copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006
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Twenty-first century Superman:
Smallville and New Media mythmaking
by Cary M. Jones
“I stand for truth, justice, and…other stuff,” Clark Kent says while trying to outline his platform for class president candidacy in an episode of The WB’s top-rated series, Smallville (2001-present). This figure of Superman is as American as football stars and homecoming queens. His innate American-ness has allowed him to evolve over the years, from cultural form to cultural form, being reinvented whenever there’s a job for Superman. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, Smallville, which sets the Superman myth in a present-day high school in mythical Smallville, Kansas, transforms a pervasive cultural figure into a marketable form for today’s age 12-34 demographic. This very flexibility makes Superman an ideal case study for examining the shifting processes of media production and consumption, especially during 2001-2004. During that time, teen-oriented programming increasingly began to take advantage of the marketing possibilities offered by new media outlets. Henry Jenkins, a major scholar in the study of fan communities, has recently outlined this transition in the context of:
"…the interactions that occur among media consumers, between media consumers and media texts and between media consumers and media producers. The new participatory culture is taking shape at the intersection between three trends:
For the purposes of exploring the significance behind the return and metamorphosis of one of the most beloved U.S. legends, I plan to look at Smallville through the lens of the new media trends which Jenkins describes, trends which force us to go beyond a model of producer/consumer and look at the cultivation of fan interaction, especially on the Internet, as an expansion of the television text itself.
I will initially give a brief overview of the previous models of television theory which have paved the way for examining a program like Smallville with respect to the surrounding extra-television texts generated by the media industry as a whole, the show’s producers and marketers, and the fans themselves. In the next section, I address critical reception of the show itself, and the ways in which the return of the Superman character and the comic book genre in general can be said to be symptomatic of admittedly nebulous cultural concerns. Establishing Superman as a character deeply embedded with cultural meaning allows us to look at how The WB adapted and reworked that character to specifically address the interests and concerns of particular fan communities — primarily the network’s young target demographic. I will then turn to a closer examination of Jenkins’ third point listed above in the context of Smallville and The WB itself, briefly outlining these developing strategies of synergy. My goal is to provide a framework for a discussion of the appropriation of historically established formats — which include fanfiction, fan filmmaking, community-building/interaction, and hacking — for fan interaction with the television text.
Although the proliferation of fan communities on the Internet continues to be a rich topic of inquiry, this paper will focus more on the ways in which Smallville’s production and marketing has been informed by the historic existence of television fandoms, the knowledge of previously established counter-cultural fan practices, and the availability of multiple mainstream platforms for the distribution of information. By looking at reviews, extra-television texts produced by The WB, statements by the show’s producers and marketers, and documentation from business and advertising trade papers, I hope to show that between 2001 and 2004 The WB pursued a logical strategy in response to subversive uses of the ever-expanding text — co-opting the subversive act and re-integrating it into the show’s text and marketing. Significantly, this strategy is becoming increasingly more common as the entertainment industry turns to theories of convergence and synergy. Finally, I will look at recent fan productions to suggest that this isn’t the end of the story. While digital technologies have infiltrated the world of media production and consumption at a remarkable pace, the ways in which fans watch TV can never entirely be predicted.
Consumption of television
The continuing evolution of how current television texts are consumed, particularly by the younger generation, stands as a solid example of what Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media calls “the computerization of culture,” which
“not only leads to the emergence of new cultural forms such as computer games and virtual worlds; it redefines existing ones” (9).
Since the advent of the Internet, the methods by which a television show is marketed and consumed have undergone drastic change in a short time period, as have media producers and consumers’ willingness to accept that change. What is at stake in the study of television now is nothing less than an alteration of how “real” the world of a television show like Smallville appears to fans, and how culture producers encourage a greater investment in the show's overall world.
Indeed, television theorists have repeatedly addressed the medium’s ability to suture viewers into a narrative which is much larger than a single episode of a TV series. In 1975, Raymond Williams wrote that television’s
“inherent properties as an electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of reality, and thence our relations with each other and the world” (11).
His theory that television ought to be viewed as a planned flow rather than an individual program text informed the thinking of subsequent critics to follow, including Nick Browne, whose concept of the “supertext” questioned “the limits of the text ‘proper’ and its formal unity,” and suggested that television must be analyzed ideologically in the context of the various
“introductory and interstitial materials — chiefly announcements and ads — considered in its specific position in the schedule” (71).
Yet as John Caldwell points out, these ideas, while new to the academic world, were in practice in the television industry long before film theorists caught on, since
“flow theory actually existed in network programming departments since the early 1950s” (2003, 133).
In the interest of teasing out the marketing and programming strategies at work in Smallville during what can be considered a transitional time in media history, it is worth noting that the entertainment industry is always two steps ahead.
Though Williams and Browne effectively introduced the idea that the television viewing experience must be analyzed in the context of all the ancillary materials that surround it, neither theorist concentrates on the relation that these “supertexts” have to ways in which audiences consume them. In the British school of cultural studies, John Fiske encouraged cultural analysts of television to consider three different levels of text: the program onscreen, the secondary texts generated by the entertainment industry such as
“studio publicity, television criticism and comment, feature articles about shows and their stars, gossip columns, fan magazines, and so on,” and finally the texts produced by viewers themselves (319).
Although he acknowledged that these levels intersect to a certain extent, the advent of new media studies requires a more thorough examination of how producer texts and consumer texts play into each other, complicated by the ever-increasing availability of information and formats by which this information is transmitted.
Previous studies on the nature of fan culture have enabled cultural theorists to look at fandom as an appropriation of popular texts that itself produces significant texts. Henry Jenkins’ 1992 book Textual Poachers elucidated the discourse that surrounded fandom in the days before the Internet, especially in regard to how contemporary popular media characterized fan culture. Jenkins writes that the fan
“constitutes a scandalous category in contemporary culture, one alternately the target of ridicule and anxiety, of dread and desire” (1992, 15).
Indeed, public media tended to categorize the fan as “other,” which insured that fans would more likely keep their fannish tendencies under wraps, for fear of achieving societal outcast status. Central behind this practice of the media, Jenkins suggests, was the idea that in essence
“fans assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canons” (1992, 18).
As cultural analysis of (previously deemed) “low-culture” texts has become more widespread, so has the idea that fans’ appropriating texts functions as a logical extension of TV viewership. Jenkins’ use of the word “canon” to describe fan practices of cultural reorganization and placement of value is worth noting as well. Though the word has specific connotations in film and media studies, throughout this paper I will use it to refer to a set of agreed-upon facts in a particular cultural work — this is the meaning ascribed to “canon” in the world of online fandom. The appropriation of a word that usually references “high” culture serves as another example of fans’ subversive privileging of popular texts. But at this point the fan definition has become so popular that it’s impossible to pinpoint the original act of transgression.
For the purposes of this paper, I refer to fans as “mainstream” or “cult,” which takes as its cue Jenkins’ distinction between “viewers” and “fans.” Jenkins, of course, refers to pre-Internet fan cultures, where
“the difference between watching a series and becoming a fan lies in the intensity of their emotional and intellectual involvement” (1992, 56).
Though this trait pertains to television consumers in the digital age, their tendency to interact with the TV text in ways which exceed just “watching a series” has grown to the point that it is necessary to distinguish between fans who move on the Internet in a TV-industry-sanctioned way (mainstream) and fans who appropriate new peripheral texts in a way that can be considered subversive and more in line with what Jenkins originally described as fandom. Though total immersion in a TV series does not have the same social stigma as it did in 1992, the need to divide fans into mainstream and cult groups indicates that fandom remains an elusive, constantly transmutable cultural force. What mainstream and cult fans of Smallville have in common, however, is a willingness to consume texts in different formats produced by The WB outside of the narrative space of the show itself. Part of the reason for this extra-textual success lies in the initial construction and marketing of the show itself, and its roots in a pervasive U.S. myth.
The entertainment industry by nature is reticent to take extreme risks. Certain aspects of the Superman story and Smallville’s narrative construction have insured that the show's content would provide a solid traditional foundation for the sort of synergistic structure likely to appeal to younger consumers of the television show and extra-television texts — younger viewers which The WB targets as part of its overall brand identity as a network. The WB itself was launched in March, 1995, largely in the successful footsteps of the Fox Network. Although Fox branded itself as an edgy, youth-oriented network off the bat, The WB first targeted ethnic minorities with urban sitcoms (like its primary competitor, UPN), and then moved on to establish a late-afternoon cartoon block, WB Kids, which brought in more youthful viewers. In the late 1990s, The WB began to specifically target the teen demographic, benefiting directly from Fox’s example. According to a 1998 article in the New York Times,
“Jamie Kellner, chief executive officer at the WB television network and former president of the Fox Broadcasting Company, said WB had largely been created to appeal to teen-agers and young adults” (Weintraub, E2).
Shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which focused on teenage protagonists, served to pull in viewers aged 12-24 and helped to make the network’s reputation as a powerhouse of teen programming, a reputation that was fully established by 2001.
Smallville co-creator Alfred Gough insists that
“there is something about Superman that permeates the American psyche. Perhaps it is because he symbolizes the best of what we want to be. Whatever it is — and especially right now more than ever — he represents a sort of comfort food for the American soul” (Quoted in Hinson, 2).
Writing in 1987, Patrick Eagan suggested that Superman “embodies a distinctly conservative strain running through the American political psyche,” and reveals
“America’s deeply rooted obsession with crime and with the maintenance of law and order” (92-93).
The virtually unanimous way Smallville’s October 16, 2001 premiere was received in the popular press elucidates the fundamental aspects of the Superman myth welcomed by post-9/11 media eager to heap praise on figures associated with U.S. patriotism. Certainly television reviewers in the mainstream press would be likely to immediately identify the Superman of Smallville with his previous incarnations. Brandon M. Easton in The Boston Herald wrote,
“In this time of crisis, ‘Smallville’ offers a deeply moralistic and practical examination of the wages of power and the responsibility that it entails. This series is a perfect introduction to the long-running Superman mythos for a new generation of viewers searching for virtuous heroes on TV” (44).
And the Wall Street Journal reported that although the timing of Smallville’s premiere had not been intentional, the
“show could hardly have been better timed to appeal to the fantasy life of the nation. We could get some major mileage right now from a Man of Steel, especially one who has traditionally patrolled the skies to defend Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (Rosett, A19).
The popular press' widespread identification of the Superman myth with an inherent American-ness at the time of Smallville’s premiere suggests that the superhero genre gains momentum in times of national stress, and indeed, the character of Superman has long been associated with fulfilling social needs. Rick Altman writes in Film/Genre that
“genres are not only formal arrangements of textual characteristics; they are also social devices that use semantics and syntax to assure simultaneous satisfaction on the part of multiple users with apparently contradictory purposes” (195).
This is a concept of polysemy taken to another level — though different viewers may consume a filmic (or for the purpose of this paper, television) text in different ways, they are all nonetheless finding something pleasurable in a certain set of predictable textual characteristics. Andrew Smith writes,
“Superman has proved adaptable to the zeitgeist again and again … in 1938, for example, Superman reflected his Depression-era origins by being something of a Super-Social Worker” (G2).
At the advent of World War II, comic book writers had Superman battling Nazis with an emphasis on nationalism and patriotism. The Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves, which ran from 1952 to 1957, presented a super-moralistic hero who foiled post-World War II Nazi activities and fought to maintain the U.S. social and economic status quo. And during the 70s and 80s,
“the anxieties and obsessions of the cold war era … most often take the form of a cosmic duel between Superman and the supervillain of the month, some scary figure from another star or parallel dimension who threatens to subjugate, or even destroy, the world with his awesome powers” (Eagan, 94).
The repeated application of Superman’s power to various national threats indicates an U.S. dependence on the superhero myth, and even Superman himself as a genre.
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. 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.
It should come as no great surprise that this balance among character development, mytharc, 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.
The WB, then, in producing and marketing Smallville, adapted a three-tier strategy for success:
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. (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. 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).
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.
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. 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%)"
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!”
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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