JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Promotional photograph for Season 3

May 2008 Rolling Stone cover story

An example of the golden-hued lighting found in much of the series’ imagery

A representative Nike ad featuring Michael Jordan, circa late 1980s

The Virtual Hills

Pepsi-themed clothing for avatars on the virtual Hills

The virtual Lauren Conrad and the "real" Lauren Conrad

Wesbite for the fake Hanso foundation

Promotional photograph for MTV’s Newlyweds (2003-2005), starring the now-divorced pop stars, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.

Jason Wahler’s mug shot, circa March 2007

“How are you doing?”

When Entertainment Weekly shot the photographs for this cover story about The Hills’fall 2007 premier, Heidi and Lauren refused to be photographed together. The editors make a nod to Heidi’s absence in the form of a tabloid magazine featuring her image, which is rolled up in Audrina’s bag.

“You know what you did!”

Heidi and Spencer’s on-again/off-again romance was the March 17, 2008 US Weekly cover story.

Features about Lauren are generally lifestyle-oriented and avoid addressing scandals in her personal life.

 

Postmodern marketing, Generation Y
and the multiplatform viewing experience of MTV’s The Hills

by Amanda Klein

In an April 20th New Yorker editorial, Nancy Franklin pondered the overwhelming success of MTV’s The Hills, an “unscripted drama” that has become MTV’s and basic cable’s highest rated program.[1][open endnotes in new window] During the course of any given Hills episode very little happens: Lauren has lunch with Audrina, Heidi wonders where Lauren and Audrina are having lunch, and Whitney goes to work. Indeed, take away their money, their fabulous apartments and the constant presence of a television camera, and Lauren, Whitney, Audrina and Heidi — the show’s “stars” — are not too different from the average twenty-something living in the United States. So what is the draw of this highly successful program? Franklin muses:

“For younger viewers — who are the intended audience for the series — it may be a soothing fantasy about coming of age, and give them the sense that even after they leave their parents’ house they will still be the center of attention, the way these girls are.”(Franklin 137)

The Hills, she concludes “makes adulthood seem like a piece of cake.”

Like Franklin, I also see The Hills’ appeal as strongly tied to the illusions it paints: about adulthood, about working and about what life might be like for a twenty-something living in Los Angeles. In this way the show is the ultimate example of “lifestyle television” or what Chuck Kleinhans has called “projective drama,” that is

“the dramatic presentation of a situation that the core audience views in anticipation that they will be in a similar situation sometime in the future.”(Kleinhans)

The Hills provides its viewers with a fantasy model of adulthood, in which work is easy, every night is “girls night out!” and everyone is filmed amidst the golden, romantic hues of a Southern California sunset. The girls never express concerns over paying their rents, finding employment in today’s dreary economic climate, or even engaging in the world that (presumably) exists beyond the borders of Los Angeles’ club circuit.[2] Rolling Stone writer Jason Gray admits:

“When the cheery theme song, Natasha Bedingfield’s girly-power anthem ‘Unwritten,’ kicks in…you can sense the serotonin releasing inside your brain. The Hills is Wellbutrin on TV” (44).

Multiplatform viewing experience

I also argue that The Hills has succeeded in part because it has found inventive and interactive ways to market itself to its target youth audience. But who are these viewers/consumers, and why has it been necessary to develop new marketing strategies in order to catch their attention? Generation Y has been described as “the most diverse generation in U.S. history” as well as the largest generation since the Baby Boomers (Rikleen). Members of Generation Y, alternately called the Millennial Generation, Echo Boomers, the Net Generation, the Tethered Generation, and the Everybody Gets a Trophy Generation, are generally defined as U.S. children born between 1979 and 1994 [3] who are both adept with and dependent on technology, including cell phones, wireless hand held devices, MP3 players, computers and the Internet.

As a result of this increased facility with information databases and modes of mass communication (theirs was the first generation to grow up using personal computers and later, the Internet), Generation Y’s “digital natives” have proved to be a marketing challenge (Yeaton 69). Market research reveals that the advertising campaigns based on image and slogan that worked so well with Baby Boomers and Generation X, such as Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nikes, is ineffective with this new generation:

“…[Generation Y] respond to ads differently, and they prefer to encounter those ads in different places. The marketers that capture Gen Y's attention do so by bringing their messages to the places these kids congregate, whether it's the Internet, a snowboarding tournament, or cable TV” (Neuborne and Kerwin).

In order to capture this elusive demographic, The Hills relies on tabloid weeklies, entertainment news programs, Internet discussion boards and even the casts’ own side projects to promote the show. These platforms also serve as alternative venues for consuming the show’s content (i.e., the characters, their storylines and the goods they purchase and promote). For example, MTV recently conducted an online survey to determine how a viewers’ perception of a corporate sponsor, in this case, Pepsi, changed in relationship to the amount of “content” with which they came into contact. Those Hills fans who watched the program and then went online to participate in The Hills virtual world — spaces where Pepsi runs spots, banners and even offers Pepsi-themed clothing for avatars — were more likely to have a positive opinion of Pepsi and its products. The researchers discovered that digital platform extensions increase a viewer’s engagement with both a television show and its sponsors (McClellan).

The article interviews Henry Jenkins to explain this phenomenon of “engagement”:

"Engagement is the term we use to refer not to just regular TV viewership but to a more passion-driven and more socially driven mode of watching television and connecting pieces together…One could argue that the modern television viewer is a kind of hunter and gatherer who collects pieces of entertainment information that they care about across as many different platforms as possible." (qtd. in McClellan)

It is precisely this kind of viewer engagement that MTV is hoping to capitalize upon in its marketing of The Hills. Fans find content — not just within the narrow parameters of the thirty minute program — but online, on the newsstands and even when watching other, non-MTV programming, such as Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.

This kind of engagement does not, on the surface, appear to be unlike the elaborate lengths that certain television series with media savvy fan bases have gone to feed viewer demands for content during the long stretches between seasons. Lost, to name one such program, launched intricate websites for the fictional Oceanic airlines, home of the doomed flight 815, and put up billboards for the airline in several cities in January of 2008. The show’s producers even hired actors to attend the 2007 ComiCon in order to disrupt the Lost panel with outrageous conspiracy theories about the Hanso foundation. The Hills’ creators, however, only need to release their cast members into the wilds of Hollywood’s paparazzi-laden streets in order to generate and maintain viewer interest in the off seasons. The extradiegetic news stories and scandals circulating around The Hills’ cast serves not just to remind viewers that the show is on the air. These stories become an integral component of the show’s highly contrived plotlines, seamlessly integrating reality television, media scandal and fan adoration/outrage into one glossy, interactive package.

Wesbite for the fake Oceanic airlines A real world billboard for Oceanic airlines

This narrative practice assumes — or rather, demands — that the show’s fans keep up with the cast members’ off-camera antics. Of course, to speak of a true “off- camera” moment is impossible since The Hills’ cast members live in front of an ever-present camera, transforming them into beautiful, blank slates onto which plotlines can be constructed. In The Hills, every facial expression, outfit choice, or dance club outing — whether filmed by MTV’s cameras or those of the ever-present paparazzi — becomes fodder for future plotlines on The Hills and cover stories in the tabloids.

Several critics have made comparisons between The Hills and auteurs like Michelangelo Antonioni,[4] arguing that the series’ reliance on stripped down dialogue, plotless narratives and focus on the anomie of the idle classes are quite similar to those of the lauded art cinema of the 1950s and 1960s. This comparison is most accurate in terms of the show’s lack of traditional plotlines. When European films were screened in U.S. art houses in the 1950s and 1960s, audiences were intrigued and annoyed by their violation of one of the most fundamental rules of Classical Hollywood cinema — namely the clear transmission of a cause and effect narrative driven by characters with defined goals. While the plotless, meandering narratives of films like A bout de soufflé  (1959, Jean-Luc Godard) and L’ Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) eventually made it acceptable for more mainstream directors to occasionally forgo cause and effect driven narratives, this tendency has yet to filter into U.S. television (or at least not successfully).[5] Thus, the plotlessness of The Hills, the fact that it is essentially “a show about nothing,” only further underscores that its appeal is the complete accessibility of its characters.

Blogger Henry Wolfe accurately describes The Hills as:

"…the narrative of our casually exhibitionist moment, of facebook, where the minutiae of the everyday becomes elevated because it’s selected and exhibited and viewed by an audience; all those scenes where lauren talks at whitney or heidi talks at elodie or audrina talks at chiara, those one-sided dialogues, they’re the televisual equivalent of facebook status updates (“heidi is feeling sad.” “lauren doesn’t know what to do anymore.” “audrina is done with him.”) (sic)."

Before social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, we never would have expected to know what our friends, or in many cases, complete strangers, were doing on an hourly basis. But because Facebook provides this luxury such information becomes both interesting and necessary. Lauren, Heidi and Audrina need only to exist — and to allow others to watch — to be entertaining. The Hills therefore is very much a show of today’s cultural moment. In particular, it is a show keyed into the way that Generation Y experiences the world.

Offscreen storylines

The Hills’ cast courted the press from the start, but it was not until after Season Two finished airing that the series’ unconventional approach to marketing became clear. In the interim between Season Two’s finale in April of 2007 and the premiere of Season Three in August 2007, it was reported that the show’s protagonist and narrator, Lauren Conrad, and her ex-boyfriend, Jason Wahler, known primarily for bouts of public drunkenness and racist rants,[6] had made a sex tape together. Although the story was quickly discredited, rumors spread that it was concocted by Lauren’s former roommate (during Seasons One and Two), Heidi Montag, and her new boyfriend, Spencer Pratt. In the lazy summer weeks leading up to the Season Three premiere, when tabloid magazines make for excellent poolside reading, much was made of the acrimony between Heidi and Lauren. Both women allegedly refused to appear together in publicity photographs promoting the new season and asked that their storylines be filmed separately (Armstrong). Given this buzz, it is not surprising that the Season Three premiere of The Hills, entitled “You Know What You Did,”was the most watched show, on both network television and cable, in the key demographic of 12 to 34 year olds. It was also the highest rated cable telecast of 2008 (“Hills Premiere”).

“You Know What You Did” opens with one of the series’ signature “recap” conversations in which characters are expected to have an on camera conversation (which they have likely already had, off camera) about key plot points. Lauren enters the Teen Vogue offices, cooing over her co-worker, Whitney Port’s, new promotion and the changes to their work space (“They’ve organized the dresses!”). The light tone of this conversation abruptly shifts as Whitney dutifully asks Lauren “How are you doing?” and slips into her customary role of “monologue catcher” a term Henry Wolfe has coined to describe this signature convention of the series. Despite the fact that this conversation is taking place for the benefit of the show’s viewers (we can only assume that Whitney and Lauren discussed the sex tape scandal at some point during the summer), Lauren’s recap is vague and confusing:

“I didn’t tell you what happened?” “No.”
“They were basically saying that me and Jason made inappropriate videotapes…” “Who does that?”
“I just could never understand hating someone so much that you wanna do something like that to them...” “Heard from Heidi lately?”
The “egg” — Lauren remains silent and shakes her head.

The scene immediately cuts to the opening credits.

Not only does Lauren avoid discussing the nature of the alleged tape’s contents (she calls them “inappropriate videotapes”), she also refrains from conjecturing on the source of the rumor. Instead, Whitney asks, just a beat after before the show’s opening credits begin, “Have you heard from Heidi lately?” followed by a blank shot of Lauren’s face, otherwise known as an “egg.”[7] Lacking a full discourse, viewers are asked to substitute their own, extradiegetic knowledge for what Lauren refuses to articulate[8] : that Heidi and Spencer are (allegedly) responsible for our heroine’s pain. Within the diegesis of the show the sex tape scandal is framed as a rumor that circulated among Lauren’s relatively small, onscreen circle of family and friends and on the Internet, but not as the media scandal that it was in “real life.”[9]  

Lauren does not explicitly accuse Heidi of starting the sex tape rumor. Instead, this recap conversation is used to facilitate a forward movement in the narrative, namely to preface the show down between Lauren and Heidi promised by the episode’s tantalizing title. The confrontation occurs at one of the show’s go to hang outs, Les Deux, when the girls attend a birthday party for a mutual friend. After Heidi attempts to reconnect with Lauren (she assumes that they have lost contact due to her decision to move in with Spencer), they begin to feud outside of the club. But as with the previous conversation, the confrontation between the two women is vague:

Lauren: Do you know why I’m mad at you?
Heidi: Why Lauren?
Lauren: You know why I’m mad at you.
Heidi: Why?
Lauren: You know what you did!
Heidi: What? What did I do?
Lauren: You know what you did!
Heidi: What did I do? What?
Lauren: Come on.
Heidi: What? You guys are crazy. What did I do? What did I do?
Lauren: You guys are sick people.
Heidi: What did we do?
Lauren: [incredulous] What did you do?
Heidi: Yeah.
Lauren: What did you do? You started a sick little rumor about me.
Heidi: I didn’t start any rumor about you.
Lauren: Really? Nothing? Really?
Heidi: No. No.
Lauren: You’re a sad, pathetic person.
[Lauren exits screen right]

“What? What did I do?”

“You know what you did!”

“What did I do? What?”

“What did you? You started a sick little rumor about me.”
“I didn’t start any rumor” “You’re a sad, pathetic person.”

I cite this interaction at length because it is both highly tense and yet devoid of any useful information for the viewer, beyond the pleasures to be gained from watching two former friends scream at each other in a public space while donning designer dresses. Heidi feigns ignorance over Lauren’s accusation, but instead of serving the typical role of “monologue catcher” (that is, asking a question she already knows the answer to for the benefit of the audience), her repeated questioning of Lauren reveals almost nothing new to the audience. Those familiar with this scandal from the tabloids are frustrated by the vagueness of the accusations (why won’t Lauren use the word “sex tape”?). Similarly, those unfamiliar with the tabloid-fueled assumption that Heidi and her boyfriend started the sex tape rumors are baffled by Lauren’s confidence that her ex-roommate is the source.

But why not indulge the sex tape story? After all, it makes for a great storyline and would certainly help to accentuate and define the rift that had formed between Lauren and Heidi, the series’ dueling divas, in the interim between Season Two and Season Three. Without this extradiegetic knowledge it is unclear why Lauren and Heidi are no longer friends at the beginning of Season Three. [10] According to the show’s creator Avi Di Santo, the answer is simple:

“We want viewers to watch Lauren and the girls as the characters we know instead of in a show about being the stars of The Hills” (qtd. in Armstrong).

Di Santo’s distinction is key. Rather than allowing the tabloids and the cult of celebrity to dominate and eventually overtake the show — as it did with other successful MTV reality programs like The Newlyweds and The Osbournes — Di Santo wants the plotlines of his show to work in concert with the tabloids. The show’s producers do not wallow in the sex tape scandal or explicitly discuss Heidi or Spencer’s alleged role in creating it. To do so would be — to use Di Santo’s terms — transforming the series into a show about what it is like to be a star of The Hills.[11] To this end, cast members never mention the fact that they are being filmed, or that they are engaged in or affected by activities resulting from their involvement in an immensely popular television show.

But this strategy begs the question: Why can’t this show be about “what it’s like to be a star of The Hills”? Blogger and media studies scholar Michael Newman offers one possible explanation:

“If Lauren or Heidi ever mentioned the existence of a program on television on which they regularly appear, the effect would be like a rupture in the space-time continuum. The first rule of The Hills is, you do not talk about The Hills.”

In other words, in order to maintain this illusion of a self-contained narrative world, of a show about regular (albeit fabulously wealthy and good-looking) twenty-somethings living in Los Angeles, the onscreen world can make little mention of the offscreen world.  If the show did acknowledge the celebrity surrounding its characters — Lauren’s fashion line, Heidi’s singing “career,” Spencer’s love affair with US Weekly — then the show would likely collapse into itself, becoming just another venue for promoting the star texts of Lauren, Audrina, Heidi, Whitney and Spencer. The Hills, as a series, provides these individuals with their raison d’etre. Acknowledging this within the text would likely diminish the appeal of both.

Lauren maintains careful control of her tabloid image as a fashion icon and teen role model. In contrast, Heidi’s tabloid image is constructed almost entirely of scandalous stories, such as her much discussed plastic surgery.

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