Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This is not the revolution you think it is. Studio 60 and the structure of domination.

The 2006 pilot of the television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip lays out a bold and promising premise.  It purports to be laying the foundation for a revolutionary show-within-a-show.  It portends to be introducing a dynamic, countercultural piece of media, uniquely poised to succeed at authenticity where others fail, to hijack the system and turn it on its head.   “This show is going to be daringly different,” it promises.


Unfortunately, this promissory bravado seems to operate under the delusion that revolution can occur without any significant change to the superstructure.  The false premise that we can function under the same systems and get different results underlies the entire plot.  So while the show seems to promise revolution and resistance, it may be more accurately providing mere coping.  As Garnam pointed out, “It is … a question of recognizing the systemic constraints within which [people] construct their forms of cultural coping and how unemancipative these can be.”  He criticized the “tendency of cultural studies to validate all and every popular culture practice as resistance – in its desire to avoid being tarred and feathered with an elitist brush – [as being] profoundly damaging to its political project.”[1] 

Studio 60, both as a show and as a show within a show, are problematically depicted as being emancipatory and resistive, when neither actually challenge the structure of domination they function under.  Rather, because of the character of Jordan McDeere, the new president of the fictional NBS network, they are simply going to play the same game over again with a keener instinct for navigating audience work[2] to their benefit and a higher tolerance for risk of aspersion. But as Garnam pointed out “little dent will be made in domination if… nothing is done about processes of economic development,” and “no empowerment will mean much unless it is accompanied by a massive shift in control of economic resources.”  Studio 60 plays at a façade of empowerment and anti-domination without so much a second glance at the power structure of the media industry.

Inasmuch as her character seems constantly to be holistically strategizing, Jordan McDeere presents an interesting paradox.  She seems unusually adept at wielding what Garnam called “Corporate Power”, “power exercised by economic agents within these overall structural constraints, but where the ownership or control of resources provides some room for intentional strategic manouvre.”[3] Her resources in this case tend to be private information about Matt Albie and Danny Tripp’s private and professional lives, as well as better forecasting of the response to Wes Mendell’s live breakdown than her peers.  The way the episode is structured, Jordan’s heightened understanding of the functionality of the “free lunch”, “to whet the prospective audience member’s appetites and thus (1) attract and keep them attending the program…; (2) cultivate a mood conducive to favorable reaction to the advertisers’ explicit and implicit messages” allows her to see potential controversy and media buzz as a fiscal asset to her company.  But it is very clear that she is not welcoming provocative content as a form of resistance or empowerment, but as an economically minded strategy to “produce audiences to sell to the advertisers.”(Smythe)

Her character seems to have grasped that Wes Mendell’s breakdown will have suggested to media consumers that they have a problem, and that by altering the content and direction of the show in this way she is promising a fix to that problem.  It’s an effective response based on Smythe’s description of advertising and audience work, “Customers do not buy things, they buy tools to solve problems… The nature of the work done by audience power thus seems to be to the advertising free lunch combination of sensory stimuli to determine whether (s)he has the “problem” the advertiser is posing, [and] (2) is aware that there is a class of commodities which, if purchased and used will “solve” that problem… [and](3) ought to add brand x of that class of commodities to the mental or physical shopping list.” 

So while Jordan may on some level appear to be countercultural or revolutionary, she is really just upholding the same superstructure more effectively and with a better understanding of its mechanics than her more outwardly dominating, unflatteringly depicted peers.  This revolution she is orchestrating is just a flashy free lunch.



[1] Garnam, Nicholas. Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce? March 1993(?)
[2] Smythe, Dallas Walker.  Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada. “On the Audience Commodity and its Work.” Ablex Publishing Corporation. New Jersey, 1981.
[3] Garnam, Nicholas.  Emancipation, the Media, and Modernity.  Arguments about the Media and Social Theory. Oxford University Press. 2000.

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