JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Although Clark on Smallville has not yet adopted familiar Superman red cape and tights, the show’s wardrobe habitually dresses him in red and blue.

In the show’s pilot, the red blanket that Clark wears after saving Lex’s life in the river functions as a makeshift cape.

Production designers fill the frame with red, yellow and blue, as exemplified by the Kent family house.

The red barn (where Clark does most of his hanging out — his father calls it his “Fortress of Solitude”) is surrounded by cows. Both barn and cattle refers to traditional images of U.S. agriculture.

Even the Kent family mailbox is red. An image of an old-fashioned mailbox is metonymic for a Normal Rockwell-esque life. It even appears again in the trailer for the brand-new Superman Returns, to be released in summer 2006.

As in 1978’s Superman, Smallville High’s colors are red and yellow, making for easy references to the Superman costume.

And so does the Smallville High mascot, the crow, who is blue and wears a very Superman-like costume.

Since AOL Time Warner owns DC comics (and because spinning off a comic book from a character born of a comic book makes business sense), DC began releasing Smallville comic books not long after the initial success of the show.

The practice of releasing a tie-in soundtrack is an expected synergistic move, and the Smallville soundtrack is no exception.

The Smallville soundtrack, however, was released as the “Talon Mix,” a mix CD put together by one of the show’s characters. Another show which has adopted this grassroots-appropriation technique of product design is Fox’s The O.C.

The first time we meet teenage Clark in the series, he is depicted as surfing the web.  We first see a POV shot of the article he has stopped on, about superhuman strength.

The next shot is framed with just his eyes over the top of the screen, scanning for information.

Finally, the teenager at the computer is revealed to be Clark Kent, in a familiar position to many teenagers. He's trying to do semi-private research on a family computer.

This ad for both Verizon and Smallville was a banner ad on the WB’s website. It's one of many examples of tie-ins between the show and Verizon. In addition to offering sweepstakes, Verizon also boasts original content, such as quizzes and trivia, that can be delivered directly to fans’ Verizon cellphones.

Chloe’s (or rather, Allison Mack’s) blog foregrounded the use of a Kodak digital camera in its presentation of the “real” life of a TV star. Each allegedly candid photo was adorned with the Kodak logo.

Bringing TV online   

Television has traditionally been described as a “push” medium, one that forces information and images on a passive viewer, whereas the Internet, a “pull” medium, depends on a consumer's active participation. Caldwell suggests,

“the Internet may originally have been bi- or multi- directional, a pull-medium rather than a push-medium, and rhizomatic in structure rather than linear or hierarchical, but many new media corporations are in business precisely to find ways to make the Internet highly regulated and exclusive” (2002, 58).

The fact remains, however, that the Internet is still a wild frontier of information and interpretation. The considerable media attention given to the importance of protecting children from dangerous online images and predators gives just one indication of the near-impossibility of Internet regulation. In such a media environment, The WB’s target demographic has grown up with the anonymity, community-building, and instant gratification of Internet navigation.

Although much of The WB’s success in marketing Smallville on the Internet can be attributed simply to teenagers’ familiarity with the act of going online for information, viewers’ comfort level with the computer interface itself plays a significant role in the context of the show’s structure. Lev Manovich writes that the human-computer interface

“already represents a powerful cultural tradition, a cultural language offering its own ways of representing human memory and human experience” (72).

If we think of the computer interface as mediating culture, then perhaps we can look at a show like Smallville, which concentrates so heavily on Internet supertexts, as being a mediation of the Superman myth and as presenting cultural information in a format that a young audience finds familiar and digestible. The anonymity of the Internet parallels the assimilation of Clark Kent into everyday high-school life, just as the navigation of a sea of information mirrors his confusing transition through puberty. Indeed, the pilot episode of Smallville depicts Clark Kent surfing the Internet, pausing on sites with articles about superhuman feats of strength.[10] Like the Internet-savvy teenagers whom Smallville targets, Clark Kent is clearly using the web for his personal journey of self-discovery.

Keeping in mind Smallville’s depiction of its characters as online consumers, I will now turn to how and why fan practices on the Internet are appropriated for use as marketing techniques. Parent company AOL noted in a 2002 study available through http://advisor.aol.com that

“younger online consumers are notably more likely than older online consumers to have the television on while they are logged onto the Internet. More than half of all online consumers age 18 to 24 (53%) have done both at the same time, compared to only three in 10 who are 50 or older (31%)"
(http://cdn.digitalcity.com/
advisormisc/uscyberstudy.pdf
39).

Although being online and watching TV at the same time appears to be a common practice among members of The WB’s target demographic, the same AOL study also found that “while slightly fewer than half (44%) of all online consumers have a positive or neutral opinion of online advertising which compared to television advertising, slightly more than half (54%) have a more negative attitude towards online ads." AOL Time Warner’s awareness of the widespread dislike of online advertising indicates that in developing online peripherals to a television text such as Smallville, marketers take great care in disguising advertising as actual textual content.

In the case of Smallville, the appropriation of age-old (eons in Internet-time) fan behaviors fulfills two functions: product placement/tie-in for companies outside the AOL Time Warner umbrella, and the synergistic success of AOL Time Warner itself.

Though advertisers generally show caution in pouring money into new shows, Smallville in its first season proved overwhelmingly effective for netting the crucial 18-34 demographic. According to Electronic Media, Smallville was

“the big ad bargain of the [2001-2002] TV season…a whopping 84 percent overdelivery for advertisers” (Friedman, 8).

The fact that the show became a breakout hit in its first season and delivered far more viewers than expected (overdelivered) made it extremely attractive for advertisers interested in marketing to the more technologically savvy teen crowd. Advertising Age calls Smallville’s primary 16-24 demographic “among the most voracious cell phone buyers,” so it would logically follow that a company like Verizon Wireless would embark on an extensive, multi-layered tie-in with the show (Stanley, 4). In addition to inserting their Test Man (famous for the utterance, “Can you hear me now?”) into Smallville settings in several television commercial spots and offering membership into a text message club that provides trivia and extras from the show, Verizon ran a sweepstakes which gave away a trip to the Smallville set in Vancouver, B.C. The WB’s Smallville email newsletter of March 30, 2004 included a link to a brief journal written by the winner, which gave Verizon the opportunity to insert a large logo and a picture of one of their cell phones. Although the technique of running a sweepstakes is tried and true in the land of teen advertising, the acts of text messaging and keeping online journals have emerged more recently among teenagers as ways to assert individuality and communicate with friends, using platforms often completely incomprehensible to their parents.

One of these methods of self-publication, weblogging (more commonly known as blogging), which in layman’s terms refers to keeping an online journal, intensely private but at the same time extremely public. In the last couple of years, blogging has became extremely popular; a Google search on March 31, 2004 yielded 28,300,000 results for a search on the word “blog” (http://www.google.com). In late summer 2003, Eastman Kodak partnered with The WB in order to market their Kodak Plus Digital One-Time-Use Camera to Smallville’s highly desirable youth audience, commissioning Allison Mack, who plays Chloe on the series, to keep a personal blog, which was essentially a drawn-out advertising testimonial. Commending this move, Business Wire reported that “according to Forrester Research, Inc., approximately 23 percent of youth ages 13-22 are publishing or updating web pages weekly. Also, according to a survey conducted for Kodak by Alloy.com, more than 70 percent of teens would like to be able to get digital pictures without having to purchase a digital camera. To this end, one unique component of The WB and Kodak partnership includes a weblog, or ‘blog,’ created by Mack at www.thewb.com/allisonsblog” (“The WB’s Allison Mack…”). Each of Mack’s blog entries, which were updated from August 5-November 15, 2003, mentions the Kodak products available and includes teeny-bopper-ish minutiae from her life as an actress, in addition to a gallery of photos she allegedly took (each branded with a Kodak logo, naturally.) As Mack (the “Mulder character,” as discussed earlier) arguably comes across as the most accessible of the show’s stars, it follows that she would be the ideal choice to write a blog intended for consumption as advertising disguised as peripheral entertainment.

Adding to the synergy slam-dunk involving the release of the Smallville soundtrack discussed above was the component of the CD’s marriage to the Internet. The back of the CD reads:

“Contains exclusive access to the world of The WB’s Smallville that you can’t get anywhere else!”[11]

It has become common practice to release enhanced CDs, CDs that not only have additional CD-ROM material but also have the added bonus of being difficult to copy on most commercially available CD burners. The Smallville soundtrack certainly has links to WB-run websites, and it is here that we find one of the first-tier platforms for linking the Smallville consumer to a wide range of online pages which in a fundamental way all adhere to the growing practice of disguising advertising as entertainment. This advertising comes across as entertainment because it adapts the forms of fan practices — such as fanfiction, fan filmmaking, message boards, grassroots “activism,” hacking, and the creation of virtual role-playing spaces. Each one of these practices encourages investment in a narrative that extends far beyond the text of the show itself.

In his 2002 article “Interactive Audiences?” Henry Jenkins states, “Attempts to link consumers directly into the production and marketing of media content…are increasingly promoted as the model for how to sell goods, cultural and otherwise, in an interactive environment” (2002, 166). Peripheral entertainment, or extra-television texts, allow AOL Time Warner to experiment with synergistic practices, addressing an audience which research has shown is more likely to actively seek out interactive environments on the Internet. Smallville was not the first WB series to experiment with extra-textual material on the Internet; early successes with other teen-oriented shows, however, convinced marketers that encouraging young viewers to invest in the “world” of a show would allow the creation of multiple platforms of information/advertising. As Caldwell notes,

“The WB’s www.dawsonscreek.com site allowed fans to read the personal diaries of characters in the show, and to ‘hack’ into the private e-mails of those same characters” (2003, 136).

Although other current teen-oriented shows like Fox’s The O.C. (2003-present) have established websites rich with extra-diagetic information, The WB’s pioneering techniques in Internet marketing have provided the blueprint for other networks to follow.[12]

Drawing a line between the television text and its peripheral materials becomes even more difficult when those materials actually consist of streamed video of the show’s characters. While Allison Mack’s blog allowed viewers to peer into her life as an actress, the “Chloe Chronicles,” five short online videos featuring Mack, as Chloe the investigative journalist, provide Smallville fans with deeper insight into the show’s mythology.[13] Initially the videos were explicitly tied to AOL Television. Patricia Karpas, VP and General Manager of AOL Television, stated,

“This type of high-quality companion programming is at the heart of our mission — to offer AOL and AOL for Broadband members unique and compelling ways to experience their favorite television shows. This is also an exciting example of how AOL Television can help networks tap into and build loyal audiences for their shows” (“America Online to Premiere…”).

Although Internet television ventures have been slow to catch on (not everyone’s Internet connection speed can handle this sort of fandom), the availability of short video segments both echoes the Star Wars fan practice of digital video creation and Internet distribution, and also expands the primary text of a show in a corporate-sponsored, synergistic way.[14] The “Chloe Chronicles” themselves feature Allison Mack’s in-character direct address to what appears to be a handheld, digital camera. For those viewers familiar with the filming style of shows like MTV’s Jackass (2000-2001), the style in which these web shorts are filmed provides a sense of direct access to the means of production. And since these videos are distributed and exhibited in the same format as many fan videos, they are essentially professional productions masquerading as amateur shorts.

Amateur means of extending the television text take a variety of forms, but one of the most visible and  studied of these is fanfiction writing. Henry Jenkins wrote in 1992 that fans writing for fanzines (the precursor to online fanfiction)

“pull characters and narrative issues from the margins; they focus on details that are excessive or peripheral to the primary plots but gain significance within the fans’ own conceptions of the series” (155).

The basic idea at work here is that fanfiction allows fans to pick and choose aspects of the television text to explore more fully than would ever be possible in an hour-long program. Smallville marketers took this concept and established a variety of websites that provide viewers with more detailed insights into storylines on this show; particularly noteworthy among these are the weekly online newspapers, the Smallville High School Torch and the Smallville Ledger, which ran regularly from December 2001 to January 2004.[15] Mark Warshaw, Smallville’s Director of New Media, insists:

"Our big thing is that we're trying to advance the Smallville viewer experience. [We're] never going to take away from the mothership and give you too much information that the show needs to take care of for you. But all the way through we're kind of planning out what's going to be a nice way of complimenting [it]… The idea is to try and click every single element of Smallville together, to give one great overall huge story just for Smallville fans" (Quoted in Dolce).

Smallville’s online newspapers are unique in that they present peripheral and background show information in a format which encourages active participation in a fictional universe. Both the Torch and the Ledger were updated weekly, with stories often “written” by the show’s characters. As a high school newspaper, the Torch often included links that asked readers to vote for their favorite high school teacher, or submit their favorite quotes for the yearbook, or suggest which Smallville High student should be crowned Homecoming Queen. Every so often, the Torch even allowed Smallville fans to write articles to be published online, with the implied caveat that only articles which take the idea of Smallville as a real place seriously would be considered.

The Ledger encouraged readers to submit letters to the editor, which were published with complete integrity to the show, and very little discernible irony. For instance, one 2004 letter to the editor asks, “When did the Luthor family establish itself on American soil as a business powerhouse?” The editor responds with a quote about the Luthor family heritage from “the man who knows the plan, LuthorCorp spokesman Mitchell Taylor” (“Letters to the Editor”). The “Letters to the Editor” section of the Ledger allows fans to ask questions about the show’s canon that will be answered in an authoritative, definitive way; information gleaned from the online newspapers is considered as gospel as the show itself.

Both the Ledger and the Torch also included fan message boards, hidden under the link titles “Community Calendar” and “Student Voice.” According to advisor.aol.com,

“Highly trafficked message boards [which includes the Torch, the Ledger, and the plethora of other boards run by The WB], monitored 24/7, are where fans sound off on The WB’s programs, characters, and developments” (Advisor.AOL.com).

The network-sponsored fan community has been well-established in recent years as a viable means of keeping an eye on a show’s popularity, but it’s important to keep in mind that such interactivity between a show’s producers and consumers has developed from the old model of science fiction conventions — fan communities that exist in a real-world space and actively seek out a connection with producers — to virtual communities that exist by virtue of the formats set up by producers, and can therefore be more effectively monitored. Of course, message boards and mailing lists still proliferate outside of the boundaries of The WB’s own webpages, but it’s worth noting that Smallville’s producers are able to access (and post to) these fan-run pages with a few simple clicks. In web-based fan communities, conversations happen publicly; it stands to reason that the writers and marketers of a show like Smallville with such an active online following would have a much stronger sense of what aspects of the television and extra-television text will keep the audience watching.[16]

(Continued: Fan communities)


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