The new movie Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the tracking and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden, has received several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), but it’s attracting another kind of attention as well: several writers, including Jane Meyer at The New Yorker and Peter Maass at The Atlantic, have accused it of condoning or even glorifying the use of torture by US intelligence agencies.
Since at least the days of Birth of a Nation (1915), Hollywood has turned to history for material. A quick survey of this year’s Academy Award nominations shows that this is as true now as ever, with five out of the nine nominees for Best Picture – Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and odds-on favourite Lincoln – based in history in some way. Their approaches vary, of course, with the history-as-backdrop approach of Les Miserables, the revenge fantasy of Django Unchained, the academic character study of Lincoln, the docudrama of Zero Dark Thirty and the history-as-thriller of Argo.
One of the most successful new shows of recent years is TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8. How successful? It consistently wins its time slot against all other cable competitors, including high-profile shows such as The Closer, and among the very desirable demographic of women between eighteen and thirty-four it outdraws broadcast network offerings Two and a Half Men, Heroes and 24. TLC has had a number of different identities over the years, and has become very nimble in responding to unexpected successes. Starting out with science programming, back when it was called The Learning Channel, the programming moved first into real-estate and home remodelling shows and then to programs such as The 750 Pound Man and It’s Not Easy Being a Wolf Boy. Among these was a pair of shows about unusual families, Little People, Big World and Jon & Kate Plus 8. When the latter became a runaway success the channel quickly capitalized on it, and now features several other shows about large families such as Table for 12 and 18 Kids and Counting.
If asked to think about community television (or public-access television, as a similar institution is called in the US) most people would probably conjure up the movie Wayne’s World or its real-life analogue, The Tom Green Show: TV made by people who would, under normal circumstances, never appear on TV, shot in someone’s basement or living room. Or perhaps they’d think of earnest, low-budget shows that showcase community events that wouldn’t otherwise be televised, such as ethnic festivals or the Canadian Improv Games.
Joe McGinniss’ book The Selling of the President had a shocking title for 1968, suggesting as it did that in the television age the presidency had become nothing more than another product to be packaged and sold. A new MNet resource, Watching the Elections (a lesson for Grade 8 to 12 Social Studies classes), shines a light on how the different aspects of an election – from the debates to political ads to the candidates themselves – are actually media products.
Teachers who include media literacy in their classrooms often face issues that don’t arise in other subjects. Nothing illustrates this better than the issue of diversity in media. It’s not unreasonable for teachers to see the topic as a can of worms and be concerned about offending students and their parents – not to mention worrying about what the students themselves might say. At the same time, it’s a topic that is simply too important to be ignored: what we see in media hugely influences how we see others, ourselves and the world. As a result, an ability to analyze media depictions of diversity is not only a key element of being media literate, it’s essential to understanding many of the social issues and concerns that we face as citizens. That’s why Media Awareness Network has developed That’s Not Me – a new online tutorial for professional development to help educators and community leaders approach this issue through key concepts of media literacy.
Media educator John Pungente’s series Beyond the Screen, airing on Bravo!, now has its own Web site, where teachers can find resources and tips on integrating the series into their classrooms. Father John Pungente, a longtime media educator and founding Board member of MNet, planned the series as a follow-up to his acclaimed Scanning the Movies. Like its predecessor, Beyond the Screen is intended as a way of teaching viewers to “read” movies. In Beyond the Screen Pungente uses clips from current movies and interviews with cast and crew to shed light on filmmaking techniques, genre, and theme. The Web site offers showtimes and previews of upcoming episodes and links to teachers’ guides. (So far the only guide that’s been posted is for Speed Racer, but the guide for The Dark Night should be up shortly; upcoming episodes on Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince should be popular as well.)
Halloween is perhaps the most contradictory of the major holidays. Though born in Ireland and other Celtic regions, today it is almost exclusively observed in the form that developed in North America; though closely associated with the imagination, it has been thoroughly commercialized, becoming an opportunity for children to buy costumes and then acquire candy (today it is the second largest commercial holiday in the US, after Christmas); and finally, though it is the holiday most closely associated with children, it is also one that has, traditionally, been all about fear.
On Saturday, September 26, 2009, the US network Nickelodeon did something unusual: it switched itself off. This was in observance of the “Worldwide Day of Play,” an event Nickelodeon inaugurated in 2004. The network – along with its sister channels Noggin, the N, and Nicktoons, and their associated Web sites – went dark for three hours to encourage its young viewers to “ride a bike, do a dance, kick a ball, skate a board, jump a rope, swing a swing, climb a wall, run a race, do ANYTHING that gets you up and playing!”
Surely you’ve heard of Inspector Spacetime, the cult British TV series that’s run (with interruptions) since 1962. It has a tremendously active, engaged fanbase that’s created blogs, videos and music devoted to it. Oh, and one more thing – it never existed. It was made up as a thirty-second gag on the sitcom Community, as a parody-cum-homage of Doctor Who.