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Online Video Killed the TV Star

It may be no surprise to most that TV has taken a bit of backseat in recent years; though what should be a surprise is the 50% decline in TV viewership since 2002

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“You had your time, you had the power, you’ve yet to have your finest hour” sang Freddie Mercury on the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga“. Though the song concerned the struggling and declining popularity of radio; it seems frightfully relevant considering the current state of television.

It may be no surprise to most that TV has taken a bit of backseat in recent years; though what should be a surprise is the 50% decline in TV viewership since 2002; according to a 2013 report from Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburn.

So where are all these cord-cutting viewers going? Well the most obvious answer points to another screen, the one you’re probably staring at right now to use the internet. The home computer or laptop. Include the advent of smartphones, tablets and wireless internet too, and suddenly this further throws a wrench into the works of television moguls and broadcasters; many of whom are left scratching their heads under settling dust of departing viewers.

Though, not all audiences are completely neglecting television. One clear divide present between audiences is based on age demographics; with younger generations spending the most time on online streaming sites and services. To really see this social divide, switch on any morning talk show. There is nothing quite like seeing a panel of middle aged men and women commenting on YouTube videos. It’s like watching an old man on a pogo stick; it’s cringeworthy and you just know things are going to end badly.

Much like how television during its early run severely damaged the motion picture industry in the 1930s and 40s; it seems that the internet and online streaming services are repeating history – this time targeting TV. However, the internet has been around publicly since the 90s, and YouTube first hit the web around 2005; so why is the television industry only starting to see viewers packing their bags now?

The reason is partly seen through an influx of free and paid on-demand streaming video sites, such as Hulu and Vimeo; largely in response due to YouTube’s success. For quite a while, YouTube now considered one of the major streaming sites, operated in a similar fashion akin to public-access television. Open to the public to upload what they saw fit; amateur productions, hopeful musicians, spoofs, parodies, TV and movie rips and the downright bizarre were all on full display like some whacky carnival. In fact, this original appeal and service is still readily available even today on the site.

However, with Google stepping in and taking over the helm in late 2006, YouTube no longer was merely a time-sink for the curious, bored, hungover or stoned at 3am; but instead became a viable investment for big advertising companies and broadcasters alike looking to recoup their losses. This also included new YouTube policies which further created incentives for small channels to grow and become legitimate businesses and enterprises. The benefit for Google meant consistent viewers, leading to more watched adverts and ad revenue streaming in.

Let’s look at the current top 10 most subscribed channels on YouTube. They have an estimated total of roughly 17.97 billion views; and an estimated amount of 68.4 million subscribers, combined. Excluding two Vevo run channels in the top 10, many started out as independent amateur channels and grew into large conglomerates, such as The Yogscast; operating out of an office-block in Bristol, now spread over roughly 10 separate YouTube channels.

While YouTube may be the most commonly used online streaming site, other companies have risen based solely on targeting an influx of new audiences and snatching TV viewers. Netflix, founded in 1997 operates as an on-demand internet streaming service, while also supplying DVD sales and rental deliveries to its customers; operating through a subscription-based model. Largely in competition with premium-cable channels such as HBO and AMC, Netflix has proved itself as a viable business, with an estimated 27.1 million customers in the US alone and 33.3 million total, including a successful original series (House of Cards) to boot.

Regardless of the success of these online services, they still don’t really tell us why some viewers are switching off when it comes to TV broadcasting. You have to ask yourself, what’s making customers cancel? A possible issue may be attributed to high subscription based models and licensing fees implemented by many cable broadcasters. Time Warner’s HBO in the US; the BBC in the UK; and even Foxtel closer to home have all seen their share of declines or flats in subscription numbers. Despite operating through a paid-subscription based business, Foxtel still features a heavy amount of advertising; and just recently faced backlash over reducing the number of movie channels while retaining the same fees. HBO has even attempted to enter the online streaming market by offering their own service HBO GO; however, the actual service is limited to already paying subscribers of the cable channel.

The simple economic model of supply and demand means cable television isn’t adjusting to falling viewer numbers by reducing fees; meaning they cannot compete with on-demand streaming services over a long term period.

Due to high subscription rates, the idea of owning cable TV has become a luxury for some; although there are still other means for people who want to watch a series or episode shown exclusively on cable. Pirating statistics for 2012 have shown that in some cases, the number of downloads have outweighed the amount of on-air viewers; with the HBO series Game of Thrones topping the list of most downloaded series with an estimated 4.28 million downloads. The Showtime series Dexter also came in at second, with 3.85 million downloads; like Game of Thrones, out performing the number of subscription paying viewers, watching through television sets.

For those who have turned away from television, pirating has proven a quick and easy alternative to obtain certain shows, held under lock and key for subscription paying eyes only. However, piracy is a bit like going through back alleys to get a cheap product; it can be great, but you might get stabbed along the way.

Piracy being one of the main factors attributed towards the infamous legislative bill known as SOPA, during 2011 – 2012. A heavily restrictive bill targeting copyright breaches of online videos and streaming services; it was no surprise that some of the companies backing the bill included the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and Viacom. While SOPA didn’t come to pass, other copyright acts such as the DMCA are still in effect and enforced.

At the end of the day, a large component attributing to this divide between internet users and television viewers comes down to freedom of choice. Many are comfortable getting what they want, when they want it. Internet streaming and online videos mean viewers no longer have to deal with laborious advertisements or broadcasting schedules; instead choosing when and how they watch their shows. Regulation in this case, seems to be a thing of the past.

While television broadcasting isn’t completely gone from the airwaves, and TV sets are still a legitimate substitute baby-sitter; the industry definitely seems to be riding a steady decline. However, live sports for example, are still proving to be a big pull on cable and national television channels, with the recent 2013 Super Bowl pulling in an average of 108.41 million viewers; though still down on previous years 111.3 million, according to a Reuters report.

The big fear is that instead of obtaining stronger shows and programming to combat audience losses, or simply reduce fees; broadcasters might instead resort to gimmicks and novelties in a desperate attempt to retain viewers. Maybe Smell-O-Vision might not be as far away as we once thought.

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Books

Book Review: Crossfire – A Litany For Survival

Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you

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Stacey Ann Chinn

LGBTQ poet and spoken-word artist Staceyann Chin is a powerhouse of an artist. (Exhibits A, B, and C: Her mesmerizing Def Poetry Jam performance of If Only Out of Vanity.” Her essay “Paradise of Lies,” published in the New York Times. And her hit play “MotherStruck,” set to soon work its way through the festival circuit as a series. Need we say more?) Unflinching and authentic, Chin’s work shakes, confronts, and envelops you. She is a rare talent that can captivate you in an instant — both by the political gravity of the subjects she so fearlessly and intelligently dissects and her sharp, mesmerizing, and sometimes hysterical turns of phrase. Her “snap-elastic words” can leave anyone who’s ever written for a living marveling (and wishing they had come up with them first).

This same fire is seen throughout Crossfire: A Litany for Survival, Chin’s first full-length collection of poems. Weaving adeptly between verses about the intersection of love, sex, race, gender, feminism, trauma, sexuality, queerness, motherhood, oppression, and so much more, Crossfire is a foot-on-the-gas-pedal kind of eye-opening, from start to finish.

In “Tsunami Rising,” she writes of the “weeping white women” who stood behind Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement only once a rich white actress co-opted it — a heartbreaking address dripping with explanation and patience we don’t deserve, and a tired, frustrated anger that we do.

“We are unable to process our pain with you,” she writes, “Because we are exhausted from centuries/of holding you and your children.”

In “Zuri-Siale Samanaya” — named for her daughter, with whom she often records “Living Room Protests” — Chin reflects beautifully on raising a child who is both following in her activist footsteps but coming into her own as an individual:

I can hardly wait
to hear your voice
I expect us to rumble
to create generational bruises that will have to be survived

In “Raise the Roof,” Chin’s worries that this power will not be enough to carry her daughter safely through a world intent on silencing the voices of Black women are heartbreaking.

Every day I have to drown my fears
for my child/born Black and a girl in a country
in which her safety does not matter
to anyone with power

Among the book’s other standout gems are a reflection on 9/11 titled “September in New York” and a hilarious and incisive retort to the misogynist who harassed her on Twitter (aptly titled “Tweet This Motherfucker”). But really, there is no plateau in Chin’s collection of poems. Each page of Crossfire: A Litany For Survival is fire, soul, and just damn good writing.

When artists like Chin bare their souls to put the revolution to paper, it’s up to us to truly listen.

Crossfire

by Staceyann Chin
(Haymarket Books)

Crossfire: A Litany For Survival will be published as a paperback original on October 1, 2019 by Haymarket Books.

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Culture

A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus

The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.

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In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:

“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.

There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.

While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.

Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.

Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.

Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”

Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.

The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.

In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.

Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.

I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.  

If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.

To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.

Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22         September 2019.

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