Frederick Wasser Veni, Vidi, Video: the Hollywood Empire and the VCR

Frederick Wasser Veni, Vidi, Video: the Hollywood Empire and the VCR – Book Review

Dana Polan

University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas 2001.

In The Jargon of Authenticity, the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno lamented the way in which in the moment of modernity certain seemingly ordinary and commonsensical words underwent a distortion and became tokens of degraded possibility. Such words appeared to speak of a richness of life offerings but in fact all they could really refer to was the poverty of experience that capitalism actually delivered while pretending to provide something more.

In our increasingly consumerist age–one in which, moreover, so much of what we call ‘cultural studies’ becomes an apology for further luxuriating in consumption as a supposedly political act–perhaps a key example of the ‘jargon of authenticity’ that Adorno began the analysis of would be the term ‘freedom.’ That a notion such as ‘freedom’ that should have had ties to mass movement and struggles for social justice now refers merely to the seemingly free choices that individual consumers can make from an array of products offered to them with great calculation speaks eloquently and sadly of the eclipse of the political and its replacement by industry-driven norms.

Situated within a political-economy approach to mass media, Frederick Wasser’s Veni, Vidi, Video is a striking analysis of the extent to which what we imagine today to be ‘consumer freedom’ in the realm of entertainment is, on the one hand, not so free as all that and, on the other hand, not so progressive even in those moments when consumer choice appears to go beyond industry dictates. Wasser’s study examines how home video recording became a dominant form for the consumption of films in Western culture and how the move of spectatorship into the home was beneficial to the entertainment industry. In the mid-1980s, for instance, some revenues from video rental of movies surpassed both theatrical ticket sales and the leasing of those films to television. Tracing a history by which new media became a key component in domestic entertainment business strategies, Wasser shows how popular culture industries colonized the home, exploiting even the most personal and privatized of desires to their own industrial ends.

To be sure, much of Wasser’s history reiterates that the major entertainment companies didn’t always know at first just how lucrative the new domestic markets would be. For example, in the mid-1970s, MCA-Universal and Disney sued Sony and its advertising agency for their promotion of Betamax video-recording. As film and television producers/distributors, MCA and Disney felt that video recorders would give consumers too great an ability to watch programmes/films repeatedly and share them with friends, all without new ticket revenues, and to skip over commercials. Amusingly, as Wasser’s account shows, the producer/distributors could only begin to make the case that video recorders encouraged such behavior if they actually could point to cases of consumers doing such things so they convinced a lone video-user to also allow himself to be named as a defendant in the law-suit. The case went all the way to the US Supreme court, and MCA-Universal and Disney lost. The irony, though, as Wasser shows, is that their defeat enabled home video to become so central to everyday American life that when all the producer/distributors finally realized they had to get into the video-rental market, there were profits beyond belief waiting for them. By the time the studios learned from their mistakes, the benefits to them were all the greater.

Wasser’s story, in other words, is not that of a perfectly effective and omniscient industry that at every moment makes the right decisions. Rather, he tells a tale that is a dialectic of mistakes, misconceptions, and misapprehensions turned quickly into new opportunities. As the Betamax legal wranglings show, there is even an advantage to media companies’ initial misapprehension as to the potential of new technologies: by the time the errors and missed opportunities in commercial exploitation are cleared up, future fields of investment have become all the more explicit and all the more beneficial. The entertainment business is frequently at a loss to take initial and immediate advantage of new opportunities but it is also quick to make up for its errors by aggressively exploiting the later refinement of those opportunities. In this respect, the approach to business history that Wasser adopts is quite like that of film industry historian Jon Lewis who also argues the resilience of the film industry, its marvelous ability to turn each seeming crisis into an even more lucrative opportunity (see the interview with Lewis in Metro nos. 131/ 132). Wasser’s work, like Lewis’, belongs to a new type of film history-writing that turns to trade journals, business archives, government agencies, legal proceedings, and so on to trace the material operations of the industries of entertainment.

To tell his particular tale of the film industry’s growing realization of the money to be made in home video rental, Wasser frequently has to move outward to larger studies of entertainment in America. At an intermediate level, he offers both a cross-sectional analysis of the media synergies that involve video–how, for instance, video interacted with the simultaneously expanding cable business–and a history of the very idea of recording in modern media. For example, in a fascinating account, Wasser traces the interest of consumers in having and controlling their own copies to a postwar fascination with reproducible commodification: key to this part of the story was the influence of singer Bing Crosby who pushed the radio networks to contemplate a shift from live broadcast to electronic reproduction (Crosby was tired of doing two shows a night so as to be available to East and West Coast time zones at the same time of the night). Wasser’s study of the particular case of video becomes so much more: there are in this book trenchant histories of recording industries, of alternate modes of media transmission, of the overall development of film exhibition practices from the beginnings to the present, and so on.

And at an even greater level, Wasser goes beyond entertainment industries and their developments to engage with the very nature of everyday life for average Americans in the modern age. To understand how media developed, he argues, we also need to look at the transformations in life style of the consumer market. In particular, Wasser refers to a sociological tradition that argues that the most widespread disposable income is found increasingly in consumers who feel they are undergoing the experience of ‘harried leisure’: that is, they labor (often literally) under the belief that their free time is beleaguered by work and responsibility (including those of domesticity) and so their leisure must desperately be rationalized, calculated and defended. Home viewing of films becomes an obvious way for such people to manage their cultural intake.

If, for instance, the classic patterns of film exhibition allowed consumers to match their leisure needs to product availability–one could choose between the prestige of a first-run film and the casualness of neighborhood movie-going in the later-run theatres–home video offers a new promise of entertainment tailored to the everyday practices of the domestic realm. Today, the distinction between first-run and subsequent-run theatrical exhibition has mutated into the difference between movies seen initially in heavily promoted theatrical release (increasingly concentrated on a first weekend that is deemed to be decisive for the reputation of the film) and viewing of the film in non-theatrical venues (cable and video/DVD rental).

Two ever more widespread entries in the commonsensical jargon of the entertainment industry itself are the terms ‘convergence’ and ‘synergy,’ and much of the strength of Wasser’s study comes from its pinpointing of the trends that lead increasingly to media complementarities. There is a tightening of conglomeration in the industries but there is also an expanding of the exchange and sharing of entertainment products across media (for example, as I write this, Disney is about to release the film Country Bears, based on one of its theme park rides and to be advertized at the theme park and cross-promoted through toys and other spin-offs; the company sees this as the first of several movies based on its rides which will also include Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted House). If the movie industry at first saw videotapes as its enemy, it now realizes that the theatrical release of a film is but the first moment in its life-cycle as a commodity; that there are numerous phases at which the film can be resold; and that, among other things, a highly visible theatrical opening actually increases interest in later manifestations of the film (thus, I remember coming across a declaration by a Warner Bros. executive that any box-office revenue from the theatrical re-release of The Exorcist [William Friedkin, 1973] was to be considered a bonus: the real goal was to build up publicity for the DVD version and all other income was secondary to that).

But there is an important distinction to be made between ‘synergy’ and ‘convergence,’ and an important lesson to learn from that distinction. That Wasser models the current tier-structure of film exhibition-from theatre to cable and video and from there to television network presentation and finally to television syndication-on the earlier model of first run/second run theatrical release comes from an important insight on his part: viewers have always received film in multiple contexts–for example, as splashy event versus mundane habit–and have done so to integrate film diversely into diverse parts of their lives. The strongest industry strategy has been to realize this and to exploit the possibility of a synergy among forms of presentation (thus, the same film wends its way through multiple media platforms); the weakest strategy increasingly appears to be that of the assumption of a convergence in which singular media are offered up as platforms for multiple cultural forms. In other words, on the one hand, audiences still want the differences of theatre and television even as media synergy causes the same films to appear in both. There are reasons to see a movie in the theatres and there are other reasons to see it at home with a rented videotape. On the other hand, those audiences don’t seem to want any one particular media to be the site in which several different forms of entertainment converge. Thus, for instance, books remain books and hand-held computers remain hand-held computers, and between them, the e-book fails. Or, to take another example, while it is obvious that so many media conglomerates would love to find a way to converge film, television, web sites and so on, the singular form of the computer screen or the computer-compatible television, consumers appear to want to use televisions for certain things and computers for others. This, to cite just one prominent case, is the stumbling block that has become apparent in the great wired dream of AOL’s convergence with Time-Warner.

But to call, say, consumers’ rejection of the e-book or of a movie clumsily downloaded onto a computer screen an act of freedom is to degrade that term. As Wasser’s book makes clear, the media industries and consumers are caught in complicated dialectic in which the mis-judgements of the former and the resistances of the latter generate market knowledge that further exploitation can be built on. Any meaningful talk of the freedom of ordinary citizens has to take place outside the spirals of such a dialectic.

Dana Polan is Chairperson of Critical Studies in the School of Cinema-TV at the University of Southern California.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

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