TV Happens Here: Negotiating Public Perceptions of Spatial Capital

Walking Dead tours map featuring the Atlanta area
Myles McNutt discusses the various ways in which cities do and do not transform their status as popular shooting locations into spatial capital
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Relocation, Media Industries, and City Branding.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

When I visited Los Angeles in March 2016, I toured two of the city’s studio backlots: Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, and Universal Studios in Universal City. The two studios position themselves as the heart of the entertainment industry, tourist destinations for those from around the world who want to get a taste of how movies and TV shows are made: the Universal Studios tour is actually part of the Universal Studios theme park, and as you descend onto the backlot from the theme park you encounter posters of famous Universal Studios movies. A similar effect is achieved at Warner Bros., where an opening video welcomes you to the studio by playing clips of Warner Bros. Pictures releases.

This board is located near the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood theme park—although the studio tour primarily focuses on film productions, the day-to-day production schedule is exclusively TV shows.

However, I was struck on both of these tours it struck me that very few of the films featured in those montages actually filmed on those backlots: both Universal and Warner Bros. are now primarily locations for television production, while only a small number of major film projects using historical Los Angeles backlots. But these studios are not willing to cede their place at the center of the media ecosystem, and I doubt most tourists taking part in these tours would question their status—it’s the media industry’s version of the misleading city branding that Helena and Erik highlighted. Los Angeles’s spatial capital is so built into the cultural imaginary that the loss of a single series in no way challenges its place as the “home of film and television.” For as much as production may no longer be settling in Los Angeles by default, the likelihood of an average consumer of media realizing this is slim given decades of general perception, and the continued visibility of those shows that do film in Los Angeles.

The same cannot be said for the other media capitals fighting to attract film and television production. Elsewhere, I’ve highlighted the impacts that the uncertain future of production incentives in a particular location has on local laborers, whose work—especially for those with ties to place, like location managers and location scouts—is often contingent on continued government support, similar to the issues facing the Montreal gaming industry that Theo outlined. But the idea that the state or province in question is a location where television takes place is also at stake, to respond to Lawrence’s question about the importance of place specificity to television. Spatial capital is not only negotiated by the industry in deciding where to film, but also by the audience as they see locations on television and begin to perceive them as part of the cultural geography of the medium.

In some cases, such branding can take the form of media tourism, as in the case of the Walking Dead tours that popped up in Georgia once the AMC drama series became a breakout success for the cable channel. However, it’s important to also acknowledge the simple power of being represented on television, and being a location where television is perceived as taking place. This issue complicates spatial capital, as many of the states and provinces that have successfully accrued it within the television industry have not achieved the same result with television audiences. While there are some series that choose to film in Georgia that are actually set in and around Atlanta—like The Walking Dead and FX’s Atlanta—other shows double the city for Los Angeles (Fox’s Red Band Society), or Washington D.C. (Fox’s Sleepy Hollow), or a range of other locations. Virginia’s production incentives recently drew Showtime’s Homeland to the state capital in Richmond for its currently airing eighth season, but the show was not looking to set the season in Virginia—the city doubles for D.C., just as Charlotte, North Carolina did in earlier seasons.

Most production incentives do not account for this particular negotiation of spatial capital: for the most part, the concern is with economic impact, not ensuring that the state, city, or province is represented and identified by viewers. For Canadian cities like Vancouver and Toronto, demanding representation in the projects filmed there would dramatically impact their business. Every American series that travels to Canada for production incentives does so with the intention of having the city in question double for a location that isn’t in Canada: Vancouver is Seattle (The CW’s No Tomorrow), while Toronto is New York (USA’s Suits). It also means that if and when an American city stops offering production incentives, or changes their program to be less advantageous for producers, there is a chance that the city in question will just stop appearing on television, whether playing itself or playing another city entirely.

It matters where television takes place: the fact that HBO’s The Wire shot in Baltimore was crucial to the story it told and the verisimilitude it offered, and Vince Gilligan’s decision to change the setting of AMC’s Breaking Bad to Albuquerque (from Riverside, California) after being forced to film in New Mexico for financial reasons so shaped the milieu of that show it seems impossible to imagine it being set anywhere else. But the changing geography of production often means that you get cases like MTV’s 2011 remake of the British series Skins, which was filmed in Toronto for financial reasons but ended up being set in an unnamed American city, with no effort to establish a sense of place (despite initial plans to set the show in Baltimore). It matters to Toronto as a city and to the workers who live there that a show like Skins filmed there, but if the rest of the world isn’t aware of it as a key production location, then the overall landscape of spatial capital remains unmoved by the shifts in mobile production.

The Georgia peach logo, as seen in the closing credits of an episode of FXX’s Archer accessed via Netflix.

The state of Georgia has gone to unusual lengths to assert its place within the space of film and television production. Shows turning to the state for production incentives have two options: either a 20% tax credit, or a 30% tax credit if they agreed to embed the Georgia promotional logo featuring a peach into their credits. It shows up at the end of FXX’s Archer, and I spotted it at the end of the credits for Marvel’s Black Panther just last month. It’s Georgia’s way of asserting their spatial capital even in projects that have nothing to do with the state, an attempt to enter into the cultural imaginary as a space where film and television takes place. And in an age of social media, where actors are seen traveling to and from these locations, and where writers and producers interact with fans about the terms of production, spatial capital is now increasingly negotiated long after a series is produced, meaning that the work of locational branding does not end once a show concludes its time in said location.

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