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Comcast/NBC Universal and the Production Theory of Television

By Chelsea Perry

To the untrained eye, television is merely entertainment. At face value, viewers receive a storyline, character development, and plots and audiences get pure enjoyment from what they can clearly see on the screen. Many channel surfers, while watching television, do not take into consideration what it takes to fully put on the production. It does not cross the viewer’s mind that it took a multitude of people from different institutions to create the programs they sit and enjoy each and every day. The production theory of television looks further into the relationships that are cultivated behind the scenes; out of the viewer’s eyesight. The theory explains how the relationships made effect what is being seen on television. Production theory also dissects the balance of control that is given to each tier of power in a production and how that control can set the stage for the content of the show through personal choices, social mores, and contractual obligations.
One valuable example of production theory in the current news is that of the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. The acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast has raised the eyebrows of critics regarding worries of media consolidation in television. Comcast is treading in new production waters because the NBC Universal acquisition from GE goes against many of the current FCC laws forbidding the ownership of companies that span too wide of an audience. Ownership of the media plays a large role in the content and control that the crew, cast, and production companies have over their shows and the NBC/Comcast merger poses a threat to what many see as an already working equation.
To make the merger final, Comcast bought 51% of NBC Universal’s stock from General Electric, which makes it the new parent company (Memmott). Along with owning NBC, Comcast now has control over such entities as MSNBC, Bravo, Syfy, USA Network, and the Weather Channel (Flint). The reach of NBC Universal, and now Comcast, expands well past the realm of television and extends to motion pictures with the ownership of Universal Pictures (Flint). Since the joining of NBC and Universal, NBC Universal also owns Universal Parks in Orlando, Florida. The span of Comcast’s control over the media world has greatly expanded because of the acquisition of NBC Universal and all of its assets.
One of the major aspects of production theory is that of the relationships between crew, cast, networks, and institutions. The relationships that can affect the production can be as simple as the actor’s relationship to the director or as complex as the relationship between a social topic and the cultural mores of an area. The levels of analysis regarding relationships and interactions are defined in three different levels; macro analysis, micro analysis, and mid-range analysis. Each analysis level deals with a different aspect of production but all are easily overlapped into one another. Macro analysis deals with the big-picture. Essentially, macro analysis includes the relationships between networks and company ownerships. Another aspect of macro analysis is that of social culture and mores. When looking at macro analysis, one has to take into account “…particular socio-political, historical and culturally-specific contexts…” that could also affect the content that is being shown on the program (Chandler).  One thing that has to be kept in mind about macro analysis is that changes with the decades because the cultural themes which dominate a decade tend to change throughout time (O’Donnell 46).
Comcast has control of around 25 million cable, Internet, and telephone consumers in America, which makes it one of the largest and most competitive companies in that field (Flint).  NBC is one of the top networks on television. The merger of the two powers follows the path of media consolidation. Media consolidation can be grouped into the macro-level, or institutional level, of production theory. Essentially media consolidation refers to the joining of different mediums of media (BNET). In Comcast/NBC Universal, the two mediums are a cable/Internet provider and a cable network.
The fear associated with media consolidation is that of media bias which is not seen by the American audience. Viewers tend to take whatever is seen on television as mere fact without considering the morals and ethics of the parent company, which affects the content and viewpoints of the show or network. With one of the largest cable companies owning one of the most widely watched cable networks, the worries of favoritism and media bias from the parent company, Comcast, is a very tangible one. The FCC, or Federal Communications Commission, has to consider the media consolidation threat and judge whether it imposes upon the Sherman Anti-Trust Act that was set up by the US Congress in 1890 (Infoplease). The Sherman Anti-Trust Act ensures that no company can form an abusive monopoly over a certain good or service and the merger between to two such powerful companies could pose just such a threat (Infoplease).
Recently in the news, there have been rumors of Comcast acquiring a network called the RightNetwork that would supply very conservative news to viewers (Gavin). Often, this RightNetwork has been referred to as a television station for the newly developed, right wing, political movement called the Tea Party Movement. This rumor started when a “lookbook” from a RightNetwork show provided the names of its partners, Comcast being amongst them (Crooks and Liars). Since the revelation of this ‘lookbook’, it has been pulled down from the RightNetwork site and Comcast has released a statement saying that they are not involved with the RightNetwork and have “no partnership with this venture and have no plans to launch or distribute the network” (Khoury). This example demonstrates, though, how easy it is for big companies, such as Comcast, to get involved in the political arena possibly creating an immediate, behind-the-scenes political bias. A bias in a media company is extremely dangerous because of the widespread reach it has on it’s American, and world, audiences.
Micro analysis deals with the dynamics of a production on a more personal level then macro analysis. Micro analysis generally deals with single roles, like a director or an editor, and what can influence their input on the content of the program. Micro analysis can focus on things such as personal relationships or decisions an individual makes when dealing with things like time restraints and money constrictions; all which undoubtedly affect the outcome of a show. One example is a hypothesis that states that in the micro analysis of newsrooms, the relationships between workers “…are related to a person’s role in a news organization” (Berkowitz and Allen). So not only does micro analysis look at personal relationships between workers, it also observes how similar goals are also a motivating factor in the interactions.
The micro level of production can also be widely affected by the merger of the two companies. NBC Universal no longer is under GE control and has the new parent company of Comcast. Along with the switch in hands of power and control, comes a new set of company ethics and culture that all current employees need to adhere to, both in the creative and business aspect. Every company has a different culture and Comcast’s culture could be very different and distinct from the one GE had. NBC executives are already getting retrained in the ways of their company’s culture because of the change in authoritative power to Comcast. Execs for NBC were already in Philadelphia at one of Comcast’s headquarters learning about their new parent company’s culture (Gross).
With management being trained in a new company culture, the trickle-down affect of power and control could certainly change. Things such as program content could change due to things such as the brand loyalties that Comcast has and also the ethics that the company upholds. This could also affect personal relationships among staff members, which falls under the micro level of production theory. As petty as it sounds, within the bigger picture, the interpersonal relationships between cast and crewmembers, along with their relationships with higher-ups, can drastically change the content and feel of a show. If one section of the work force is unhappy, the workplace aesthetic is jeopardized which, in turn, can alter the substance of the show.
The final tier of production theory is called mid-range analysis. Mid-range analysis observes the structure of shows and how it affects the outcome of the content. Mid-range can look at topics such as programming tactics by networks to brand-loyalty and recognition.  Mid-range deals more with the organizational standards for television and how shows adhere to them. The NBC Universal/Comcast merger will also have a lasting affect on the mid-ranged level of production theory. As stated before, mid-range has to deal with the structure of shows and how it affects the content. Comcast is the new parent company of NBC Universal. Being a cable and Internet provider, Comcast could have an interest in both mediums and how to further interlace the two. Being one of the largest Internet providers, Comcast certainly has an interest in the online world. Having the ability to control the content of the Internet could be one of the largest driving forces behind the merger of the two companies. By owning one of the largest cable networks, with some of the most successful shows like The Office and 30 Rock, Comcast could make the online viewing of those shows a monopolistic market—only making it available to their subscribers.
This concern, of course, brings up the issue of net neutrality. Net neutrality is, essentially, a political argument that broadband providers should be kept separate, and thus unbiased, from their content so that the Internet can remain a public domain (UC Berkeley). In the case of the Comcast/NBC Universal merger, Comcast is the broadband provider and NBC Universal shows are their content. Another worry that deals with net neutrality and the merger is that Comcast could block different video streaming sites other then their own, which features NBC shows, so subscribers to Comcast would be forced to use the Comcast-run website. Another option that Comcast could use is that if their subscribers access an online video streaming site that isn’t run by Comcast, such as Netflix, that subscriber would see a hike in fees (Pergraro). Since Comcast has control over every step in the process of creating NBC Universal content, from the creative aspect to the delivery aspect, Comcast has vertically integrated their product and that supports the idea that Comcast could turn the NBC Universal content into a monopolistic market.
In recent news, Comcast has already entered the net neutrality battle and come out victorious. According to the New York Times, federal courts have ruled that Internet providers, Comcast included, can slow or even limit access to certain websites for their subscribers. Also, the court stated that video sites, such as YouTube, could be given an extra charge by Internet providers. This court’s ruling has set back the FCC in it’s fights to keep the Internet a neutral playing ground for it’s users and worries website hosts. Comcast actually spearheaded this court battle by claiming that it could have control over the speeds of their subscribers Internet to help curb illegal downloading from sites like BitTorrent. Now, because of this ruling, the FCC has to consider how to go about treating net neutrality. One solution, according to the New York Times article, is to reclassify broadband service as a basic utility, thus making it have stricter regulations; much like telephone lines do today. As a result of the court’s ruling in April, many opponents to the NBC Universal/Comcast merger have spoken out claiming that this victory could just further the gap between net neutrality and the Internet of the near future.
Another aspect of production theory is the observation of power roles. Along with delegating control to certain tiers of the production line, power is also given out to certain people and organizations. Power roles deal with how one person or institution negotiates with another to achieve the goal they want for their show. Power roles can come from within a shoot, from director to actor, or from a larger scale, like the FCC to a network. With power roles, there is a love and hate relationship between the levels of television workers and their respective networks because of the two different models they are coming from (O’Donnell 46). Television show creators usually come from the public sphere model, whereas they want to inform and educate the public. While on the flip side, networks have more of a marketplace model in that they are in it for the bottom-line profits.
Production theory, although not widely known about, plays an integral role in understanding the inner-workings of television. Knowing that behind the scenes there are decisions being made by people and institutions that can completely affect the outcome of the show adds a new, complex perspective that most viewers don’t consider. Having a general knowledge of production theory helps a viewer make sense of why certain decisions are made, which may, on face value, have made no sense at all.
One can find this particular theory in use throughout almost all aspects of television. If one looks at a show and investigates the inner-workings with the crew, cast, and companies it is involved with, the topics that production theory deals with are very relevant. The production theory also plays a role in larger institutions and their workings within the industry.
The positive side to this merger is that with the joining of the two companies the programs and information provided could be produced more efficiently and with better quality because of new level of information, funding, and technology that Comcast can bring to NBC Universal. The American public must be aware of the merger and the consequences, though. While the joining of the two companies will undoubtedly open up new financial and technological doors for NBC Universal, the media bias that could develop should also be considered. Amongst their subscribers, Comcast doesn’t have the highest reputation for the “best quality” cable that could be easily reflected onto NBC, which could then threaten the prestige that NBC has as a cable company (Pegraro). Also, one must look at the success level of large-scale merger’s that have happened in earlier years—for every successful venture there is about two flops, like the AOL-Time Warner fiasco, to counter them (Pegraro).
Knowing production theory, and everything it encompasses, it is easy to see how the theory could work into something like the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. Mainly, the connection can be made to the levels of production theory- those being micro, macro, and mid-ranged- and how the interaction between the new companies happens. Each level of production theory will be challenged because of the change in the hands of power and control over NBC Universal.
To be aware of the production theory and how integral the inner-workings of the three levels of television are is important for viewers to understand because of the large role that television plays in a majority of their day-to-day lives. The Comcast/NBC Universal merger could potentially change a great deal of components in the current NBC Universal production level equation to success, which has been serving them well for decades. The levels of production help the public understand more clearly how every aspect of the television-making process could be altered and how media bias could occur with such a large merger.
Works Cited
Berkowitz, Dan, and Craig Allen. “Exploring newsroom views about consultants in local TV: The effect of work roles and socialization.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media Fall 40.4 (96): 447. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. < 84a853a6b167%40sessionmgr110&bdata=JmxvZ2lucGFnZT1Mb2dpbi5hc3Amc2l0Z            T1laG9zdC1saXZl# db=aph&AN=9701223294>.

Chandler, Daniel. “Engagement with Media: Shaping and Being Shaped.” Aberystwyth University. Feb. 1996. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <>.

“Comcast Partners with Teabaggers to Bring New Right-Wing Broadcast Network Online.” Crooks and Liars. 17 Apr. 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2010. <>.

“Consolidation: Definition and Additional Resources from BNET.” Glossary of Business Dictionary Terms. Web.  02 May 2010. <>.

Gavin, Patrick. “Report: Comcast Says No Plans to Acquire Right-wing Network (UPDATED).” Web. 02 May 2010. <>.

Joe, Flint. “Comcast in Deal Talks with NBC Universal.” Los Angeles Times. 30 Sept. 2009. Web. 02 May 2010. <>.

Khoury, Jennifer. “Comcast Not Involved with Right Network.” Comcast Voices | The Official Comcast Blog. 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. <>.

Memmott, Mark. “Mega-Media Merger In Works: Comcast Cuts Deal For 51% Of NBC Universal.” NPR : National Public Radio. 3 Dec. 2009. Web. 02 May 2010. <>.

“NET NEUTRALITY: Definition.” Open Computing Facility at U.C. Berkeley. U.C. Berkeley. Web. 02 May 2010. <>.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, Inc, 2007. Print.

Pegoraro, Rob. “Comcast-NBC Merger Nears, Questions Begin.” Faster Foward. Web. 02 May 2010. <>.

“Sherman Antitrust Act.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Web. 02 May. 2010 <>.

Wyatt, Edward. “Court Favors Comcast in F.C.C. ‘Net Neutrality’ Ruling.” The New York Times. 06 Apr. 2010. Web. 25 Apr. 2010. <>.

The Two Americas: How Modern Horror Programming Sees American Society

by Rachael Sherwood

Television is saturated with shows that do not fit into a simple genre category. These increasingly complex ways of storytelling reveal even more complex ways of coding messages. Modern horror programming relies on genre-hybridity to create a narrative of America. Two examples of this are Supernatural, which uses the western genre to reinforce traditional American ideologies and True Blood, which uses the satire genre to subvert them. In an increasingly polarized society, these shows depict very different visions of America.

Genre theory is, to put it broadly, the study of genres. A genre can be defined as a “type” or “category” a work is placed in (Chandler 1). Genre theory analysis of a work looks at how the genre is used within the work and compares that to the typical conventions of the genre.

Some questions a genre theorist might ask are: What genre does this work appear to fit in? What genre will an audience assign to this work? What expectations will they have on the work because of this genre classification (Chandler 10)? Genre theory also seeks to place a work within the context of historical perspective. A theorist will try to identify texts that influenced and shaped the piece (Chandler 9-11).

The origins of genre theory can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks with Aristotle, who began to categorize plays and literature into such categories as “tragedy” and “comedy” (Mittel 1). Historically genre studies was more prescriptivist, but now is often tied to poststructuralism and deconstructivism. Modern day genre theorists are interested in questioning the assumed genre of a work (Mittel 1). The most influential scholar who started this trend in general analysis was Northrop Frye with the publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 (Synder 5).

Terms that are essential to understanding genre theory are: conventions/tropes, hybridity, and taxonomy. Conventions and tropes are the elements that a genre typically contains. For example, a medical drama contains elements such as a hospital, doctors, and injuries. Hybridity is the process by which genres are blended. When a work contains conventions and tropes from multiple genres, it is said to be a hybrid. By its basic definition, taxonomy is the science behind classification. When applied to genre theory, it is examining the system of categorizing used to identify a work within a genre category (Chandler 15).

First, we must understand what makes up the horror genre. Although Supernatural and True Blood are hybrids, they are culturally understood as horror. When examining the promotion for the two shows, it is clear that they were both intended by their respective networks to be considered horror. In promos for Supernatural, the WB stated that it would be “the scariest hour of television”. True Blood’s initial promotional imagery focused on its lead character, a young blonde woman, and images of blood. This combination, along with the red and black typography, recalls familiar horror tropes. The marketing for both these shows sends a clear message: these shows are to be understood as horror.

In his paper, “The Nature of Horror”, Noel Carroll pinpoints that what the horror genre does, essentially, is to examine a conflict of man vs. other, where the other is seen as a “monster”(Carroll 53). The monster can be a creature, such as a werewolf, or it can simply be a madman. The important part is that even if the audience has some sympathy for the monster, they do not identify with it. Instead, they view themselves through the protagonist. Carroll argues that if the audience does not feel this dynamic, they will fail to experience the other key feature of the horror genre: catharsis (55). Catharsis occurs when the threat is vanquished and the protagonist is safe.

Both Supernatural and True Blood use this dynamic in their pilot episodes. In the first episode of Supernatural, we are introduced to Sam and Dean Winchester. Sam is a successful college student and Dean, his older and “street smart” brother, who Sam has not seen in years, interrupts his normal life to ask him to help find their father. Immediately, with these familiar family dynamics and struggles, the audience is pulled into identifying with Sam and Dean on a personal level. They care not only that the Winchesters solve the mystery at hand–but also that they live to see another episode.  The identifying protagonist of True Blood is Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress in a Louisiana bar. In order to create sympathy and identity, the show quickly illustrates the day to day struggles Sookie has: the stresses of her family, friends, and unique telepathic gift.

The “monster” in the pilot episode of Supernatural manifests in a Woman in White–a creature from folklore and urban legend. Although the show creates sympathy for the monster (a deeply disturbed woman who killed herself and her children), it also makes it apparent that she must be stopped. The episode only ends after they have successfully thwarted the Woman in White. True Blood does not make it as easy to identify the monster. Although it introduces Bill Compton, a vampire, he quickly becomes a figure of sympathy and intrigue. His “goodness” is vouched for by Sookie’s belief in him.  By the end of the episode, the “monster” is quite clear: the mysterious entity that is murdering innocent women in Bon Temps. Since True Blood is a serialized show, the catharsis of this storyline is not experienced immediately, but the audience is given an understanding that it will be.

While Supernatural and True Blood are both firmly set into the horror genre–they are completely different shows. There are a number of factors that influence this. They are on different networks, have different creators and writers, and are in different formats. However, beyond even this, they seem fundamentally different. This is likely because of the influence of genre hybridity. Both shows are tied to one other genre, and these new genres are what inform the show’s narrative ideology. Both are tied to genres that are concerned with examining American perspectives: the western, which upholds a traditional reading of American culture, and the satire, which often seeks to undermine or criticize that reading. This difference in their hybridity accounts for the feeling that they are fundamentally different.

Supernatural, while having the appearance of a horror show, can easily be placed within the genre category of western.  According to Lee Clark Mitchell, there are several important  themes that resonant through all Westerns: masculinity, the lone man, the frontier, honor, and the law (Mitchell 6). There are also visual elements that play in most westerns: cowboys, sheriffs, horses, pistols, saloons, etc. The effects of genre hybridity are not always visually obvious. We must be able to understand the difference between the archetype of “cowboy” and the stereotype of “cowboy.” The Winchesters are the Western outlaw/cowboy hero, even if they do not wear boots or hats. It does seem that the show itself even recognizes this, as later in Season 1, the  Winchesters come into possession of a early 1900s Colt pistol, weapon of choice for many on-screen cowboys (Herring 5). In fact, their very name is a reference to famous guns: the Winchester rifle.

In the pilot of Supernatural, all the elements of a western are present. Stripped of all its genre trappings, the story is of two men, outside society and the law, who travel West to a small town and save the people from a threat they cannot understand. There are visual stand-ins for the things that cannot fit into a modern context. For example, instead of riding a horse, Sam and Dean have their beloved car, which receives as much attention and affection as a cowboy would give a horse. Instead of conflict with the sheriff, the boys must deal with the local police and feds.

In her essay “On Cowboys and Welfare Queens”, Eileen Boris argues that the archetype of cowboy/outlaw has long been used in American culture to represent white male conservative ideals (Boris 602). In Supernatural, we can see this at play too. Dean and Sam must stand apart from society–they get where they are going through hard work and they are rewarded through the narrative for their individualism. Although they face difficulties, they are at an advantage because of their background and education. Boris points out that the problem surrounding the Western myth is that it ignores the historical reality. The cowboy and western frontier, far from romantic figures, were a battleground of warfare and genocide (604). The Western myth is just that–a Western one. Supernatural’s America likewise does not reflect the demographic reality of the areas it portrays. Although it sets most of its stories in poor Southern and Western towns, its character demographics are overwhelmingly white suburban families (Johnson). By leaving out this perspective, Supernatural reinforces a traditional white male reading of America.

Supernatural also seems to support a conservative narrative of leadership. Dean and Sam are able and capable leaders. What they do they do in secret and alone. Anytime they attempt to let anyone in on their circle, the situation becomes complicated and escalates. For example, in the episode “No Exit”, the brother’s friend Jo decides to join them in demon hunting. Exasperated, the brothers attempt to send her home. When she refuses, she is eventually captured and they must save her. Although Jo is not portrayed as a bad character, it is clear that things are better if they work alone. This plot line and variations of it are repeated through the seasons of Supernatural, echoing a conservative call for small government and executive power. Every time Sam and Dean expand their operation, it becomes bloated and inefficient. This is a direct parallel to the “man” alone often found in the Western genre, who is often hindered by the if good natured, clumsy attempts of others (Smith 46).

True Blood fits into the satire genre, which often subverts traditional American ideologies. What makes up a satire genre? It is easy to think of conventions of a genre like a Western. Certain images are easily associated with it. Satire is more difficult to define. Charles Knight argues that satire is both “pre-generic and modal” and that it opens up the boundaries of other forms instead of containing its own (14).  However, if one takes a more postmodern approach that there is no such thing as a “pure” genre, it can be accepted that satire is a genre, just one ripe for hybridization.  Satire is the usage of humor to criticize (Bakalar 1).Thus, the defining characteristics of something in the satire genre are humor and social criticism.  There is a long history of satire in America that is critical of the ideology of the dominant institutions, from African American slave satires in the late 18th century to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart of today (7).

True Blood sets itself up as a show that is critical of the dominant institutional interplay between government and religion. The show uses the idea of “Vampire Rights” to criticize and comment on the state of civil rights for the GLBT community in America. Rather than come out and say it overtly, True Blood uses clever manipulation of language to make this association with humor. Vampires do not arrive in society, they “come out.”  They are not just desiring of rights, they have lobbyists and amendments. In the opening credit sequence, there is an image of a church sign with the phase “God Hates Fangs”, a clear reference to the “God Hates Fags” slogan of the Westboro Baptist church. By equating vampires with the gay rights movement and then making a lead character a vampire, the show adapts a position of support for the gay rights movement.

True Blood also satirizes the two big institutions of small-town life: the church and the police. Although neither religion nor law are presented as bad, the establishments are inefficient and comical. The church introduced into the True Blood universe, Fellowship of the Sun, is exaggerated and corrupt. Although it preaches love and salvation, underneath all the make-up and hairspray it is actually training young men to be “soldiers”—culminating in a suicide bombing. This is the kind of reversal common in the satire genre (Knight 77).

The entire first season of the show can be read as an indictment of the police. The two cops, Bud and Andy, are blinded by their prejudice of vampires and ignorance. They are only interested in subjects who are either vampires are associate with vampires. The actual killer is right under their noses the entire time. However, because he is just “a normal guy”, their profiling doesn’t work. Instead of noticing him, they spend most of their bullying those who are innocent. The plot line is a critique of racial and ethnic profiling. In one episode, the sympathetic hero Bill Compton is pulled over because the cop suspects he may be a vampire—a subtle reference to “Driving While Black” (Callahan). Since racial profiling is still commonly accepted, especially amongst conservatives, this portrayal is rather subversive.

The link between horror and satire can be problematic. A common criticism leveled at True Blood is the issues caused by equating Vampire Rights with Civil Rights when in the show, many vampires are shown as dangerous and lewd (Shen). It would not be ridiculous for the audience to sympathize with the position of the universe’s fictional church. Could it be argued, then, that it inadvertently supports the position it is trying to oppose? This confusion is caused directly because of the ramifications of genre-hybridity. Each genre makes its own demands on the story.  True Blood is not a simple satire, it is a horror-satire.  The horror genre demands certain things of its material–it has a need for violence. Without violence, there is no catharsis.  By combining genres, True Blood does not make it simple to analyze.  However, in examining the message of the show, it is easy to see that the added satiric elements only serve to further subvert a traditional American narrative.

In conclusion, it is the hybridity that creates these conflicting ideologies. Although individual pieces can be different, genres have a dominant belief system. In the Western, the dominant ideology is a conservative narrative of traditional American values. In the Satire, it is a progressive narrative of subversion. It may not have even been the creator’s intention to introduce these ideologies, but they are so pervasive that just by including elements of the genre, they come to the forefront. By adding these genres to a horror story, the creators of Supernatural and True Blood created very different views of America.

Works Cited

Bakalar, Nicholas. American Satire: an Anthology of writings from Colonial Times to Present. New York City: Plume, 1997.

Borris, Eileen. “On Cowboys and Welfare Queens: Independence, Dependence, and Interdependence at Home and Abroad.” Journal of American Studies 41 (2007): 599-621.

Callahan, Gene, and William Anderson. “The Roots of Racial Profiling.” Aug. & sept. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2009. <>

Carroll, Noel. “The Nature of Horror” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (Fall), pp. 51-9.

Chandler, Daniel. “An Introduction to Genre Theory.” 1997.

Herring, Hal. Famous Firearms of the West. Globe Peqot, 2007.

Johnson, Alayne D. “An Open Letter to Eric Kripke.” Web log post. Angry Black Woman. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.


Knight, Charles. The Literature of Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Western: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Mittell, John. Genre and television: from cop shows to cartoons in American culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

“Pilot” Supernatural. Exec. Prod. Eric Kripke. WB. September 13, 2005.

Shen, Maxine. “Flesh and ‘Blood’: HOW HBO SERIES HAS TURNED HOT VAMPIRES INTO GAY-RIGHTS ANALOGY “. New York Post. September 20th 2009


Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Stewart, Susan. “The Epistemology of the Horror Story.” The Journal of American Folklore.95.395 (1982): 33-50.

“Strange Brew.” True Blood. Exec. Prod. Alan Ball. HBO. September 7, 2008.

Synder, John. Prospects of Power: Tragedy, Satire, the Essay, and the Theory of Genre. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

Why Branded Entertainment is Changing Our Content

by Stephanie Sidak
Back in the 1950s, in what feels like a galaxy far, far away, the broadcast television airwaves were ruled by a little television program called I Love Lucy. This pioneer of the multi-camera situation comedy format starred A-list comedienne Lucille Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, as an upper-middle class married couple in Manhattan. Each week Lucy, Desi, and their neighbors/best friends Fred and Ethel engaged in delightful hijinks as they cavorted around New York City. And each week, home viewers of the show were treated to not only the hilarity of Lucy’s comedic timing, but also to a healthy dose of Phillip Morris cigarette product placement commercials. But these commercials did more than just run during the act breaks of I Love Lucy – they actually financed the entire show after Philip Morris became the official sponsor of the half-hour sitcom (“I Love Lucy”). As the financial controlling interest in this show, the tobacco giant took its role very seriously; according to, the word “lucky” wasn’t allowed to be written into any script, due to fear that it would cause viewers to think of competitor Lucky Strike cigarettes.

While watching television, it is easy to forget that what we’re seeing is so much more than simple storytelling, and that the content we consume is first and foremost a moneymaking enterprise. The notion of having one controlling sponsor who influences a scripted television show as much as Philip Morris did in the mid-twentieth century may seem archaic. However product placement and product integration are working just as hard now as they ever were to ensure that the audience’s money gets from their pocket to an advertiser. In fact, the television industry’s need for advertising revenue is now so strong that an entirely new genre is moving to the forefront of American media: branded content. Branded content – as explained by Paul Thenstedt, VP of Digital Media Sales at NBC Universal in Chicago – is content that is created to tell the story of a brand. In the case of the NBC Universal Digital Studio, an advertiser commissions the production house to create, produce, and distribute a story with their brand at the center. With the rising popularity of such content and the prevalence of product integration in our entertainment, it is easy to argue that original content will soon be born not of creativity, but rather, salability.

A New Model

From starting around the time I Love Lucy was running in the early 1950s, the television industry has essentially had the same business model. This model relies on the symbiotic relationship between network and advertiser; shows stay on the air because of the funding they get from ad revenue, and advertisers pay to run their commercials in shows that draw a large audience. This model worked great when the television was the centerpiece of the American family room and only three major broadcast networks provided the majority of the content. The viability of this model began to falter, however, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) loosened its restrictions on cable television providers, and the premium cable channel Home Box Office (HBO) came into existence (“History of Cable”).

By the spring of 1998, there were 171 cable video networks (cable history page). Now, of course, that is just a small percentage of all the cable channels available through digital and satellite technology. These networks are funded by subscription dollars, but most also receive supplemental funding through advertising revenue. Compared to the three networks that controlled the airwaves of yesteryear, advertisers now have a much broader range of outlets on which to spend their money. The fragmentation caused by the expansion and diversification of cable networks, along with the competition for advertising dollars is causing a shift in the traditional network business model (Mullen).

The surge in media technology over the past decade has compounded this shift. As the Internet began to monopolize the way people spent their leisure time, the television industry was forced to go online. In 2006, ABC was the first broadcast network to make select prime time shows available for streaming in their entirety on its website (“ABC Puts TV”). Now, almost every major network has a full episode player feature on its site, and if a show can’t be found there, viewers can find content on sites like which also house full episodes. These episode players are available for free. But embedded within the streaming episode are several advertisements that the user can’t skip over – providing a new platform for advertisers to reach consumers and for networks to make revenue.

When web series began to gain popularity, an entirely new market became available for content providers to monetize. NBC Universal jumped on the bandwagon three years ago with the creation of its Digital Studio; a fully-functional production house that creates nothing but branded entertainment. According to Thenstedt, the episodes created lend themselves best to the web series format – about an hour’s worth of content broken up into a series of five-minute episodes – but run across all media platforms including television, online, and mobile devices.  These mini-shows have a high production quality and many feature B and C list actors, like the Digital Studio show “CTRL,” which stars Arrested Development’s Tony Hale.

“CTRL” tells the story of a nerdy cubicle-dweller who accidentally spills his Lipton Iced Tea onto his computer keyboard, causing the keyboard to become “alive” and give him the ability to magically manipulate time. Lipton was the sponsoring brand of this series, the idea being that their iced tea is magical – extraordinary compared to other teas. Another approach to telling a brand’s story is demonstrated in “In Gayle We Trust,” another NBC Digital Studio production that tells the story of American Family Insurance. In this story, the titular character Gayle is the personification of the AFI brand. Gayle is a local, small-town American Family Insurance agent who also happens to be friends with everybody, a stand-out citizen, and who is great at giving advice.

NBC Universal is not the only network tossing their hat into the branded web series ring; this past year BET co-produced two successful web series with Proctor & Gamble, “Buppies” for CoverGirl and “My Black is Beautiful” for P&G’s eponymous line of beauty products. The latter has been a huge success for Proctor & Gamble, drawing over 3.6 million viewers since its launch (Hampp). That may not seem like a lot considering the great expanse of the web, but it is easy to see that this little series performed well when you compare it to a full-fledged cable show like Terriers, which was recently cancelled by FX because it only drew an average 500,000 viewers per episode (Rice). Even non-entertainment brands are starting to utilize web series advertising, like Kraft and Unilever with their web shows “The Real Women of Philadelphia” and “Into the Heart of Italy,” respectively.

Changing Viewing Habits

It is fair to say that the Internet has not only revolutionized many aspects of everyday life – from the distribution of information to global communication – but also changed our society. As someone who has grown up with the Internet, I cannot deny the affect it has had on the way I interact with my surroundings and my world. The speed of broadband has set the precedent for everything to be instant, and the convenience of mobile has set me up to expect all of my information and media to be accessible from anywhere. I don’t believe that I’m the only one who feels this way; the cultural ramifications of the World Wide Web are far-reaching. As our technology progressed and became dominant in our lives, our media consumption habits changed.

According to a study done by Comcast in 2010, 6 out of 10 people have reported owning a DVR (Digital Video Recorder), and 62% said they have, at some point, utilized a time-shifting machine to watch a television program at a time other than when it originally aired (Seidman). One user-friendly feature of DVR devices is the ability to skip over ads. This obviously creates a problem for advertisers, as their ad dollars are wasted if their target audience simply skips their ads. Though statisticians at Duke University recently found that the majority of people still watch television shows live (an amazing 95% of 1,200 users studied, to be exact), I have a suspicion that this will not be the case for much longer (Hollister). In addition to DVRS, many web sites are cropping up online with pirate television episodes, most of which do not have commercials.

Additionally, with cellular phones now functioning in a much higher capacity, media consumers are beginning to look to content providers for enhanced mobile media. A study done by ABI Research projects that by 2012 there will be 462 million mobile television subscribers – a huge market that is still largely untapped by content creators (“Mobile TV Subscribers”). A look at shows that many networks have a mobile format, including ESPN, CNN, FOX News, Nickelodeon, and the major broadcast networks, but few have yet to take full advantage of this platform by creating custom mobile content. Much of the current mobile content is technology-specific and is not catered to the ever-expanding mobile audience (Schuurman).

Content providers have recently begun to develop counter-attack strategies to keep their medium from becoming obsolete during this time of our shifting media landscape. With the recent launch of Google TV, the way viewers interact with their televisions and computers could potentially be changed forever. The system is essentially a hybrid of a television and the Internet, and allows users to browse the web while simultaneously watching television, with the users cell phone functioning as the remote control. Features include a customizable home page, much like Google’s Chrome browser, and DVR capabilities if live viewing is not possible. Content providers are contracted with Google to create a widget for their network on Google TV, which provides users with television content as well as the content on the network’s online property. As the Google TV web site reads, “the web is now a channel.” Consumers can purchase a specialized Google TV starting at $599 or buy a box that brings the service to their existing television set for $399 (“Features”).

The Need for Integration

These changing viewer habits all point to one thing: the necessity of advertising that is built into the entertainment. Like traditional show sponsorships, product placement goes back to the earlier days of television. In addition to being the primary sponsor of I Love Lucy, Philip Morris also utilized product placement within the shows narrative. Lucy, Desi, and company always smoked Philip Morris cigarettes, and in one episode, Lucy even disguises herself in the iconic Philip Morris bellhop uniform. These days, this type of brand and product integration is everywhere – from Tony Soprano’s beer of choice being Rolling Rock to the cell phones of the Gossip Girl characters being made by Verizon.

A great case study that demonstrates the financial effectiveness of a well-executed product integration strategy is the partnership of fast-food chain KFC with the CBS sitcom Gary, Unmarried. In one particular scene from an episode that ran in early 2010, the two main characters enjoy a bucket of KFC chicken for dinner – and have a brief conversation about the taste and deliciousness of said chicken. The brand mention lasted less than a minute, but iTVX later reported the integration to have had a $514,259 payoff for KFC. This is an undeniable success of ROI considering that a 30-second commercial on the show costs roughly $80,000 (Stanley).

Product integration becomes crucial when an advertiser’s target audience knows they’re being targeted to or has the technological means to skip over traditional commercial spots entirely. Teens and young adults, for example, are difficult to reach due to their Internet literacy that allows them to find free content without the perceived bother of advertisements. Unfortunately, this demographic is the one that most advertisers are trying to reach, as their pockets run deep with their parent’s money.

In their article “Advertising in the age of TiVo: Targeting Teens and Young Adults with Film and Television Product Placements,” Donnalyn Pompper and Yih-Farn Choo claim that product placement can actually be analyzed as a form of classical-conditioning, “wherein one’s attitude toward a well-liked stimulus is transferred to an affectively neutral stimulus when the stimuli are joined.” Essentially, this means that if you, as an advertiser, can get your audience to associate your product with a piece of entertainment they like, there is a much higher likelihood that they will purchase your product. Assuming this is true, product placements and integrations are then ideally functioning on three levels: 1) content producers can expand revenue potential beyond traditional commercial spots, 2) advertisers can overcome ad-skipping technology and the “leave the room when a commercial comes on” mentality, and 3) subliminal marketing favorably links a brand with an emotional, personal experience created by the entertainment it is embedded in, thus increasing brand recognition and purchase rates.

Because of the potential of brand integration to be fiscally successful, the practice has become a vital part of advertiser’s media strategy. So vital, in fact, that ratings measurement companies like Nielsen, iTVX, and Front Row Analytics all now have measurement systems in place to test the effectiveness of integrations. iTVX in particular analyzes over 70 different aspects of one product integration to come up with a comprehensive rating that will determine its success or failure. This enhancement of the ratings measurement systems reflects the increasing sophistication of the integrations themselves. Gary Cogland, Business VP at iTVX, is quick to point out that “these deals are more highly managed than they’ve ever been before. Brands don’t send out props and hope for the best (Stanley).”

Gossip Girl, for instance, utilizes product integration to advertise to that hard-to-reach teen demographic by embedding products into storylines to achieve an effective integration. The show revolves around a group of Upper East Side high school students in Manhattan whose lives are closely entwined through an online and mobile gossip site called Gossip Girl. Plot lines are frequently driven by things that the characters find out about each other on Gossip Girl, or by using the site to manipulate and socially attack each other. Most of the time, the characters access the Gossip Girl site through their mobile devices, which are always provided by Verizon Wireless – who won a four-way battle between mobile providers to be the starring company (Steinberg). The interesting thing is that the Gossip Girl/Verizon relationship works both ways; Verizon’s web site has an entire page devoted to the show with exclusives like the music featured on the show, episode recaps, and wallpapers featuring the shows main characters.

Verizon’s placements with the popular NBC comedy 30 Rock inspired the title of this paper. After a conversation with her boss about Verizon’s great service, Tina Fey breaks the fourth wall and turns to the camera asking, “Can we have our money now? (Fey, McCarthy, “Somebody to Love”).  Of course, this level of self-reflexivity is what keeps 30 Rock viewers coming back for more, but also makes an important point about product placement and integration: the shows that we all know and love are being partially funded through it. So this strategy is just as important to content creators as it is to advertisers.

Production Theory

Production theory is based on the assumption that all media is created for profit and operates within the American capitalist free-market economic structure. It is the most applicable theory to branded content and the ever-changing television business model. In fact, since this content that is being marketed on air literally is for being crafted for the sole purpose of making money. With this knowledge television is the perfect ideology to be analyzed using Production Theory. The core of this analysis is the changing relationship between advertisers and content producers, which is also in line with the basic concern of Production Theory: the balance and imbalance of power within the relationships between industry entities (Fineman).

Within the situation outlined in the preceding pages it is primarily a mid-range circumstance. However, it has aspects micro-level and macro-level aspects. For instance, according to Thenstedt, the NBC Digital Studio does not yield much profit, but instead is viewed by ad salesman as an extra service provided to advertisers in order to secure more of their money in other, more profitable ad outlets. The negotiations that happen surrounding the pitch and sale of these Digital Studio web series would fall under the micro-level umbrella. Additionally, the Client and Producer power roles are demonstrated by observing the give-and-take of the advertiser with the network; the network wants money from the advertisers, and the advertisers want as much air space as they can get for their dollars (Vande Berg).

Looking at branded content from a macro-level, the first potential problem that jumps out at me is the regulation of audience with protection from subliminal advertising. Though it is typically thought of in regards to the regulation of content in television shows, the FCC also has some authority over the advertisements that get put on air as well. There are currently regulations in place regarding children’s advertising, tobacco and alcohol advertising, among other things.

In conclusion, our media landscape is rapidly changing. Networks and content producers are beginning to take the steps necessary to combat becoming obsolete in an era of Internet dominance and advancing technology, but unfortunately, this means that we can expect to see more advertising in our content. How blatant the advertising is will vary, but it is important that we, as viewers, are aware of it regardless. We’ve come a long way from the times of Lucy and Desi. However, the relationship between advertisers and content producers and the audience is still intact – but it is only changing out of necessity. The artistic repercussions of this shift toward ad-fueled content have yet to be seen – but, sadly, it appears that commerce is slowly edging out art from our media consciousness.

Works Cited

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