JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The WB’s version of the Superman myth is explicitly moral and often plays with Christian imagery; in the first episode, the producers even include a jokey shot which likens Clark to an angel on Earth.

In the pilot episode, Clark is the victim of a yearly high school prank conducted by the football team, who kidnaps a hapless freshman and ties him to a stake in the middle of a cornfield.

All plausibility aside, the prank gives the producers the opportunity to engage in some good old-fashioned crucifixion imagery, as well as display Tom Welling’s well-toned abs, spray-painted with an “S” for “Smallville.”

Smallville modifies the basic Superman story to place Lex Luthor, Superman’s traditional arch-enemy, in Smallville during Clark’s youth. Lex is present during the meteor shower (it makes him lose his hair)...

...and as an adult, he helps run many of the Smallville businesses owned by his father, Lionel.  This version of Lex Luthor, played by Michael Rosenbaum, rewrites Lex as something of a bald heartthrob.

Much of the format of Smallville relies upon the journalism of Clark and his friends Chloe and Pete. Writing for the school paper, the Torch, they investigate and solve unnatural crimes.

Pete and Clark find Clark’s spaceship in a cornfield...

...just as The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully search for spaceships in a cornfield.

Star Trek is the widely-acknowledged ur-text of television fandoms.

Twin Peaks only ran for two seasons, but has enjoyed a long post-cancellation fandom. Much of its success can be attributed to the baroque, labyrinthine plot structure, which encourages fans to discuss it at length.

Chloe is the “Mulder character,” the one who instigates criminal investigations.  She was invented specifically for the series, but her cousin is Lois Lane.

Clark’s superpowers are presented as developing along with his adolescent growth. Here, he had been dreaming about Lana and floating in his sleep, but falls back on his bed when he wakes up.

7th Heaven (1996-present) represents one of the more morally conservative shows on TV today. The Camden family exemplifies Christian family values.

This is the cover art for the first season Smallville DVD release.  Actor Tom Welling’s bare chest aims to capture the attention of teenage girls, while the spray-painted “S” links him to Superman iconography.

Spider-Man is one of many comic book characters in recent years to receive big-screen CGI treatment. Like Clark on Smallville, Peter Parker negotiates high school, teenage angst, and emerging superpowers.

 

Smallville's version of Superman   

It is important to note that instead of creating a show about Superman, the writers of Smallville created a show about Clark Kent. Popular culture critic Gary Engle writes that in the basic Superman myth, adopting the disguise of Clark Kent “is first and foremost a moral act,” since the false identity “adds to Superman’s powers the moral guidance of a Smallville upbringing” (85). Kent is “the consummate figure of total cultural assimilation,” essentially a transplanted immigrant (alien) who must blend into his surroundings in order to protect the world and the people closest to him (85). Though Engle is writing about pre-Smallville Superman, the very fact that his discussion works so tidily for The WB’s interpretation of the character indicates the extent to which the producers anticipated the character’s applicability to The WB’s formula of youth-targeted, moralistic shows. Clark’s overwhelming morality is traditionally attributed to his small town, nuclear family upbringing, and Smallville takes this idea as a narrative backbone in the tradition of family-oriented WB programming. DC Comics President Jenette Kahn insists that in her notes to the show she emphasizes

“it is because he was found by Ma and Pa Kent, and because they are raising him in the way they are and giving him these true values in the American grain and this sense of unconditional love, that he grows to be an exemplary figure” (Quoted in Hinson, 10).

Smallville’s version of Superman plays with the basic story most Americans are familiar with: Lex Luthor is Clark Kent’s best friend rather than his arch-enemy, and most of the action centers around typical high school drama in the tradition of past successful WB shows such as Dawson’s Creek.[4] The characters are intelligent, angsty, verbally agile, and interested in investigative journalism. This set-up allows for entertaining mystery-solving and crime-busting with regard to the conspiracies and corporate greed surrounding the Luthor Corporation (owned by Lex’s father, Lionel Luthor), and also on the level of monster-of-the-week-type phenomena attributed to the lasting effects of the same meteor shower which brought Kal-el to earth.[5]

It should come as no great surprise that this balance among character development, mytharc,[6] and monsters of the week has enabled the show to pick up quite a few fans of The X-Files (1993-2002). As Reeves, Rodgers, and Epstein write in respect to The X-Files,

“By shifting gears between the serial and the episodic, The X-Files self-consciously rewards avid fans by drawing on the continuity of previous episodes, hence validating their diligent viewing, while at the same time welcoming new audience members since most of the plotlines don’t rely on previous knowledge of the series” (33).

They go on to suggest that The X-Files successfully improved upon the formulas of Star Trek in its various TV incarnations and of Twin Peaks (1990) by striking this balance between serial and stand-alone episodes (33). Smallville’s producers built upon these existing formulas in order intentionally to weave the probability for a “cult” fanbase into the primary text of a television show. This concept of contemporary television production is vital here, surmising that the longevity and commercial success of a show depend on a balance between cult and mainstream fandom. This show's narrative similarity to a previous show with an extremely active fan participatory culture (even today, two years after the show’s demise) offers additional evidence of an eye for this formula on the part of the producers. On the audio commentary to Smallville's pilot episode, the creators even refer to Chloe, one of the characters they created from scratch, as “the Mulder character,” suggesting that they'd carefully considered the need for such a character type.[7]

The WB, then, in producing and marketing Smallville, adapted a three-tier strategy for success:

  1. pursue a young audience;
  2. draw upon the cultural capital of a character associated with both American-ness and comic book fandom;
  3. encourage the active participatory culture of both these groups by extending the text of the show into familiar formats of fandom.

Smallville, of course, differs from The X-Files in one fundamental way: at the very outset, producers and marketers at The WB were aiming for a youthful (12-34) demographic. The WB, in producing a show that reworks a cultural myth, had to contend with striking an X-Files-like balance between cult and mainstream viewership, involving careful selection of which elements of the Superman mythos to include or discard in order to translate the character to a much younger audience. The show’s creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, decided that the key to allowing Superman to speak to U.S. youth in a fresh way would be to situate the Clark Kent character as an awkward, unsure teenager on the verge of discovering the extent of his powers. Millar states,

“The idea that puberty changes everything for Clark was an important idea for us … in a way, the super powers are just like puberty. They sort of show up one day, and at first, they’re rather scary and he can’t always control them” (Quoted in Hinson, 10).

The concept of a young, unsure Clark Kent not only evokes the notion of transition and mobility that accompanies the myth of Superman, but also humanizes the character in a way designed to appeal to The WB’s younger viewers.

By adding elements of high school and family drama to the Superman story, Millar and Gough were also remixing the previously successful formulas of The WB shows like Dawson’s Creek and 7th Heaven (1996-present), which have drawn fans through realistic characters and storylines with which younger, mostly female, viewers easily identify. When The WB initially conceived of marketing strategies for Smallville, the network wanted to create interest in the show in their historically strong demographic, females 18-34, but also expand their audience to encompass the coveted male 18-34 demographic. Initial focus groups showed that

“teens — particularly girls — did not like Superman, did not think he was cool, and did not want to watch a show about him” (Hibberd, 19).

To avoid the apparent stigma attached to the Superman franchise, Suzanne Kolb, The WB’s executive VP of marketing, embarked on “an anti-Superman Superman campaign” which flirted with Superman iconography while focusing primarily on the show’s story as “a cute boy who’s tormented by his high school peers and has a deep, dark secret” (Hibberd, 19). The image of Tom Welling (Clark Kent) shirtless with a red S painted on his chest and looking tormented was intended to appeal to the teenage girls while also suggesting the more action-oriented storylines associated with Superman as an icon.

In fact, the recent resurgence of the comic book narrative in television and film has most certainly been aimed at a young audience rather than viewers who may have grown up with different incarnations of characters like Superman and Spider-Man. Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man shares enough plot and character points with Smallville to suggest that both productions are indicative of a societal interest in a particular youth-oriented form of the superhero genre.[8] (Peter Parker/Spider-Man is a dorky teenager who wants to get the girl next door, runs after the school bus, and is interested in journalism, to mention the tip of the iceberg.) Although discussion of this trend deserves its own paper, I’d like to briefly suggest that several factors have led to the increased popularity of television or filmic adaptations of comic books. Melanie McFarland in The Seattle Times suggests,

“young comic book fans of yesteryear are now writers and directors who see their first loves as stylish, artistic literary works.”

She says these writers have the wherewithal to build realistic, almost reverent narratives around the basic stories with which they grew up, narratives which also demonstrate an awareness of (and perhaps a past participation in) the voracious fandom surrounding comic books (E1). It stands to reason that if the producers of new superhero adaptations are fans themselves, those adaptations are more likely to integrate and appropriate elements of fan culture, and thus assure an audience willing to invest in the larger world of the narrative that expands beyond the film or television text itself.[9] Another reason for the resurgence of the comic book genre simply comes from increased technological capability.

Thanks to CGI (computer generated imagery), it is now easier and cheaper than ever to convince an audience that Superman can shoot laser beams out of his eyes, or Spider-Man can swing on webs through New York City. Comic book narratives are especially conducive to blockbuster-sized special effects. Also, as I mentioned above, in a period of national crisis it seems perfectly reasonable for audiences, particularly youthful audiences who have no experience with living in a state of fear, to turn to the idea of a superhero for escapism. And of course, quite a few comic book stories, including Superman and Spider-Man, work with the idea that the hero is one of us — he deals with everyday problems such as high-school drama, he’s not especially socially adept, and yet he has the immensely satisfying ability to put on a costume and become all-powerful.

Although the institution of the superhero costume is maintained in Spider-Man, Smallville’s creators decided to downplay the costume and further suggest that any one of us could be a superhero. The absence of the iconic Superman costume brings the character closer to the audience; as Gough insists,

“In Clark’s case, we look at him as a person. We took away the costume” (Quoted in McFarland, E1).

Yet even without the signature tights, plenty of references to traditional Superman elements allow more culturally informed viewers to glean an extra level of pleasure from the show. Clark is almost always dressed in blue and/or red; the Smallville High logo is a crow wearing a red cape with an S on its chest, and the pilot episode of the series shows Clark bare-chested with a red S spray-painted on his chest, the victim of a high school prank. As Peter MacFarland discusses the superhero, “color plays an important role in the iconicity of the superhero costume,” and even a simplification of a hero’s costume into blocks of color is “abstract and iconic, a more direct statement of the identity of the character” (371). Indeed, the show’s creators intentionally fill the mise-en-scene with red, yellow, and blue, hinting at the mythos behind their version of Clark Kent while still allowing a younger audience to identify with the character.

Producers encourage the cultish viewing of Smallville, therefore, on a level designed not to interfere with the possibility of more mainstream fandom. Neil Genzlinger’s review in The New York Times suggests that for viewers interested in the Superman myth,

“the enjoyment is in seeing how the familiar names turn up” (E7).

Naturally, as the latest mutation of a cultural myth with a strong established fanbase, Smallville has had to cater to the fannishly voracious (and mostly male) comic book crowd, at least to a certain extent. At the same time, the increase in viewers who use the Internet to augment their consumption of television texts has fostered changes in cultural perceptions about fan communities. Henry Jenkins addresses these changes in how fan cultures are perceived in a recent article noting,

“contemporary popular culture has absorbed many aspects of ‘fan culture’ that would have seemed marginal a decade ago” (2003, 291).

Though certain aspects of fandom, such as fanfic writing and role-playing games, still connote a certain degree of subversion, some previously stigmatized practices have become so commonplace on the Internet that many producers of media texts have adopted them into their overall strategies for marketing a cultural product and developing a loyal audience. Jenkins goes further to note that in many cases

“commercial culture seeks to absorb or mimic the appropriative aesthetic of participatory culture to reach hip, media-savvy consumers” (2003, 292).

Synergy

Understanding the efficacy of how networks appropriate fan practices, however, requires an explanation of recent trends in media production. What makes the expansion of marketing possible is an overall alteration and widening in what can be considered the television text. This change is in part a function of media industry transformations over the past few years.

With the increasing tendency in the entertainment industry towards giant media conglomerates comes the adoption of “convergence” and “synergy” strategies. These are techniques of product development and marketing that utilize the various arms of a merged entity (including film/TV production and distribution companies, Internet and cable providers, and music studios/distributors) in order to extend one core text across all platforms and so maximize that text’s economic potential. Caldwell points out that “this kind of fragmentation is difficult to associate with single brand identity,” so corporations of this magnitude “now specialize in ‘tiering’ numerous brand-inflected niches within the über-brand” (2003,138).

While cross-marketing and horizontal integration have certainly been in practice to a certain extent since the 1970s, the growth of mega-conglomerates leads to a greater number of platforms available for synergistic tie-ins. For AOL Time Warner, The WB’s brand focuses on the youth market. Since its inception in 1995, The WB has established itself as a youth-oriented network, creating its brand initially with shows like Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), along with importing popular Japanese anime like Pokemon (1997-present) for its Kids WB subsidiary. Resulting from these early branding efforts, “as the only broadcast network with a median viewing age under 30, The WB has a lucrative link to young consumers,” which is “the unique strength upon which all of AOL Time Warner will draw” (Electronic Media in Mermigas, 1). In fact, since AOL Time Warner also owns DC Comics, which publishes the Superman comic books, the use of Superman himself can be considered a synergistic success; in associating Superman with The WB, AOL TW has managed to draw younger consumers into the comic book industry by having DC publish Smallville comic books as well.

Though AOL Time Warner’s much-publicized slip-ups led to industry-wide disappointments in 2002 and indicated that corporate merging was not a magical recipe for cross-marketing success, industry analysts tended to either attribute the merger's failure to unrealistic goals or blame the entire concept of synergy. Scott Kessler, an analyst with Standard & Poor, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying,

“AOL Time Warner is being punished by Wall Street for having such high expectations.”

Mark Edmiston, the managing director of AdMedia Partners, similarly said,

“In my personal opinion, synergy doesn't seem to work” (Quoted in Ahrens, A1).

That conglomerates try and fail at various marketing schemes is to be expected at this point of media transition as mega-corporations discover how to make synergy work. Thus it should come as no surprise that long-standing fan activities might serve as effective templates for marketing a show so as to encourage viewers to invest in an overall narrative universe.

The WB, as a relatively young network, has been at the forefront of experimental synergistic practices in marketing. Dawson’s Creek was one of the first shows to “introduce the now-ubiquitous sound cards,” where the album cover of the band whose music plays in the episode appears in a graphic at the end, with a voice-over saying, “Now available online, at TheWB.com” (Ault, 39). The concept of music's adding to the branding, and indeed, the idea that music could expand a show's narrative world was embraced by The WB early on, but the network took the Smallville soundtrack to the next level. Lewis Goldstein, co-president of marketing for The WB, stated,

“the goal is to somehow evolve our brand into music. That is the heart and soul of our existence. At this point, we are still just in the television business, but our brand will help bring us a good housekeeping seal to the record itself” (Quoted in Ault, 39).

Since according to Rolling Stone, Smallville’s “typical episodes include twice as much music as most TV series,” a soundtrack release was inevitable, and AOL Time Warner took advantage of its synergistic abilities to release the album on Elektra, part of the Warner music group (“New Music…,” 19). To promote the album, not only did AOL host an “exclusive online listening party…and provide access to chapters in upcoming ‘Smallville’ books published by AOL TW’s Little, Brown unit,” but The WB worked the physical fact of the CD into an episode of the show (Gallo, 22). Not only did one of the featured artists on the soundtrack perform on the show, but the episode informed viewers that the CD, entitled “The Talon Mix” after the name of the show’s coffee-shop hang-out, was a compilation put together by one of Smallville’s characters. Brian Cohen, Elektra’s senior VP of marketing, points out,

“Bringing in the element of somebody creating a compilation is a great way to gently bring in the idea of a soundtrack within the narrative of the show … it has never been done” (Quoted in Gallo, 22).

The very suggestion that the show’s soundtrack CD is a “mix CD” appeals directly to children of the Napster age — the age-old practice of making mix tapes has evolved into an art form with the availability of mp3s. AOL Time Warner is appropriating and mainstreaming this traditionally subversive fan activity (after all, making a mix involves the illegal pirating of music) for the purposes of establishing that connection in the minds of potential consumers.

(Continued: Bringing TV online)


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