Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Myth of Geek Culture: Part 2

The Nostalgia Trap: "Geek Culture’s" Roots in Neo-Liberal Deregulation

Source: Gracie FIlms, 20th Century Fox

Admittedly, from a certain perspective, “geek culture” is thriving.  In the US, the mainstream box office for 2012 was dominated by geek franchises (refreshingly, at least, about evenly split between those targeting men and women) while in the UK, video game sales continued to outpace those of DVD’s as the country’s dominant media commodity (a feat they accomplished in the US in 2009).  Of course, when judging any cultural shifts, sheer cash flow is a simple to determine, seemingly objective signifier of relative value.  The Avengers made more money this year than any other movie, therefore “geek culture” must be attaining dominance.  Setting aside the inherent value judgments at play here, the other question at hand is how did all this happen?  Where did these characters and their dominance come from?  Did a series of subterranean cultural sea changes take place, from the spread of internet use to some intangible recognition of the mass appeal of superheroes, which led to this rise in geek culture?

Obviously, when people talk about this so called rise, they use a much more varied set of metrics than the popularity of Captain America.  But the popularity of this one subgenre is frequently pointed to as supposed proof of a cultural shift.  The “mainstream” appeal of geek culture represents a fragmentation of demographics that has been expanding for decades, representing the increasing ability of larger and larger companies to more closely target smaller and smaller groups.  It feels nice to call these groups “cultures”, but in advertising industry terms, they are called “lifestage segments”, carefully ordered subsections of consumers kept on file in massive demographic information database by “narrowcasting” companies like Acxiom and NarComm.

Source: Jayski.com 

The most direct connection between current “geek culture” and deregulation of the media landscape can be drawn towards the Reagan administration’s relationship with the FCC (an in depth examination of which can be found here).  In 1969, the FCC decided that Mattel’s Hotwheels cartoon was expressly designed to advertise to children, leading to its removal from the airwaves.  However, in 1981, under the presidentially appointed leadership of Mark S. Fowler, the FCC reorganized its priorities.  What followed was a massive increase in the amount of licensed properties in children’s programming.  The flood gates that opened spilled out the likes of He-Man, GI JOE, Transformers, and over the years dozens of commercials disguised as creative programming that have now become the basis for a wave of wistful nostalgia.  And so, generation Y owes much of its “childhood” to the economic policies of Ronald Reagan, while children born in the 1990’s will likely draw all their future nostalgia from the byproducts of Bill Clinton’s own campaign of free market reorientation.     

Source: Anime Wallpapers 

In 1993, Clinton’s administration abolished the Financial Industry and Syndication “fin syn”.  In place at the time since 1970, these rules made it illegal for the three major television networks to own their prime-time programming, or from broadcasting any syndicated programming in which they had a financial stake.  It was the spread of small scale and cable networks likes Fox and HBO that led to this deregulation, as their exemption from the rules, it was argued, would have made for an uneven playing field unless the larger network’s leashes were cut.  It may have been argued at the time that the same rule should have simply been applied to the new networks, but the move went ahead regardless, paving the way for the current practice of large scale media companies, from Disney to Viacom to Time Warner, purchasing a wider range of media commodities to create more expansive corporate entities.

Source: Genzoman

Three years later, Clinton’s White House passed the Telecommunication Act of 1996, allowing for further flexibility in media cross ownership.  Though also ostensibly aimed at the broadcast networks, this ruling was also a response to the rising popularity of, and the first major media legislation to include, the internet.  Using radio as just one example, the act saw a drastic increase in overall media outlets even as the number of total owners continued to contract.  It is what Amanda D Lotz calls the “multi-channel transition”, a widespread expansion in distribution and outlets bolstered simultaneously by technology and deregulation, in which even as the number of media options increases, the number of suppliers atrophies into a few enormous owners. 
It is this atrophying that has allowed for the demographic targeting required to populate the current media landscape.  It doesn’t matter to Disney that The Avengers was the highest grossing film in the lowest grossing movie summer in decades, not when they have countless hands in as many different pots across multiple mediums and delivery systems.  For the companies whose job it is to make sure you stay a healthy and productive consumer, your precious “geek culture” is just another “lifestage segement”, a sub group determined not by its values but by the specifics of its purchasing power.        

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