Category Archives: television

the novelodeon

This past April, as the final season of The Sopranos hit the airwaves, with seemingly the whole country bracing for impact, I’d still never seen a single episode. Gradually, my indifference turned to concern. It felt like every talk show, news culture section and conversation on the street was about the fate of Tony Soprano -? a latter-day American anti-hero, a titanic figure with the air of myth about him. I began worry that I’d missed out on something big. A cultural touchstone of rare proportions.
So, as the end drew near, I took a deep breath and decided to start from the beginning.
Six months, 86 episodes, and over 70 combined viewing hours later I’m finally done, and while I may have missed out on The Sopranos as a broadcast event -? seven seasons of weekly appointments with Tony, Carmela, Meadow, AJ and the whole crumbling world of New Jersey gangsterdom -? I got to experience something perhaps more satisfying: a hyper-concentrated, solitary viewing experience, curled up nightly in bed with my laptop. Episodes flowing into each other almost seamlessly like chapters of a book. The pause button like a dog-eared page or bookmark inserted as my eyelids began to droop. An experience not unlike reading a big novel.
Book lovers frequently insist they could never get in bed with a computer, but it seems that this is happening all the time. Any of you who have indulged in a multi-season TV binge can probably attest to this -? hours spent prone, the laptop huffing away, plowing through disc after disc (Bob made a similar observation a while back). Substantively too there’s something that recalls leisure reading. It has oft been remarked that The Sopranos heralded a major shift in television into terrain once solely occupied by the novel: serial dramas that transcend their episodic structure and become a new kind of literature. Big cross-seasonal plot arcs. A broad social canvas. Intricately interwoven narrative. A large cast of deeply drawn characters. Not to mention a purchase on the country’s imagination that recalls the popularity of the great serial fictions of Dickens a century and a half ago. With the spate of high-caliber TV serials originated by HBO and then proliferated by channels across the television spectrum, film has moved onto the novel’s turf, matching not only its narrative scope but its expansive dimensions. Stories as big and sprawling as novels can now be told in moving pictures, and thanks to a host of new individualized distribution channels, experienced as intimately, on a laptop or iPod.
Of course I’m not suggesting that film and prose fiction aren’t very different things, just that their roles seem to be converging. From its early days, film has been in conversation with the novel, frequently operating on canvases as vast as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations, but it necessarily has had to compress, select and distill the worlds it shows into something in the vicinity of two hours. When a film edges toward the three-hour mark it is considered epic. Simply in terms of duration of story and investment of time by the viewer/reader, movies and novels have always been very different kinds of fiction requiring very different sets of commitments from their audiences.
The shift arguably began with the multi-episode adaptations of classic books pioneered by the BBC in the 70s -? shows like I, Claudius, on through the 1995 hit rendition of Pride and Prejudice, right up to last year’s Bleak House. Here, television began to stretch out novelistically. And indeed, novels were the source material. Still, the solitary “reading” element was absent here. These were broadcast events, viewed in living rooms at an appointed time set by the channel, with little or no control by the spectator. Soon enough, however, VCRs entered the home and television audiences became time shifters, capturing and bending the broadcasters’ schedules to fit their own. From there the die was pretty much cast. A parade of new “narrowcast” technologies -? DVDs, TiVo, personal computers, iTunes, bit torrent -? imbued these shows with book-like qualities: reader-driven, personal, portable… an intimate cinema of one.
Immediately upon finishing The Sopranos, with the pangs of withdrawal already setting in, I found solace in Wikipedia, which has extensive articles on each episode and character from the show. With the help of the external links, I soon found myself on a strange digital dérive through various arcana: press clippings, blogs, and an forums debating the show’s ambiguous ending, personal web pages of supporting cast members such as Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played the gay mobster Vito Spatafore, and from whose site one can purchase such fine collectibles as t-shirts emblazoned with “I Love You Johnny Cakes.” Through the drifts of trivia, I eventually dug up several interesting quotes from contemporary authors ruminating on the novel’s place in American life and the increasing overlap with television. The first bits were from John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, who published a piece in The Guardian during those fevered months surrounding the Sopranos finale entitled “Has the novel been murdered by the mob?”

From coast to coast, from white-wine sipping yuppies to real life mobsters, The Sopranos has had Americans talking – even those of us not familiar with the difficulty of illegal interstate trucking or how to bury a body in packed snow. While the New York Times called upon Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly to resurrect the serial novel in its Sunday Magazine, critics were calling Chase the Dickens of our time. The final episode roped in some 11.9 million viewers. One major question, though, remains. Has Tony Soprano whacked the American novel?
….America’s most powerful myth-making muse long ago moved in to Hollywood (and the White House press room), so the ascendancy of
The Sopranos to the level of quasi-literary art should have been expected. Indeed, this wouldn’t be troubling were Americans reading other, actual novels. But they’re not – at least not in the numbers they once did.

Freeman cites two authors, Gary Shteyngart and the late Norman Mailer, both of whom have discussed The Sopranos as a story of novelistic proportions. First, here’s Shteyngart, in a Slate dialogue last year with Walter Kirn:

Our time…is more mutable. Change occurs not from year to year but from day to day – ?the fiction writer’s job of remaining relevant has never been harder. And I don’t think this will be true only of the present age. I think we are entering a period of unprecedented acceleration, of previously unimaginable technological gain that may be derailed only by the kind of apocalypse found in Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel.
The Internet, I both fear and hope, is only the beginning.
But the emotional need to connect with a story remains. One of the folks behind the popular HBO series
The Wire recently said that he sees each season as a novel, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. The Sopranos, which may one day be acknowledged as the definitive fiction of the early 21st century, puts an emphasis on detail, setting, and psychology in a way that could resonate with a reader of, say, A Sentimental Education.

And here’s Mailer, in a 2004 interview on Poynter Online:

The Great American Novel is no longer writable. We can’t do what John Dos Passos did. His trilogy on America came as close to the Great American Novel as anyone. You can’t cover all of America now. It’s too detailed. You couldn’t just stick someone in Tampa without knowing about Tampa. You couldn’t get away with it. People didn’t get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of an expanse of a novel.
You can take a much broader canvas with nonfiction … and Americans want large canvases because America is getting so confusing. People want more information than you can get from most novels. You can read a novel about a small subject like the breakup of a marriage, but that’s not a wide enough approach for some. It takes something like “The Sopranos,” which can loop into a good many aspects of American culture. As I said, I don’t think the Great American Novel can be written anymore. There will be great novels … forever, I hope … But the notion of a wide canvas may be moving to television with its possibilities of endless hours.

I think it’s this element of time that lies at the heart of this over-drawn analogy. The storytellers of television are driving a golden age of magisterial fictions roomy enough to capture the full flow of time. TV serials used to be a way to kill time: repeatable formulas, the same story told again and again, a tradition that’s alive and well in shows like Law & Order. You can check in, check out, it doesn’t really matter. TV has always been sort of timeless in this way. Whereas prose fiction has long had a special relationship with time. Time, in its fullness, takes time for the author to convey, and the time it takes to read book-length fictions is I think equally part of the reward -? it’s an endurance sport, long-distance running. I always assumed that only a book could show me the landscape of time in this almost bodily way, but my recent odyssey with the Soprano family appears to have blurred the usual distinctions.

the new promiscuity

A couple more small items for the “content is free, networks are valuable” meme… these w/r/t television. First, this LA Times piece on CBS’s “new internet strategy”:

The idea is to let their online material be promiscuous: Instead of limiting their shows and other online video to, the network is letting them couple with any website that people might visit.
“CBS is all about open, nonexclusive, multiple partnerships,” said Quincy Smith, president of CBS Interactive.

A big part of this strategy is building an “audience network,” and to this end the newly revamped CBS site provides a variety of fora – ?message boards, wikis, and user-generated media galleries – ?to try to capture some of the energy of its various fan communities. It’s a fine line to tread, since fan culture is almost by definition self-organizing and thrives on a sort of semi-autonomy. But perhaps this only because the broadcasters have hitherto kept their distance (the occasional self-defeating lawsuit notwithstanding). It’s an interesting (and somewhat yucky) question, and one that applies well beyond TV: to what extent can community be branded?
Compare this with NBC’s more retentive move toward quasi-openness, post-iTunes, with NBC Direct, a service that offers free downloads of shows with auto-destruct DRM that wipes files after a week. I don’t think either network’s got it yet, but these are interesting experiments to watch.
In light of this, it’s worth revisiting Mark Pesce’s 2005 talk, “Piracy is Good?”, available here on Google Video.

readers dead?

From a new Bookforum interview, this is Gore Vidal’s rather grim take on the place of the novel — or novelist — in public life:

BOOKFORUM: You write in Point to Point Navigation that you were once a “famous novelist,” by which you don’t mean you’ve stopped writing novels. You say, “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer.”
GORE VIDAL: Yes. There’s no such thing as a famous novelist.
BF: But what about a writer like Salman Rushdie?
GV: He’s moderately well known, but he’s not read by a large public. He’s very good, but “famous” has nothing to do with being good or bad.
BF: A few critics have declared the American novel dead.
GV: I don’t think the novel is dead. I think the readers are dead. The novel doesn’t interest anybody, and that’s largely because there are no famous novelists. Fame means that you are touching everybody or potentially touching everybody with what you’ve done–that they like to think about it and talk about it and exchange views on it.

It’s interesting to consider that that particular kind of 1950s fame that Vidal the novelist (he wears many hats) so enjoyed may have had less to do with the novel as a form and more to do with the celebrity culture of television, where, at that time, a serious literary writer could rank among the gods. Perhaps what Vidal, fallen from Olympus, really is lamenting is the passing of a brief but charmed period of media convergence where books were strangely served, rather than undermined (the conventional narrative), by television.

BF: Novelists used to work the nightly talk-show circuit. It’s hard to believe that there was a time in this country when writers were regarded as celebrities.
GV: I started all of that. I was the first novelist to go on television back in the ’50s, on The Jack Paar Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

At that time, the power of television was concentrated in a tiny handful of big networks. People shared a small constellation of cultural reference points in a mass media market. Then came cable, the internet, YouTube, the long tail. Is today’s reading public really dead or just more atomized? Have our ways of reading become fragmented to the point that we can no longer be touched all at once by a single creative vision — or visionary?
But wait — couldn’t Oprah, if she chose, launch a book into the center of a national discussion? And what about the web? What can it do?

dutch fund audiovisual heritage to the tune of 173 million euros

Larry Lessig writes in Free Culture:

Why is it that the part of our culture that is recorded in newspapers remains perpetually accessible, while the part that is recorded on videotape is not? How is it that we’ve created a world where researchers trying to understand the effect of media on nineteenth-century America will have an easier time than researchers trying to understand the effect of media on twentieth-century America?

Twentieth century Holland, it turns out, will be easier to decipher:

The Netherlands Government announced in its annual budget proposal the support for the project “Images for the Future” (in Dutch). Images for the Future is a large-scale conservation and digitalisation operation comprising 285,000 hours of film, television and radio recordings, and 2.9 million photos. The investment of 173 million euro, is spread over a period of seven years.
…It is unprecedented in its scale and ambition. All these films, programmes and photos will be made available for educational and creative purposes. An infrastructure for digital distribution will also be developed. A basic collection will be made available without copyright or under a Creative Commons licence. Making this heritage digitally available will lead to innovative applications in the area of new media and the development of valuable services for the public. The income/expense analysis included in the project plan shows that on balance the project will produce a positive social effect in the Dutch economy to the value of 20 to 60 million euros.
— from Association of Moving Image Archivists list-server

Pretty inspiring stuff.
Eddie Izzard once described the Netherlandish brand of enlightenment in a nutshell: “The Dutch speak four languages and smoke marijuana!” We now see that they also deem it wise policy to support a comprehensive cultural infrastructure for the 21st century, enabling their citizens to read, quote and reuse the media that shapes their world (while they whiz around on bicycles over tidy networks of canals). Not so here in the States where the government works for the monopolies, keeping big media on the dole through Sonny Bono-style protectionism. We should pass our benighted politicos a little of what the Dutch are smoking.

three glimpses at the future of television

1. When radio was the main electronic media source, families would gather around the radio and listen to music, news, or entertainment programming, not unlike traditional television viewing. Today, radio listening habits have shifted, and I only hear the radio in cars and offices. Television viewing (if you can even call it that) is experiencing a similar shift, as people multitask at home, with the television playing in the background. With the roll out of Digital Multimedia Broadcasting (DMB) in South Korean last year, the use of television is starting to resemble radio even more. DBM is a digital radio transmission system which allows television signals to play on mobile devices. Since its 2005 debut, a slew of DMB capability devices, such as GPS units and the PM80 PDA from LG have been released in Korea. DBM systems are being planned throughout Europe and Asia, which may make mobile television viewing ubiquitous and the idea of a family sitting in front of a television at home seem quaint.
nbc_logo.jpg2. I recently posted on a partnership between youtube and NBC, which will create a channel on the video sharing site to promote new shows from NBC this autumn. NBC seems to have taken the power of youtube to heart as is producing new episodes of the failed WB pilot, “Nobody’s Watching,” which never aired. The pilot was leaked to youtube and viewed by over 450,000 people. I’m waiting to see how far NBC is willing experiment proactively with youtube and its community to create better programming.

3. In the US, the shifting of television from large boxes residing in living rooms to desktops, laptops, and portable media players, has often meant viewing pirated programming uploaded onto video sharing sites like youtube or downloading files from bit torrent. For those who don’t want to break the law, Jeff Jarvis reports that legal streamed and downloaded content will be helped by an announcement by ABC that 87% of viewers of their streamed video were able to recall its advertising, which is over 3 times the average recall of standard television advertising. While legal content is important, I hope it doesn’t kill remix culture or the anyone can be a star ability that youtube provides.

people seem to be watching “nobody’s watching”

After the cancellation of the science fiction television program Firefly, its dedicated fan base was able to grow a large enough community via the web to convince Universal Studios to obtain the rights of the show from Fox and produce the movie, Serenity. Based on the ability for a fan community to organized and prove a viable market, the show’s creator Joss Whedon later mused that he would consider releasing his next pilot directly to audiences via the web and bypass the traditional studio development pathway. The New York Times reports on a failed pilot created by Bill Lawrence made be achieve what Whedon envisioned.
Lawrence, who created “Spin City” and “Scrubs,” has seen his pilot called, “Nobody’s Watching” get resurrected after being shelved before it even aired. The show is about two 20-something men from Ohio who send a self made video tape of themselves lamenting the state of the television sit-com to the networks. They get hired by the WB to live on a sound stage, and star in their own reality television show about making a sit-com. After filming the pilot, the WB decided to pass on the series. A person Lawrence will not identify independently leaked the pilot to YouTube, and it has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times since then. The popularity of the pilot has generated new found interest from network and cable channels. “Nobody’s Watching” could be the first example where the public saved a failed pilot before it ever aired. The irony of the show’s statements that the audience should be final arbiter of programming and it new found life on YouTube is amusing.
As I posted last week, video sharing services like YouTube are fundamentally changing the distribution channels of entertainment. The feedback loop between content and audience is shrinking. Audiences can have a direct effect on around which pilots get made into a fully produced television series. The traditional gatekeepers, that is studio execs are finally beginning to they can utilize the better communication with viewers via the Internet, as they try to maintain their viewers that are increasing moving towards other forms of entertainment.

from the real to the virtual and back again

In 2004, as the Matrix Ping Pong video link bounced its way from inbox to inbox, people where amused by the re-creation of a ping pong match with Matrix style special effects, using people instead of computer technology. Viewers were amazed at the elaborate costumes, only to be topped by even more amazing choregraphy. Perspective changes and camera angles are reproduced. Influences of Matrix 360 camera spinning and earlier Cantonese martial arts films are pervasive. Part of its success was the evident work and planning that was required to design and execute the scene. The idea of simulating the simulated was both ingenious and topical. However media criticism aside, it’s just a pleasure to watch.

The clip comes from a popular Japanese television show Kasou Taishou, where contestants performs skits before a panel of judges. These skits often involve re-creating camera work and special effects of film. That same year, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the UK pop band Pet Shop Boys release the video for the song “Flamboyant.” In the video, a (stereo)typical Japanese corporate employee is seen struggling to design a skit for the show. Interspersed in the video are mock Japanese ads starring Tennant and Lowe. Two years later, they take the idea one step further recently their their new video, for “I’m with Stupid.” In it, Matt Lucas and David Walliamsthe stars of the British comic skit series “Little Britian” to replicate PBS videos “Go West” and “Can You Forgive Her.” The result is a bizarre re-intereption of the CGI intensive PBS videos.

When I first started on this post, I was going to try to say that these examples are a “reaction” to the increasing virtual parts of lives. However, my thinking has shifted towards this reading this phenomenon as the process of “reflection” that has a long traditional in cultural production. As our lives are becoming increasingly virtual, synthetic, and digital, our analogue lives reflect back the new digital nature of what we experience. Like a house of mirrors, people are reflecting back what they see. These mirrors, as found in the amusement parks, distort the original image, bending and stretching people’s reflection, but not beyond recognition. The participants on Kasou Taishou started copying the images from the Matrix, which itself is a reflection or new interpretation of the fight choreography of Cantonese martial arts films. Pet Shop Boys first merely replay their reflection (with splices of fake Japanese commerical staring themselves.) Things get much more interesting when Tennant and Lowe realize that the truly interesting part of the Flamboyant video was re-creating the digital with the analogue, while adding their own personal distortion through a distinctly British comedic lens.
Advances in telecommunication and media production technology have blown open the opportunity to create and share these types of cultural call and response we are witnessing. The history of parody is a prime example of this, a traditional cultural dialogue through media artifacts. I’m not all surprised, in this case, that Japan is playing a role here. In that, I have always been both fascinated and amazed by the observed way that Japanese culture seems to balance the respect of tradition with the advancement of modernity, especially with technology. Although, I realize that distance and language barriers may mask the tensions between these cultural forces. Part of the balance is achieved by taking the old and infusing it into the new rather than completely reject the old. Further, in the case of the real simulating the virtual, the diversity of modes of creation and distribution is extremely telling. Traditional roles are blurred. The one-to-many versus many-to-many broadcast models, East v. West cultural dominance, corporate v. independent media and pro/am production distinctions are being rendered meaningless. The end result is a far richer landscape of cultural production.

the bible on dvd: another weird embodiment of the book on screen

The bible has long been a driver of innovation in book design, and this latest is no exception: an ad I saw today on TV for the complete King James Bible on DVD. Not a film, mind you, but an interactive edition of the old and new testaments built around a graphical rendering of an old bible open on a lectern that the reader, uh viewer, uh… reader controls. Each page is synched up to a full-text narration in the “crystal clear, mellow baritone” of Emmy-winning Bible reader Stephen Johnston, along with assorted other actors and dramatic sound effects bringing the stories to life.

There’s the ad to the right (though when I saw it on BET the family was black). You can also download an actual demo (Real format) here. It’s interesting to see the interactivity of the DVD used to mimic a physical book — even the package is designed to suggest the embossed leather of an old bible, opening up to the incongruous sight of a pair of shiny CDs. More than a few analogies could be drawn to the British Library’s manuscript-mimicking “Turning the Pages,” which Sally profiled here last week, though here the pages replace each other with much less fidelity to the real.
There’s no shortage of movie dramatizations aimed at making the bible more accessible to churchgoers and families in the age of TV and the net. What the makers of this DVD seem to have figured out is how to combine the couch potato ritual of television with the much older practice of group scriptural reading. Whether or not you’d prefer to read the bible in this way, with remote control in hand, you can’t deny that it keeps the focus on the text.
Last week, Jesse argued that it’s not technology that’s causing a decline in book-reading, but rather a lack of new technologies that make books readable in the new communications environment. He was talking about books online, but the DVD bible serves just as well to illustrate how a text (a text that, to say the least, is still in high demand) might be repurposed in the context of newer media.
Another great driver of innovation in DVDs: pornography. No other genre has made more creative use of the multiple camera views options that can be offered simulataneously on a single film in the DVD format (I don’t have to spell out what for). They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and what greater necessities than sex and god? You won’t necessarily find the world’s most elegant design, but it’s good to keep track of these uniquely high-demand areas as they are consistently ahead of the curve.


People have been talking about internet television for a while now. But Google and Yahoo’s unveiling of their new video search and subscription services last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas seemed to make it real.
Sifting through the predictions and prophecies that subsequently poured forth, I stumbled on something sort of interesting — a small concrete discovery that helped put some of this in perspective. Over the weekend, Slate Magazine quietly announced its partnership with “,” a web-based interview series hosted by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal, dealing with big questions at the perilous intersection of science and religion.
Launched last fall (presumably in response to the intelligent design fracas), is a web page featuring a playlist of video interviews with an intriguing roster of “cosmic thinkers” — philosophers, scientists and religious types — on such topics as “Direction in evolution,” “Limits in science,” and “The Godhead.”
This is just one of several experiments in which Slate is fiddling with its text-to-media ratio. Today’s Pictures, a collaboration with Magnum Photos, presents a daily gallery of images and audio-photo essays, recalling both the heyday of long-form photojournalism and a possible future of hybrid documentary forms. One problem is that it’s not terribly easy to find these projects on Slate’s site. The Magnum page has an ad tucked discretely on the sidebar, but seems to have disappeared from the front page after a brief splash this weekend. For a born-digital publication that has always thought of itself in terms of the web, Slate still suffers from a pretty appalling design, with its small headline area capping a more or less undifferentiated stream of headlines and teasers.
Still, I’m intrigued by these collaborations, especially in light of the forecast TV-net convergence. While internet TV seems to promise fragmentation, these projects provide a comforting dose of coherence — a strong editorial hand and a conscious effort to grapple with big ideas and issues, like the reassuringly nutritious programming of PBS or the BBC. It’s interesting to see text-based publications moving now into the realm of television. As Tivo, on demand, and now, the internet atomize TV beyond recognition, perhaps magazines and newspapers will fill part of the void left by channels.
Limited as it may now seem, traditional broadcast TV can provide us with valuable cultural touchstones, common frames of reference that help us speak a common language about our culture. That’s one thing I worry we’ll lose as the net blows broadcast media apart. Then again, even in the age of five gazillion cable channels, we still have our water-cooler shows, our mega-hits, our television “events.” And we’ll probably have them on the internet too, even when “by appointment” television is long gone. We’ll just have more choice regarding where, when and how we get at them. Perhaps the difference is that in an age of fragmentation, we view these touchstone programs with a mildly ironic awareness of their mainstream status, through the multiple lenses of our more idiosyncratic and infinitely gratified niche affiliations. They are islands of commonality in seas of specialization. And maybe that makes them all the more refreshing. Shows like “24,” “American Idol,” or a Ken Burns documentary, or major sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympics that draw us like prairie dogs out of our niches. Coming up for air from deep submersion in our self-tailored, optional worlds.

“everything bad is good for you” is really bad

just finished the second book discussion at the institute. first was neil postman’s building a bridge to the eighteenth century. second was steve johnson’s everything bad is good for you in which johnson presents a contemporary refutation of postman.
bad is good.jpg johnson’s basic premise seems harmless enough. games and tv drama are getting more layered, more complex. the mental exercise is likely making our brains more nimble, might even be improving our problem-solving skills. OK…
but how can you define good and bad simply in terms of whether one’s brain is better at multi-tasking and problem-solving. i’ll grant that this shift in raw brain power might make us more effective worker bees for our techno-capitalist society, but it doesn’t mean that the substance of our lives or the social fabric is improved.
we don’t need cheerleaders telling us everything is fine — especially when in our gut we’re pretty sure it isn’t. we need to look long and hard at the kind of world we are building with all this technology.
johnson’s book has been widely praised, making it all the more important to hold it up to careful scrutiny. over the next several days we’re going to launch a serious critique of “everything bad is good for you.” please feel encouraged to join in.