As part of our ongoing exploration of the future(s) of television, we welcomed award winning producer, Peabody Media Fellow and Northwestern University Professor Aymar Jean (AJ) Christian for an exciting two day visit in September. In his recent book Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television (NYU), AJ Christian chronicled the emergence of web television as an independent creative platform for scripted television production—especially for new representations and perspectives. The book charted how several productions for online-distributed content navigated this new environment, found (and lost and re-engaged) funding and audiences, and negotiated their relationship to traditional media commerce, or what Christian instructively termed “legacy media.” In contrast to legacy media, Indy-TV is independent, web-native, diverse, para-professional; a bottom-up television. Television that’s defined by peer-to-peer relations, spontaneous access, and the creative powers, experience, and voices often excluded or discounted.
In this history, and in his Thu lecture, Christian examined how queer and trans artists and producers, producers of color, and independent television content addressing intersectional identity can thrive on alternative platforms by offering audiences voices, performers, and stories that remain rare on legacy media. Christian’s account of independent web TV’s development, and the challenges and possibilities that define its precarious existence, was especially rich since he is both a scholar of the field and the founder and producer of the web television channel OTV, a platform for queer and intersectional television.
In his talk, Christian stressed that the differences between “Indy-TV” and legacy media are not reducible to economics alone, yet the lack of financial resources necessitates alternative models of production. These, he observed, utilize creative skills and practices such as improvisation, collective exchange, collaborative labor and support, and budget-maximizing artistry, that queer, trans and artists of color have often developed as struggling artists and marginal cultural workers. In this sense, Christian argued for understanding Indy-Tv web production not only as alternatives but queer critiques of legacy media, its demands and commercial imperatives.
Where legacy television is rooted in corporate models of gate-keeping, centralized control and demographic aggregation of appeal, Indy TV is, importantly, open. It’s savvy, scrappy, chancy and sincere, networked and innovative in content, distribution and in the relationships it forges with its community of viewers. Crucial to Christian’s work is his insistence that we understand Indy TV productions not as alternatives or apart from television but as part of television’s contemporary history and development. This work and the fresh and surprising web series on OTV help us contemplate the possible future shape of television and appreciate what endures as the medium’s beating heart: its engrossing stories, political possibilities, and emotional vitality.
by Tasha Oren, Associate Professor in Film and Media Studies and Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies