In programming their digital outposts, American television networks and studios cannily obscure the distinctions between content and promotion. CBS, for instance, stocks its YouTube channel with television Astroturf, faux-viral videos that ape the tone, immediacy, and rough-hewn DIY aesthetic of Internet fanvids, but that in actuality are network promos. As one CBS exec proudly explained to the Wall Street Journal, the net’s YouTube channel “turns our promotion into content,” and ad-supported content at that—CBS’s YouTube offerings are flanked by flashing banner ads for video games, ring tones, self-help books, and even the occasional CBS promo. “This promo is brought to you by…”
Up until recently, this formula was reversible: in addition to pitching recaps, trailers, clips, and promos as “original” and “exclusive” Internet content, networks and studios strategically classified Internet presentations of their primetime series and original web serials as promotion, thereby insulating themselves against writers’, actors’, and affiliates’ claims for their share of the considerable ad revenues these “promos” generate. Take The Accountants, a 2006 web spin-off of The Office that was scripted by the series’ writing staff and that featured series regulars in starring roles. Publicly, to audiences and sponsors, NBC presented The Accountants as “premium” advertiser-supported content. Internally, NBC categorized the webisodes as promos, and refused to pay writers and actors for their work on them. The network took a similar stance on its presentation of The Office on NBC.com, categorizing full episode streams for accounting purposes as promos.
NBC’s definitional alchemy sparked a standoff between the network and The Office’s writers that would eventually spill over into the 2007-8 WGA strike. The first of my two videos, “The Office Is Closed,” was made early during the strike, and begins with the series’ cast and writers outlining their grievances against the network’s policies. It concludes with an extended riff on NBC’s creative definition of promotion, the highlight of which for me is writer Mike Schur telling cast member and writer Mindy Kaling that his favorite television “promo” is Lost. My second video is not online content, but rather a commercial pod from a Fall 2008 episode of The Office that features a hybrid ad/promo/bit starring Judah Friedlander of NBC’s 30 Rock. While the strike has long since ended, and while networks and studios have relented somewhat in their campaigns to categorize webisodes and full-episode streams as promos, this “pod-buster” makes it quite clear that on the Internet and on television the boundaries between promos and content remain in flux. Debates over the location of these boundaries have quite obvious ramifications for the Hollywood labor force. I’d like to suggest that they have implications for us as critics, as well, particularly as we confront the fluid textualities (and paratextualities) of convergence television.