November 2005 Archives

online video and the future of television

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Recently, I decided to try the new iTunes video downloading feature. I don't have a video iPod, but I realized I could probably just watch the episodes on my monitor at home. Since moving into a very small studio apartment in San Francisco, I've opted to have a flat-panel computer display instead of a television, since I use my computer as my primary work and media tool (which conveniently doubles as a DVD player). I've forgone television and cable for high-speed internet (wirelessly, of course) and Netflix. This setup works great for movies, and even older television shows which area available on DVD. At first, I thought this arrangement would suffice, while harboring fantasies of buying a USB TV tuner down the line.

But to my surprise, I miss TV. Or rather, I miss parts of TV. Not the surfing around part, finding little of interest and settling for some mediocre piece of shock voyeurism or info-tainment. But I do miss my occasional evening bouts with decent dramas like The West Wing, or my guilty pleasure, Veronica Mars. I'm still not sure I want a TV – I find it too easy to be sucked into sense-dulling shows, regularly interrupted by abrasive, instrusive commercials (with a few clever exceptions). So instead, I've turned to that joy of modern living, the Internet. The iTunes store now makes recent episodes of select network shows (like Lost) available for download, although at a relatively low resolution intended for the new iPods. The files are quick enough to download, and run only $1.99 a pop -- but the cost adds up over the course of a season, especially given the low quality of the files (at 22 episodes a season, you'd end up paying about the same as if you waited and bought the much higher-quality DVD). And if more shows were available, and you bought five a week, suddenly the cost begins to rival some cable packages.

So financially, iTunes may not yet be proffering a workable model for purchasing individual, ad-free shows online rather than through cable television (or attempting to tune in with an antenna!). By contrast, of course, peer-to-peer networking technology has already expanded to fill this gap somewhat -- I can easily go online and use a program like Bit Torrent to take advantage of "distributed networks," where files are uploaded and downloaded over a dispersed network of users. Undoubtably, the entertainment industry will feel pressured to formulate some response to the increasing availability of digital media files, as the RIAA did when faced with the rise of Napster and the popularity of MP3s. But what does internet file-sharing mean for the television industry? TV programming is produced primarily with the revenue from ad sales, which in turn are funded by marketing budgets that depend on product sales. Ultimately in television, the viewing audience becomes the product sold to advertisers, and the money we spend on consumer goods supports those viewing habits.

For now, of course, most people will continue to buy bigger, thinner TVs and pay for cable, even as new business models show promise, like the iTunes store and Netflix. But will the lure of ad-free, easily acquired shows erode the advertising model on which television currently depends? Moreover, will a feasible price-point suffice to meet programming budgets? I wonder, though, about the effect dwindling outlets for advertising will have on the consumer economy. Will GoogleAds simply replace TV and radio advertising, listed visibly on podcasting and bit-torrenting sites? Or will the consumption of "durable" goods slowly decline as music, movies and TV shows are increasingly available directly in digital format, sans paid advertising? Then again, perhaps a model in which consumers purchase digital media directly from producers will have a "democritizing" effect, a benefit long proclaimed by proponents of an internet society. While I have little sympathy for the RIAA or the entertainment industry giants (five of whom control 90% of all television channels, publishing houses, record labels, and most other media outlets), I'm deeply curious as to what the impact of slippery new digital media technologies will have on such a signficiant chunk of our media-saturated economy.

As a side note, after writing this (but before I'd had a chance to post), I heard a tidbit on Marketplace yesterday about a leaked memo from Microsoft. Apparently, I'm not the only one giving this issue some thought -- it looks like the Associated Press and Redmond's finest are teaming up to provide news video online. Sounds like executives at both companies are nervous about new technology outstripping older business models.

anomie in the banlieue or terrorism?

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It's incredibly frustrating to hear about the past two weeks' worth of rioting going on in France. The French have been in denial about their race relations and immigration issues for such a long time, despite the egregious rates of unemployment in the Paris banlieue (where most French North African immigrants live, in a reversal of American social geography). And sadly, it looks like the French are preferring to respond punitively, rather than address the underlying causes of suburban unemployment and disaffection.

What galls me the most, however, is how the rioting has been cast in terms of Muslim terrorism, in this current political climate. While perhaps that connection has been strengthened among French North Africans in the past few years, when I lived in France, young French blacks identified much more strongly with African Americans than Arabs -- producing French rap, adopting hip hop fashion, and using their own particular French street slang. Which isn't to say that the war in Iraq or the increasingly visibility of Al Qaeda might not strike any resonant chords with French North Africans -- but fundamentally, these riots are the result of deeply ingrained racism in a country that is struggling to come to terms with its own post-colonial legacy. Little is to be gained by continuing to pressure French muslims to put aside their cultural and religious identity in favor of some fictionalized white French ideal of nationalism and "egalité."

goth murder madness -- and Voltaire?

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Well, the Dyleski murder has morphed in "goth murder madness," thanks to Fox News. This is pretty classic media moral panic, when the press builds up an exaggerated panic with sketchy facts. Yes, Dyleski may have worn black and experimented with style and identity, as do many teens. But no, the "goth movement" is not corrupting teenagers and inducing them to attack and murder innocent people. Instead of blaming Marilyn Manson (as the press felt obliged to do in the wake of Columbine), however, Fox News turned to goth musician and artist Voltaire to be the spokesperson of the supposed "movement" (better known by adherents as the "scene"). Voltaire, aside from being at least moderately articulate, presents himself as clean, well-groomed and reasonably mature -- to say little of his commercial success in music, comics and animation. And unlike Manson, Voltaire is actually sort of a goth, and his music, though really more folk in influence, appeals to and is consumed by the goth scene. It seems like Fox is undermining their own sensationalism a bit by presenting this well-spoken and attractive man (albeit with a devilish goatee) as a figurehead for a "movement" that supposedly engenders "murder madness." But maybe that's just me.

polygamy in utah and "private conduct"

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Polygamous Judge to Fight for Job in Court ( Wire, Nov. 2, 2005)

As problematic as I find Morman polygyny to be, this article's interesting for a couple of reasons. The judge's lawyer apparently defended his polygamous practices by pointing out that "[t]here is no allegation that it's affecting his performance on the bench. It really is truly only about his private conduct." Hm, private conduct? Like, between two men and two women, in the privacy of their own homes? Or what about Bill Clinton's right to engage in a little extramarital lascivousness (admittedly, the White House wasn't the the most private place to do that)? Or is the right to "private conduct" limited to conservative Christian men who simply want a few more women in the household (all of whom, in this case, were sisters).

Secondly, I find this concerning for polyamorous families with multipartner households. The judge didn't attempt to legally marry his second and third wives -- instead, he did so through a church ceremony of "sealing." In states where bigamy is illegal, could this logic equally apply to plural households where two partners were legally married, and additional partners were added through some kind of religious ceremony, like a handfasting? While I may have my concerns about how polygyny is practiced in the Mormon tradition (given the gender dynamics), I'm still pretty committed to the rights of consenting adults to define their own domestic arrangements.

goth: high fashion or teen cult? you decide!

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I'm fascinated by the disparity in how certain subcultures are sometimes represented in the media. Just a few weeks ago, 16 year old murder suspect Scott Dyleski was being described by CNN as a "goth loner" who "followed the occult and dressed in black," including that ubiquitous signifier of teen depravity, the black trenchcoat (thank you, Highlander movies!). Dyleski has been charged with bludgeoning Pamela Vitale to death in Lafayette, CA, allegedly because she received his marijuana-growing supplies that were being financed by stolen credit cards. Of course, whenever a white, middle-class teenaged boy commits some atrocious crime (Columbine, Red Lake), the media immediately finds someone (usually other students, who may or may not actually have known the suspect) to describe him as a goth, a loner, an occultist or Satanist, and usually a Nazi sympathizer to boot.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, the New York Times fashion section a few days ago declared goth style to be "in" -- or, more specifically, the "Gothic Aesthetic." (Embrace the Darkness, Oct. 30, 2005, in Fashion & Style) Admittedly, the Times doesn't really distinguish between "goth" (the contemporary subculture that revolves primarily around music and nightclubs) and "Gothic," a Victorian genre in literature and architecture in the 19th century that appealed to a decadent, macabre sentiment thought to be embodied in medieval architecture.

The Times article cites the imagery in Tim Burton's latest animated movie, Corpse Bride, not to mention a litany of recent works (a musical, a best-selling novel, a Met exhibit) -- and consumer fashion. Apparently, Goth fashion allows respectable New Yorkers (instead of "freaks" who embrace "subversive" imagery) to be "edgy." In all fairness, there's a common thread here, where "goth" is used to denote the dark, morbid and socially marginal. But I think it's telling that this demarcation is used perjoratively to frame the behavior of wayward, dangerous teen boys (at least, when they're white and middle-class), but is permissible for well-off women on the Upper East side of New York when they want to be "edgy."

I recognize, of course, that the use of subcultural imagery in the media is largely divorced from actual subcultural practices. This was entertainingly illustrated by local San Francisco news coverage of the Vitale murder, when reporters showed up at the DNA Lounge for a monthly industrial night called MEAT. After much deliberation, one of the promoters consented to an interview (which you can watch here). After the promoter described goth as a non-violent club scene that attracts adults over the age of 21 who want to dance and listen to dark-themed electronic music, the reporters concluded that the actual goth subculture had little to do with the allegedly "goth" teen murder suspect.

Still, the use of goth as a cultural category in the media attests to the semiotic value of imagery associated with the subculture. Goth, or rather, the stereotyped images associated with it (black clothing, dark makeup, an obsession with morbidity and death), has become shorthand for a particular kind of rebelliousness, whether that's the largely sanitized vision promoted by fashion designers, or the instant assumptions made in the press about teens like Dyleski, given a lack of better information (ultimately, for instance, it turned out that the Columbine shooters Klebold and Harris were not really into goth at all). The New York Times, however, is about 15 years out of date, since Victorian fashion was big in the goth scene in the early 90s -- subcultural styles continually shift just like in popular culture, and recent goth looks include more futuristic "cyber" styles, 80's-influenced deathrock looks, and retro/hipster fashion.

What I find interesting, however, is the relationship between goth imagery in the press and popular culture, and how goth style is used within the actual subculture (a community of semiotic "practice" and common interest). Of course, the goth scene is not immune to its stereotypes, especially as media exposure often attracts newcomers. Hopefully, these newcomers discover that the subculture is somewhat different from how it's popularly portrayed -- but presumably, these codified images of goth re-enter the scene through new participants. As a subculture, however, goth operates comparably to other communities of practice, using semiotic signifiers like style or slang to communicate identity and in-group affiliation to other members. Goth, as the newsreporters in San Francisco discovered, consists of a subculture concerned with music, clubbing, fashion and socializing, largely by young people in their twenties and thirties, and not brutal murders or sacrifices to Satan (or Marilyn Manson, for that matter). While I'm not convinced of the simple thesis that "mainstream" interests co-opt subcultural styles and diffuse their subversiveness, clearly the look of the goth scene has taken on symbolic meaning in popular culture, in intriguing and revealing ways.

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

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