“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Five on poetry and patterns

Starting with Jo Gill’s questions in the Introduction of the book The Poetics of the American Suburbs, summarizing some of the academic work on novels and suburbs and screens – television and movies – and suburbs, and then considering what a more robust study of music and suburbs might consider, it is time to conclude this series of posts on cultural works and the suburbs.

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To go back to the beginning, how does Gill conclude her study of poetry and the suburbs? Here is the final paragraph:

Postwar suburbia has been understood and depicted as a place where little of significance can be said, where there is a profound absence of meaning, where communication is stylized, superficial, muted almost into silence. Yet as the poems discussed in this study indicate, suburbia is replete with meaning. Its poetry is bold, innovative, and engaging – both formally and thematically – in its evocation of this space and time. Indeed, the suburbs we know are known to us, in part, because of the ways in which poetry has constituted and mediated them. In turn, this poetry shows the signs of its own discursive, spatial, and historical contexts. As Doreen Massey has argued, “Social space is not an empty arena within which we conduct our lives; rather it is something we construct and which others construct about us” (49). For Roger Silverstone, suburbia is a “geographical, an architectural and a social space,” but it should also be understood as “an idea and ideology, as form and content of texts and images and as product of a multitude of social and cultural practices” (ix). Poetry, as this book has demonstrated, plays a vital – if until now overlooked – role in these processes. It offers a startling lens through which to view suburban landscape and architecture and to understand the nuances of the suburban everyday, and it demands of us that we read it with acuity and sensitivity. In its diversity and frequent ambiguity, poetry breaks the stranglehold of polarized thinking or, what Robert Beuka calls, “our continued cultural reliance on a restrictive binary system in defining the suburban milieu” (10). The Poetics of the American Suburbs has argued that the poetry of this time and place is critical, interrogative, evocative, expansive, and suggestive in turn. Most importantly, it is a poetry that is often skilful, occasionally luminous, always intriguing. The song it sings is sometimes familiar, sometimes subtle, sometimes discordant. As I hope this book has demosntrated, it deserves a hearing, and rewards attentive listening. (Gills 2013: 181)

This is a good description of what Gills does throughout the book, analyzing both popular and more literary poetry, showing how the constraints and possibilities of poetry help lead to insights about the suburbs, and how poetry reacted to and was shaped by suburbia. I recommend the book for those interested in studying the interaction of cultural works and the suburbs.

As I reviewed this academic work, it led to a few more thoughts on patterns within the work:

  1. One idea that emerges from a number of these texts: understanding the suburbs requires analyzing what they mean and how narratives about them develop. Cultural narratives are influential and these cultural works contribute to an ongoing conversation about what the suburbs are and how they are to be regarded. For sociologists, both the facts about the suburbs – how did they arise, how are they changing, what social forces affect life there – and the interpretation of the suburbs – what are the processes of meaning-making around them – matter.
  2. The academic literature addresses both works that praise or celebrate suburbia and works that critique suburbia. There are many works in this latter category, particularly in more recent years.
  3. This is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor with scholars across a number of disciplines – Communications, English, Geography, Sociology, History, and more – contributing. These different perspectives help illuminate varied aspects of the cultural works and what they mean.
  4. Related to #2, much of the work I have seen in this employs close readings or case studies of particular works or collections of works. There is less work that takes a quantitative approach to such cultural works.

In sum, I am grateful for all of this good academic work. It has helped me think more comprehensively about the suburbs and be more aware of how cultural works contribute to and/or challenge my and our perceptions of the suburbs. I am sure the academic conversation – and the public conversation about suburbs as well – will continue as suburbs change, new cultural works are produced, and the larger social context evolves.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Three on screens (TV and movies)

Poets, as described by Jo Gill in The Poetics of the American Suburbs, and novelists, with two key works by Jurca and Beuka analyzing themes, wrote about the growing American suburbs. But, the cultural products most studied that depicted and commented on suburbs are television shows and films. Writers, actors, networks and production companies, and others helped bring the suburbs to many screens. Some of these products are well known – think the suburban sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s that still influence scripts today or the Oscar winning film American Beauty – while others are more obscure.

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With all of this academic study, I want to highlight the work of one scholar whose work I have found very helpful in my own research on suburbs on screens. After that, I will list several other books that cover similar ground from different angles.

Lynn Spigel published Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and the Postwar Suburbs in 2001. This collection of essays covers a lot of cultural objects but the work on television in fascinating. This includes analysis of the “fantastic” family sitcom, television for children, and how TV reruns affected the memory of viewers. After finding this book, I went back to her earlier 1992 book Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. In this book, Spigel considers how Americans discussed the role of this rapidly-adopted technology and how its presence affected everyday life. Combined with her numerous additional works on television and other parts of popular culture and her focus on gender, I would recommend anyone interested in screens and suburbs start here.

A number of other scholars have also addressed screens and suburbs. Here is the bibliographic information for several recent texts I have cited multiple times in my work:

Coon, David R. 2014. Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television.

Huq, Rupa. 2013. Making Sense of Suburbia Through Popular Culture.

Rowley, Stephen. 2015. Movie Towns and Sitcom Suburbs: Building Hollywood’s Ideal Communities.

Vermeulen, Timotheus. 2014. Scenes from the Suburbs: The Suburb in Contemporary US Film and Television.

It makes sense that there is more academic work on television and movies and suburbs. As mass suburbanization picks up in the United States after World War II, television spreads rapidly and Americans quickly devote hours a day to watching the box in their living room. And television often had a particular angle on the suburbs, as the studies above suggest. While films had been around longer, the prosperous postwar era expanded their reach. Furthermore, while poetry or novels might appeal to a smaller slice of the American population, these mediums are clearly popular and accessible. Together, these dominant visual mediums in the twentieth century provided many images of the suburbs.

Tomorrow, I will come back to the question at the start of Gill’s book – “who sings the song of suburbia?” – and address studies of music about the suburbs.

Televised sporting events as vehicles for commercials

If people were looking for more reasons not to watch major sports – and there are plenty at the moment – then consider the commercialism involved in any televised sporting event. I quote from an article featured in an earlier post:

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

The 11 minutes of action was famously calculated a few years ago by the Wall Street Journal. Its analysis found that an average NFL broadcast spent more time on replays (17 minutes) than live play. The plurality of time (75 minutes) was spent watching players, coaches, and referees essentially loiter on the field.

An average play in the NFL lasts just four seconds.

Of course, watching football on TV is hardly just about the game; there are plenty of advertisements to show people, too. The average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. The Journal’s analysis found that commercials took up about an hour, or one-third, of the game.

The game itself could be interesting. I have watched numerous games that contained amazing sports moments and I am consistently surprised how often something new or rare happens.

But, even with those great moments, I always get a big dose of commercials. Break after break after break selling me products, brands, and an American way of life based on buying more and more.

Perhaps this is the true message of American sports: the observer, someone who probably was not able to play the sport in question at a high level, can live the good life through purchasing goods and experiences. Even while I am watching, I can purchase a lot through my phone or computer. And I can upgrade the sports watching experience with an even bigger television, more food and drinks, tailgate accessories, and ways to travel to the sporting sites.

And this may be the big message of American life in general. Community might be nice as might finding contentment with what you have. But, the guiding impulse that will help keep the economy humming and the consumer satisfied by novelty and acquisition is to just keep wanting and buying.

Trying to fit all the election results on one television screen

I watched briefly a number of election night broadcasts last night. One conclusion I came to: there is way too much data to fit on a television screen. And if you want more of the data, you need the Internet, not television.

The different broadcasts tried similar variations: flipping back and forth between a set of anchors and pundits at desks and analysts at a smart board showing election results from different states and locations. They have done this for enough election nights that the process is pretty established.

While they do this, there is often a lot of data on the screen. This could include: a map of the United States with states shaded; a chryon at the bottom with scrolling news; another panel at the bottom flipping through results from different races; and people talking, sometimes in connection to the data on the screen and sometimes. If the analyst at the smart board is on the screen, there is another set of maps to consider.

CNN broadcast, November 4, 2020

This is a lot to take in and it might not be enough. The broadcasts try to balance all of the levels of government – from the presidential race to congressional districts – and are flipping back and forth. I appreciated seeing the more simple approach of PBS which went with a lot less data on the screen, bigger images of the talking heads, and simple summary graphics of the winners.

But, if you want the data, the television broadcast does not cut it. Numerous websites offered single pages where one could monitor all of the major races in real-time. Want to keep up on both local and national races? Have two pages open. Want reaction? Add social media in a third window. Use multiple Internet-connected devices including smartphones, tablets, and computers (and maybe Internet-enabled televisions).

Furthermore, web pages give users more control over the data they are seeing. Take the final 2020 election forecast from FiveThirtyEight:

On one page, readers could see multiple presentations of data plus explanations. Want to scroll through in 10 seconds and see the headlines? Fine. Want to spend 5 minutes analyzing the various graphics? That works. Want to click on all the links for the metholodogy and commentary? A reader could do that too.

The one big advantage television offers is that it offers commentary and faces in real-time plus the potential for live coverage from the scene (such as images of gatherings for candidates) and feeling like the viewer is present when major announcements are made. The Internet has approximations of this – lively social media accounts, live blogs – but it is not the same feeling. (Of course, when you have more than ten live election night broadcasts available on your television, the audience will be pretty split there as well.) Elections are not just about data for many; they also include emotions, presence, and the potential for important memories.

Given these differences in media, I did what I am guessing many did last night: I consumed both television and Internet/social media coverage. Neither are perfect for the task. I had to go to sleep eventually. And whoever can figure out how to combine the best elements of both for election nights may do very well for themselves.

Americans watching more TV during COVID-19

Nielsen reported in 2018 that Americans consume on average over 11 hours of media a day, with over four hours a day of television viewing. Several sources suggest people are watching more TV than ever during COVID-19.

From Comcast:

The average household is putting in an extra workday’s worth of viewing each week – watching 8+ hours more per week than they were in early March, going from approximately 57 hours a week per household to 66 hours…

Since the start of COVID, these distinctions have blurred and weekdays are seeing viewing levels and trends akin to the weekend. As a matter of fact, in the past two weeks, Monday has become a more popular day to watch television than Saturday.

From the Washington Post:

Explosive demand for TV content led almost 16 million people to sign up for Netflix — more than double what the company predicted before the Covid-19 outbreak. The extended time at home also has been a chance for consumers to take new apps out for a spin, including Disney+, Apple TV+, Quibi and Comcast Corp.’s Peacock. Disney+ has added 28 million subscribers since December. Meanwhile, as the recession causes consumers to tighten their budgets, pricey cable-TV bills will be on the chopping block. Already last quarter, the big four pay-TV providers saw an exodus of nearly 2 million customers, with AT&T Inc.’s DirecTV accounting for almost half of those cancellations.

The desire to save money is boosting interest in free streaming-video services, such as Pluto TV and Tubi, that are funded by advertisers. Pluto TV’s growth proved to be the biggest bright spot in ViacomCBS Inc.’s quarterly results, as the cancellation of the NCAA March Madness tournament crushed traditional network ad sales

From the Denver Post:

Ever since city and state stay-at-home orders abruptly arrived with social distancing in mid-March, Denverites’ TV-viewing plus internet-connected device TV usage (as Nielsen calls it) has jumped up to 20% over comparable periods in the previous weeks.

Local TV stations also have become many viewers’ go-to source for information about the coronavirus and COVID-19,  reversing a trend that saw sharp declines in local news viewership in recent years. In the top 25 markets, local news experienced a 7% viewership lift between early February and the week of March 9. Among people 25-54, the spike was more than 10%, and 20% for people aged 2-17, Nielsen reported.

In total, the biggest weekly viewing increase across the country — when compared with the same period last year — occurred the week of April 6, Nielsen data showed.

Several thoughts on this:

  1. This all makes sense: people are home more and television is one of the top non-work activities for Americans. Even in the age of Internet, social media, and smartphones, television is a force to be reckoned with.
  2. This adds up to a lot of television on a daily and cumulative basis. For those worried about its effects, when people have more time, they still turn to television.
  3. This is not necessarily all good news for television networks and content creators. Advertising revenues are tough to find and cord-cutting, connected to unemployment and economic uncertainty, is up.
  4. It will be interesting to see what happens with long-term viewing patterns. COVID-19 restrictions could last a while in some places and fear about going out in public could continue even longer. Does this mean TV viewing will be up for a while? If so, is there a way for content creators, advertisers, and others to capitalize on the opportunities? Or, imagine a public campaign that pushes other activities beyond sitting in front of a television or smartphone screen (unlikely, I admit)?

Designing your own Peytonville, Part 4

The new Peytonville commercial from Nationwide includes shots of a football stadium on a college campus:

Peytonville4

From exterior appearances, this might be the fanciest stadium in college football. Yesterday, I wondered if people would more likely place Peyton Manning in his college days or in his long NFL days. The stadium in this commercial is an NFL stadium with its shiny exterior, almost complete roof, and scale. This stadium does not fit on the traditional looking college campus featured earlier in the commercial; this stadium belongs among the gleaming offices and condos in an urban center.

Is this a hidden prediction about where college stadiums will go next? Imagine JerryWorld in Texas but instead for Alabama football or Michigan football. Would the big football schools realize some extra revenue or value in being the first stadium to mimic the big pro stadiums?

Filming the world around Hollywood and California

In working on some recent research, I ran into the classic 1927 map from Paramount Studios showing filming locations in California (reproduced in numerous works):

ParamountStudioMapCalifornia1927

Add this to the capabilities of shooting on backlots and the world may be relatively easy to access from Hollywood. There are likely other reasons the film and television industry chose to locate together in and around Hollywood but having such varied nearby locations likely helps.

One thing that is missing from this map: urban locations. This map certainly reflects an interest in more natural settings. Los Angeles in 1927 was still under development. Even later Los Angeles can be fairly distinctive – just look at all the car ads filmed in and around the city. San Francisco offers some spectacular scenery but its uniqueness means it could be hard for the location to double for other places.

Watching TV to see people use Zillow

In watching a recent episode of House Hunters on HGTV, I was treated to brief scenes of the couple using Zillow:

HGTVZillow

Caveats:

-I know this is how people shop for houses today. I have done it myself.

-I would guess this means HGTV and Zillow are working together on the show in some capacity. (See a similar clip on ispotTV.)

-House Hunters tries (!) to show what looking at houses might look like.

Commentary:

Even though the scene was brief, I found it odd. It either seemed like obvious product placement (use Zillow rather than Redfin or MLS or other options!), uninteresting storytelling (watch people look at a screen!), or signaled some major change. As the couple then moved to driving around by themselves and looking at houses, I thought for a short moment that they would not even need a realtor: they had found listings online, arranged their own details, and would tour on their own. (Alas, the realtor just met them at the first house tour.)

While there is a lot of potential for HGTV and other similar programming to incorporate devices and screens (mainly smartphones and tablets) into their portrayals of finding property, there is a bigger issue at play for television and film: how can you interestingly portray handheld screens that so many of us are buried in on a daily basis within a story that has to move at a rapid pace? This is not easy.

Americans consume more media, sit more

A recent study shows Americans are sitting more and connects this to increased media usage:

That’s what Yin Cao and an international group of colleagues wanted to find out in their latest study published in JAMA. While studies on sitting behavior in specific groups of people — such as children or working adults with desk jobs — have recorded how sedentary people are, there is little data on how drastically sitting habits have changed over time. “We don’t know how these patterns have or have not changed in the past 15 years,” says Cao, an assistant professor in public health sciences at the Washington University School of Medicine.

The researchers used data collected from 2001 to 2016 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which asked a representative sample of Americans ages five and older how many hours they spent watching TV or videos daily in the past month, and how many hours they spent using a computer outside of work or school. The team analyzed responses from nearly 52,000 people and also calculated trends in the total time people spent sitting from 2007 to 2016. Overall, teens and adults in 2016 spent an average of an hour more each day sitting than they did in 2007. And most people devoted that time parked in front of the TV or videos: in 2016, about 62% of children ages five to 11 spent two or more hours watching TV or videos every day, while 59% of teens and 65% of adults did so. Across all age groups, people also spent more time in 2016 using computers when they were not at work or school compared to 2003. This type of screen time increased from 43% to 56% among children, from 53% to 57% among adolescents and from 29% to 50% among adults…

The increase in total sitting time is likely largely driven by the surge in time spent in front of a computer. As eye-opening as the trend data are, they may even underestimate the amount of time Americans spend sedentary, since the questions did not specifically address time spent on smartphones. While some of this time might have been captured by the data on time spent watching TV or videos, most people spend additional time browsing social media and interacting with friends via texts and video chats — much of it while sitting.

Does this mean the Holy Grail of media is screentime that requires standing and/or walking around to avoid sitting too much? Imagine a device that requires some movement to work. This does not have to be a pedal powered gaming console or smartphone but perhaps just a smartphone that needs to move 100 feet every five minutes to continue. (Then imagine the workarounds, such as motorized scooter while watching a screen a la Wall-E.)

Of course, the answer might be to just consume less media content on screens. This might prove difficult. Nielsen reports American adults consume 11 hours of media a day. Even as critics have assailed television, films, and Internet and social media content, Americans still choose (and are pushed as well) to watch more.

American men have 30 minutes of more leisure time a day and use half of it to watch TV

Sociologist Liana Sayer tracks the leisure time of Americans by gender, finds a half hour gap between men and women (5 hours and 30 minutes versus 4 hours and 59 minutes), and looks at how men spend that extra time:

What are men doing with that extra half hour? Some of it is spent socializing, exercising, and simply relaxing, among other things. But “about half of the gap is from TV,” says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the director of the school’s Time Use Laboratory…

Sayer, in a 2016 paper, called American time use “stubbornly gendered”: On average, women continue to devote more time each day to chores and looking after children than men do. Further, the average American woman spends 28 more minutes a day than the average American man on “personal care”—a time-use category that encompasses activities such as showering, getting dressed, and applying makeup…

Sayer laid out two possible theories. The first: “The idea is that men are able to watch more television, perhaps because they enjoy it, and the reason men are able to exercise greater preference in their time use choices is because they have [more] power than women,” she has written

The second theory has to do with the ranks of men who have become more socially isolated, whether because they’re out of work, less involved in family life, or both. Women, in addition to working more than they used to, tend to have stronger networks of friends and are more likely to raise children as single parents—which together could make women more socially connected than men. Thus, as Sayer has written, “men may devote a greater share and more time to television because this type of leisure does not require social integration.”

Television continues to have an outsized pull on the leisure time of Americans. This could change over time and the options for leisure seem to have exploded in recent decades, but even younger Americans seem drawn to television, just in through different means such as watching on phones or computers. I wonder for how many Americans television is the default leisure activity when they have no other other or limited leisure options.

I’m sure others have explored this but these time use findings would be interesting to connect to what it means to be a man in the United States: you watch a certain amount of television. Does it matter more what men watch (sports, action shows, etc.) or how much they watch? What cultural expectations do they pick up regarding how much television to watch and how exactly is this passed down?