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Episodes: Friday mailbag (June 16)


Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 17 2017

9 min read



Hey, everyone. Sorry for the unexpected absences this summer. I've had a busier schedule than I was expecting, and summer hasn't even technically begun.

So let's dive into your questions!

James asks, referencing my most recent newsletter:

Your comments made me wonder about something I see referenced at times -- that America used to have a media culture where we all watched the same things, but that's gone "now". Do you think both halves of that statement are true -- that Americans really did used to all watch and care about the same things? And that that's an era that's gone?

Yes, I do.

I'm not saying that Americans have always watched all of the same things -- there are too many of us -- but that there was, for a long time, a monoculture, and to actively not participate in it was often seen as a choice to willingly push back against said monoculture. You look back as recently as the '80s (within the lifespan of a lot of readers of this newsletter), and you see a decade when the biggest films, songs, and TV shows had massive reach, across all demographics of Americans. The Cosby Show, for instance, was such a big deal that those who didn't watch it were often asked to explain their decision not to. Not watching the show, in other words, was a sort of political statement.

Now, this started splintering in the '90s, and close observers were already seeing the roots of it being planted in the '70s and '80s. And it's not as if the niche culture era we're entering is anything new. Indeed, the vast majority of human history was spent in various small niche cultures, with occasional major works breaking out and becoming cross-cultural phenomena. The advent of mass pop culture doesn't really hit until the invention of the printing press, and even then, it's several centuries before we can be reasonably certain that the recording of "Heartbreak Hotel" I'm listening to is the same as the one you're listening to. So what we're really looking at is a blip in the 20th century, and we're now reverting to the mean.

So when people like me say the death of the mass culture, we don't mean that there was any one thing everybody cared about and loved. We mean that there was something people could point to and say, "That is the mass culture." We haven't had that, outside of a handful of cultural objects per year, for decades, and the number of them decreases with every year.

But we'll always have Star Wars.

Andrew asks:

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this article that talks about the changing structure of publishing and Vox's role specifically, in the context of the Bill Simmons/Ringer deal. The author loses me in the weeds a bit, but I thought you'd be knowledgeable about both the content creation and publishing sides he discusses and be able to say whether this is B.S. or not.

With the hopefully obvious caveat that I can't divulge any internal Vox Media knowledge (not that I know much about Vox's business side anyway), I think I can untangle some of this.

I started out in newspapers, by which I mean that when I was in high school, I worked at first my local paper, then at the regional daily paper. (The former was a weekly.) I worked at a newspaper a little after college, but it's not going to be as useful to our example here.

The nice thing about such small newspapers was that the relationship between business and editorial, though subject to the usual hard line between the two operations, was easier to delineate. Things were slightly more complicated at the weekly paper, where the editors and publishers were the same person, but that paper was also printed on a printing press that was owned by all of the area papers, located in one central place that they could come to on print days. The daily, meanwhile, had an editor and a publisher, who had a close relationship but served different masters. The editor made sure we covered the news; the publisher made sure we had money to keep the paper going. (He also, theoretically, owned the presses, but this relationship is never as simple as it seems.) The editor had to worry about business somewhat, and the publisher about editorial somewhat, but they each had the other to do the lion's share of the work in that department.

Anyway, as you can imagine, the internet fucked all of this up. If there's little to no cost for distribution, and if you can get your ads through an ad syndicator (those services that provide the remarkably same-y ads, targeted to you, that you'll see throughout your browsing), well, why do you need a publisher? If you're a one-person operation, like this newsletter, what you really need is just a platform you can utilize to generate your content. TinyLetter has provided such a thing, and I guess they, theoretically, function as my publisher. But they're not really involved in what I'm doing here and don't particularly care if I sink or swim.

For a more traditional publisher like Vox Media, then, the worry is always about finding a way to attract enough readership to keep from getting overwhelmed by an army of people with TinyLetter accounts. One way to do this is to build publishing software that is pretty adaptable and responsive to whatever arises (which Vox has). And another is sort of a throwback to that old weekly model -- start working with other, more niche publishers to build out the audience in interesting ways. The Ringer in and of itself maybe isn't a monster hit website. But as part of a larger portfolio that includes publications of a bunch of different sizes, across which you can sell ads, well, it becomes a bigger piece of the puzzle.

So it's sort of like when the "publisher" of my weekly newspaper was a printing press owned by a conglomerate. Vox Media owns the means of publication and helps with the business side (or so the news stories lead me to believe), but The Ringer remains its own thing, with its own editorial oversight.

This is often hard for people outside of the industry to wrap their heads around, because there's not a ton of transparency about these various layers. (Or, rather, there is, but if you haven't worked in the media before, it won't immediately make sense what, say, a publisher does.) But I'm also not sure they need to be intimately understood by the average reader. What matters is that we're on the precipice, I think, of an era where niche publications can become more profitable again by joining some sort of ad-selling/syndication network, so long as they're also willing to invest in podcasts or video (both of which are more effective at drawing in ad revenue, for a variety of reasons). I can't help but think of something like The Dissolve and wonder if it was slightly ahead of its time, if it might have been able to gain more of a foothold in a world where it could become a barnacle on a much larger media organization's hull, rather than having to be its own thing.

Jessica writes:

I'm sick of antiheroes - of Tony Sopranos and Don Drapers and Walter Whites and protagonist villains. Where is the opposite character - someone good, who wants to do good, who fucks up and does bad for good reasons (or out of weakness and love rather than greed and selfishness)? Where are my Jimmy McGills and my Will Grahams? (And where are non-chwm versions of these people?? Is Elizabeth Jennings all I get?) That said, I love tragedy, I love compelling drama, I love people sacrificing their happiness and safety for the things they are devoted to. What should I be watching if I'm fully done with toxic white masculine antiheroism?

Three answers, though if you've been reading me for a while, you'll already know most of them.

Halt. And. Catch. Fire.: You might notice something that the shows on this list have in common, which is that they were initially dismissed in the early going, only for critics to proclaim they "got good" later in their run. This is pretty common for shows that are trying to subvert the current TV paradigm. The interesting thing about Halt is that it wasn't really trying to do that in the early going. It was very much a standard antihero drama for about a half-season, before it abruptly pivoted and became a show about good people whose aims came in conflict with each other over and over again. The second season is a massive improvement, and the third season was my favorite TV show of 2016.

The Leftovers: In the wake of the show's finale, Damon Lindelof talked a lot about how the writers wanted to use Justin Theroux's character to undercut the traditional white male antihero, and after all three seasons of this show have unspooled, it's hard not to believe they managed the trick beautifully.

Rectify: This show was critically beloved from the first, but it's also a series that was mostly ignored. All of it's on Netflix now, so you should check it out. It's a beautiful, beautiful series about the weight of regret and the impossibility of being your best self. It's, at the very least, a gentle show, with a soulful heart.

That's all for this week! We'll see you soon!


Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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