"'You know what my favorite promotion is? Lost!' The ongoing convergence of content and promotion"

Curator's Note

In programming their digital outposts, American television networks and studios cannily obscure the distinctions between content and promotion. CBS, for instance, stocks its YouTube channel with television Astroturf, faux-viral videos that ape the tone, immediacy, and rough-hewn DIY aesthetic of Internet fanvids, but that in actuality are network promos. As one CBS exec proudly explained to the Wall Street Journal, the net’s YouTube channel “turns our promotion into content,” and ad-supported content at that—CBS’s YouTube offerings are flanked by flashing banner ads for video games, ring tones, self-help books, and even the occasional CBS promo. “This promo is brought to you by…”

Up until recently, this formula was reversible: in addition to pitching recaps, trailers, clips, and promos as “original” and “exclusive” Internet content, networks and studios strategically classified Internet presentations of their primetime series and original web serials as promotion, thereby insulating themselves against writers’, actors’, and affiliates’ claims for their share of the considerable ad revenues these “promos” generate. Take The Accountants, a 2006 web spin-off of The Office that was scripted by the series’ writing staff and that featured series regulars in starring roles. Publicly, to audiences and sponsors, NBC presented The Accountants as “premium” advertiser-supported content. Internally, NBC categorized the webisodes as promos, and refused to pay writers and actors for their work on them. The network took a similar stance on its presentation of The Office on NBC.com, categorizing full episode streams for accounting purposes as promos.

NBC’s definitional alchemy sparked a standoff between the network and The Office’s writers that would eventually spill over into the 2007-8 WGA strike. The first of my two videos, “The Office Is Closed,” was made early during the strike, and begins with the series’ cast and writers outlining their grievances against the network’s policies. It concludes with an extended riff on NBC’s creative definition of promotion, the highlight of which for me is writer Mike Schur telling cast member and writer Mindy Kaling that his favorite television “promo” is Lost. My second video is not online content, but rather a commercial pod from a Fall 2008 episode of The Office that features a hybrid ad/promo/bit starring Judah Friedlander of NBC’s 30 Rock. While the strike has long since ended, and while networks and studios have relented somewhat in their campaigns to categorize webisodes and full-episode streams as promos, this “pod-buster” makes it quite clear that on the Internet and on television the boundaries between promos and content remain in flux. Debates over the location of these boundaries have quite obvious ramifications for the Hollywood labor force. I’d like to suggest that they have implications for us as critics, as well, particularly as we confront the fluid textualities (and paratextualities) of convergence television.

 

Comments

Avi Santo's picture

what is being satirized?

Really interesting clips and comment, Max. I’m struck by the way both clips use satire. In the WGA promo, The Office writers refer to themselves as promo writers in order to point out that their creative labor is being exploited, but they also readily admit that they are fine with it being labeled promotional so long as they are compensated for it. In the Friedlander pod, what is satirized is the increased use of product integration in TV content (though, interestingly, Friedlander refuses to admit his actual writer’s status for the series). To some extent, it seems as though there is a very open acknowledgment on both sides that TV writers are now pulling double duty as entertainers and advertisers, with the primary issue being one of compensation, not creative interference. 

 

I wonder how the WGA strike and the public demands writers have made for payment for their online work, be it creative, promotional, or hybrid, will reverberate with the growing cadre of fans freely laboring to produce creative vids that are then turned into promotional fare by the nets under similar circumstances (often requiring fans to watch an ad before accessing their own work)?

Elizabeth Evans's picture

Audiences for Promo/content

I’m curious about the responses of audiences to this blurring of content and promo. Is there an appeal in seeing fictional characters within a more ‘real’ televisual space? Or does Raymond Williams’ anecdote about watching television become even more extreme when not only is there no clear indication of where one type of content ends and another begins (both within the broadcast stream and outside it) but the same individuals (actors and characters) may be appearing in both?

Max Dawson's picture

Audiences/Satire

Thanks for your feedback, Liz and Avi.

RE: audience responses to these forms of “promotainment”: while we typically hear a great deal about audience (or critic) backlash against product placements and integrations (see the recent uproar against the 30 Rock McFlurry placement), we hear far less about responses to these mergers of promotion and content. One reason why this might be the case is because these mergers have largely occurred off-screen, within the context of negotiations between networks and studios and above-the-line workers and the unions that represent them. Viewers watching a stream of an episode of The Office at NBC.com would not have known – and would have had little reason to care – that from NBC’s perspective that were watching a promo. While the strike may have changed this somewhat by bringing visibility to the networks’ equivocations, I myself saw little to indicate a mass mobilization of audience support for the WGA’s stance on promotion. Ascertaining audience reaction to these forms of definitional alchemy becomes more difficult with regards to the 30 Rock/Honda podbuster. Personally, I get angry when I get tricked by a podbuster as I’m fast-forwarding through the ads during 30 Rock or Top Chef; that said, I realize that the reason why podbusters exist is because I (or people like me) are fast-forwarding through the ads in 30 Rock and Top Chef. I myself find it difficult to fault networks for engaging me in these games of cat and mouse. Maybe this is yet another price we pay (along with hardware and subscription fees, incursions into our privacy, etc.) for our DVRs…?

RE: Avi on Satire: Part of the reason why I found this second video so compelling was because it took one of the key negotiating points in the strike – compensation for writers’ and performers’ participation in network promotion – and transforms it, as Avi astutely noted, into an occasion for seemingly light-hearted satire. For Friedlander and his 30 Rock alter ego Frank, the opportunity to participate in this Honda ad/30 Rock promo is a dream come true, complete with a pair of attractive-yet-domineering young ladies standing in for NBC-U executives Jeff Zuckerman and Ben Silverman. Friedlander’s simultaneously guileless and sleazy performance is in keeping with both his standup persona and Frank’s overgrown child character, but it also coincides with the actor’s own public statements on integration (Friedlander told the author of a 2008 New York article that sometimes “‘there’s integration going on and I don’t even know it. Maybe if you’re a huge star, you can say no. Where I’m at, you pretty much do it if they tell you.’”) I agree with Avi that what is being satirized here is the growing ubiquity of integrations and placements; however, I can’t help but also feel that this podbuster satirizes – and trivializes – the very concessions that the WGA was fighting for in the strike.  

JP Kelly's picture

Promotainment

Hi Max, great post. Just a couple of quick observations. It’s interesting that the second clip you choose to illustrate "promotainment" comes from a show, which, perhaps more than any other, intentionally blurs the boundaries between promotion and text. Essentially ‘30 Rock’ is one giant self promotion for NBC - perhaps this is the reason why it has fared a little less favourably in the UK (late night showings on a relatively obscure network, Five USA) where British audiences don’t have the same knowledge of the NBC brand that forms the bedrock of the show. And one final thought; as "podbusting" becomes an increasing industrial practice — and perhaps even more integral and intertwined with the main narrative — what does this mean for the global audiences who will inevitably miss out on these little "promotation" treats?  

Jonathan Gray's picture

No Promo Payments

Nice post, Max. Like you, I was interested to see how little an issue payment for promos became — publicly — during the strike. Instead, the public face was all about royalties for DVD and online viewing. But when some shows are offering smart, original content in "promotional" form, and when networks are benefiting, in the form of loyal fan bases, when shows overflow into countless paratexts, the people who are masterminding the overflow are frequently being screwed out of just recompense. We even see instances of sad irony when some shows’ promo work is better than the show (as has been the case at times with Heroes, for instance, boldly creative in its paratexts yet sputtering on network television).

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