Tag Archives: Mark Earls

Worlds Atlas: Story telling & world building made easier

“Everyone is talking about story telling, right? This is is what it looks like!”

Sunday, we had the extended family over for Memorial Day festivities.

113-859A I called the older kids into the house to listen to Lisa W. talk about a story she is working on. 

The kids rewarded me with looks that said, “You don’t really care how nice it is outside, do you?”  

But eventually they fell beneath the spell of Lisa’s story.

Then she helped us see how she made the story, how she constructed it out of real and imagined glimpses of 19th century American, rural Georgia, small town Connecticut, aboriginal cultures, and American dictionaries. It’s a hum dinger. (And I will leave it to her to describe more fully. Look for it at a cinema or a streaming media service near you.)

Lisa has been working on this story for a long time. Years. And as I watched the kids watching her, I thought, “What are the chances, with all their school work and their extracurriculars, they are ever going to have enough time to build a narrative world of their own?”

Well, one of them, Andrew, the classicist, has actually written his own language, so apparently some of them have a little extra bandwidth to work with.

But generally speaking, building a world in order to tell a story, this will be a daunting undertaking for all of them. Before they can write a single scene, they will have to summon a vast amount of imaginative material.

Then I thought, “This is what fan fic is for, clearly.” (I am slow to see some things. An internal voice will sometimes intervene, usually witheringly.) Writing “fan fiction” using something like, say, Elementary or Sherlock as your infrastructure, gives you a lot of imaginative materials: a time (19th century), a place (Victorian London), characters (Sherlock, Watson, Mrs. Hudson), crises, back stories, many transmedia variations on several themes, and so on.  The point is this: fan fic means you don’t have to start from zero.

The trouble with fan fic is that it is for some people an all-or-nothing proposition. You take the Sherlock world more or less whole.  You are glad to have so much of the world building done for you. But your creative license is perhaps a little limited. You are the captive of a certain “creative momentum,” let’s call it.

Then I thought, “what if we can do better than fan fic? What if there were an atlas that serves as an inventory of imaginative materials with beautifully specified times, places, characters, crises, back stories, etc. These would be more modular, less motivated, than the materials we draw from existing stories. More “Chinese menu,” as the cliche has it.

jenny odell satellite google googlemaps art collage photo pacific rim somarts SHIPS

Jenny Odell

Let’s say your real dramatic interest, the thing you really want to write about, is characters who are making the transition from small towns to big cities. The “worlds atlas” can give you a range of options (medieval England, imperial Rome, ancient China, etc.) and you can choose. The Atlas will give you the envelope for your story. Not just “medieval England” but the deep historical particulars of town to city transitions in 12th century London. The why, the who and the what.

Or let’s say what interests you is people who are being whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal). (Game of Thrones gives us a glimpse of this sort of thing occasionally.)

Or let’s say you are interested in characters preoccupied with transformation. The worlds atlas would offer up werewolves, vampires, Transformers, and yes Mrs. Hudson. (No, not Mrs. Hudson. Just kidding. Mrs. Hudson is always and inalterably Mrs. Hudson.) The writer can choose from the worlds atlas. The writer can combine.

Something like this might have been the origin of Being Human, the TV series undertaken first in the UK and then more memorably in the US. Being Human brings together a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire. The results are interesting not least because the “worlds atlas” (let’s pretend there was one) gave three very different creatures preoccupied with transformation and then rinsed away the genre “coating” that normally adheres to them. Liberated from their origins and brought together as roommates in an old house in Boston (aka Montreal), wonderful story telling happens. Some story-telling elements are supplied, but no story-telling option is predictable. And that’s a lovely formulae for the construction of the new popular culture: still accessible but increasingly unpredictable.

The worlds made available in the Atlas still have a certain pre-fab quality. The writer doesn’t have to start from zero. But we have got rid of some of that “creative momentum” that can constrain fan fic. And we have “rinsed” away some of genre constraints as well. The storyteller has greater “executive privilege.” She is taking fewer “notes” from the original creator. She is calling deeper creative shots.

There are risks here. What if the outcome looks mechanical, a little paint-by-numbers?  What if the seams show? Well, possibly. But of course gifted people would alter and transform the originals so that their origins went away. They would also bring them into combinations which would have transformative effects of their own. (We should note in passing that rhetorical training in the old liberal arts curriculum routinely asked students to adopt some well known original and then transform it until the original became original.)

I know we are as a culture entranced by the romantic idea that real creativity comes from a single author. But the Worlds Atlas would enable (and acknowledge) a story telling that comes many sources and a division of labor. Some character development could come from one person. Some dialogue from someone else. The mise en scene from a third party. (This is pretty much how Hollywood storytelling works in any case.) The “writer” is  like a show runner, a curator of beautifully wrought materials.  (Mark Earls and Faris Yakob have both suggested ways out of conventional ideas of creativity.)

Once there is an Atlas, several possibilities open up.

the atlas economy

And if this is an atlas, it should also be an economy. As every reader of this blog knows too well, we have a crisis of employment at the moment. The problem is that we don’t have a way to pay many of our creators of culture. An Atlass economy could help solve this problem. We don’t just borrow materials. In some cases, we commission them. “Where did you get that village! Unbelievably good.” “Oh, that. That came from Gutfeld. He’s living in Vermont now, so his costs are low and his rates are good. And yes, he’s a big talent. We use him a lot.” Or we come to be seen as especially gifted “show runners” (“show curators?”) and everyone wants to work with us. We will get our name in the credits and some part of the proceeds of the culture content so crafted. Again a lot like Hollywood.

collaborative story telling in real time

Another idea we have about creativity is that it happens somewhere sometime, and comes to the audience only if and when it’s perfect. But an Atlas might open up the possibility of a showrunner who assembles the story in close to real time in an act of literary improv, with meanings flying all over the place before a breathless audience who gasp as the story materializes before them. (There is some small parallel here with the people who know “play” a video game by watching it played in a run-through on YouTube. I watch Uncharted 4 this way. It was mesmerizing.)

a directory for story sources

In a recent blog entry, I looked at the relationship between the show runner, Natalie Chaidez, and world builder Seth Horowitz at Brown, and the collaboration between them that enabled them to create a rich story called Hunters. God knows how Natalie found Seth. It compares to Malcolm Gladwell’s miraculous detection of “research juste” in a university library. The Worlds Atlas could make this easier, so that world builders can search for academics who can help.

There is an anthropology piece here. And I’m sorry to take so long to get to it. Anthropologists are good at the communicative and cultural materials of a world. They can specify rituals, patterned behavior, clothing codes, material culture, style and fashion. They can help you think about those cultural moments when people are being “whipsawed back and forth between competing cultures (official, unofficial, ancient, orthodox, emerging, marginal).” In some cases, they can supply worlds fully build, but not yet occupied for literary purposes.

Take for instance the extraordinary world captured for us by Gordon Mathews in his book Chungking Mansions. I give you the description on Amazon.

There is nowhere else in the world quite like Chungking Mansions, a dilapidated seventeen-story commercial and residential structure in the heart of Hong Kong’s tourist district. A remarkably motley group of people call the building home; Pakistani phone stall operators, Chinese guesthouse workers, Nepalese heroin addicts, Indonesian sex workers, and traders and asylum seekers from all over Asia and Africa live and work there—even backpacking tourists rent rooms. In short, it is possibly the most globalized spot on the planet.

World builders, start your engines. But first call Mr. Mathews. He can help.

Also, come to think of it, call me. I’ve spend the last couple of years looking at how people look at TV and the results are, I think, interesting. The fundamentals of story telling have been transformed. Many of the old rules of culture, the ones that gave us popular culture after World War II, have been systematically rethought. It’s not too much to say that they have changed what a “story” is and what “telling” has to be if it wants to engage an audience.  (Here’s the somewhat general view I wrote for Netflix and Wired.)

The Atlas should be an opportunity to contemplate how we want to tell stories, the imaginative grammars that may, and in some cases must, be employed.

inspiration

I remember reading an interview with David Lynch. He was talking about the origins of Blue Velvet. I believe he said that the entire story seemed to him implicit in a particular flower. Sometimes what we need are not the bits and pieces of the story but a sense of a world from which all these details will then follow. The Atlas could make these available too.

A case in point is the work of Michael Paul Smith who escaped the after-effects of a brutal childhood by building a miniature world called Elgin Park.  It’s a provocative place, a world well built, and at the moment story free. (Except for the ghosts of Smith’s past which flit here and there.)  The Worlds Atlas can be a catalogue of frames of mind, sense impressions, and other materials out of which worlds swim.

acknowledgements

Thanks to Jenny Odell for the second image. See more of her magnificent work here.

This essay was first posted on Medium.  It has been slightly edited. This is now the definitive version.

apologies

I think Michael Paul Smith’s website appears down at the moment. I have left the link in place in the hopes that this gate way to Elgin Park comes back up.

a last thought

I was talking to, Tommy, one of the people who listened to Lisa W.’s spell binding story. We were talking about the courses he plans to take next year at school. I blurted out, “Too bad there’s not a course on world building.” If anyone knows of a course on world building, please let us know below.

 

 

 

Causes of UK chaos

Here is the British Prime Minister on a cause of recent mayhem in Tottenham and elsewhere.

“At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes.

“They earn money through crime, particularly drugs and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader.

“They have blighted life on their estates with gang on gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders.

“In the last few days there is some evidence that they have been behind the coordination of the attacks on the Police and the looting that has followed.”

I expect Cameron is right about gangs as a cause of chaos. I also suspect that quite ordinary people got caught up in the event. And in this case the PM ought to be talking to Mark Earls.

It may be a two-stage kind of thing. Gangs ignite the occasion, supplying a license for unlicensed behavior and a tipping point. (See Bill Buford’s wonderful book Thugs on the first theme, and Malcolm Gladwell on the second.) That’s stage 1. Then comes stage 2, as “ordinary” people find that their moral tolerances and social understandings are suddenly “reset” by what the gangs have done.

I am using a machine metaphor (“reset”) rather than at a viral one (memes, contagion), etc. because the second group, ordinary people, are not in fact “infected.” Which is to say they are not taken by the virus.

They choose to follow the influence of the gang, to give themselves to the moment, and their willingness to follow and to give is itself shaped by social conditions, ideas, movements, in sum, the culture in place at the moment. And that means of course that the PM should be talking to Russell Davies.

Just so long as he knows we have trained professionals standing by.

References

Buford, Bill. 1991. Among the Thugs. London: Secker and Warburg.

Earls, Mark. 2009. Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature. Wiley.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2002. The Tipping Point. Back Bay Books.

Square Inch Anthropology

I just had lunch with a young professional called Gloria who wanted to talk about what might be involved if she were to prepare herself for a career as a Chief Culture Officer.

We had a good conversation and at some point in the proceedings, I found myself encouraging her to work on her "square inch anthropology."

I had never actually heard of square inch anthropology before.  It just sort of thing you find yourself saying.  

Here’s what I think I meant.  To do the study of contemporary American culture, we are obliged to break it down into square inches.

A case in point.  I was telling the young professional about a project Mark Earls, Andrew Barnett, Ana Domb, and I did last year when we were commissioned to study "cocktail culture" in the Northeast.  "Cocktail culture" makes up one square inch of my map of American culture.

We interviewed hundreds of people by the end of the Cocktail Culture project, and Gloria and I ended up talking, for some reason, about two of them, a couple of women in a bar in Brooklyn who were "dolled up" and entirely glamorous in a not too assuming way.  Gloria has some interesting thoughts on these women and we christened their style "Betty Page."  This is a square inch too.

Square inch anthropology says, in effect, "look, we don’t claim to know everything about this culture, but we do have relative confidence in one or two things within it.  In this case: Cocktail culture and the Betty Page style."  We may now make claims to knowledge without pretending any overarching knowledge or competence.

Why proceed by square inches?  Here are 5 reasons.

1) American culture is vast, endlessly various and changing all the time.  We can’t know it top to bottom.  We can’t map it end to end.  The best we can hope for is to establish small pieces or pockets of clarity.

2) We can’t be entirely certain we have something.  We are always on the look out for more data and we are perfectly happy to discover that "cocktail culture" or "Betty Page" femaleness actually isn’t anything after all, or that it isn’t the something we thought it was. Our square inches are posted as possibilities.

3) As we begin to accumulate square inches we are in a position to begin to assemble them into patterns.  If the squares are provisional, so are the patterns.  We are constantly reassembling, looking for a better configuration.  And the good thing about the squares is that they prove to be ever so slightly magnetized, which means that they will often "suggest" connections, and when we made them proximate they will come together with that wonderful magnety "snap."  

4) Square are an excellent way of getting starting, of baby-stepping your way to an understanding of American culture.  We are not claiming to know everything about this culture.  We are merely claiming to know, if a tentative, provisional way, about this square inch.

5) Square inches are an excellent medium of exchange.  As it turned out, I had a clue about cocktail culture.  Gloria in turn had some useful things to say about the Betty Page thing. Swapping square inches in this way is really fun.  And it’s generative, very gift economy. Gifting Gloria with my square inch did not diminish it.  Taking possession of her Betty Page square inch left her none the poorer.

In a perfect world, we would turn www.squareinchanthropology.com into a place to post things we think we know about American culture.  (Perhaps not surprising it’s available. I checked.)  Please will someone give this a go!

Acknowledgments (and thanks)

To James Michael Starr, the artist responsible for the image used in this blog.  John Wong created the image.  For more details, click here.

Minerva winners

We have two winners for the latest Minerva essay contest.

Lauren La Cascia and Diandra Mintz.

Hearty congratulations to them both.  Here’s the question Lauren and Diandra took on.

The Essay question:

The Preamble:

The Big C, the new show starring the deeply talented Laura Linney gives us a glimpse of what is now possible on cable. It resembles a second show on Showtime, Weeds.

Together these shows give us a glimpse into the Showtime thinktank. (One of the principles, apparently: let’s see what happens to suburban living when we mix things up.)

There is a another experiment at work at USA Networks, from which a string of hits has recently issued (Burn Notice, Psych, Royal Pains, White Collar). (One of the principles, apparently, stay as far away from the suburbs as possible.)

The question:

1. Compare and contrast Showtime and USA Networks. Identify the grammar or algorithm that produces the shows in question. (Consider my "suburb" reference a hint, but merely one very rough indicator of the possibilities. Please do feel free to contradict me.)

2. What larger cultural significance do you attach to the fact that these two approaches to making TV now exist? Did they exist in the 20th century. Why do they exist now?

Conditions:

Fewer than 1000 words.

point form preferred.

points for being crisp and clear.

Contest winners

Contest winners will receive a Minerva (as pictured) and a place on the winner’s list. 

Contest judges

Rick Boyko, Director and Professor, VCU Brandcenter
(Mr. Boyko recused himself because on of the essay contestants is a VCU student)
Schuyler Brown, Skylab
Bryan Castaneda
Ana Domb
Mark Earls, author, Herd
Brad Grossman, Grossman and Partners
Grant McCracken
Christine W. Huang, PSFK, Huffington Post and Global Hue
Steve Postrel

 

Previous Winners

Juri Saar (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Reiko Waisglass (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Brent Shelkey (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Daniel Saunders (for the "JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon" contest)

Tim Sullivan (for the "Karen Black vs. Betty White" contest?)

Essay answer by Lauren La Cascia:

“You’re my livestock,” he slurs menacingly as the camera shows the victim’s silent screaming behind the cell glass.

In this first episode of Oz in 1997, a homophobic white supremacist repeatedly rapes and uses a Bic pen to brand a swastika on his cellmate’s buttocks after lights out.  With the scene, HBO introduced its version of “original programming” to audiences—in both the unique and primary sense—forever changing television.  It debuted the omniscient narrator, point of view camerawork, violence, hard language, male frontal nudity, drug use, homosexuality, mature content and veritè grittiness—all tropes usually reserved for cinema.  Sex and the City and The Sopranos followed quickly, making clear HBO’s version of television meant new and different.  And successful:  once HBO proved risk-taking led to commercial and critical reward, Showtime followed their lead, first rebranding with the “No Limits” tagline in 1997, then launching the groundbreaking Queer as Folk in 2000.

Showtime is still applying cable’s “Is it new and different?” litmus test to great effect.  Examining their current line-up, one can verify the shows have no obvious forerunners; imagined (Dexter), implausible (Weeds) and genre-blending (The Big C), the network has no trouble devising kooky premises and giving characters a long leash.  This license allows shows to create themselves organically, to build long arcs while still delivering each week, to shock by exploring paths broadcast never could.  On another level, Showtime’s thesis reveals a connection to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio:  to shred any idealized depiction of small-town American life left and expose the alienation, standardization and soullessness pervading actual existence.  It finds the bizarre and alien—a drug-dealing mom, a serial killer who kills serial killers—contending always that uncanny inner lives belie generic exteriors.

If Showtime is about invention, USA Networks is about reinvention—of the police procedural, the medical drama, the spy thriller.  Its programming has definite roots:  Psych is made possible by Sherlock Holmes and the kitschiness of Columbo, while Royal Pains seems ripped from the headlines with the death of Michael Jackson highlighting concierge medicine; if Burn Notice is a hybrid of MacGyver and the Bourne franchise, then White Collar’s premise is a straight rip of Catch Me If You Can.  By piggybacking off a lineage, USA wisely increases appeal.  By executing their versions so well, they maintain broad acceptance and court more discerning segments. The retail industry coined the term “masstige” to illustrate this sweet spot between mass and prestige; USA is the Target of basic cable.

All the mainstream-cool shows in USA’s line-up offer a fresh take on classic escapism.  Like much of the screen storytelling from the last century, concepts are built around idiosyncratic personalities barreling through implausible scenarios. The shows read as fiction, acted by “real characters,” and, in fact, two of their keystone programs—Burn Notice and Psych—have led to spin-off novel series, so easy is the leap from viewer to reader.  Taking a cue from riskier programs pioneered by non-ad-supported channels like HBO and Showtime, USA’s update comes in execution:  the in situ production design’s look and feel, better camerawork, well-researched stunts that border on just possible, witty quips we’d never be able to think of in the moment.  The marinated slices of Miami or the Hamptons impart reality even to locals, and it’s this legitimacy that keeps the shows believable even if they aren’t probable.  If Showtime is new and different, then USA is familiar but different.

The sturdiest common ground Showtime and USA share is in their mutual fascination with new beginnings:  a cancer diagnosis is dropped on Laura Linney, Mary-Louise Parker’s husband dies, newly ex-spy, Jeffrey Donovan, must adapt to his burning, a confidence man is reborn on the straight and narrow.  This need/desire of protagonists to reinvent themselves seems especially modern.  Recent events, though, have necessitated adaptation at speeds and to degrees historically reserved by Industrial Revolutions and Iron Ages.  Our concept of entertainment, too, likes characters to adjust as we have—to quickly-eclipsed digital advances, to terrorism, to economic slides, to mega natural disasters.  The stories reflect our dynamism and explore what it means to survive financially, physically, professionally and emotionally in these times.  We love seeing the steps and missteps taken to acclimate, the humor people can find in it all, the heartbreaking undercurrents as they beat back gloom.  They thrive like phoenixes, whether criminal (Dexter, Weeds, Royal Pains, White Collar), cancer patient (The Big C) or hedonist (Californication).

In contrast, the latter 20th Century was static:  the markets only went up, there was no lengthy war, kids were bored and television followed a formula.  Sitcoms from the 1980s, in particular, dropped us into this familiar territory in medias mes.  Full of stereotypes, programs didn’t require set-up or denouement because the concept stayed largely the same throughout: the Facts of Life girls never leave Eastland in Peekskill; the cast of Friends never changes apartments.  Most of these beloved characters would fail in the wild like creatures bred in captivity.  So inflexible were these sitcoms that sometimes entire shows had to be spun off to accommodate developments, like The Cosby Show’s begetting of A Different World as Denise heads to college; others died entirely trying to explore new directions, like The Brady Bunch, which couldn’t even accommodate the addition of another character, cousin Oliver.  Of course execution matters, but it’s difficult to imagine a successful show today unable to handle such minor tweaks.

Perhaps we, dear viewers, have sophisticated or writers have exhausted all the iconic sitcom premises, but the old constructs seem unforgivably juvenile now.  As viewers, we’re like middle-aged men who’ve finally started dating our age.  And what a golden age it is.  The modern situational comedy/dramedy has been redefined to include more complex, sticky and unpredictable situations.  Unafraid of actual character development, writers reject the use of two-dimensional archetypes and trust viewers will join them in exploring the unchartered.  Unfailingly, this new covenant between writer and viewer has brokered great television.  Perhaps we all were branded in that opening episode of Oz, held in TV’s thrall since.

Essay answer by Diandra Mintz

The male and female fantasies of breaking traditional mores and what it means to be extraordinary.

Algorithm

Woman + composed suburban lifestyle + unexpected tragedy out of her control + newfound self-sufficiency + unorthodox redemption = Weeds, The Big C (Showtime)

Man + remarkable talent + fall from grace + sidekick who tempers and fuels man’s efforts + unorthodox redemption = Burn Notice, Psych, Royal Pains, White Collar (USA)

Ordinary vs. Extraordinary

Showtime gives us ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Nancy and Cathy are going about their lives when they suffer sudden and unexpected setbacks. They seem in no way equipped to deal with tragedy and yet their underlying resilience shines through. Conversely, USA portrays extraordinary people living in ordinary circumstances. Each protagonist possesses an innate talent honed over time through discipline and practice. Standouts in their fields, the men are resourceful and cunning when necessary to come out on top — with their wit and charm in tact.

Gender

There is a marked difference in the protagonists’ gender on each network that is echoed by the gender of the shows’ creators. Showtime’s programs are led by women both on and off-screen, while USA’s programs star men and were created by men. Furthermore, the role of gender is complicated on both networks as each protoganist’s progression is threatened and frustrated by the presence of the opposite sex.

On Showtime, the women have been in some way failed by the men in their lives and seek to take matters into their own hands. The women must overcome the shortcomings of the men who continue to surround them.

Self-Sufficiency

At the end of the first episode of The Big C, Laura Linney’s character pours her heart out to an unseen companion: “I’m warning you that this laughter might turn into a sob in a second.” With a wider shot, the companion is revealed to be her dog. Even if they want a shoulder to cry on, the women make do on their own, demonstrating self-sufficiency.

USA’s protagonists are cushioned by the presence of sidekicks. The sidekick serves a variety of purposes in each program, but across the board the most important task is keeping the main character grounded. At moments when the leading male may seem too quirky or start to veer off plan, the sidekick is there to reel him in and reinforce an objective.

Aspiration and Identification

Not just any actors, Linney and Mary Louise Parker are accomplished actors in their own rights. They made names for themselves long before Showtime came calling. Both actors have the clout to carry a show and the ability to engage an audience on the small screen over the course of an entire series.

In a different vein, relatively unknown actors portray the protagonists on USA series. The actors are good looking enough to be realistically desired by the opposite sex, but not too good looking as to alienate the same sex from identifying with them. In this regard, the shows take a step back from focusing too tightly on the main character and open up to the ensemble cast.

Echoes of the 90s

The programming on Showtime is an extension of an approach seen on the small screen in the form of Twin Peaks (1990-91) later in the decade on the silver screen in American Beauty (1999). David Lynch’s television series asked viewers to take a closer look at suburban life. Below the guise of a smooth veneer, character flaws bubble to the surface. The difference now, in 2010, is that we are painfully aware that things are not what they seem. Bubbles have burst and dips are doubling and we are ready to examine the traditions and ideals that have become cumbersome. While Parker and Linney’s faces are familiar, just as familiar are the darker underbellies exposed in the storylines. As a culture we are re-educating ourselves on what it means to be satisfied.

USA’s programs echo another sentiment of the early 90s represented in the television series MacGyver (1985-92). MacGyver followed ever-resourceful secret agent Angus MacGyver as he solved problems with nothing more than his scientific know-how and ability to improvise with everyday common items. When put to the test, the protagonist comes through no matter what it takes — a mantra especially relevant today when we are recalibrating our lifestyles and learning how to do more with less.

Earned Success and Everyday Heroism

In an era moving past reality television when just about anyone could get their fifteen minutes by being in the right place at right time, the programming on USA and Showtime reflect the common desire to see earned success. As a culture we have moved beyond ascribed fame and fortune and instead hold earned heroism in higher regard. We leap to hear the stories of everyday heroes like Chesley Sullenberger and Jaycee Dugard, who have each signed movie and book deals respectively. We understand that success won’t be handed to us, and there is an inherent value in what is rightfully earned.

USA and Showtime have defined algorithms that resonate with an audience that values the talented and irrepressible spirit. When the chips are down and our flaws are showing, there is the hope of an underlying resilience that will come through in the end. Just test us.

 

Congratulations to Lauren and Diandra.

Culture Contest: Showtime vs. USA Networks

Preamble

The Big C, the new show starring the deeply talented Laura Linney gives us a glimpse of what is now possible on cable. It resembles a second show on Showtime, Weeds.

Together these shows give us a glimpse into the Showtime thinktank.  (One of the principles, apparently: let’s see what happens to suburban living when we mix things up.)

There is a another experiment at work at USA Networks, from which a string of hits has recently issued (Burn Notice, Psych, Royal Pains, White Collar).  (One of the principles, apparently, stay as far away from the suburbs as possible.)

Your essay question:

1. Compare and contrast Showtime and USA Networks.  Identify the grammar or algorithm that produces the shows in question.  (Consider my "suburb" reference a hint, but merely one very rough indicator of the possibilities.  Please do feel free to contradict me.)

2. What larger cultural significance do you attach to the fact that these two approaches to making TV now exist?  Did they exist in the 20th century.  Why do they exist now?

Conditions:

Fewer than 1000 words.

point form preferred.

points for being crisp and clear.

Contest winners

Contest winners will receive a Minerva (as pictured) and a place on the winner’s list.  (And immortality as a contest winner, of course. See the list of previous winners, by clicking here.) (Note: the Minerva used to be called the "VOWEL.")

Contest judges

Normally I do the judging for Minervas.  But this is a recipe for provincialism.  So I am invited several people to act as judges.  They are:

Rick Boyko, Director and Professor, VCU Brandcenter

Schuyler Brown, Skylab

Bryan Castañeda

Ana Domb

Mark Earls, author, Herd

Brad Grossman, Grossman and Partners

Christine W. Huang, PSFK, Huffington Post and Global Hue

Steve Postrel

Chief Culture Officer

This is precisely the kind of question I would expect a CCO to hit out of the park.  If you are having trouble with this question and fancy yourself CCO material, you are not watching enough TV.  (When spouses or colleagues complain, look them straight in the eye and say: "It’s doctor’s orders."  (Trust me, I’m an anthropologist.)

Previous Winners

Juri Saar (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Reiko Waisglass (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Brent Shelkey (for the "Who’s a good doggie woggie?" contest)

Daniel Saunders (for the "JJ Abrams vs. Joss Whedon" contest)

Tim Sullivan (for the "Karen Black vs. Betty White" contest?)

Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp London confirmed

We’re on.  The Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp will be held May 28th in London.

Mark Earls has generously offered to act as London partner and copilot.  He will give us the benefit of his remarkable grasp of cultural matters, American, British and global.  I am a big admirer of Mark’s published work, and a couple of months ago I had a chance to work with him on an extended ethnographic project.  Our working relationship is well tested. 

A CCO boot camp runs the day from 10:00 to 4:00.  We are closing in on a venue, but we do not have a formal commitment.  I expect to have that soon. 

The fee will be £100.  This is an introductory rate.  (Act now!)   

The bad news: there are only 45 spaces.  (Book early, book often!)

Eventbrite is handling the tickets in its always capable way.  Click here for ticket details.  

The boot camp is based on the book Chief Culture Officer.  You do not need to have read the book to take this course. 

We will look to participants to bring their knowledge of contemporary culture.  In a couple of days, we will set up a Flickr site for images, articles and other data that people want to share.  

We did first CCO Boot Camp in New York City in February.  It went well.  (See comments from participants below)

Grant’s speaking style may be seen here at a recent PSFK event (thank you, Piers): http://www.psfk.com/2010/05/video-grant-mccracken-psfk-conference-new-york-2010.html

Here’s an outline of the day

The morning

This looks at American culture.  I open by reviewing the new structural properties of American culture: the rise of a dispersive culture, the occasional moments of convergence that still happen, fast culture, slow culture, the death of cool, the rise of the new, more active, consumer.

I then treat the following topics:

1. deindustrialization of food and the rise of the artisanal (what and why)

2. great room and the rebuilding of the Western home (what and why)

3. multiple selves (new rules for defining the self)

4. social networks (new rules for defining the group)

5. gift economy (new rules for capitalism)

6. global trends (cultural generalities we can make across cultures)

The afternoon

The afternoon I talk about the how of being a CCO.  (You may or may not want me to talk about the CCO concept.  If you prefer, I can just talk about American culture from an anthropological point of view.)

2. how to monitor  culture  (big boards, magazine, experts, early adopters, etc. how to build a grid)

3. how to think about culture (the basic building blocks from the social sciences)

4. how to act on and in culture (how to participate in culture, with advertising, social media, and cultural productions)

5. how to work with and in corporate culture (how to work with your C-suite colleagues)

Praise for the New York City CCO

Steve Nasi: The Bootcamp was a marvelous day. Amazing to be in a room full of so many folks yearning to bring a deeper kind of cultural thinking to their brands, agencies, corporations, endeavors.  And the content was a brilliant mix of deep thinking and accessible content, slow and fast culture and more.  It was inspirational to say the least. My poor wife had to deal with me going on about it at length. Despite this, she’s gunning to go next time.

Heather LeFevre: I really enjoyed the CCO bootcamp this weekend – was totally worth the trip from Amsterdam.  better than the typical planner conference where the speaker takes an hour to recap their book – I really appreciated that you gave us information that was NOT in the book that I felt I can use in my work.

Gail Brooks: Thank you so much for bringing us the CCO boot camp! An invaluable use of my time.

Rick Liebling: As an attendee at the NYC bootcamp, I’ll confirm the comments above. I got more actionable insights from that day than a week at work. Great material, presented in Grant’s uniquely engaging style. Well worth the price of admission.