Thursday, September 15, 2005

Critical Evaluation Exercise

This discussion will be evaluating The Signal, a podcast established by fans of the soon to be released film Serenity, and assessing its role in relation to digital communication and online fan participation. *

Podcasting is a new form of digital communication which links directly to the growth of what Henry Jenkins terms "participatory culture." This movement is a result of new technologies which break down barriers between producers and consumers, and allow "average citizens" to enter into the media marketplace (Jenkins). The reduction of costs, the expansion of choice, and the increased freedom to create and share are all part of this new technological environment, "a new style of consumerism" in which everyday people are actively involved in the "annotation, appropriation, transformation, and recirculation of media content" (Jenkins). Where a listener of traditional radio can only listen to content programmed by others, usually including commercial advertising, podcasting allows the home audience to mold their own individual audio program and share it on the internet. Virginia Heffernan explains podcasts as "... little radio shows that people create on the cheap; you can download them at no cost from the Web, and listen to them whenever you want." The individual at home needs only a connection to the Web, a microphone and basic software to create their own podcast, while the online audience can pick and choose exactly what they want from a wide variety of programs. It is all made even easier by the use of the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) system, which can be used to locate and update your favourite podcasts automatically from the Web onto the computer.

The Signal is a podcast created by a group of fans for the unabashed promotion of the television series Firefly and its upcoming feature film Serenity. The creators' aim is to make online converts while explicitly calling on existing fans to spread the word about the series and the film. The podcasts are a combination of audio clips, music from the series, interviews with stars, comic features, and updates of Serenity related news, separated at intervals by the hosts' enthusiastic discussion of the material. An interactive element is added by hosts reading out and discussing e-mail responses from fellow online fans, as well as the provision of shownotes and links with each episode.

This podcast is part of a much larger community of fans whose passionate involvement with the 2001 television series Firefly was the reason Universal Pictures agreed to join creator Joss Whedon in making the feature film Serenity. Neva Chonin, claims that "'Serenity's' existence is a testimonial to the tenacity of fans and the power of the Internet, where [fans] have spent the past three years inspiring converts, drafting petitions and even kibitzing with the 'Firefly' cast on bulletin boards." Now that the movie is nearing release, fans are engaging in a 'guerrilla marketing' campaign to ensure its commercial success. During the fourth podcast of The Signal a segment devoted to 'guerilla marketing' techniques was premiered, with details on how fans can manipulate the International Movie data Base's (IMDB) ratings system in order to get Serenity in the top ten list after its release. The segment is framed in terms of Serenity fans being involved in an "underdog story" emphasising the need to "keep talking," to spread the word to all their friends and lend out DVD's of the canceled series. The podcast creators show a clear self awareness of fan influence, as well as a critical understanding of the systems of power which operate within the film industry.

This particular case of fan involvement is an example of the changing relationship between fans and media producers. Rather than pursuing the usual million dollar advertising campaign to promote their movie, Universal Pictures and creator Joss Whedon turned to their fan base for support. Given that the television series was not on screen for long, and not a significant main stream success at the time, the commercial success of the movie depends on moving beyond the already established fan community (Chonin, 2005). Whedon is very conscious of the power of grass-roots promotion, and is "actively recruiting [fans] as guerrilla publicists" (Chonin). The official Serenity fan website, Browncoats, gives members points and prizes for the creation of advertising materials and the recruiting of new fans. Whedon explains, "It's a viral thing, encouraging them to encourage other people to see it... 'Serenity' doesn't have Tom Cruise... or any of the other things marketing people latch onto" (Chonin). Jenkins agrees that this emerging recognition of the inter-dependance of fans and media products, has resulted in "cult" material being "consciously produced, designed to provoke fan interactions" (2002). While it remains to be seen if Whedon and Universal's approach will lead to success for Serenity, it has already proven successful in the sales of Firefly DVD's.

It can be argued that the extent to which fans are willing to invest in an online project, such as The Signal podcast, depends on their sense of being a part of something larger, a collective, in which their contribution has value and is appreciated. The web facilitates a much greater level of personal involvement from fans than previously offered in print forms such as fanzines. Anita Blanchard's discussion of how a "sense of community" may be present in virtual space highlights four important characteristics, including: feelings of membership; influence; integration; and emotional connection. All of these aspects are present within The Signal, and are often explicitly discussed. The concept of membership is associated here with a shared experience of Firefly fandom, something which bonds individuals together regardless of gender, ethnicity, or geography. The influence of individual fans within the community depends only on their willingness to get involved, as the hosts' often reiterate that any contribution to the cause of Firefly or Serenity is appreciated. Integration is achieved through a network of associated feedback systems between online fan projects: fans visit each other's sites; post comments; share information; email; and join in on message boards. The emotional investment within the community is an area where Whedon and the actors involved are closely linked with fans. Unlike many public figures Whedon has cultivated a personal relationship with fans which has created a sense that he is more a cult hero than corporate media producer. The Signal plays interviews and speeches by Whedon and his actors in which they profess a great sentiment, not only towards the cast, but towards the fans who support them, sometimes to the point of tearful breakdown. After chatting with one of the actors for a podcast, host Kari Haley claimed that watching her DVD felt inexplicably "different" as a result, a measure of the significance she placed on the personal interaction.

A controversial aspect of podcasting, which remains unclear at the present time, is the extent to which copyright laws will apply to the everyday podcaster in the future. The Signal not only plays pieces of music and audio from the Firefly series, but clips from the unreleased movie, as well as full film trailers. Given Whedon and Universal's genial attitude to fans this is unlikely to ever cause a problem, but the future of unauthorised audio use by the increasing number of podcasting individuals world wide is less secure. Ernest Miller comments that "... when people are doing their own little radio shows... they’re going to quote from a sound clip from a favourite TV show or from another radio show... it’ll become a question of whether or not using these small quotations of sound are going to be fair use". John Buckman, owner of an online record company, says "my fear is that podcasters will be seen as broadcasters and will be clamped down on in the same way internet radio was". Similar to file sharing, which was unregulated at first, podcasting appears destined to face off with copyright law as it builds a greater following. Carly Didden, from Collegiate Broadcasters, Inc., concedes that "copyright law has yet to catch up with the technology of podcasting". Didden suggests that as the existing quality and quantity of podcasts increase, so will the licensing requirements, "today podcasts are free to download, may be commercial-free, and are unregulated, in the future, at the risk of turning away listeners, podcasters may add commercials or charge fees in order to pay for bandwith or copyright licenses" It remains to be seen whether fan podcasts such as The Signal will be able to continue, as is, in subsequent years, or whether they will be forced to curtail their content.

The Signal podcast is part of an online community which is making use of new technologies in ways which develop social ties and support common interests. Through the creation of their own model of promotion these individuals are involved in the reconfiguring of popular culture from the world of big business into the more emotive networks of human discourse. Both the individuals involved and the larger media economy is served by such fan involvement, although this developing relationship may be challenged in the future by copyright restrictions.


  1. Blanchard, A. Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a Sense of Community
    in the Julie/Julia Project, Into the Blogosphere. Ed. Smiljana Antonijevic, Laura Gurak, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman, 2004. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)

  2. Browncoats: Official Serenity Fan Site, Universal Studies, 2005. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  3. Chonin, N. When Fox Canceled 'Firefly,' it Ignited an Internet Fan Base Whose Burning Desire for More led to 'Serenity', San Francisco Chronicle Online, 2005. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  4. Correy S. Music of the Blogospheres, Radio National Background Briefing, 2004. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  5. Didden, C. Podcasting Legal Issues, Collegiate Broadcasters Inc., 2005. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)

  6. Guerilla Marketing – Serenity Discussion Boards,, 2005. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  7. Haley, K. and Les Howard (hosts), The Signal #4, Serenity Fan Community Podcast, 2005.
    Episode released: 27/7/05. Shownotes found at <>
    (Accessed 12/9/05)
  8. Heffernan, V. The Podcast as a New Podium, New York Times, 2005. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  9. Jenkins, H. Interactive Audiences?: The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans,
    Henry Jenkins Publications, 2002.
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  10. Jenkins, H. Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins Publications. <>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)

  11. The Signal, Serenity Fan Community Podcast, 2005.
    Creators: Les Howard, Kari Haley, J. D. Ravatt, Kevin Bachelder, Jill Arroway,
    Carolyn Parkinson, Miranda Thomas, Rich Adams, Clay McClure and Jeremy Neish.
    (Accessed 10/9/05)
  12. Young, K. One Man Band, Guardian Unlimited Online, 2005. <,3605,1532392,00.html>
    (Accessed 10/9/05)


Blogger Hilary said...

hey Gwen what program did you use for typing up your essay?
If it was Word, you should simply be able to copy your entire docunment, including the references, then paste it into blogger?
If this didn't work, or you used another program, the easiest solution would be to simply highlight the text or part of the sentence that was referenced, then click on the hyperlink button in the postscreen editing buttons etc, and enter in the html link for the relevant footnote.
That way, at least you will still have some form of referencing available...
I hope that helps hun!
Glad someone did Podcasting like me :P
Did you see Joss Whedon on Rove the other night?

Fri Sep 16, 10:32:00 am 2005  
Blogger Gwyneth said...

I think the problem is I use an antique program called star office, which refuses to play/share with the other children... I'll have another go, but hopefully it won't matter too much.

And yes, saw Whedon on Rove, after doing this assignment I'm definitely going to see the movie. We should make it a comm. studies excursion...

Sat Sep 17, 05:02:00 pm 2005  
Blogger Hilary said...

er I dont know about that...maybe :)
we should do an excursion though, that would be cool....i guess serenity counts :P

Sat Sep 17, 08:15:00 pm 2005  
Blogger Tama said...

I definitely think you should all go and see Serenity ... as you may have guess, I think it's a fantastic film and maybe, just maybe, discussion of it may work itself into the last week of the course!

Sat Sep 17, 08:41:00 pm 2005  
Blogger Liz said...

I agree people, we should definitely have a Serenity excursion. My only query is this: should I rent out the firefly dvds now or after I see the movie?

Mon Sep 19, 10:47:00 am 2005  
Blogger Hilary said...

I heard an ad the other nite, it comes out september 29th I think....
so sometime after that methinks we should go see it...
got to let all the crazed geeks 'browncoat ppl or whatever their names were' get in their first ;)
we should organise to do it like, maybe the week before, or couple of weeks before...(I havent looked ahead at our timetable yet) our supposed 'serenity' seminar? :)

Mon Sep 19, 11:53:00 am 2005  
Blogger Hilary said...

oh liz, I heard that you dont need to have seen firefly for it to make a good was said on Rove the other nite...that whedon wrote it for like non fans and fans alike...
so it probably just comes down to whether you have the time to watch firefly before seeing the film :P

Mon Sep 19, 11:55:00 am 2005  
Blogger Gwyneth said...

OK, I've added some html links within the text so hopefully that will do for now... *sigh* One day I will have 'people' who do this for me ;)

Wed Sep 21, 10:54:00 pm 2005  
Blogger Hilary said...

haha "people"
lol, something about that comment made you sound a little evil and machiavellian.....:P

Fri Sep 23, 07:11:00 pm 2005  
Blogger Gwyneth said...

Finally... some proper references. Go me.

Fri Sep 30, 04:04:00 pm 2005  
Blogger Andrew said...

Go Gwyneth! Nice timing. Just in time for my evaluation on your evaluation ;)

I find the structure of your evaluation very smooth and fluid. Each paragraph bounces off to the next very nicely. The first paragraph provides a brief introduction to podcasts, rather then jumping straight to the podcast evaluation. This allows a quick grasp of some of the podcasting potentials and issues at hand. This in turn helps in understanding the following paragraphs when ‘the signal’ podcast was examined. The details of the history, present and future of the ‘firefly’ series illustrate the before and after effect of podcasting. I like the way you have included the ‘future’ of podcasting. Given that podcasting is yet still so new, it was excellent to delve into the future prospect of podcasting. Hence structurally the evaluation has answered the many essential core questions of “what is podcast? How does it work? Why use podcast? What’s next?”

It was great that you provide a strong emphasis on the interactions between the fans and the producers themselves, thus making it even more apparent of its relation to participatory culture. It will be however be interesting if you can compare the relevance and effectiveness of podcast to other forms of digital communication. As the primary objective of podcasting in ‘the signal’ is to produce the publicity and the hype, how will other forms of media such as blogs and radio fare in this field? Will they work better? What are the differences?

It could also be interesting to see if the removal of other communication means such as message boards and e-mails between fans affects the development of ‘browncoats’ website. Simply speaking, does podcasting itself carry enough strength to sustain a manner of online community? Just a thought…

Ultimately you have illustrated the power of podcasting, particularly on how the mutual cooperation of both the fans and the producers can produce significant results, even reviving unsuccessful movie series; with minimal expenses too! (from the producer anyway). Furthermore this has shows the positive side of participatory culture, whereby fans get the satisfaction of being involve on the series they love, and the producers getting the satisfaction by being able to build a fan base and getting assistance for their series. Of course you had also examined the negative side of participatory culture, on the issue of copyright. As you mentioned, copyright laws are largely vague when it comes to the Internet, thus the many potentials and dangerous possibilities of podcasting are still unknown.

Hoped it all makes sense ;)

Sat Oct 01, 12:14:00 am 2005  

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