August 1998

"Reaction to Chad's World"

If you are looking for a simple yea or nay, my instantaneous response is that you should view Chad's World episode #1, (http://www.den.net.), even if you are straight and could care less about gay issues, (which you aren't, because you are reading this), only for the fact that it is the first episode of the commercial television program to be broadcast over the Internet, and it's always cool to be a witness to history. In this column I touch on two topics: my reaction to the show, and the marketing model of DEN and how it differs from broadcast media, so you should zoom to whatever heading interests you.

Chad's World

Take the largest, most complex, most intimidating, and yet most simple issue that most queer youth face, and cram several trademark events surrounding that issue into about 20 minutes of video. This is not an easy task, and DEN did not succeed in recreating the issues that we face in a natural way. But then again, this isn't nature. This is television. It is definitely a rocky half-hour of video, with events that happen too fast and seem too sensationalized. Watching Chad's World was like watching part of the movie rendition of a book I've read hundreds of times and am rewriting with the same story line but changing the details for myself: not because I want to, but because I am forced to. I felt weird watching the show because of how the trials and tribulations of queers were delineated through a physically action-packed motif. At least for me, being a gay teenager in 1998 isn't about physical action; it's about intangible, mental action. It's about conversations and subtleties. It's about experimenting with the nuances of truth and the power and diversity of relationships. As one July column so gut-wrenchingly noted (figuratively, at least), its about introspection. Chad's World episode #1 doesn't spend a lot of time in these thought-based realms. Instead, its focus on the tangible is pervasive throughout the entire story, which has made it difficult for me to identify with.

Another strong motif throughout the story is the presence of and, in some ways, lack of materialism. It is entirely clear that Kevin, Chad's older brother, and Jim, his partner, are filthy rich. Not only are they filthy rich, they flaunt the fact that they are filthy rich by having several servants, living in a mansion, riding around in a chauffeured limousine, stuffing more technology down their pants than Bill Gates, and other, not-so-subtle clues, all while Kevin's parents are made out to be in the lower middle-class in terms of pecuniary considerations. In fact, despite the fact that one of their offspring has access to a mass of wealth that might rival the International Monetary Fund, they are not even affluent enough to move into a different house, away from Chad's deceased friend Paul's right-wing, gun-nut, reactionary parents who are blaming their son's death on Chad. This is either A) a major plot flaw or B) a major statement about the family situation and/or C) a major statement about materialism, glamour, and conspicuous consumption in the gay community (an issue which deserves a column by itself.) As teenagers, we, as individuals, do not control a lot of wealth, which makes materialism an interesting issue. There are a lot of young queers who are forced to develop defense mechanisms to deal with the negative spotlight that many aspects of society place on our sexuality. One such mechanism is that of the highly inflated ego. After all, if I am convinced that I am the coolest person in the world, who cares what anyone else thinks? But when a young, intellectually immodest queer obtains considerable monetary resources, it would not be surprising for materialistic tendencies to take control in the search for happiness and the delivery of a conspicuous "so there" message to the rest of society.

Violence is another factor in Chad's World. Episode one contains frightening violence, the kind of insidious, yet realistic violence that has permeated all parts of our world and especially concerns potential targets, including queer youth. But it also features a kind of violence that is not often seen in the real world, but often imagined. Thoughts of retaliation for wrongs done unto oneself are commonplace in today's world. These juvenile ideas of avengement are played out quite obviously in the first episode. It is too soon to tell whether this motif is an attempt to suck in an audience based on the enactment of the violent fantasies of many people, or an attempt to deliberate about an important issue.

Although from my comments it may seem otherwise, I enjoyed Chad's World and recommend it thus far to others to watch. The fact that I, as a gay male, had trouble identifying with it in terms of reality is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, entertainment is supposed to be imaginary. The thing to remember when watching Chad's World is to suspend your disbelief, something that I made the mistake of not doing, as it doesn't come as automatically when a show is based on issues that hit home with such impact. As long as Chad's World isn't an unexamined one, and an intellectual look at the issues presented isn't avoided, the series will probably prove to be an invaluable addition to the world of queer entertainment.

The Economics of Broadcasting and Narrowcasting:

What I found even more exciting than even the prospect of a new style of entertainment technology was the business model and economics behind the company developing it. Broadcast television has limited targeting power, and thus the great, and, according to some people, Orwellian, power of marketing is severely limited. Because of that limited targeting power, marketers have been hard at work developing ways in which "niche-style" television programs can still make big money when transmitted in the broadcast medium, diversifying our entertainment options.

Market segmentation, the business practice that perpetuates the idea I just delineated, has largely developed into a science these days. By collecting vast amounts of information about consumers, marketers can predict which products will be used by what people, but most importantly, they can find ways to present products to consumers using methods that target their tastes and interests with extreme, almost scary, accuracy. If you don't believe me, check out the work that has been done at the Stanford Research Institute, (http://www.sri.com), with market segmentation. They have developed VALS segmentation, which is an acronym for Values and Lifestyles, which, in addition to taking into consideration demographic factors, (where you live, how much money you make, your age, your health), it examines psychographic factors, which are personal philosophical beliefs, morals, attitudes, etc. (http://future.sri.com/vals/valsindex.html).

Using this information, SRI has compartmentalized broad cross-sections of consumers, which include American consumers, Japanese consumers, and even more specialized cross-sections, such as Internet users. SRI divides these groups into different demographic/psychographic segments, or profiles. You can go to the VALS website (http://future.sri.com/vals/survey.html) and take a survey to determine what your VALS profile is. For me, at least, the results were stunningly accurate. (FYI, my primary type is Actualizer, and my secondary is Experiencer.) The media can survey a sample of their viewers for individual magazines, television programs, etc., and find out what their audience looks like in terms of this method of compartmentalization. Then, advertising can be designed to target the dominant profiles among the audience.

This has allowed broadcast mediums to have more effective advertising and thus diversify their offerings, but to a certain extent. This system of enhanced advertisement targeting is most effective with a built-in audience that watches a television program every week. The bottom line with broadcast mediums, especially television, is that anyone can randomly tune in or read a high-circulation magazine at any time and flip pages or channel surf to find something interesting to watch, and the content that is available on those broadcast mediums at that time or in that issue may not be engaging to whomever is watching, listening, or reading. Although, at any one time the programming on NBC could be targeted to a large enough audience to turn a profit, it isn't necessarily targeted to you. And the broadcasters have to keep their content closer to the mainstream so that they can still get random channel surfers engaged in their shows. After all, most people don't plan their schedules around all of the television shows they want to watch. Good market segmentation caters to loyal audiences, not casual channel lurkers or those with ultra-minority interests.

In enters DEN, which is using a medium that is available on-demand, 24/7. Those who aren't interested in, or don't have time to watch regular, scheduled TV, can, and are encouraged to lurk, and will be attracted to whatever content that is most interesting to them. And the advantage to this is that, even though Internet video quality leaves something to be desired, if you're interested and engaged in the content, you are going to watch anyway. (Heck, there are a lot of gay teenagers who would probably watch a show about gay youth no matter what the quality of the show was...) So, DEN has targeted minorities that are not likely to find as much "hit-home" programming by lurking in scheduled television and magazines. All of which is a dream for advertisers. All of the viewers are there because they are interested in the content, not because they are looking for something remotely interesting, so narrowcasting mediums like DEN can sell demographically and psychographically targeted advertising very easily.

Narrowcasting definitely has its advantages for those with minority interests, like gays. But, it could have an unwanted side effect. It has always been easier to develop TV shows that are targeted to non-diverse, mainstream audiences, and as Internet bandwidth improves and narrowcasting increases, there will be less demand from broadcast networks for diverse programming. This could effectively increase segregation of minority interests from mainstream audiences, because those with minority interests would be participating in Internet narrowcasting more than in broadcast mediums. It certainly would have been much easier politically to produce Ellen for a network like the Internet, but it wouldn't have had such a positive impact on the straight community if that had happened.

Congratulations! You just read a lot of stuff. If you liked the column or if you despised it, if you have something on your mind, or just want to make small talk, or have some wondrous gems of advice for me, drop me a line at jyesnap@hotmail.com.

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