Thursday, December 31, 2009

State of Entertainment Franchises, 2009

What has 2009 and the last decade taught us about entertainment and narrative, and what about audiences??

Most of the articles I've read recently have touched on these questions as they relate to specific mediums, but there are obvious trends that transcend each medium and deserve to be restated. In her article, When TV Became Art for New York Magazine, Emily Nussbaum had this to say about the aughts:
You could easily memorialize the aughts as the Decade of Reality TV, that wild baby genre conceived in some orgy of soap opera, documentary, game shows, and vaudeville—it was reality, after all, that upended the industry’s economic model and rewrote the nature of fame. Or you could mark this as the era of the legal procedural, or the age of Hulu and DVRs and TWOP. But for anyone who loves television, who adores it with the possessive and defensive eyes of a fan, this was most centrally and importantly the first decade when television became recognizable as art, great art: collectible and life-changing and transformative and lasting. As the sixties are to music and the seventies to movies, the aughts—which produced the best and worst shows in history—were to TV. It was a period of exhilarating craftsmanship and formal experimentation, accompanied by spurts of anxious grandiosity (for the first half of the decade, fans compared anything good to Dickens, Shakespeare, or Scorsese, because nothing so ambitious had existed in TV history).
The same can be said of many mediums, while more established forms of entertainment, TV, Film, Publishing, have created some of the most lurid, tawdry and viciously mediocre content since their inceptions in the past decade, technology and auteurs have stepped up and used new technology to tell epic stories in which narrative has been explored in new and highly engaging ways. Similarly, The Wire would not be taught in a class at Harvard nor would it be considered an appropriate basis for an international academic conference, or an educational curriculum for young people without a significant number of people agreeing that there is something monumental about the show.

Again talking about Television, writer Charles Kenny describes in Revolution in a Box, the seriously transformative power that mass media, through television, can inform and educate, specifically in less developed parts of the world than the United States.
TV's salutary effects extend far beyond reproduction and gender equality. Kids who watch TV out of school, according to a World Bank survey of young people in the shantytowns of Fortaleza in Brazil, are considerably less likely to consume drugs (or, for that matter, get pregnant). TV's power to reduce youth drug use was two times larger than having a comparatively well-educated mother. And though they might not be as subtly persuasive as telenovelas or reality shows, well-designed broadcast campaigns can also make a difference. In Ghana, where as few as 4 percent of mothers were found to wash their hands with soap after defecating and less than 1 percent before feeding their children, reported hand-washing rates shot up in response to a broadcast campaign emphasizing that people eat "more than just rice" if preparers don't wash their hands properly before dinner.
My main gripe with Kenny's article is that narrative content is they key, and by focusing on the delivery method- television- it limits the scope. Radio Dramas are ubiquitous with similar results in the third world, and cell phone and cell phone content are more available than ever. While Kenny's point is a good one, I'm going to step back and say that it's not television but narrative drama that is educating and that everyone should take note that there are more ways to deliver these messages than just TV.

It was also the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, whose inception marked the first attempt to create an education show for preschool children and proved that if kids can learn commercial jingles from television, they can learn they ABCs the same way. In 2010, you can bet that you'll be seeing a LOT of this conversation, that story can educate, that mass media actually DOES educate and influence its viewers all the time.
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
Since 1961, the "Television and Public Interest" by Newton N. Minow, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, also known as the "Wasteland Speech" has stood as a major critique of television, and associated mass media forms. It's not hard to see how it all still relates to the controversies and critiques of television and narrative today.

Most of the television audience can relate to the phrase "I have so many channels and there is absolutely nothing on" and while alleviating that boredom has always had other options, reading, turning the television off, and later on: getting cable, VHS, Beta, DVD, video games, the Internet, etc... most can also relate to settling on what seemed like the least terrible show on at the time and just letting it play on. There has been a certain oppressiveness to the limited selections available to viewers (no matter how many thousands of channels may exist) in which the passivity of the audience member and the impotence against the flickering banality of the airwaves seemed like some cruel joke, "how can all these options exist, none of which seem like they suit me at all" for those who did not actively create entertainment media,

Listening to audiences and getting realtime input about what is being made for them is a relatively new art, focus groups and survey sampling really only came into vogue in the last 20 years, and while the Internet has democratized a good portion of commentary and allows insight into the inner workings of an audience's mind and groupthink very few established platform producers made real efforts to explore its uses until very recently.

The simple truth on the business end is that production cycles are longer than the speed of the Internet, especially for film, and responsiveness by studios, creators, and others that control what reaches airwaves, bookstores, and movie theatres by big groups that have to implement new concepts across legions of department is slow in coming. While this can and has meant bad news for established studios, publishers, and television networks, it's allowed nimble groups and creators to get a foothold, and allows wide opportunities for those independent groups who are nimble and cunning enough to produce their content on non-traditional platforms with an eye toward long term translation onto mainstream platforms.

Entertainment franchises have to look at the whole range of platforms and think about the best manner in which to utilize each one if they want to be successful, Television is not the Internet, Phones are not Movie theatres, Facebook is not a novel, the business uses and narrative applications in each platform should be considered from the outset, and coming at narrative endeavors with some idea of what that should look like when you start, you are ahead of the game and likely to get some attention in both business and the wider world.

But back to the zeitgeist: there are limitations on production, there are opportunities in non-traditional platforms, and narrative is provably education millions of people in good and bad ways. The last decade has seen brilliant endeavors by committed auteurs on all entertainment platforms, and some of the most mindless drivel imaginable spread across those same platforms.

Let's take a tangent for a moment into a young industry in media: video games, and look at what has recently been going on there. There is a sensibility in the video game industry that girls won't buy action games, that a game for a girl has to be about fashion, about prettiness, about babies or pets, painted pink, covered in glitter, and ideally with some marabou feathers attached to the cartridge. In response to this video from the 1990s, which I linked to last year, Gamasutra had a few interesting points to make in their article "Girl Games: Adventures in Lip Gloss".
in her quest to design games that are "intrinsically meaningful to girls" by addressing "their most important needs and interests," Laurel discounts the possibility that boys learn techniques for success in the business world—including competitiveness and drive for achievement—from "action games." Depriving girls of that training will not change the way the economy operates; in fact, it will more likely serve to perpetuate the sexist status quo.

Experts in the fields of sex equality and socialization agree. "This is just another example of the tawdry history of sex difference research that is driven by stereotypes and results in reinforcing those stereotypes," says Dr. Barrie Thorne, Professor of Sociology at U.C. Berkeley and author of the definitive text Gender Play. According to Thorne, who has 20 years of experience studying play patterns of girls and boys, "most researchers are now focusing on variation among girls, and among boys, and on areas of commonality, rather than on simplistic claims of dichotomous gender difference."
Literally, these points were made over 10 years ago, and the group that designed the game Laurel describes was absorbed by Mattel in 1999. The video game market still has very few examples of characters that do not fit into very narrow stereotypes, regardless of gender; and consequently, hasn't achieved anything like the level of renown or respect as a platform that it could have if narrative became a larger priority. Still seen as the immature younger brother at the dinner table of entertainment media, video games are big enough to make lots of money and have a voice, but not enough seriousness in their subject matter to be listened to. Let's be fair, when big boobs, extreme violence and occasional spacklings of glitter are what you've got to say, not many people will listen for long.

These perceptions of games girls and women will buy are detrimental to both the content of the games (yawn) and to revenues. Women will buy and play games: here, here, here. But their options are limited just as the scope of gaming options for males are limited, by endlessly repeated character stereotypes and plotlines.

The stereotyping of characters seen in video games so profoundly is mirrored in other platforms as well, when publishers, such as Alloy Entertainment, a group that has done quite well in recent years, focus on what people are reading, what trends show they want to read they are highly profitable. But is storytelling by focus group really creating lasting narratives? Gossip Girl, one of Alloy's most famous endeavors, became a TV series and has seen expression in a variety of other platforms. But as the author of the New Yorker article above and the company itself claims, they're making candy, they know they're selling what people want, and not what people necessarily need.

With a new influx of studies, discussions, legal movements, speeches, and arguments about the educational power of narrative, these candy properties take on a slightly more sinister light. If we're constantly learning from the media we consume, what are we learning from Jersey Shore, Flavor of Love and The League?

Lasting franchises are ones that provide not only what someone wants but what someone needs, people are drawn to Star Wars not only for its spaceships, but for it's classic archetypal struggles, just they are drawn to Twilight not only because it has vampires but because of the deep questions it asks (whatever one thinks of its execution) about mortality, love and sacrifice. Stories that resonate somewhere deeply in the minds of the audience, with interesting characters, choices, and actually difficult challenges will, when executed considerately will draw a wide ranging and loyal audience that will stay with a franchise for the long haul. There are elements of what people want in all successful evergreen franchises, but the truly lasting ones, also ask deep questions that give the audience what they need, the substance necessary to follow that question and each time it's explored across mediums and across decades.

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