Monthly Archives: March 2009

Liveblogging Exp. #1, and the Heart Beneath the Snark

I’ve been looking for forums in which I can try out liveblogging myself, but so far I’ve had trouble finding reliable live threads for the shows I follow. I’ve been doing research, and am confident I’ll get the chance to liveblog with my peers. However, in the meantime, I thought I’d blog tonight’s episode of America’s Next Top Model here, Television Without Pity style. Since my last post focused on the popular practice of one blogger producing a “critical” liveblog on his/her own for fans to read (and comment on), I decided to follow that trend myself. On WordPress, I’m unable to publish the blog in real time, but, more importantly, I’ll be blogging live while I’m watching the show. This will help me to see how my own television viewership, and reaction to what I’m viewing, changes when I’ve liveblogging. I will also be able to analyze how traditional television criticism changes when the observations are being made, written, and published without a second thought. Though I’m not able to interact with other livebloggers just yet, this will be a great way for me to try my hand at snarky, Gawker-style live television response.

So here we go (I’ll limit it to the first 30 minutes or so, as this experiment does not necessitate an epic episode recap):

The models await their fate.

The models await their fate.

8:00 p.m. The episode is starting! I’ve been watching this show for years, even though it’s always the same and no one from it ever gets famous. I feel old because I can’t even remember every season.

8:04 p.m. Commercial for the new 90210, which is horrible, and Tori Spelling seems to be an even less convincing Donna Martin now!

8:04 p.m. Back from commercial. This episode is going to be about Tahlia. She is talking about how she needs to “step it up” and it’s “a competition.” Duh.

8:05 p.m. Tocarra is back! And shrill! One girl says Tocarra is “an inspiration to every girl.” Every girl who remembers who Tocarra is.

8:06 p.m. Tocarra wants the girls to tell her about their “personalities.”

8:06 p.m. Tocarra just finished “doing a workout DVD.” Career death-knell.

8:07 p.m. Everyone hates Sandra, who is this season’s Transparently Insecure Contestant .

8:08 p.m. Tocarra tells them not to just rely on their looks. Cut to a shot of Cecilia looking like Jerri Blank. Hope she’s got a good personality!

8:09 p.m. Holy crap it’s Benny Ninja! This man POSES FOR A LIVING. His title is actually “posing instructor.”

8:10 p.m. I do not understand Benny Ninja. I’m just going to say that now.

8:10 p.m. Posing challenge. Sandra blows it. Most of them blow it, actually. Kortney gets in trouble with the Ninja.

8:12 p.m. Uh-oh. Tahlia the burn victim has once again been accused of not having confidence.

8:16 p.m. Local news aside: A woman STOLE breast implants. Presumably in Pittsburgh…what a town!

8:17 p.m. I am really disturbed by that Soft Scrub commercial in which the stove talks back to the woman cleaning it in a racially coded voice like Chester Cheetah. Inexplicable.

8:18 p.m. The girls are headlining an event “for the fashion elite of New York City.” Mmm hmm.

8:19 p.m. Alison feels “horrible” and is “scared.” Don’t, Alison! You’re freaky and you should stay on the show!

8:20 p.m. Benny Ninja is the host. Obviously this is not a prestigious event.

8:21 p.m. Alison looks good, but the crowd is booing! No!

8:21 p.m. Sandra is a fool. What is she doing? More boos.

8:22 p.m. Celia does well, but her makeup makes her look like a wax figure.

8:23 p.m. Natalie and Celia face off, and Natalie almost falls so Celia wins. In your smug face, Natalie!

8:24 p.m. Tahlia is complaining again about her low self-esteem, and Alison is talking about her behind her back.

8:25 p.m. Commercials. With all the top model winners that get Cover Girl contracts, why is Queen Latifah always hogging all the ads?

8:28 p.m. The Tyra mail was talking about “migrating.” That means birds! BIRDS!

8:28 p.m. Ugg, Tahlia’s a sad sack. I would probably react the same way to being on Top Model, but even so. Celia wants her to leave.

8:29 p.m. Ok, so the shoot is not about birds. Jay Manuel is waxing all historical about immigrants. He must have been cramming all night for that speech.

OK…I’ll stop here. Liveblogging is exhausting! I’ll be back to analyze this on Friday.

So I’m back to analyze! Looking over this liveblog days later, I’m amazed that it seems so slight. I felt like I was spending every spare moment writing comments, and yet it doesn’t really show. A solo critical liveblog is typically more work than participating in a liveblog thread, but even that would be something to get used to. Interestingly enough, later the same night that I liveblogged Top Model, I tuned in to a reality show on which a friend of mine was going to be featured. Another friend and I facebook chatted throughout the program, which was itself a lot like commenting in a liveblog thread. This was easier and more fun than the solo liveblog, but still involved a lot of work and drew my attention away from the television screen for probably almost 50% of the broadcast. In sum, I would say that to me, liveblogging was a lot more work than, say, watching TV with a group of actual friends in my living room. Especially with a show like Top Model, which is mostly interesting because of the visual elements (listen to the dialogue sometime and you’ll hear what I mean), I found I was frustrated that my attention was being drawn away from the TV.

I also felt slightly overwhelmed by the process because of the genre constraints of liveblogging, which I instinctually followed due to my experience reading them. Whenever something important (or comment-worthy) happened on the show, I felt that I must comment on it, as to miss it would be to misrepresent it. This brings me back to the discussion of Television Without Pity that I began in the last post: they’ve mastered the art of the almost obnoxiously complete recap/real-time review. I consider this type of liveblogging a new strain of television criticism, popularized by the introduction of the DVR and Tivo. It is obvious that TWoP reviewers use this technology to pause and rewind, thus enabling them to see and hear every moment of the show, despite the task of commenting. This produces a type of criticism that actually seems to suit television as a medium better than traditional, film-style criticism. It’s always been a problem for reviewers to write about television, since it is not a complete, succinct text that can be viewed and considered as a whole (look at The Simpsons). Liveblogging takes the film-style review, which condenses a television season into one pithy interpretation, and does the complete opposite: it blows the minutiae of a single episode up into a review-length (and often longer) close reading that resists categorization, allowing the reader to watch, read, and develop a sense of the show for themselves.

Idol's Adam Lambert

Idol's Adam Lambert

For example, Television Without Pity’s recap of Tuesday’s American Idol (by Jacob) is thirteen standard web pages long, and covers everything from disparaging the judges’ clothing (Simon in “high-rise jeans” and Randy in a “mathlete cardigan”) to speculating about the contestants’ dispositions (on Kris Allen: “I can’t imagine him writing a song unless it was like one of those Edie Brickell songs about sitting on a porch and eating a burrito”). The reviewers take liberties with the liveblog format, of course. Though their main responsibility is to document an episode, these recaps are filled with tangents and asides about personal experiences, other pop culture texts, and even conversations happening between the writers’ friends in the room while the episode is airing. This is a genre of review that fits perfectly with reality TV, as the enjoyment (for most people over the age of say, 13) of these flashy, synthetic shows is usually found in the absurd blink-and-you-miss-them details, like Ryan Seacrest’s sexual innuendos, a contestant flashing a “weird muppet smile,” and a small moment when a contestant “giggles” at Smokey Robinson. As I noted in my previous posts, Television Without Pity’s most popular recaps are of shows with which the writers themselves have a “love/hate relationship.” The in-depth recap seems to be the only type of review that truly allows for a demonstration of such a relationship. The joy of writing and reading recap-liveblogs comes from the snark, but also the heart underneath the snark. This comes through in Jacob’s reaction to Idol contestant Adam’s performance of “Tracks of my Tears,” which left Smokey Robinson teary-eyed: “Adam Lambert sings like an angel! Damn. That was amazing.” This is the kind of moment that has the maximum emotional impact upon first viewing. Television brings us moments like these all the time, when the shallowest, cheesiest of shows inexplicably bring us to tears. Liveblogging can capture these feelings before embarrassment takes over, and gives us a true picture of why we watch television.

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What’s the appeal of the loner liveblog?

As I noted in my last post, throughout my web research on liveblogging I’ve been surprised at the small number of true live blogs provided as open threads on which fan communities can post. Instead of another practice common to television fan forums, as I had previously thought, liveblogging is dominantly practiced by single bloggers or groups of bloggers, whether they be contributors to television recap web sites, contributers to larger entertainment sites (like the Gawker Media sites or EW), or just solo bloggers interested in television. While many of these offer threads below for fans to comment, they are usually not too popular. It’s interesting to me why we would live to read someone else’s moment-by-moment musings about a television show. Why would we want to read this kind of feed while we’re watching a program, after we’ve watched it, or if we haven’t even watched it at all? It’s unclear to me how many people read these feeds (if they are indeed posted as they are being written), or how many just see them as an entertaining way to catch up on what they’ve missed. I should admit that I have personal experience in this area: when working a particularly boring job in New York, I often read the (extraordinarily long) recaps of American Idol and America’s Next Top Model on Television Without Pity, sometimes when I had already watched the show myself. I even went so far as to read old recaps of long-canceled but beloved shows (like PBS’s American High).

I’d like to take a look at two different types of these Blogger-led blogs: one of Television Without Pity’s popular “recaps” of American Idol, written in “real time” but not posted until the next day (they also do not allow fan comments), and a liveblog of the 2009 Oscars from Gawker.com, posted in real time and with a thread for fans to comment in below. I’d like to analyze the differences between these two uses of liveblogging and consider the appeal of each.

I’ll start with Gawker, a website that grew into an internet media phenomenon with numerous spin-off

Gawker Media logo

Gawker Media logo

sites (Jezebel and Defamer being two). Gawker, which gained popularity in 2005 and 2006, has been charged with popularizing “snark” (short for “snide remark”) in the blogosphere. The site spends most of its time mocking celebrities, journalists, and the wealthy, and commenters as well as the site’s main bloggers specialize in mercilessness. On his “Geekcentric” blog, journalist Michael Duff wrote a post entitled “Is Snark Killing the Web?” in which he writes, “A snarky writer is the ultimate outsider. He’s outside of everything, poking fun at the elites, tearing down institutions with insults and dry humor.” Noting that Gawker is the pioneer of this trend, Duff warns against its dominance: “Spending too much time immersed in blog culture can ruin you for real communication. Every straight line starts to look like a big, fat softball cruising across the plate, waiting to be hit out of the park with a clever insult or a snarky turn of phrase.” In her article “Everybody Sucks: Gawker and the Rage of the Creative Underclass,” New York writer Vanessa Grigoriadis writes, “Of all the ways in which Gawker is antithetical to journalistic ethics—it’s self-referential, judgmental, ad hominem, and resolutely against effecting change in the world—it pushes its writers to be honest in a way that’s not always found in print publications.” I mention snark here because it figures very heavily into most liveblogs: many shows being commented on are guilty pleasures for viewers, who revel in every cheesy moment or easy target. On Television without Pity’s “FAQ” page, the editors write, “Our mandate is, more or less, to give people a place to revel in their guilty televisual pleasures. In most cases, we have a complex love/hate relationship with the show, and this site is a way for us to work through those feelings. If we plain hated a show, we wouldn’t pay it any attention at all.”

The snark comes through loud and clear in Gawker’s Oscars liveblog, by Seth (reads backwards, as earliest posts comes first):

5:27 An old-timey newsreel explains exactly what production designer David Rockwell was trying to do with the set, just in case the sight of a full band on the stage sends you into fits of confused convulsions, leading you to throw a small child or glass ashtray into your flatscreen TV.

5:21 Jack Black’s wife seemed utterly enchanted by the stranger with the microphone, didn’t she? Cagle then asks Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, and Judd Apatow who they’d save if there was a massive earthquake that killed everyone during the broadcast. That’s a festive stumper! The fun’s already started.

5:13 Viola Davis just fulfilled her Whole Foods Stress Tabs shout-out duties. Unfortunately, she was supposed to mention Airborne. No million bucks for you! (But free salad bar for life.)

5:11 Wow, Jess—way to shit the bed on the Robert Downey Jr. interview. Yes, that’s his date. Otherwise known as his wife, Deborah Falconer Susan Levin. Don’t you run a magazine with Entertainment in the name or something? (Don’t look at us, we don’t work anywhere.)

5:10 Mickey Rourke had a tuxedo made for Loki. That is just about the saddest thing we’ve heard all day. (Okay, second-saddest.) Wait—wasn’t Loki a girl? Enh, Celine got away with it. Wait—no she didn’t.

5:09 Surprise Alert! In place of Oscar statuettes, all winners in acting categories will be given an adorable, poop-dipped Slumdog Millionaire orphan.

What’s interesting is that in the comments section, rather than responding to Seth’s posts, commenters simply seem to be making their own snarky comments and observations of the ceremony, and commenting on each other’s. So this begs the question: what purpose does Seth’s liveblog serve? It could be seen as a sort of demonstration, a way of setting the tone for the other Gawer bloggers to follow. I would also guess that many (like me) looked at Seth’s blog after the Oscars, as a sort of TV Without Pity-style recap. In this way, solo/group liveblogs written by (professional) bloggers more or less serve as stream-of-consciousness reviews, those that give us the feeling of participating even when we’re not. While fan-thread liveblogs are more a simulation of being in a roomful of people watching a TV show together, blogs like Seth’s are more like asking a particularly funny and astute friend his or her reactions to a show. Bloggers, in this way, act as experts, even celebrities. Grigoriadis writes, “Bloggers get to experience the fantastic feeling of looking at everything in the world and then having everyone look at them through their blog, of being both subject and object, voyeur and voyeurant.” Though this may be the goal of every commenting fan, bloggers like Seth set the example for what we should strive for, ensuring that a site like Gawker retains its snarky tone.

Because this post is getting a little long, I’ll postpone the discussion of TV Without Pity until next week, and continue discussion of fan-thread communities.

Also, I’ll try to take up liveblogging myself the next chance I get!

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Liveblogging Experiment: where have all the forums gone?

This week I plan to post about my own experiences liveblogging a television show. However, I’ve realized that it’s not as easy to find a liveblogging outlet as I thought! As I plan to discuss more in-depth in next week’s post, most liveblogs feature one main blogger, with space for fan comments below. However, some liveblogs do exist that are just fan conversations, pure and simple. I decided that tonight I would liveblog America’s Next Top Model, a popular reality show I was sure would have many forums. To my surprise, when I searched I could only find liveblogs on the show’s current season from single bloggers. Fan forums on the show abound, but are mostly concerned with spoilers and predictions. I visited my go=to site, Television Without Pity, and investigted their forums. In addition to single-blogger liveblogs, they have fan forums on each episode, so I figured I was all set. When I began reading through the forum however, I saw that though some posters appeared to be liveblogging, most appeared to have watched the whole episode, and then begun commenting. Sure enough, when I checked TV Without Pity’s forum “rules,” one rule plainly stated that fans were not allowed to blog about an episode while it’s still airing. This is baffling to me, and the only explanation I can come up with is that liveblogging on TV Without Pity is reserved for its staff of bloggers only. But why would this be?

I am still hoping to find a home for my thoughts on tonight’s installment of Top Model. There are certainly outlets for liveblogging online, but many are for shows I don’t watch (Lost) or seem like close-knit communities that I may not want to penetrate on my first time out. Another favorite site of mine is Jezebel.com, which offers live blogs often but erratically: they provide forums for some seasons and some episodes, but not all. If ANTM doesn’t work out, I may try Jezebel’s sometimes-happening Saturday Night Live liveblog, or I may just have to wait for next week’s American Idol.

More on this apparent drought of forum-style liveblogging in future posts…

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Online Fan Reception and Television Content

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses the developing relationship between online fan reception and television producers, writers, and advertisers. It would be too simple to state that liveblogging as a practice has grown simply out of its online predecessors (listservs, fan sites, and single-author blogs) and not out of the changing nature of television itself. Online interaction with television texts has been influenced in part by changing television formats, while networks themselves are shaping program content based upon the ways viewers are engaging in online communities. I would like to explore, with the help of Jenkins and Jason Mittell, author of the essay “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” where we can see this relationship working, and what kinds of content has influenced and been influenced by the act of liveblogging specifically.

What makes some shows more popular subjects for liveblogging and fan discussion than others? In Television Without Pity’s list of show forums, the top 5 shows with the most posts are, in order, American Idol (FOX) with 495,467, Supernatural (CW) with 381,526, America’s Next Top Model (CW) with 278,889, Smallville (CW) with 265, 655, and Heroes (NBC) with 250,621 (all as of 2/27/09, 3:27 pm). In terms of genre, this list varies: reality TV, science fiction/drama, superhero/drama. This may not be surprising, as comic book and sci-fi fans have long been considered Internet-savvy fans. Just below these in the rankings, however, come shows like the sitcom The Office and the hospital drama House, and as I noted in last week’s blog, AMC’s period drama Mad Men has also become a popular liveblogging subject. So what makes this particular shows so popular in the online fan world (especially when many of them, such as Supernatural, haven’t been so lucky in ratings or criticism)? The question I’m most interested in investigating (though not necessarily answering) is whether the convergence of television and online communities has influenced TV programming as a whole, or just particular shows and genres.

The genre that immediately comes to mind when talking about Internet-television convergence is reality TV. Though we’d already seen the rise of the reality-soap genre with MTV’s The Real World in the early 1990’s, it wasn’t until CBS’s Survivor (2000) that the combination of game show and reality soap became a must-have genre for every major network. Jenkins devotes a whole chapter to this show, entitled “Spoiling Survivor: The Anatomy of a Knowledge Community,” in which he asserts “Survivor is television for the Internet Age—designed to be discussed, dissected, debated, predicted, and critiqued” (25). The focus of Jenkins’s chapter is the practice of “spoiling,” in which fans with mysterious sources spill secret information about the possible outcome of the show. In what he dubs “knowledge communities,” viewers try to beat the produces of the show to the punch, and the producers play the game as well by placing clues and false leads throughout the season. Jenkins writes, “CBS admitted that they, like many other production companies, monitored the discussion lists for information about the audience,” and quotes CBS Communications VP Chris Ender as saying “It’s just the best research you can get” (46).

Though fans within these “spoiling” communities are participating in different kinds of online interaction than livebloggers, Survivor gives us an example of the first show to really influence and be influenced by online communities, from its inception up to the present. This was just the beginning for reality TV, however, and Jenkins’s second chapter “Buying into American Idol: How We Are Being Sold on Reality Television” illustrates this. It’s no surprise that American Idol comes in first on the TV without Pity forums—by a good 100,000 posts. This was a show designed specifically with media convergence in mind: television, internet, and mobile phone. The show’s text message voting system helped phone companies immensely when they were struggling to market messaging plans to American consumers (Jenkins 60). Instead of relying simply on commercial breaks, the American Idol producers also thought up creative ways to incorporate advertising into the show as well as its online component (a Coca-Cola music Web site). Much like Survivor, the show seems perfectly engineered for group involvement and participation. Because audience members vote and determine the winner, there is bound to be much debate and investment among them. Jenkins writes, “Audience participation is a way of getting American Idol viewers more deeply invested, shoring up their loyalty to the franchise and its sponsors. This investment begins with the turnout of millions of would-be contestants at auditions held in stadium and convention hotels around the country. Many more people watch the series that try out; many more try out than make the air; many more make the air than become finalists” (71). By its very design, American Idol relies on a vocal audience for its content and its outcome, making it a no-brainer for Internet forum popularity.

Idol's "Worst": Sanjaya Malakar (image from Time.com)

Idol's "Worst": Sanjaya Malakar (image from Time.com)

Idol fans may participate in the same types on online activities, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bright-eyed Clay Aiken worshippers. A large contingent of the Idol audience consists of viewers who love to hate the show, liveblogging snarky comments (a popular slant on TV without pity) mocking the contestants and the judges alike. The show is designed for this as well, with judge Simon Cowell as the Commander-in-Chief of snark, ruthlessly mocking the contestants, smarmy host Ryan Seacrest, and flaky fellow judge Paula Abdul. Snark is an extremely important component of television liveblogging, particularly with reality shows such as Idol and the aforementioned America’s Next Top Model. In his discussion of the early forum Survivor Sucks,” Jenkins writes, “the recapping process [a variation on the liveblog] was shaped by the desire to talk back to the television set, to make fun of formulas and signal your emotional distance from what’s taking place on the screen” (31). This was taken to the next level by Idol fans in 2007, who started the online campaign “Vote for the Worst,” a protest of sorts against what many deemed the diminishing quality/fairness of the show and its voting process. This campaign was arguably responsible for the long Idol tenure of cloying teen singer and Simon Cowell target Sanjaya Malakar.

Through the examples of Survivor and Idol, we can see that the relationship between online fan communitites and reality shows is an obvious and essential one, without which the content of each would be vastly different. However, what about these other shows, like Supernatural, Smallville, and Heroes? What makes dramas like these popular in online fan communities, and how has the style/content of such dramas adapted to online fandom? In his article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” Jason Mittell argues that since the 1990s, television narrative has become more innovative, most prominently with Seinfeld and The X-Files, and continuing with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more recent shows like Lost and Mad Men. Mittell writes, “this programming demands an active and attentive process of comprehension to decode both the complex stories and modes of storytelling offered by contemporary television. Audiences tend to embrace complex programs in much more passionate and committed terms than most conventional television, using these shows as the basis for robust fan cultures and active feedback to the television industry” (32).

Twin Peaks: Pioneer of the long-term story arc (image from Wikipedia)

Twin Peaks: Pioneer of the long-term story arc (image from Wikipedia)

A major example of this type of change in narrative style began in the late 1980s-early 1990s (Wiseguy, Twin Peaks) and grew as it became embraced by rabid fans on early listservs and fan groups. “Long-form arc storytelling,” as Mittell calls it, involves a series-long story arc (or “mythology,” as X-Files fans dubbed it) which is always being developed, even though not every specific episode addresses it. Supernatural, Smallville, and Heroes all serve as examples of this type of storytelling, as do—in a way—reality shows like American Idol. Jenkins writes, “American Idol is simply following a trend that runs across all contemporary television—a movement away from the self-contained episodes that dominated broadcasting for its first several decades in favor of longer and more complicated program arcs and more elaborate appeals to series history” (78). Narrative innovation has become so important to television viewers, Mittell argues, that for the first time we have hit television show actually named after its storytelling technique rather than its content: the terrorism thriller 24 (Mittell 36).

So, does this mean that the activities of online fan communities have enough power to change the very nature of television programming? Or are these activities largely a result of programming changes made specifically to target these communities? Mittell joins the second camp, stating, “Thus narratively complex television encourages, and even at time necessitates, a new mode of viewer engagement” (38). Though there is solid evidence one way or another, the thing about convergence culture is that it’s not about one thing influencing another, or one medium being absorbed into another: it’s about two (or more) media colliding and adapting to one another, changing each other in ways that can’t be traced to a specific point of origin.

Next week: I’ll be trying my hand at liveblogging, and discussing my experience.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap. 58: Fall 2006. Pp. 29-40.

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