June 30, 2008

Internet Media For Niche Audiences (Not The FCC)

When C3 was first booting up in 2005, our circle of students would speak wistfully of how the Internet could have saved Joss Whedon's Firefly or Warren Ellis' Global Frequency. Although both of those properties seem to be dead or at least comatose, their creators have each announced new Internet-launched properties.

Last week the trailer and official website for Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog went live, as well as (of course) its official MySpace page and the more-or-less official fan site. The project, a spiritual follow-up to the incredibly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode "Once More with Feeling", is a serialized superhero musical starring Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) and Whedonverse regular Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Firefly) as a hapless supervillain and the hero that plagues him. Business-centric readers of this blog, pay attention: the first of the show's three episodes will premiere at www.drhorrible.com on Tuesday, July 15, followed by the second on July 17, and the third on July 19, but all three episodes will only be available for free viewing on the site until July 20th. After that, the episodes will be available for "a nominal fee" (according to Whedon), which will then be followed up by a DVD with "the finest and bravest extras in all the land". More information has been promised to us at Comicon, but we Whedon fans are already champing at the bit.

Speaking of conventions, at last week's G.I. Joe collector's convention (JoeCon 2008) it was announced that Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency) is writing a series of animated webisodes for adults. The miniseries, called G.I. Joe: Resolute, will consist of ten five-minute episodes and one ten-minute finale, and is scheduled to debut in the first quarter of 2009. The show will be much grittier in nature than any G.I. Joe cartoon yet, featuring guns that fire bullets instead of lasers and characters falling in combat, but "little to no blood shown". While it isn't clear whether or not these webisodes will tie into the live-action G.I. Joe movie set for release next summer, in the style of The Animatrix or Batman: Gotham Knight, the producers did say that they hoped to air the entire series someplace like the Cartoon Network or distribute it on DVD – and that this is the direction Hasbro hopes to go with all of their brands.

While both of these projects seem to be following a fairly solid "web to DVD" model, it's far from the only business strategy being kicked around. Another intriguing alternative was announced this morning by Google, who has struck a deal with Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane concerning his next project, "Seth MacFarlane's Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy." According to the New York Times:

Google will syndicate the program using its AdSense advertising system to thousands of Web sites that are predetermined to be gathering spots for Mr. MacFarlane's target audience, typically young men. Instead of placing a static ad on a Web page, Google will place a "Cavalcade" video clip.

Advertising will be incorporated into the clips in varying ways. In some cases, there will be "preroll" ads, which ask viewers to sit through a TV-style commercial before getting to the video. Some advertisers may opt for a banner to be placed at the bottom of the video clip or a simple "brought to you by" note at the beginning.

Mr. MacFarlane, who will receive a percentage of the ad revenue, has created a stable of new characters to star in the series, which will be served up in 50 two-minute episodes.

What's doubly interesting about the project is the reason MacFarlane cites for moving to the web. According to the article, MacFarlane felt "feeling constrained by the 'taste police,' a k a the Federal Communications Commission." Given how raunchy Family Guy is to start with, I can only imagine that this new project will be something the late George Carlin would have been proud of.

As C3 followers well know, all three of these creators have had experience with alternative distribution methods of content before – Whedon's fans turned the fallen Firefly into the feature film Serenity; Ellis' fans built up a huge amount of buzz around the failed pilot of his Global Frequency when it leaked onto the web and he is currently posting weekly installments of the web-only comic Freakangels to http://www.freakangels.com/; and MacFarlane's Family Guy was brought back from the dead due to fan support. To say that we could have worse canaries in this coal mine would be an understatement.

June 26, 2008

The Dangerous World of a GPS That Does Not Exist

Every now and then something crosses my inbox that makes my jaw drop. Sometimes it's genius, sometimes it's astonishingly crass, and sometimes it's a combination of the two. This morning's report from DVICE.com on the Mio Knight Rider GPS is definitely a category three jaw-dropper.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. If you're going to have your car talk to you, and you're one of the generation of geeks that grew up in the 80's, you're most likely going to be secretly pretending that your compact or SUV is the Knight Industries Two Thousand anyway. On the other, this ranks right up there with a lightsaber remote control in burying the needle on the dorkometer. If nothing else, installing this sucker will provide a perfect litmus test for every future blind date that might set foot in your ride. Ever.

All easy jokes aside, the Knight Rider GPS actually does provoke some interesting thoughts. First, it's interesting that Mio licensed the original, 1980s voice of KITT, William Daniels, instead of the new KITT from NBC's upcoming Knight Rider remake. This might have something to do with the new voice being out of Mio's price range (I'd expect Val Kilmer doesn't come cheap), but since the device is scheduled to go on sale in "the August timeframe" and the new show is scheduled to launch on September 24th, I'd imagine there will be at least some would-be buyers scratching their heads and wondering why this KITT doesn't sound like the KITT on their TVs every Wednesday night. If the show takes off (as the pilot movie's 13 million viewers would seem to suggest), this could prove to be a real gotcha.

Second, is the voice from a 20-year-old cult TV show enough to justify a purchase when so many other interesting competitors are flooding the market? The Knight Rider GPS will supposedly retail for $270, which is $70 more than the 3G Apple iPhone with true GPS under its hood. Alpha geeks that sneer at Apple fanboys might be more interested in ponying up the extra forty bucks for the $299 Dash Express, which bills itself as the "first two-way, Internet-connected GPS navigation system". If the market for the Knight Rider GPS is an inherently geeky one, the iPhone and the Dash Express seem to be two pretty big shakers in that market already.

Finally, does this open the door for a whole raft of novelty GPS devices? How long will it be before we see a GPS with a UI lifted right from the Enterprise and the voice of Jonathan Frakes, that only responds if it's addressed as "Number One"? Or one with a brass-and-woodgrain casing that boots up with a whistle and responds to "Starbuck"?

A more interesting idea is the GPS as a platform for personalization across different drivers – we already have Mr. T, Dennis Hopper and Burt Reynolds giving us directions, and Nintendo's Wii Fit can have different trainers assigned to personal profiles, so why not GPS devices that recognize who's driving and customize their voices to each driver's preferences – or change their voices based on the time of day or location? During normal driving hours you might want to be guided by the soothing baritone of Patrick Stewart, but perhaps late at night when you might doze off behind the wheel the device could switch to the grating screech of Gilbert Gottfried. (Or, worse, it could direct all of its sound output to the rear speakers and imitate your mother-in-law. Hey, it could happen.)

Of course, as any hot-rodder, art car builder or bumper sticker aficionado could tell you, our vehicles have always been platforms for customization. Even giving them distinctive voices isn't anything new – all it takes is a couple of playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Our vehicles are, for many of us, extensions of our personalities – and if your personality has been secretly dying to deploy out the back of a semi truck on some lost American highway for the last twenty years, then hey, more power to you.

Just please, please don't try the turbo boost.

June 20, 2008

Nancy Baym: The Biggest Online Fans are Sports Fans

Below is a post Consulting Research Nancy Baym wrote for Online Fandom recently. Responding to a report about the propensity for sports fans to use the Internet while watching TV, Baym speculates on the relationship between media use and the intensity of watching sport.

The Biggest Online Fans are Sports Fans
The European Interactive Advertising Association recently released a study showing that sports fans are twice as likely to use the internet while watching TV than are 'average' internet users. As the report on this posted at Netimperative explains:

Over a third (36%) of all European internet users currently visit sports websites and these sports site users spend over 13 hours online each week, 10% more time than the average European and an increase of 27% since 2004.

These figures are set to ramp up as we approach a summer full of hot-to-watch events such as Euro 2008 and the Olympics.

Events such as these can act as catalysts for media change as fans adopt new habits and technology in order to follow their favourite sports.

What the article doesn't address (although the full report may address it) is why sports fans would watch tv while being online simultaneously or what it is that they are doing while online.

Throwing out a little wild speculation, my guess is that watching sports is more tension-creating than just about any other kind of fandom, creating more of a need to connect with other people as you go through it. Surely it's a fact (though I haven't seen the data) that sporting events draw more live audience members than other kinds of fan events. I know that during the NCAA tournament, even I, the world's lamest sports fan, found myself checking twitter continuously for the reactions of other KU fans to some really tense -- and then tension relieving -- moments.

But maybe it's also about the statistics and the huge wealth of background knowledge about sports that's out there which might be relevant at any given moment. "Wait, who's this guy again? Let me check."

I know there are some readers who know WAY more about sports than I. Any insights to share?

The study is also an important reminder for fandom scholars of how badly we need to take account of sports. I complain that fan researchers pay too little attention to music (which we do), but given the magnitude of sports fandom and new media, the topic deserves far more focus than it gets.

It also raises questions about the temporal elements of online fandom -- what kinds of fandom drive what kinds of internet use? What makes people need to be online at the same time? What makes people log on as soon as it's over? What makes people check in sometime in the weeks that follow? What has people logging on beforehand?

June 13, 2008

Around the Consortium: Personalization, Emotion in Politics, Soaps, and Digital

To start with, C3 Alum Ilya Vedrashko has a recent post about sites morphing to the cognitive style of each visitor, over on his Advertising Lab site. See more here.

Meanwhile, C3 Consulting Researcher Grant McCracken writes about the prioritization of emotion in U.S. politics at the moment, and how separated this is from previous measurements of leadership.

I also wanted to give a quick link to this podcast with the team at Daytime Confidential. I was honored to be invited on for a call and appreciated having the chance to discuss my research and perspective on soap operas today, the class at MIT, other soaps projects I'm working on at the moment, and how this links to my work with the Consortium. Thanks also to Fred Smith for the plug.

Continue reading "Around the Consortium: Personalization, Emotion in Politics, Soaps, and Digital" »

More on Cultural Biases and Soaps

As many regular C3 blog readers know, I spend quite a bit of my research time focusing on soap opera related projects. At the moment, I'm working with C3 Consulting Researchers C. Lee Harrington and Abigail Derecho on a collection looking at this pivotal moment in the history of one of U.S. television's oldest genres.

So I'm interested to keep seeing references to the soap opera popping up in the news, notably in the columns of New York Times television critic Gina Bellafante.

I first wrote last month about my frustrations with Bellafante's tone when writing about Luke and Noah from As the World Turns fame. Rather than knocking aspects of the storytelling that she felt was poor, the article indicated that aspects of the story were scripted poorly because this was a soap opera, and there's simply no way for these shows to do anything else.

Well, good friend Lynn Liccardo contacted me recently to share this, Bellafante's latest piece. On the one hand, I was elated. Here was a glowing review of the magic of Friday Night Lights, a show whose merits I've emphasized here time and time again (and see more from Xiaochang Li here). On the other, the story included this line: "The obviousness of his looks -- soap-opera hair, soap-opera smile, soap-opera skin -- is incongruous with the refined style of his performance."

Continue reading "More on Cultural Biases and Soaps" »

June 11, 2008

Looking at the Convergence Culture Consortium with a Critical Eye

Being part of the team that helped launch what became the Convergence Culture Consortium and being at the center of the group's work for the past few years, I am interested in how C3's work is situated at an intersection amongst fandom, media companies and brands, and the academy. I feel that positioning is what energizes the group's work, but it can likewise lead to skepticism and scrutiny, especially as the perspective here on the blog and elsewhere balances positions that are sometimes oppositional or more often of little interest to one another.

Some industry folks who attend C3 events or read this blog might find it "a little too academic for them," while some academics might find it "a little too corporate." Likewise, C3 may see itself as advocating the interests of the audience to corporate partners, but that doesn't mean there can't (or shouldn't) be skepticism from fans and scholars alike as to what such a dialogue means, what's left out of the conversation, etc. After all, this is media studies: while cynicism is often unhelpful, where would we be without a healthy dose of skepticism?

I've written in the past about criticisms of the Consortium that I felt were somewhat off-base (look here and in the comments here for more). As the Consortium's PI Henry Jenkins often does over on his blog, I've attempted to describe the philosophy and approach our group takes toward talking with industry and other constituencies (such as here).

But the most thorough and thought-provoking critique (and by that I don't mean critical in the pejorative but rather as reasoned and thought-out) of the Consortium's position I've seen came recently from cryptoxin on LiveJournal. Anyone interested in these issues should read cryptoxin's post and the intelligent debate that follows it.

Continue reading "Looking at the Convergence Culture Consortium with a Critical Eye" »

June 6, 2008

Changes Around C3: My New Position and Consortium Summer Schedule

With the academic year winding up here at MIT and graduation upon us, I wanted to give everyone a few updates regarding what's going to be happening with the Consortium.

As we posted here on the blog, we are in the process of hiring a new research director, and we will have an announcement about who that is once the decision has been made here on the blog.

Last week was the end of my duration as the Consortium's project manager. I have now gone to work for PR firm Peppercom as Director of Customer Insights (see more at PRWeek and Bulldog Reporter, as well as Firm Voice and The Holmes Report--subscription-only, so I can't link to it. I co-authored some pieces with Peppercom founder Steve Cody in the past, including writing some thoughts pieces available from The Christian Science Monitor, PR News, and Bulldog Reporter, if you're interested in knowing more about what a Director of Customer Insights might think or do...(I'm still trying to figure that out myself.)

However, I will remain an official research affiliate with the Consortium and can still be reached at samford@mit.edu. That also means that, while I won't be writing here quite as often, I still plan to post a couple of times a week here on the Consortium blog, so don't think C3 is suddenly going to run out of posts on soaps or the WWE.

Continue reading "Changes Around C3: My New Position and Consortium Summer Schedule" »

June 5, 2008

Jonathan Gray: Promising a Sequel, and Myths of the Hero's Becoming

Today we're featuring a piece C3 Consulting Researcher Jonathan Gray posted recently on his own blog (where Ivan Askwith and Derek Johnson also write) about sequels.

Recently, I saw both Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (funny how a sequel allows you the right to such a long title, eh?) and Iron Man. I was interested by how both dealt with the prospect of a sequel, and it got me thinking about how films announce a forthcoming sequel, and how sequels work. (NO SPOILERS YET, BUT I'LL WARN YOU LATER OF A COUPLE, IN CAPS).

To start, I'd argue that if sequels so often stink, or are at least very silly and fluffy, it's because many sequels aren't really about the hero who supposedly started the franchise.

More after the fold

Continue reading "Jonathan Gray: Promising a Sequel, and Myths of the Hero's Becoming" »

June 3, 2008

More Transmedia News

I've been meaning to do another post on this topic for a while and recently posted this over on my blog. First, I was inspired by a story in Fast Company, sent to me by Jesse Alexander, which described a gathering of Hollywood's fan boy elite to talk about the futures of cross-platform storytelling:

Tim Kring, the lanky, goateed guy at the head of the table, created Heroes, NBC's hit television show about superpowered people. To his right, in a black hoodie and narrow black-framed glasses is Damon Lindelof, cocreator of Lost, ABC's island-fantasy juggernaut, as well as producer of next year's eagerly anticipated Star Trek movie, directed by J.J. Abrams. Across the way is Lindelof's buddy Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of Heroes (formerly of Lost and the pioneering she-geek hit Alias). Nearby is Rob Letterman, the self-described nerdy director of DreamWorks' next mega-franchise movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. He's chatting up video game creator Matt Wolf, who's developing a project with Alexander....The long-haired bearded guy pouring straight bourbon is Ron Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, the Sci Fi Channel's acclaimed reimagining of the classic series. The guy eating pizza on the couch is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a veteran producer of Lost and NBC's paranormal series Medium, who's now having his own fantasy graphic novel, Middleman, turned into a series on ABC Family.

So, how come I never get invited to parties like this?

Continue reading "More Transmedia News" »

Talking Transmedia: An Interview with Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (Part III)

This is the third and final part of an interview with Jeff Gomez that I originally ran on my blog.

How important do you think hardcore fans are to the success of genre entertainment? How do such fans create value around your properties?

As exemplified by the efforts of many recent genre producers, the cultivation, validation and celebration of fandom are vital to the success of any genre rollout. It's interesting to note that two major genre releases in 2007, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising and The Golden Compass were both released with either limited or no transmedia components designed to immerse a potential fan base into the fantastical worlds of the films--no one was indoctrinated into the fiction--and both failed spectacularly.

Genre fans are passionate. Passion is the least expensive and most powerful driver behind any endeavor. Passion can punch holes through the wall of noise that is media culture, it generates curiosity and leadership, and the passion of a base of fans can help to keep producers and creatives "honest"--forcing them to remain true to the core messages, themes, mythology and characterizations of the story world. Passion generates value, because it draws attention and is often quite infectious.

What do you see as the downsides of generating such passionate consumers?

On the other hand, passion can be blind and judgmental. Fan zeal can threaten to "box in" a property, potentially stunting its growth. It can generate negative "buzz" around a project, which can leak into media coverage and plant seeds of doubt in the general audience base. Despite the attachment of a well known director in George Miller for Warner Bros. upcoming Justice League super hero production, for example, many fans have expressed doubt around casting and story issues that have leaked to the fan media. These have raised concerns in the studio strong enough to postpone the start of production until after the Writers Guild of America strike ended. The delay allowed for the production to take a lower profile and for script and casting choices to be amended. Whether or not this will help the production remains to be seen.

Continue reading "Talking Transmedia: An Interview with Starlight Runner's Jeff Gomez (Part III)" »

June 1, 2008

Conflicting Images of WWE's The Great Khali from U.S. and Indian Cultural Perspectives

Awhile back, former C3 manager Parmesh Shahani sent me a link to an interesting post about World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestler The Great Khali. Khali, from India, was brought into the WWE because of his abnormal size and was put into the "monster" role that pro wrestling has long cultivated, the scary and intimidating behemoth that other wrestlers fear because of their brute strength.

Khali was put into a variety of big matches and even had a run as the heavyweight champion of Smackdown , but this was all complicated by the fact that--even though Khali was an attention-getter with his abnormal size--his size were a detriment in the athleticism of his wrestling performances. In fact, dedicated wrestling fans in the U.S. regularly dreaded his matches, because of the feeling that he had less wrestling ability than almost any other wrestler on the roster.

Many wrestling fans have long resented the fact that less talented performers are brought in and often given big "pushes" as marquee wrestlers because of the visual impressiveness of their size, especially when they take up main event spots that lead to lower-quality pay-per-view wrestling matches and cause more talented athletes to be positioned lower on the card. It's the tension between trying to create dynamics to attract less involved fans and satisfying the most dedicated ones.

But this post, from EditIndia, emphasizes that there are often multiple audiences watching products, especially for a bland as global as the WWE, which has found increasing success in pushing its franchise into media markets across the globe.

Continue reading "Conflicting Images of WWE's The Great Khali from U.S. and Indian Cultural Perspectives" »

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