Staying on the air (an early report from the Futures of Entertainment at C3 at MIT)

Rolling_stone_2 I’m on the train to Boston, headed for the Futures of Entertainment conference at C3 at MIT.  Seconds ago, in the train station, I saw this image out of the corner of my eye. 

It’s a U.S. News and World Report sitting on the magazine rack in front of a copy of Rolling Stone.  Out of the corner of my eye, it looked like Rolling Stone was featuring a story on the "Secrets of Christianity."

"Wrong!" an alarm sounded. "Malformed!" a voice said.  My anomaly detector was ringing hard.  Clanging, actually.  (I got it from an old fire house.)

These are nice moments.  We are getting something close to a pure reaction, a spontaneous judgment, unconsidered, unchosen, just there.  It is, in effect, a message from somewhere inside our heads, evidence of the categories that organize our understanding of the world. 

Messages of this kind are, well, surprising.  These days, there are moments when it feels like we are moving into a post-genre world.  In this world, things no longer travel in packs.  It is harder to say what magazines will cover, even Rolling Stone.  The rules of genre no longer apply guite so rigorously.  Making assumptions is harder to do.  Our anomaly detectors are falling silent (or, if we’re out of step, going off all the time).

So anomaly alerts, when they happen, deliver an interesting message. They say some assumptions are still safe assumptions, that all bets are not off, that, in this case, Rolling Stone is not going to do an article on the secrets of Christianity.  Not yet. That could change.  Quickly.  But for the moment, some things still travel in packs.  The Diderot effect still applies.  Some categorical distinctions are still relatively inviolate.  Our intuition tells us so. 

This is one of the challenges that will confront us at the The Futures of Entertainment Conference.  Now that the genres are falling silent, how do we make culture, how do we take culture in? What is entertaining?  How does entertainment work? 

We used to watch TV with the expectation that the police procedural would be procedural, that comedies would be situated, that late night talk would be surprising only in the most unsurprising of ways, that even the "news" would submit to formula, that, all in all, entertainment would accommodate us like a lovely, warm bath.  Ah.

We look at the fall’s new entries bucking the system most shamelessly.  And the ones that don’t are failing.  Take Bionic Woman. After you get the general idea, that this is a woman who is, er, bionic and therefore technologically augmented, there isn’t much more to get. Everything else is ok.  The production values are glorious.  The actors are talented, beautiful, credible. 

Too bad.  Not enough.  Last week Wednesday night, Bionic Woman continued what TVWeek calls a "ratings freefall" coming in last among the majors.  It started strong (at 14 million viewers) but now awaits cancellation. I think this is punishment for staying true to concept. We feel like we have seen the show before.  The show and every episode.  Done. 

Moonlight should have the same problem.  It’s about vampires, for crying out loud.  Don’t we get this genre in every detail?  (All those Anne Rice novels and movies.)  Isn’t the vampire genre entirely hallowed out and unsurprising? 

Well, no.  Actually, it’s kind of fun to watch.  Because we can’t (I can’t) tell what the main character is going to do in any given scene.  (Well except for that Bill Bixby moment when his eyes turn white and he becomes a beast!  You can see this one coming about 20 minutes off.) The active thing about this character is that he was born in the 1930s or something.  (I am working from memory.  He may have been born in the 19th century.)  And this "from another time" quality means you can’t quite tell how he is going to read any given situation. 

Last weekend Moonlight came in second, with 8 million
viewers.  Women’s Murder Club came in first (with 9.7 m.), Don’t
Forget the Lyrics
came in third (with 6.3 m.) and Friday Night Lights came
in last (with 5.6 m.)  (For a show with artistic or actorly ambitions, Friday Night Lights is surprising predictable.  Choose the "gritty" option and you are most of the way there.)

But even here there is evidence that we are not entirely post-genre.  Life, on NBC, is sometimes wonderfully unpredictable.  The protagonist has spent a very long time in jail (12 years, I think) and he is more or less insane.  This gives the writers the opportunity to give him Martian moments, when he just doesn’t get it.  (These are a little boring, because, well, predictable.)  They also give him Zen moments, as he retreats to his prison refuge.  But there are moments, neither Martian and Zen, where you can’t begin to guess what he might be thinking or how he might react.  Very post-genre, especially considering that he is a policeman in what is now virtually a Law and Order medium.

And America appears to hate this show almost as much as it does Bionic Woman. which is proof, possibly, that we can take this unpredictable thing too far.  Apparently, the American viewing public still insists on certain regularities if a show wants to win an audience bigger than the 4.5 million that turns up to watch the likes of Arrested Development.  (Call it the Cable threshhold.  Good enough for cable, not good enough for the networks.) 

So what does this have to do with the futures of entertainment?  Here’s what I figure.  I figure that one strategy to work here is the Via Media, the middle ground between shows that are too well formed and those that are too little formed. This gives us the chance to explore new expressive opportunities, without going so far that we tip over into something so post genre we are constrain our numbers and go "off the air."

References

Hibberd, James.  2007.  ‘Bionic Woman’ Hits Bottom. TVWeek. here.

McCracken, Grant.  1988.  The Diderot Effect.   IN Culture and Consumption I: new approachs to the Symbolism of Consumer Goods and Activities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Moraes, Lisa de.  2007.  NBC’s One-Two Ratings Punch: "Bionic," "Life" September 28, 2007.  here.

3 thoughts on “Staying on the air (an early report from the Futures of Entertainment at C3 at MIT)”

  1. Most successful genre work follows the conventions faithfully except for one departure, which might be a small thing, and need not be in contradiction to the basic genre structure. It might be a cross-genre borrowing, for example. If that work is unusually successful it will spawn a sub-genre of work that is just like IT, except for one departure…and so on. So we’ve had vampire detectives, ex-con detectives, wheelchair detectives, blind detectives (James Franciscus in Longstreet for you nostalgia buffs), electronically linked detectives (Search), con-man detectives (Switch), science fiction detectives, etc.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen some quantitative research suggesting that movies that cross genres have historically performed worse than expected, controlling for all the obvious variables like budget, starts, etc. I’m not sure if there’s a time trend, though, or whether the paper got published.

  2. Per your comments about vampire shows and the unpredictability of characters: I think you’re on to something there.

    I’ve been wondering myself about the interrelationships between 1) the sheer number of TV & movies that have supernatural themes (vampires, superheroes etc), 2) the amount of “near future” science fiction shows/movies/books, and 3) the demands of (some) of the audience for more complex storytelling (as described in the book “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Johnson).

    William Gibson had some interesting comments about how in the current world (post 9/11 and post internet) — that unpredictability is a much bigger theme in life than it used to be. Thus giving rise to lots of recent media/storytelling that explores the issues of unpredictability: uncertainty, fear, characters and worlds that have aspects of being familiar yet very alien/unfamiliar. The supernatural being an easy metaphor for those issues.

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