter with dark imagery, militarized avatars, heavy weaponry, and creepy villains. He was frightened by a different scenario, in which a character’s real bad identity was revealed in a climactic sequence.

Actually much of the movie is about ambiguity between good and bad characters, with the protagonist being a likable “bad guy” who wants to have a chance to enjoy the status of the hero: social acceptance, material rewards, and recognition. He seemed to tap into its deepest thematic material. Because we are led to sympathise with Ralph, a destructive antagonist in an 8-bit arcade game, Leo was happy that in the end of the narrative Ralph was finally included and represented within the world of the narrative on an “anniversary cake” from which he had previously been excluded.

By contrast, I didn’t find myself becoming very involved in the story, which I found to be conventional to the point of cliché. I did find the visuals and the characterizations and the representations of gaming and game worlds and the arcade as a play space to be rewarding enough to make the movie well worth seeing. I wondered about how much he got of references to old games. He reminded me that we had been to a video arcade at the Santa Monica Pier in California, which gave him a context for understanding the arcade in Wreck-It Ralph. Of course the movie has lots of nostalgic or reference-dependent jokes aimed at grown-ups, like a comical AA-style support group for game villains and a key narrative role for Q*Bert, who cannot be a character known to that many spectators much younger than me. This seems like an excellent example of a movie pitched effectively at both kids and their parents.

Finally, I asked a few questions about the appeals of going to the movies. Leo appreciates the added value of a bigger screen and 3D. Moviegoing is special because you can only see a new movie in the theater for a limited time. He also said he liked being seated between his two friends. That way, he could be the one to pass the popcorn back and forth.


Free TV, Intermediality

New work! 

Television & New Media vol. 13 no. 6 includes my essay, "Free TV: File-Sharing and the Value of Television." This is the journal version of a paper I gave at SCMS in 2011

Abstract: Circulation of television programs in file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent is one of the many developments in the era of media convergence prompting a renewal of television’s place in the popular imagination. Scholarly study of file-sharing tends to focus on movies and music, keeping TV marginal despite its heavy circulation in P2P networks. By considering its cultural implications as revealed in the discourses of P2P TV sharers, this essay’s aim is to understand TV file-sharing as one term in the negotiation of television’s value during the contemporary period. It is especially concerned with understanding the ethical theories of file-sharing participants. It situates these within the context of television’s shift from low, mass culture to a more legitimated status; from a freely accessible public good to a private good for which one must enter into terms of commercial exchange; and from a national/local form of culture to a global, cosmopolitan experience.

And last month I contributed an entry to the Center for 21st Century Studies blog. "Intermediality and Transmedia Storytelling" was my response on a talk at UWM by Hans-Joachim Backe

Excerpt: In Anglo-American film and television studies, as well as in the entertainment/media industries, “transmedia” has been a buzzword and object of scholarly attention in the past several years. Transmedia is usually short for transmedia storytelling: the expansion of narratives in media franchises such as Batman or Star Wars across multiple platforms including movies, TV, web video, comics, novels, and games. “Intermedia” was not a term I had noticed, though. As Backe described in his engaging presentation on September 13, intermediality has been a subject of much research and publication where he lives and teaches in Germany and elsewhere in Europe — more than a dozen books on the topic have appeared — particularly among literary scholars whose interests have turned to other media. Yet, in his words, it “furrows the brows of non-Europeans” to hear this term rather than the more familiar transmedia. The two ideas ostensibly do not have much to do with each other conceptually, and yet I kept wondering during Backe’s talk if it might not be productive to consider them side by side and see what each one reveals about the other.


YouTube and Archives, Scarcity and Abudance

A room for viewing UCLA Film and Television Archive materials in the Powell Library.

I've been in Los Angeles since early August with Elana and our two children mixing business and pleasure. Some of the time we have been tourists, and some of the time we have been doing research at the UCLA Film & Television Archive while one kid goes to day camp (the eight year-old) and one is in the care of a babysitter (the two year-old). The initial motivation for the trip was (1) to get Elana time at the archive to watch old soaps for her book project on the history of daytime drama, and (2) to spend time in LA, a place we have both been eager to explore. Elana has been here a few times before doing research, but I had only visited on a family trip in 1985, when I was thirteen. Finding research for me to do here too was secondary (though it got me to apply for and receive a small-ish amount of travel funding -- and something productive to do for part of the three weeks we have been living in LA). As it turns out, there are materials in the Archive’s collection that I have been excited and grateful to access, that will be important for my work. I made some discoveries here too. 

The research I have been doing is for my book project on early video games. I have been watching television commercials for game systems and game titles from the 1970s and early 80s, news segments on video games from the early 80s from the News and Public Affairs (NAPA) collection, and an episode of the anthology drama Insight with a video games theme from 1983 (this was a discovery - I hadn't known about this series, and I watched several more episodes while here, all of which are fascinating in various ways and maybe material for a future blog post). 

As in a previous research trip, I have been wary of “wasting” my time here looking at things that are freely available online - i.e., on YouTube. Every time I checked Google to see if the commercial I was watching is on YouTube, I said a little atheist prayer that I would be unable to turn it up online. At the same time, I would be a bit relieved upon locating versions on YouTube: my note-taking at the archive would not be the only record I would keep of my viewing. Any time I did find the same item on YouTube, I downloaded the video (using the Chrome extension FastestTube) and saved it to my research files for later reference. My folder of commercials is now swelling with videos downloaded from YouTube, many more than I have watched in archives. But of course YouTube is an archive, and increasingly it is the archive. It's a dangerous fallacy to assume that everything is online now, but it's also important to recognize how much public value there is in easily accessible materials that have only existed for a short time. I find myself in tension between these two kinds of excitement: at finding so much on YouTube, but also at finding the really good stuff that is not on YouTube. 

You probably know why finding useful, important materials that are not on YouTube excites me. Perhaps most of all, it justifies my travel here, my time spent in the archive. It also gives me something to write about that others are unlikely to have discussed already, offering a claim on originality. It fits the romantic narrative of research as a quest for rare artefacts, for revealing clues along the way to solving the big mystery. It  lets me perform a certain kind of scholar identity - I’m no mere armchair theorist, I’m a historian in the archive seeking documentary evidence. If your work requires a trip from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, that must make it distinguished and significant. There's also some of that self-satisfied elitism that comes with scare knowledge - like the masculinist record collectors, cinephiles, sports fans, etc., one-upping each other with the rarity of their acquisitions and experiences.

But there is something a bit distasteful to me about the fetishizing of scarce archival artefacts in which I fully admit I participate. In a way I’m upholding a hierarchy of materials and practices, in which websurfing and watching YouTube videos is a kind of casual scholarship - if you can call it that - that practically anyone can do, while accessing the materials in the archive is more serious and productive. In the introduction to her book Welcome to the Dreamhouse, Lynn Spigel writes of a distinction between "high" historical research in government or university institutions, and "low" research undertaken in retail environment, shopping for memorabilia and pop culture ephemera. She indicates an intention to "scandalize these divisions." (13) I would like to propose a similar point, but substituting watching videos online for shopping. 

Watching videos online isn't the only way of accessing the moving image culture of the past, but we can do a lot with what we have available. Yes there are problems. There is the bias of the present to contend with - YouTube only has what people in the past seven years have deemed worth sharing. This bias applies to archives too, and YouTube is much more democratic, its "curators" and "archivists" representing much broader constituencies than those of institutions. There is often a question of provenance and completeness and identifying information. Sometimes we don't know what we're looking at on YouTube, and I never know if I can trust the YouTuber's facts - how do they know this was on TV in 1977? There is an ephemerality, too - things that were there once are gone, things that are there now might vanish tomorrow, and the copyright regimes of the future might end the freedom of access we now enjoy. 

What I was most excited to access here were commercials for video games that I have never seen before, and I wish I could post them to YouTube - or that the archive could. This would help it broaden a mission of access to match its efforts at preservation. Issues of rights stand in the way, and as the archivist here, Mark Quigley, explained to me, advertising is often harder to clear than other forms of media because of uncertainty over who actually holds rights to materials - clients or agencies. It might not be possible to get me rights to reproduce images from these tapes or disks for publication, which I might like to do (I will probably request that the archive seek permission from the rights holders, but I'm not that hopeful). 

Sometimes archival materials come with helpful identifying data. The spots I watched were often preserved and deposited on reels submitted for awards. I often saw commercials preceded by title cards identifying the agency and the date, and sometimes other creative personnel (e.g., if an ad was submitted for an award for photography, the DP might get a credit). I don't remember ever noticing a specific date and ad agency given in YouTube tags or descriptions. Some of the ads I watched here represent video games and other electronic toys as space-age computer technologies, or as "new wave" trends for hip young people. Some of them are different from other ads I have watched. 

However, despite knowing who made them and when, I have no way of knowing from the archive's catalog or from the materials themselves whether these ads ever aired on American television. All I know is what I have found out at the archive - the catalog info and the info on the tape or disc. One reel I watched was of Canadian commercials that aired in the early 80s, but I only recognized this because I grew up in Canada in the early 80s - not because of any effort to identify the materials by nation in the catalog. Another researcher might assume they were American ads. One benefit of YouTube videos is that we know they were aired, and recorded off air, and their descriptions and comments often add more context. It is only by having been broadcast in the first place that they have made their way to YouTube: someone recorded them with their VCR and saved the recording. In some ways this information is as valuable as the data available from an official institution.

YouTube videos can also be easier to study. One skill this trip has called upon is detailed transcription and description of speech and images. I am not ordinarily accustomed to this kind of detail-focused task. In most of my writing I have had video copies that I have personally owned of texts I am analyzing, and have often rewatched segments as necessary while writing about them. In writing about these archival videos I have only had one crack at the text, and I would pause and rewind frequently, eager to quote correctly and note details I might need to describe later on. I watched one episode of Nightline on video games from 1983 that I almost completely transcribed, only leaving out some short passages that didn't seem relevant enough to warrant the effort. I spent a whole morning just on about twenty minutes of video (when you subtract the commercials and the brief segment on a different topic). I wish that episode would be posted online. It would get a huge audience, I think, of retro gamers and more generally Gen X'ers nostalgic for the early 80s. A young Sherry Turkle appears talking about her book The Second Self -- about men in pinstripe suits replacing their lunch hour transcendental meditation with a midday session at the video arcade. A PTA official complains that kids are wasting their meal money and bus fare at the "video parlors," and that their time there isn't adequately supervised by adults. A junior high principal on Long Island calls video games "another nail in the coffin of our country." 

To wish that items like this were on YouTube is to desire to share and make accessible the media of the past. It seems wrong to feel good because this tape is only available to me as a researcher in an archive.

Most of all, what I want to point out here is that one archive is not better than another. Archives, public and online and institutional, are historically useful, depending on your interests. The scarcity of the institutional archive doesn't make it superior to the abundance of the public online archive, and vice versa. There is value in both scarcity and abundance. Historiographically, scarcity is more manageable. Abundance can be daunting and it makes our work more time and labor intensive. But it's also, obviously, such a blessing to media historiography. And while it's easy to access, the hard work is to make sense of it all.
Powell Library, home of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

My flickr photos tagged los angeles are mostly not of UCLA.

My tumblr fraktastic contains images relevant to this research project on video games; my tumblr giferrific is just GIFs.


Spare the Snark, Or Why It Matters Who Invented the TV Recap

Roland Barthes lecturing on the enigmas and symbols of Survivor: All Stars
New York Times Magazine article appeared not long ago with this headline: How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap. Hmmm. How Raymond Williams Gave Us the TV Recap? Maybe. (I will say no more about this appreciation of Barthes, which has very little to do with TV in particular and is concerned with his mode of criticism of popular culture.) I might have left these thoughts behind if not for a tweet I saw a few days ago by Emily Gould, someone I happen to associate with the NYT Mag, saying (not terribly seriously) that Nora Ephron invented the TV recap in her book Scribble Scribble, a collection of columns first published in Esquire in the 1970s. If two is a trend, then identifying the Ur-TV recap is now a thing.

But hey, didn’t the NYT Mag explain, not that long ago, who actually invented the TV recap? Did I not read a longish article about this recently enough that I remember it fairly well? And doesn't everybody already know that it was Television Without Pity aka TWoP, not Barthes or Ephron, that popularized if not invented the TV recap?

As five seconds with Google revealed, the TWoP article I had in mind (“The Remote Controllers,” by Marshall Sella, October 20, 2002) was published practically ten years ago. Evidence, if any was needed, that both the TV recap and I are, you know, old. So I went back and read that piece and it gave me a series of little shocks. 

It also helped me to see that the recap emerged at a particular moment in TV's history, and in the history of TV's cultural legitimation (which you might not need me to tell you is the topic of my book written with Elana Levine, Legitimating Television). Recognizing the distinctness of this moment and the difference between then and now tells us something important about television's place in contemporary culture -- about how TV and the culture of TV have changed. 

Ten years ago in TV and media history is at once of our time and before it. We can see ourselves in that world without having to change too many of the details, but some important things are different. 

Ten years ago online communities were burgeoning and the culture industries were quickly incorporating their efforts as audience feedback, e.g., by paying attention to the discussion boards on TWoP as the NYT Mag discusses at length. There was already a networked, digitally connected culture in which producer and consumer distinctions of old were being renegotiated. Television was being taken more seriously than in the past, and the HBO “Not TV” brand was well established with The Sopranos as its key prestige product. It was not so crazy to think that intelligent people would devote large portions of their leisure time to the explication of television shows. Part of what appealed to me about TWoP when I started to read it was that it confirmed that others like me existed, passionate viewers of Gilmore Girls and other shows I would never miss.

But ten years ago also seems like back in the day: Dawson’s Creek and ER and Friends and NYPD Blue were still on the air, the WB still existed, J.J Abrams was best known for Alias, Joe Millionaire was the reality TV outrage of the fall season. No one outside of tech nerd circles knew about blogs or wikis, "social media" wasn't a phrase on anyone's lips, friend wasn't a verb, and you being Time’s person of the year was still a ways off. iPods were “the perfect thing,” still strictly music players, and shuffle was a notable feature. DVRs were an early adopter technology; the NYT Mag article doesn’t mention TiVo. BitTorrent was brand new and file-sharing of TV wasn’t a widespread practice. Streaming video had not exploded and people were most likely to catch up on old shows by buying or renting DVDs. Convergence Culture and The Wealth of Networks and The Long Tail and Here Comes Everybody and Remix were yet to appear. Film/TV/media studies departments were just realizing that it would be good to have a new media person. 

My most exciting frisson in reading this ten-year-old story about TV recaps came in the passages where unfamiliar terms are placed in quotes and explained: “show runner,” “shout out,” “IRL,” “spoilers.” The meaning of spoilers in this context is a shade different from what people usually mean today: ten years ago TV spoilers were typically plot details learned from sources in TV production, rather than from other viewers watching before you do. I get excited to read straight-faced usage of “the Net” to describe the online experience. Reading articles like these, you get to see today’s common sense, our everyday ways of thinking and behaving and thinking about behaving, spelled out for an uninformed reader. Historians of the recent past really get off on this stuff. 

(In several of my research projects I have found that old NYT Mag articles often offer the best evidence of formations of bourgeois American taste in media and technology. The magazine tells cultural elites what to pay attention to and how to understand it. It captures ideas that are in the air, but also circulates those ideas, marking moments of transition and emergence. It often expresses the place of media in popular imagination almost perfectly - it has more than once been that source I was looking for that crystallizes all the thoughts I hoped to find in the popular discourses of the time. (You think historians go to primary documents without hoping to find specific ideas? Really?) Here are a few examples, all well worth reading today even if you’re not doing research on these topics, all deserving to be remembered as key formulations of popular sentiment in a specific historical moment:

-"The Space-Age Pinball Machine," September, 15 1974 (early video games, which I will quote in my book on video games in progress)

-"TV Rocks with Music," May 8, 1983 (MTV, quoted in my essay on the history of the attention span)

-"The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel," October 22, 1995 (serialized prime-time TV shows, quoted in Legitimating Television))

Another thing reading this article made me think about was: I haven't read recaps in years, if by recap people mean the sarcastic and exhaustingly detailed episode summaries, interspersed with personal asides, that I used to read at TWoP. (There is some controversy about what "recap" should describe, and whether it's appropriate to use the same term for snarky blow-by-blow à la TWoP and for episode reviews in a more analytical style of The A.V. Club -- for more see this post by Myles McNutt.) In the past ten years, writing about last night's TV shows online has become a significant genre of popular critical writing. Google the title of any popular current show + recap and you get page after page of links to summary and commentary of single TV episodes. Much of this writing differs in voice and style from the TWoP recaps of old. Much of it is written by pro critics for mainstream publications. Authors of these recaps are not the outsiders that the meagerly compensated TWoP freelancers were ten years ago. The recap style of today, especially in treating high-end shows like Mad Men, is basically old-fashioned film or lit crit in the casualized voice of internet writing. Authors are unlikely to include tangential asides about personal lives and pet peeves of the kind described in the NYT Mag article.

The big change between ten years ago and today, the most interesting thing to think about as far as I'm concerned, has to do with the attitude assumed in both the writer and reader toward television. TWoP in its heyday generally took a tone of condescension, and the objective was not only to summarize but also to be humorous, to poke fun and impress the reader with not just insight but wit. Some people I respect speak highly of contemporary reality TV recaps at Vulture or Gawker by writers of comical skill. Reality shows get different treatment from Quality TV - some TV is to laugh at, some is to admire. In the passage of time, the balance (among cultural elites anyway) has been shifting away from laughing at TV or thinking of TV as something trivial, and toward taking it seriously.

Another thing evidently happened: recaps became part of mainstream commercial media. Advertising on webpages about episodes of TV became substantial enough to sustain this practice on a much wider scale than ten years ago, and the TV biz welcomed the publicity, sending many critics advance screener discs to facilitate timely publication. These posts can instigate lengthy comments threads, which is good for attracting and keeping attention. It seems like every website that covers entertainment and the arts features morning-after TV writing aiming not only for readers but also participation and community. I'm writing this twelve hours after the Mad Men S5 finale and in my regular RSS and twitter scanning this morning I've seen enough links to postmortems that I could read about last night's episode all day at least. You find these recaps not just at TWoP and The A.V. Club and Vulture and zap2it, not just in the blogs of amateur critics, but in Slate, SalonHuffPo, NYT, WaPoThe New Yorker, Grantland, indieWire, Entertainment WeeklyRolling Stone, WSJ, Ad Age... I am easily driven crazy by talk of TV's new golden age, of TV finally becoming art in the past decade, but there is no question this is the greatest time ever for people who like to read episode-by-episode commentary on Quality TV shows. Not a lot of comedy at television's expense in this stuff.

The tone of the TWoP recap, its stance toward its topic of discussion, would not be typical of most writing online about television today, and never represented my attitude toward TV shows I liked enough to read about online. Its signature mode of snark -- its tagline is still "spare the snark, spoil the networks" -- combined admiration and fandom with a strong dose of contempt and superiority. Some of the shows being recapped were highly prestigious -- the NYT Mag article discusses fan dissatisfaction with storylines on The Sopranos like Carmela's infatuation with Furio -- but many were more like Survivor or Dawson's Creek, the show that inspired the antecedent of the recap site Mighty Big TV, which became TWoP. Today's recaps of reality shows might preserve the smugness of the TWoP recap, but most of the morning-after writing I have seen on episodes of Mad Men, for instance, treats the show with rather more reverence and aesthetic appreciation than I recall encountering in Gilmore Girls recaps ten years ago. 

In his excellent essay on TWoP as a form of audience labor, Mark Andrejevic quotes many members of the site's community to the effect that participation in online discussions often held more value for viewers than the TV shows they were ostensibly there to discuss. One participant told him that TWoP "changes TV from a brain-dead pastime to an art and a science;" another said: "bad TV becomes good TV when combined with TWoP." (35) Although fan discussions might have influenced producers, TWoP participants saw their ultimate goal not as communicating their feedback to the TV industry but rather impressing each other "with wit, insight, and above all, 'snark.'" (36) The superiority of recappers and their readers is a product of the cultural status of television in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as television becomes more legitimated but still carries many of the negative associations it has suffered historically. Performing snark would be a way for "savvy viewers" to demonstrate that they "are not taken in by the transparent forms of manipulation practiced by producers." (37) Community members would contrast their own position as "insiders" with the "clueless losers" who make up the larger TV audience. As one viewer told Andrejevic, "TWoP makes it easier for us to convince ourselves that we are smart, while watching DUMB television." (40) 

The distinction between active, smart, intellectually engaged TV fans and more passive and unintelligent ordinary viewers underscores the cultural values within which TV has been legitimated. As we argue in Legitimating Television, television's rise in status is premised on just this kind of distinction. TV worth valuing appeals to active and intelligent elites, and is routinely contrasted with other kinds of television associated with other viewers and with the medium's past. TWoP, as described in the NYT Mag of ten years ago, is what we call a "technology of agency," a way of making the viewer's experience of television one of active navigation, of assertions of choice and control rather than enslavement to the networks. It is one means of television's redemption by new technology. TV recaps emerge with the participatory internet, but also with the shift in cultural status of television. TV is important enough to give people something to talk about. However, it's still disreputable enough that participants have to show themselves to be smarter than the shows they watch.

The idea that Barthes or Ephron or anyone else invented the TV recap avant-la-lettre draws on a rhetorical trope familiar from the history of new media. Commentators frequently look for evidence that what we think is new is actually not, that novelty is deceptive, that much has been done already. Tom Standage's book The Victorian Internet, for examples, finds antecedents for many of today's "new" communication practices in the 19th Century. This kind of thinking can be a salutary historical corrective. To see that many of our hopes and fears about the internet are actually quite similar to earlier hopes and fears about writing and print, the telephone and telegraph, radio and television, cable and videotape -- these recognitions can be profound and unsettling. They force us out of presentist assumptions and into historical, contextual thinking. This is why I teach new media as the history of new media and disdain the wide-eyed, gee-whiz mode of Wired magazine. (More examples of the kind of new media writing I have in mind: Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New; Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation; William Boddy, New Media and Popular Imagination; Lisa Giltelman, Always Already New.)

But I wonder what gets lost in these identifications of now in then. The specificity of the TV recap is of a historical context in which technology, society, and cultural forms are all in flux. The TWoP story from ten years ago expresses many of the key ideas of television's legitimation at a time before we could have formulated that concept, when it was taking shape. The recap is an artifact of this confluence of forces. It fetishizes and reveres television, makes it an object of cult admiration. In offering instant feedback to TV producers, it promises that new technology can improve an old medium. As Sella writes in the NYT Mag:  

"Television began as a one-way street winding from producers to consumers, but that street is new becoming two-way. A man with one machine (a TV) is doomed to isolation, but a man with two machines (TV and a computer) can belong to a community."

This is so clearly the techno-utopian rhetoric of legitimation through the technologies of media convergence.

One more moment in that NYT Mag article is worth noting as a clear indication of the discourses of legitimation, of the recap caught between two valuations of TV. Robert Thompson, the NYT's frequent academic source on pop culture, is quoted complaining about television's low status and celebrating its elevation.

"'If this were happening at any other time in history, we'd celebrate it,' he insists. 'When readers hold parties for Bloomsday and discuss James Joyce, we consider it an apex -- people taking culture seriously. But when viewers discuss the minutiae of a TV show, we call them crazy. One's got to admire it. Essentially what the message boards are is a panel of unpaid experts, with passion, analyzing culture.'''

So television is worthwhile enough that a professor would compare its fans to those of the most admired modernist author, but its place is uncertain enough that the argument must be made in its defense. Today, I'd argue, the battle has largely been won by TV's elite champions.

As for Nora Ephron's writing that marks the invention of the recap: it is a column from July, 1976, on Upstairs Downstairs. It does summarize many plot events, filtered through the author's feelings about characters and her hopes and fears for them. It is not a recap as we know it, because it treats what seem like months or even seasons of drama. Upstairs Downstairs aired in the UK before it did in the US, and I haven't looked to see how it was scheduled here. But Ephron's writing does have much in common with the tone and sensibility of more recent online TV writing. She's passionate and personal, and reveals an intense investment in serial narrative. She is also, much to my excitement and to my absolute approval, staunchly anti-spoiler. This is how her story ends.

"We would all like to know some of the technical details of the show--how the writers are picked, how much of the plot is planned ahead of time--but it is too dangerous to find out. Someone, in the course of giving out information, might let slip a crucial turn of the plot. We would all rather die than know what is going to happen.

"Mostly, we all wish Upstairs Downstairs would last forever." (emphasis mine)

These two parting thoughts capture an ethos of televisual experience of seriality, one prizing the perpetual unfolding of narrative. In some ways they're at odds with the common sense of legitimation, with its emphasis on an aestheticized text and narrative closure. But they also bespeak the value of TV for daily life as well as for elite cultural experience. Caring enough about the story not to want to be spoiled and desiring for the story to continue forever are strong sentiments to attach to a medium so often in the 1970s made into a bogeyman to blame for society's problems. Of course, it would be safest to confess to these feelings in the pages of Esquire when they have been inspired by a British show airing on Masterpiece Theater. Ambivalence about television in discourses of legitimation goes back a long way, as we argue in our book, and certainly pre-dates the invention of the TV recap.

Mark Andrejevic, "Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans," Television & New Media 9.1 (2008), 24-46.


Television Pictures

Magnavox ads, one for TV sets from the 50s, one for video games from the 70s.
Still pictures can be a rich source of meaning for historians of the moving image. Advertisements in periodicals, magazine covers and illustrations, promotional flyers, stock photos, among other representations, offer their own ideals of representation and use. They often express the same hopes and fears as language, but in their own vivid wordless ways. Sometimes they suggest different ways of thinking, or ambiguities about the value of popular culture.  Because they don't state their meanings in words, they can invite more interpretation than writing does. But as Barthes says of myth, we can think of any cultural text as a form of speech, and think of our task in analyzing myth to be a process of decoding, making meaning evident. Barthes writes that myth makes history into nature, but we can reverse the process and return what seems to require no interpretation to meaning and value.

Still image representations are especially beneficial to the social historian of film, TV, video games, and other forms of moving image media interested is in the place of these media in popular imagination. Images like these offer us a sense of the range of possibilities of understanding. They are especially useful in considering new media, emerging out of the old and promising fulfillment through technology.

I have been noticing, as I work on my video games history project, how consistently certain image tropes or representations recur historically. In general it's a good idea to take the skeptical view of new media rhetoric, and to think of change less as revolution and more as repetition with variation. For instance, the two Magnavox ads above differ in style (black and white vs. color, separation of type from photography vs. integration, more vs. less formality of dress and posture). They are advertising different products: a television set on the left, a video game console, the Odyssey 200, on the right. But the rhetoric of the image is remarkably constant: the same harmonious family circle is promised by both advertisements. I also like the way they both picture the set containing a representation of tennis, classiest of all televised sports.

This is an example of an image concept itself being repurposed to sell a new product, related to but also distinct from the old one. It balances the familiar and the unfamiliar, which is important for the introduction of new technology. The iPhone is a phone -- it's not some entirely new idea of a gadget. But it is also the Jesus phone, the dream device that promises so much more.


In Lynn Spigel's Make Room for TV, she analyzes this image of an Emerson TV set in gigantic scale, facing a theater audience.

Spigel discusses this to illustrate the idea of the television set as a home theater, which confuses ideas of public and private. Television is for private experiences of public events, part of the social development Raymond Williams called "mobile privatisation." For my purposes, thought, I find it interesting that this is so clearly an image promising the remediation of film, and fitting TV into an established conceptual scheme of cinema and cinemagoing. I have had this picture in mind while reading more recent periodicals, and these are two examples of images employing the same trope of gigantism to make sense of a new technology as remediation.

Wall Street Journal, 1983
This ad is for an e-mail service, represented by the familiar CRT display of a computer workstation that rivals a post office in scale, substituting the plastic casing and text on screen for the neo-classical facade of an institutional building.

Newsweek, 1984

And this Newsweek cover from 1984 pictures a VCR as a cinema, with its buttons and tape slot (it's a front-loading deck) -- and a marquee to clarify that people are lined up to enter it as though it's a cinema -- all dwarfing the human figures. It also incorporates a screen on the right-facing side, though the TV aspect is less central in the illustration. Which is telling: the VCR is the revolutionary technology, not the television. In all of these images, however, a CRT display is pictured on a gigantic scale, dominating the human beings. Despite their historical divergences, all of them express a similar anxiety, as well as a similar hopeful futurism, about the potentials of audiovisual technology.


One common and ambiguous figure in the imagery of TV technology is the human figure with a cathode ray tube head. This TV-headed woman pictured in a 1982 National Geographic story on "the chip" transforming society is promoting word processing rather than television per se, but the technology of computers included CRT displays in those days and the identity of the computer, especially the personal computer in the home, was closely tied to the technology of TV.
National Geographic, 1982
The boxers below pictured in an Electronic Games issue of the same time would seem to be representing the game pictured on each screen: Asteroids and Space Invaders. The muscular adult bodies contradict the typical identity of a video game player at this time, a teenage boy. They represent a fantasy of competitive masculinity, but one in which the human brain and face have been replaced by electronics.

Electronic Games, 1982
A similar illustration from the same issue pictures a related but distinct idea: boys controlling men. This image adds a racialized fantasy dimension, as white boys in a safe and heavenly play zone (maybe this image epitomizes the "magic circle" of so much discussion in video game studies) control, through their joystick cables, the aggressive bodies of adult football players, black men in gladiatorial facemask-to-facemask conflict.
Electronic Games, 1982
I first really started to pay attention to TV-heads when Elana and I were asked for ideas for the cover of our book. This might work differently depending on the press, but in my experience cover design begins with suggestions from the author(s) for images, fonts, concepts, whatever you might have in mind. We had a fairly clear idea that we wanted a flat-panel TV in an upscale domestic space (actually I had a specific image from Dwell magazine in mind, but Dwell ignored our emails). A press editor sent us a list of links to pages in a stock photo website containing images of televisions, and I was impressed by how banal and irritating most of them were. Women grinning while pointing remote controls, happy couples watching TV, cutesy retro sets, etc. One of the recurring images that I noticed in these sites is the TV-head, as in the following sample:

Here we have satisfied TV-head, bright color bars like a wide smile. If I had that much hardware on my shoulders I would slouch but it's Photoshop so no worries.

Slightly concerned, possibly female TV-head--could be a Home Alone scream or maybe that head's just heavy and needs support?

TV-head as anatomically bizarre (what shape are his thighs? how many fingers?) cartoon schlub with frazzled rabbit-ear antennae and a remote aimed at his electronic noggin, could be suicidal or maybe it's just time for a new show? Reminds me of this line from Billy Joel: "I got remote control and a color TV, I don't change channels so they must change me."

Similar to Home Alone above, but blue skies and white clouds, above tie and suspenders, suggests total capitalist optimism. Also could be flat-panel, so he's also up-to-date.

Coffee-drinking TV-head. Sensible, trustworthy, knows the score.

Curvy cartoon TV-head with a cute white mole/power switch, cares about nature and is always heartened by the return of Spring.

TV-head cyclops bros. 

Confusing -- you'd think the screen would darken when TV-head snoozes but nope.

Love among the normative heterosexual TV-heads. I could go on.

In the early 1980s iteration, the TV-head evoked fairly coherent associations about the then-novel interface of ordinary people with computers and computerized technologies such as video games. Computers were often understood then to be a form of artificial intelligence, thinking machines. The components of electronic gadgets such as microchips were referred to as "brains" and programs were likened to thoughts. David Sudnow described in A Pilgrim in the Microworld (1983), "the entire syntax of thinking engraved on a sliver of silicon, our most perfected thought mirroring itself back in a visually moving display." Sherry Turkle wrote in 1984: "Video games are a window onto a new kind of intimacy with machines." She described them, in distinction to TV which you merely watch, as "something you become." The term microworld often used in this period makes video games into a place the player enters into, distinct from reality. This affects identity and identification: rather than seeing yourself in a character or feeling an affinity, the player was assumed to become the onscreen figure. Turkle compared video games with pinball, observing that pinball players merely "act on the ball," while "In Pac-Man you are the mouth."

By contrast, TV is often seen as an unintelligent medium, a one-way stream of idiocy and a potential source of harm. If you think of the head as a computer, that's an upgrade; if you see the TV-head as a broadcasting receiver, that's a failure of identity and of rationality. Thus the following image:

The "LET US THINK FOR YOU" TV-head is of unknown provenance, but can be purchased on hoodies and other apparel if you search around online. Note the discarded CRTs in the background and the spray paint on the surface, the former reminiscent of a museum installation by Nam June Paik, the latter subversive suggesting street art. This seems like one possible interpretation of the stock photo TV heads as critique of mass mediated society, but by contrast the stock photo TV-heads seem cheerful and satisfied, even if some of them are kind of pathetic.

This TV-head is in a collage on a book cover for sale for $4 at the Etsy shop of mrsnoggle. I like how he seems to be glancing at us on his way somewhere else. Maybe he's meeting up with some of the boys from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for drinks at the Yale Club.

(Brief aside, as well as a callback to my cover design story: TV heads have actually found their way onto the covers of two recent academic books: How Television Invented New Media and Television Mockumentary; perhaps there are others.)


TV-heads have a number of antecedents. Shel Silverstein's poem "Jimmy Jet and his TV Set," from his 1974 collection Where the Sidewalk Ends, pictures a kid who watches so much television he has been transformed from person to appliance: 

He watched till his eyes were frozen wide, 
And his bottom grew into his chair.
And his chin turned into a tuning dial,
And antennae grew out of his hair.

And his brains turned into TV tubes,
And his face to a TV screen.
And two knobs saying "VERT." and "HORIZ."
Grew where his ears had been

And he grew a plug that looked like a tail
So we plugged in little Jim.
And now instead of him watching TV
We all sit around and watch him.

These verses express the anxiety felt then -- as now -- about the amount of time young people spend in front of the screen, and the potential for media to mess with your head. But whereas becoming a computerized head can be figured as upgrade to your hardware, turning into a television set is more clearly a loss, even if Silverstein's rhetoric is gently satiric, in a spirit of play and fun. And after all, the child reading this poem is, you know, reading. 

For polymorphous machine-human video forms of the 1970s, the motherlode has to be the Beckerbots of Gerry Becker. These robot illustrations in David Ahl's Basic Computer Games (1978) and More Basic Computer Games (1979) generally are pictured with cameras rather than screens for heads/faces. (The books contain page after page of BASIC computer code, which the reader might transcribe into a program to effectively write his or her own game. This is a kind of cake-mix idea of programming, but presumably users modified the scripts or learned from them and sometimes went on to write their own.) 

The Beckerbot images of sentient television apparatus are reminiscent of the fear from the 1950s, also discussed by Spigel, of TV watching its viewers, returning their gaze and functioning as a surveillance technology. It also reflects the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its representation of a sentient machine, which Becker has said made a big impression on him. As in the word processor scaled to a post office edifice, the CRT image in these illustrations is not so much the television condemned as the vast wasteland but rather the video display terminal of the computers of the present and future. Still, associations persist, and the promise of computer games to improve on television is inherent in the presence of a boxy CRT display (discourses of games in the early 70s routinely frame them as a positive alternative use for a TV set).

What is most exciting and humorous about many of these drawings is how effectively anthropomorphized the familiar audiovisual technologies become, as though all along we have been keeping them as pets or servants. As in the revolutionary avant-garde visions of Dziga Vertov, the camera is an eye. An essay on video art by Jack Burnham from 1975 elaborates a similar metaphor: "Without too much difficulty, it is easy to envision television as a kind of human eye attached to a purposeful brain..." This borrows as well from the pervasive ideas of McLuhan at this time, who considered media to be extensions of our senses. 

In this Beckerbot the monitors and cameras stand each other down like in a gunfight at high noon, playfully menacing each other. 

Here the form is sort of ambiguously reptilian and insect-like, but the balance of organic and machine forms is gently uncanny. The riveted supports for the camera face are industrial, but the front foot striding forward is natural, even cute. 

These machines play checkers, with crane hands and camera-eyes, but conventional board and pieces. A nice contrast of old and new media coexisting.

Along similar lines, the golfing robot has a mechanical caddy.

This one, illustrating a game called "Guess," offers a dose of reflexivity as the television questions the camera that is the source of its images.

For the "Literary Quiz" illustration the machine reads a paper book and presumably displays its information on a television set.

The roulette players have Vegas apparel (that hat!) and postures.

Finally this one is called "Russian Roulette" -- note that the CPU is the possible victim, not the CRT display. We might think of these images as proto-TV-heads, or alternatively as camera-heads, with the understanding that the camera is an input not to a recording or transmission device (film or tape, video signal across the waves) but to an informatic, computational machine. TV-head replaces the camera with a display, making the meaning ambiguous but returning us to the 1950s idea of television watching the watchers, and the Silverstein idea of television overtaking its viewer's identity.


New York, 1976
Speaking of watching the watchers! Perhaps no images better convey the ambiguity of media representations as present and absent, powerfully real and ephemeral and impossible to capture, as those in which the image exceeds its boundaries and becomes part of "reality." The media room of the 1970s above is one in which a television (perhaps projected rather than tube-based) is one of a suite of electronic devices including video and audio decks, cable boxes, slide projectors, video games, and peripherals like remote controls. The erotic female form emerging from the screen is an odd combination of titillating and grotesque, a softcore gargoyle. But what's more important is its excess, its uncontainability. TV has always been represented as realer than real -- Spigel calls such images hyperreal, erasing the distinction of representation and reality, event and mediation.

The most common hyperreal imagery today is in representation of 3D television sets. The cliché of 3D ads and other imagery is of the image emerging from the set, impossible to contain. A running back falls over his tackle into the living room.

The kids kick the soccer ball from the field straight toward you in your home. Here the antecedents are most obviously in film posters that use depth to dramatize the third dimension and assault the audience.

In the poster for It Came From Outer Space, the enormous eye is the source of an arcing beam that appears to project outward from the movie to the world outside, while the typography seems to cascade from the screen out into the space of the auditorium.

Bwana Devil's poster uses perspective cues to make image, letters, and audience seem to share the same space, while the roaring lion bursts from the rectangle of the screen out at the spectators.

And in the House of Wax poster, the characters come from the movie screen to step on the heads of the people watching. As in the other 3D movie posters, the written text, along with the figures, are represented as bursting forth from the movie.

These movie posters of the 1950s offer the inverse of the representation in some of the hyperreal TV set ads of the same time, such as these from a campaign for Sparton (also discussed  in Make Room for TV).

The fusion of public and private space is especially pronounced in the second ad, with a chair on the on-deck circle and the batter standing not in the batter's box but in a picture on a TV set occupying that space. Both of these ads flip the logic of the 3D representations around by placing the mediated image in the space of the representation. But the same ideological dynamic informs them: a confusion of reality and representation, and a sense of television or 3D film, as new technologies of the image, being realer than real. 3D TV may be new media today, but nothing about its representation in promotional still imagery is the least bit fresh or exciting. 


What I find most exciting about the older images of the television set, the TV screen, and the experience of watching television are their sense of possibility and their promise of a better life: in a moment of novelty, meanings are going to be established. I get a similar frisson from the imagery of computers and games from the 1970s and early 80s. The 1950s sets are aimed at families that have never owned one, whose routines will be permanently transformed, whose relations to the world outside will be shaped by new patterns of mediation. It's not going too far to think that television images from the 1950s are poised to change our ways of thinking, though the more McLuhanish ideas about the medium being the message now seem so clearly to be overblown fantasies, by turns utopian and dystopian, of social transformation through technology.

This same spirit of technological fantasy informs the illustration below from Ted Nelson's famously prophetic book Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It comes after a page about the cathode ray tube's potential to be used for something more impressive than broadcast television (he calls it "lightning in a bottle"), and the box in the thought bubble is presumably a TV set. It's a nice image playing on a reversibility of thoughtful machines and machine-minded humanity. I'd like to think of this as a gloss on the TV-head, an image to interpret an image. The thing we watch is watching, the ideas we think about think about us, the mechanical contraptions are animate, cognizant -- they're brains. But the things they think about are totally reciprocal: the medium and its user are dreaming of one another. Maybe this is especially apt as a way of understanding computers, but the idea of the medium projecting a user, and of it addressing itself to him or her, has been a powerful one in many moments in the histories of film, television, and video games.

Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974
Selected References:

Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972).

Jack Burnham, "Sacrament and Television," in Video Art, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1975.

Ted Nelson, Computer Lib/Dream Machines (Tempus, 1974).

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends (Harper Collins, 1974).

Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago, 1992).

David Sudnow, Pilgrim in the Microworld: Eye, Mind, and the Essence of Video Skill (Warner Books, 1983).

Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (Simon & Schuster, 1984).

Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Fontana, 1974).

Links of note
Gerry Becker's website
Vintage Ad Browser

PS: even if you can take or leave the words,  you should totally follow me on tumblr for the pictures.