On October 14, a YouTube video appeared on a new account entitled "vlad and friend boris presents 'Song for Sarah' for mrs. Palin."
It bore no identifying markers of its creation beyond the names Vlad and Boris. A music video attesting a Russian crush on Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, it slowly began spreading via email, Facebook, and blog links. Within a week, it had surpassed 100,000 views, and appeared on television newscasts in the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand. Soon top political blogs like Daily Kos, Andrew Sullivan, and Talking Points Memo were linking to it; as of Election Day, it received over 430k views, over 600 YouTube comments, and maintains a perfect 5 star rating.
I was fortunate to be an early adopter of Vlad and Boris, having received the link from one of my former students. I've been tracking the video's spreadability, and have been impressed both by the quality of the piece (it's really re-watchable, which accounts for a good number of those views) and the dissemination with little effort by the producers. Certainly much of this success is due to how central YouTube has been to the 2008 election, as it's hard to imagine a video on any other topic making as big a splash so quickly. But I think much of its success is also tied to the underlying mystery surrounding the piece - is it really produced by a couple of Russians? Was it "professionally done"? (I've seen sites that suggest it was a stealth SNL piece.) What would it mean to the election if a VP candidate were the subject of sincere affection and/or mockery by Russian videomakers?
The truth is a bit more mundane, but still quite impressive. The creators of the video are four recent graduates of Middlebury College (three majoring in my department of Film and Media Culture) living in New York City. They told me about the video upon its release, and I've enjoyed monitoring its success. And I realized that the world of online video tends to be fairly anonymous, especially as videos are spreading. So I figured I would take advantage of the happenstance of my connection with Vlad and Boris to interview the creators and explore how they see their own practices and culture circulation.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators, Part IV of IV
Here is the final part of the inteview with The West Side creators Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman that ran in our internal C3 Weekly Update newsletter last weekend. I am posting the interview sections here on the C3 blog a week after they run in our newsletter. You can see the first part of this interview here, the second part here, and the third part here.
JM: Zack mentioned that you decided you didn't want advertising - why not? I can think of a lot of reasons that might play into it, but I'm curious how it particularly shaped your plan. And given that, are you by default investing a ton of time and a bit of money into a project that cannot be "monetized" (to use an industry buzz word), at least initially?
ZL: We decided that we didn't want advertising for a few hard-to-explain reasons, but primarily because we wanted people to know we weren't making this for the money and that is a labor of love for both of us. So to answer your question, we are indeed sinking a ton of time and money into something that we're not trying to monetize. Whether it finds itself monetized in the end remains to be seen...
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (3 of 4)
Here is the third part of the inteview with The West Side creators Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman that ran in our internal C3 Weekly Update newsletter last weekend. I am posting the interview sections here on the C3 blog a week after they run in our newsletter. You can see the first part of this interview here and the second part here.
JM: What drew you specifically to the serialized format? And how much in advance have you produced & scripted? Is there room for change in the story and style based on feedback, or do you feel pretty locked in to your vision of where it's going?
ZL: We spent a long time in preproduction. We thought a lot about the themes we wanted to explore and went through several major rewrites. It was pretty painful sometimes, but we always made the decision to go back and rewrite when something didn't feel right, which retrospectively was always the right decision. I say always because it happened more than we'd probably like to admit; we took a lot of time to craft our ideas and to really pare them down to the best they could be.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (2 of 4)
Here is the second part of the inteview with The West Side creators Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman that ran in our internal C3 Weekly Update newsletter last weekend. I am posting the interview sections here on the C3 blog a week after they run in our newsletter. You can see the first part of this interview here.
JM: So why an "urban western?" What brought you to that genre mixture, and where there specific films, programs, or other media that inspired you to try to create such a fictional world? The threads of influence that I see weaving through the project are The Wire (in part because I know Ryan's devotion to the series), early Spike Lee, Firefly, and of course classic John Ford/Howard Hawks/spaghetti Western films. What else helped shape your aesthetic?
RBK: Zack had been talking about writing a Western--I'll let him talk about his influences there--and I'd had an idea in college for a thesis on "hip-hop as the new American Western." In terms of ownership of property, personal freedom, living by the gun, disregard of the law, etc., I felt that hip-hop's relationship with American culture today was very similar to that of the Western fifty years ago (or thirty years ago with the Spaghetti Western). I never wrote that thesis--I wasn't alive during either of those eras anyway, so I couldn't really speak to the cultural climate--but once Zack and I started talking about internet video and Westerns, the idea came right back.
The West Side: An Interview with the Creators (1 of 4)
This July, Ryan Bilsborrow-Koo and Zachary Lieberman launched an ambitious online serialized film called The West Sidehere. Rather than trying to generate attention on YouTube, these two young filmmakers, who met at their day jobs at MTV, are trying to offer something distinctive on their own terms, creating a visually rich and leisurely-paced genre mixture of the urban Western. The first episode has been up for around a month, and due to some technical challenges of no-budget filmmaking, the next episode won't be out for a few weeks.
To fill the gap, I conducted an online interview with Ryan, who is a former student of mine, and Zack, discussing how they see their project fitting into the online video moment and broader possibilities of independent filmmaking. The filmmakers speak to many of the issues surrounding convergent media--serialized storytelling, innovative distribution strategies, viral promotion--but places them within the context of ambitious creators trying to make something new rather than make a quick splash. Be sure watch the first episode to get a sense of the project and their combination of ambition and imagination - and keep an eye on these emerging filmmakers!
I am running four weekly installments of the interview in the Consortium's C3 Weekly Update, but I thought I would put the interview segments here after they appear in the newsletter as well.
Seeking Common Ground Between Media Educators & Industry on Fair Use
C3 provides a great opportunity to develop dialogue between media scholars and media professionals, something that has thrived in face-to-face meetings at MIT and elsewhere. While this blog seems not to have generated much dialogue and interaction across this divide (at least that I've seen), I offer the following commentary (both here and cross-posted on the newsletter) to provoke discussion, as it's a topic that needs input from multiple sides, and thus I encourage feedback and commentary to flow from these thoughts.
If there is one issue where I feel the perspectives of academic researchers and educators greatly diverge with the interests and policies of the media industries (at least as publicly stated), it is copyright. The media industries have been aggressively framing their copyrights as owned property, demanding control over all uses and successfully lobbying for legislation to protect ownership rights over all others. Media scholars are typically both copyright holders and active users of copywritten materials, so we can (ideally) see the perspectives of both creators and users - I certainly want to protect some rights to my writings, ensuring proper credit and (modest) compensation for using my work. But I am a dependent practitioner of fair use, the right to use copywritten material without permission for certain purposes such as criticism, parody, and education. Without fair use, I could not quote a book in my own research, show a clip from a television show in class, or assign students to make parodies of movie trailers, all practices that I see as integral parts of my role as a media scholar.
Traditionally, courts have protected such fair use rights over industry objections, but Congress managed to legislate around these rights in 1998 with the DMCA - this act mandated that users could not legally circumvent copy protections (like the DRM system on all commercial DVDs), even if the purpose was protected by fair use. As the film and television industries have switched to DVD as their only format, consumers were denied our fair use rights to make clips for educational use, backup discs in a personal collection, and create parody videos, escalating the hostility between media users and owners. As an educator, this restriction effectively says I can only teach material following the limits dictated by DVD technology. Thankfully, the U.S. Copyright Office last week issued a ruling (which I blogged about) allowing film & media faculty to override DVD protections to make in-class clips - a great allowance, but still one much more limited than fair use.
I just read this article about the rising ratings of Keith Olbermann's MSNBC program Countdown. Olbermann has emerged from his sportscaster past (he's still the best ESPN anchor of all time) to serve as an alternative to the conservative punditocracy popularized on Fox News (& cloned across the channel grid), offering the most strident and erudite critiques of the Bush Administration to be found on television. The article rightly suggests that one of Olbermann's strengths has been counter-programming, showing that when it comes to Fox News, the reverse logic of "if you can't join 'em, beat 'em" holds - as Olbermann says in the article, "The purpose of this is to get people to think and supply the marketplace of ideas with something at every fruit stand, something of every variety. As an industry, only half the fruit stand has been open the last four years." (Feel free to assign your own links between pundits and particular kinds of fruit...)
What is only alluded to in the article seems to be just as central of a factor in Olbermann's rising success, especially among "quality" demographics vs. Fox: Olbermann & MSNBC have been forward-thinking in embracing the transmedia distribution of the program and Olbermann's persona. For years, Olbermann blogged on MSNBC as Bloggermann, allowing for quick linking & dissemination of his stories, especially around potential voter fraud in the 2004 elections. MSNBC clips the best of each night's show into a brief daily audio podcast, as well as posting numerous video clips online to allow viewers to watch and share on demand. When he delivers one of his "special comments," they shoot to the top of YouTube charts and generate heat on lefty blogs like Crooks & Liars and Salon's VideoDog, rivalling only the online repurposing frenzy toward Daily Show and Colbert Report. MSNBC even allows him to moonlight as a cohost for ESPN Radio, teaming with his former Sportscenter partner Dan Patrick each day to talk sports & promote his nightly show.
This transmedia dissemination of an otherwise ephemeral nightly newscast suggests the importance of old media institutions allowing new forms to use & reuse content - it is gratifying that MSNBC is reaping rewards in the old ratings system in part due to its willingness to allow the web to generate attention for its program, rather than trying to control and restrict its intellectual property. Thus while many decry the demise of quality television journalism, the online circulation of such public affairs television guides our attention via a viewer-driven filtering process salvaging the specific moments that break through the facade and transcend the endless high-decibel monotony that typifies cable news.
I've previously written about the challenges that The Lost Experience has had in reconciling the demands of the two storytelling modes of serialized television narrative and immersive alternate reality games (ARG). One of the challenges for analysts writing about such serialized storytelling examples is that they are moving targets, evolving and changing as they are created. In looking back at my article, I realize that I discussed only Act I in what is shaping out to be a three act story, as provocatively suggested by Jeff Jensen. Thus, here is my own update on Act II of The Lost Experience (TLE) and how it points to the challenges of transmedia storytelling.
How do you launch a TV show based on an obscure cult comic which itself parodies a fairly obscure cult genre? Let it go viral.
In another example of the emerging trend C3 has been exploring in how online video is changing the nature of television production and distribution, Sci Fi Channel has taken a cue from the online distribution of failed pilots like Global Frequency and Nobody's Watching by pre-empting failure: The Amazing Screw-On Head pilot has debuted on its online video site Sci-Fi Pulse before the channel has decided its televisual fate.
Head is quite a delight - based on a cult comic by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, the show parodies the steampunk genre of sci-fi set in the 19th Century. The hero works at the pleasure of President Lincoln fighting threats to America (and to quote the show, "and by America, I mean the world") from undead zombies and ancient demon technology; for some as-yet-unspecified reason, he is a screw-on head. The animation is vivid and unique in its visual style, and features strong voice acting by established stars like Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce. It's a show that could easily gain a dedicated audience in sufficient numbers for a cable channel - it most reminds me of the classic 1990s cartoon The Tick, which is high praise in my animation canon.
But Sci-Fi recognizes that it will take some doing to build its audience. Fans of Mignola are vocal and passionate, but far too small in number to guarantee success. So they've put the pilot online two weeks before its TV debut. But more importantly, they have attached a viewer survey to the pilot to gauge reactions and help judge the potential for extending the pilot into a series. This design takes advantages of two great opportunities of online video - the video can go viral through blogging and reviews much more quickly and legitimately than other "official" online videos, and instant feedback gives frustrated fans a way to feel like their voices matter. I have no investment in steampunk or Mignola's comics, but reading an online review made me want to watch the show. I liked it, gave my feedback, and now am blogging about it. Someone reading this blog will probably do the same. Thus Sci-Fi has taken their market research out of the shadows, tracking reactions not only through the official survey but by mapping the blogosphere.
The power of TV 2.0 is that your voice matters if you opt-in to the viral stream, while TV 1.0 depends on a woefully inadequate ratings system to estimate viewership. It is especially gratifying that by embracing this model, a vision of the future seems to be coming from a likely suspect: Sci-Fi.