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As an organization interested in media impact, our “water cooler” chatter around the office often includes TV Series and Documentaries that mirror past and present, sentimental TV specials, and media trends that affect us. Read on to see the meaningful media and cultural phenomenons HI staff has been talking about in June:

  1. Featured Analysis: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America 
  2. Zika Virus, the Olympics and Agenda Setting
  3. Shark Week
  4. The Evolution of Broadcast Censorship

1. Featured Analysis: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America

source|vanityfair.com

source|vanityfair.com

“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Johnnie Cochran’s rhyme has remained in infamy for the past two decades, as we continue to be surrounded by sensationalized takes on the O.J. Simpson trial. This year, both FX and ESPN have produced shows that tackle the trial, imperfections of the criminal justice system, police brutality, and the racial tension simmering underneath the event. There have been two very different storytelling platforms – documentary film and fictional month-long TV series – that seek to portray the same “trial of the century.”

The trial in 1995 brought up issues ranging from racism to domestic violence and media coverage of criminal cases. These issues mirror the current social and political tension associated with police brutality that has spurred movements like Black Lives Matter. For many people today, the trial is more of a folklore than a reality, but can historical storytelling help spur conversation or interest in these vital issues, both past and present, as well as the media coverage of the trial did? Did the recent coverage of the trial in both the TV series and ESPN documentary provide a template for public discussion?

Although Wikipedia page visits do not tell an entire story of interest on particular topics, people or events, it can give us some insight into trends in page visits that are in line with particular events in the real world, such as airing of pieces of media. We looked at Wikipedia page visits of topics related to the O.J. Simpson case before, during and after the release of O.J.: Made in America (June 11, 2016 on ABC) and The People vs. O.J Simpson (aired on FX between February 2 and April 5, 2016).

The graphs below show aggregated comparisons of the two media portrayals of the O.J. Simpson trial, showing them on a scale of the number of days since the pieces were aired, and how many page views they received in that timeline.

This graph combines the page views for the pages related to the trial, comparing the views by the two shows when they each were broadcasted.

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The rise in Wikipedia page views following The People vs. O.J. Simpson appears to last longer because it was on air for a longer period of time (click to zoom)

Wikipedia page views for “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” were larger overall. This may be due to the amount of coverage and individual reach television series tend to attract compared to that of documentary film.

The specific Wikipedia terms we looked into ranged from the major people involved in the murder case (the victims, the lawyers, and other associated individuals) as well as major social and historical events. This included variations of the trial itself (“O.J. Simpson Murder Trial”, “O.J. Simpson Trial”) and events that were happening at or around the same time. These events corresponded to race issues related to sentencing and police brutality, which many believed were instrumental in O.J. Simpson’s trial (including “Rodney King”, and the “1992 Los Angeles riots”).

Here is a graph of the topics compared individually:

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Comparison of The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America by related Wikipedia pages (click to zoom)

 Since the release of The People vs. O.J Simpson and O.J.: Made in America, significantly more people looked at Wikipedia pages of the victims and people involved in the trial after the series aired. For example, in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “Robert Kardashian” began to experience large peaks in page visits just 7 days after it aired, and continued to grow from 400K page visits in January to just above 2 million page visits in February, with numbers slowly decreasing after. Similarly, “Nicole Brown Simpson” went from under 200K page visits in January to above 900K in February.

What sets these two portrayals apart is the interest in historical events. For the FX series, historical events experienced only slight increases, but the ESPN documentary some different and interesting trends. The Wikipedia page “Rodney King” had an average of about 3,000 page visits a month before the release on June 11.  After June 11, the page visits began to rise, with it’s largest peak just 4 days after its release at 51,047 page views. Rodney King is a symbol for movements against police brutality in the early to mid 90’s. He was “mercilessly beaten”  by police officers who were caught on tape but acquitted by a mostly white jury. This was thought to have spurred the 1992 LA Riots. The Wikipedia page visits for this event (“1992 Los Angeles riots”) also experienced significant increases after the release of the documentary (an average of 2,100 visits a month before the release with increases after the release, peaking at 18,225 just four days after). During the time the FX series aired, the Wikipedia page visits of these events did not experience any increases. 

Both the The People vs. OJ Simpson  and OJ: Made in America decidedly frame the trial in a time of heightened racism and police brutality by including coverage on Rodney King and the 1992 LA Riots. They both highlight that O.J.’s not-guilty verdict was in part influenced by past racism in the courtroom, and as “payback” for Rodney King. So, is it perhaps the distinct nature of documentary film that increases viewer engagement with the issues at hand, or leads viewers to seek information on their own? Or, is it the nature of a fictional television series that produces villains and caricatures, or that focuses on character development, which focuses most of our attention on the people involved? 

There are many similarities in the cultural tension permeating through American society, prompting civic activism and an interrogation of the existing justice system. In the 90’s as well as present day, there is a running discourse on the relationship between racial minorities and police. The names of the victims are showcased all over the media; Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Eric Garner but a representation of the destructive incidents and violence that has been occurring. The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement draws similarities to the race riots of the 90’s. The coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in these two programs forces viewers to grapple with the fact that similar racial tension and conflict over police brutality and the justice system remains unresolved.

What we can tell from  simple Wikipedia searches is that both forms of storytelling around the O.J. Simpson trial two decades later is that it moved individuals to seek, to learn, and to question in some way. Actress and activist Susan Sarandon frames storytelling as the tool for positive social change, with the power to unite communities and propel us towards action. “Storytelling is what makes us human”, and the ability of media makers to present complex issues in our society forces us to acknowledge the urgency of creating a solution. One can hope that these reiterations of the O.J. case allow the audience to understand the underlying cultural and racial tensions in the 90’s, draw parallels to today’s society, and work to effectively promote racial unity and justice. Looking at more searching behavior and conversation across media platforms will help answer these questions further.

  1. Zika, the Olympics, and Agenda Setting 

source|wordpress.com

source|wordpress.com

With the Olympics coming up in Brazil, there has been lots of chatter in the media about a particular little bug that spreads a peculiar virus, causing many athletes to throw away years of hard work and training. The “Aedes” species of mosquitos were first reported to be widely spreading the Zika virus in May 2015 in Brazil. In February 2016, the WHO declared that an infection with the Zika Virus was associated with microcephaly and other neurological disorders and therefore qualified Zika as a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern). The word Zika has become synonymous with fear, but is it the actual facts of the virus that makes it seem so scary, or the coverage of it?

The media is careful to tell us the specifics of the disease. Most of us can say we know that Zika virus can be transmitted through a bite of the infected mosquito or through sex with an infected person. It is particularly dangerous for mothers and their newborns, as it causes birth defects, seizures, blindness, deafness and other congenial effects. But for the rest of the public, no matter how the facts are framed, the truth can often be overlooked by just how much the media is simply talking about it.

This phenomenon can be referred to in media studies as Agenda Setting. Agenda setting is a theory which explains how the news sets the public agenda and tells viewers what to think about. Media can be very powerful in influencing viewers’ beliefs; by choosing how much something is covered, it tells a viewer how much importance to attach to that topic. We saw similar effects happening with Ebola in the fall of 2014, where the amount of press masked the facts and caused unnecessary chaos. Topics like Zika and Ebola, which flood newspapers, the web, and our TV’s, are viewed as important, worrisome, or anxiety-provoking. It compels the public to think: “well, it’s everywhere in the news, so it must be something I need to be concerned with.” Slate describes the relationship between media and the Zika virus, stating, “inflammatory health scares are generally not the fault of a public health official trying to provide the facts but the media megaphoning said facts and using the official for hyped soundbites.” This is not to minimize the risk of Zika at the 2016 Olympics, but to understand that true facts and expert opinion are not always in harmony with media coverage.

  1. Shark Week

source|hulu.com

source|hulu.com

With the summer in full swing, cable television generally tends to slow down as networks prepare for the upcoming fall season. Yet every summer, there is a week of cable television programming that is highly anticipated: the week-long “docu-event” on the Discovery Channel known as Shark Week.

Since first airing in 1988,  Shark Week has captured the interest of viewers with a masterfully intertwined combination of scientific fact and theory about sharks, and the gruesome thrill of a shark attack. In its first year, Shark Week nearly doubled the primetime average viewership for the Discovery Channel during the summer, and has continued its explosion of popularity since then. During Shark Week in 2014, the Discovery Channel was the number one cable network for men and women ages 18-49 and 25-54. It was also the most popular network in television for men ages 18-49. Shark Week is an anomaly of popularity during the heat of summer: why it is able to generate and maintain consistent viewership and engagement, during a time of the year when television audiences are at their lowest point?

The fascination with Shark Week can be attributed in part to morbid curiosity. In his book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, Professor Eric G. Wilson, claims thatour attraction to the macabre is, on some level, a desire to experience someone else’s suffering.” Humans have a strong desire to empathize with the pain and suffering of others because it enables us to visualize events that could potentially threaten our own well-being and in turn, provide us with an experience to learn from. 

We look forward to seeing how Shark Week will continue to keep its viewers hooked. With technological engagements like 3D viewing  and Virtual Reality, but also passionate and interesting shark expeditions that lead to inspiring shark conservationists  and young sharkfinbassadors, we are certain the adventure of Shark week won’t end anytime soon.

  1. TV’s Censorship Evolution

source|playbill.com

source|playbill.com

Television and film have experienced a remarkable evolution over the past few decades. Initially the television was a form of relaxation and a way for people to immerse themselves into other narratives, stories, and worlds.  However, its purpose soon transformed to  show explicit pictures, phrases, or storylines as we experienced major gains in the freedom of expression in broadcast media. Major steps began when, in the early 1900’s, the Supreme Court surpassed limitations in US laws by deciding film was an art, not a commerce. Freedom of expression in media fell under the First Amendment rights in the 1950’s, embracing the idea that film and TV could be platforms for creative ideas. In the late 1960’s, censorship was identified as being a restriction imposed by not only the government, but also by broadcasting corporations. Media makers have found loopholes in this type of censorship, with the creation of streaming services like HBO, Amazon and Netflix that have fewer restrictions than traditional TV networks. This has resulted in less restrictions on content and narratives that may be explicit or shocking.

This past June, we were reminded of the wins we have won in fighting censorship, and our ability to take full advantage of broadcast television to share and spread ideas. The Tony Award’s showing of Spring Awakening, which fully embraced the explicit and honest lyrics of various songs, vastly contrasted their performance 10 years ago where lyrics were changed to make content less “offensive” for more audiences. People feel more motivated to speak on social injustice on live television, like Jesse Williams at the BET awards. And overall, there has been a general shift in television to become “socially relevant” with the help of Norman Lear in the early 70’s and the contributions of many modern media makers today.

From censoring Tweety Bird to appear less naked, to only showing Elvis Presley from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan Show, we have come a long way. In this media-flooded world, we are moving towards a less restrictive ideology, to use entertainment for more than just escapism, but to make change, promote ideas and make lasting impact.