CBS vs. End Times: Notes on the Apparent Death of Limitless

If you’re CBS, End Times—the term TV journalists have adopted for describing the collapse of traditional broadcast viewership and the advertising revenues drawn from it—represents a problem.

CBS’ business model, more than the other broadcast networks, has been built around broad-skewing procedurals, generating large total audiences in live, same-day ratings. The network is then able to sell these procedurals both internationally and into syndication, markets that are looking for content that is proven to draw large audiences.

But in End Times, these types of shows are increasingly rare, and same-day (and Live+3) ratings are declining across the board. However, for some CBS shows, this is not an immediate problem: same-day ratings declines for shows that have already run for multiple seasons and sold into syndication—like Elementary or Hawaii Five-0, for example—are totally fine, since CBS will eventually make money on additional episodes through existing syndication deals on that content even if they earn less from advertising revenue. CBS’ problem, rather, is that it becomes tougher to sell shows into syndication when they’re launching in End Times, and where shows are lucky to be drawing above a 1.5 in the demo (or above a 2.0 in Live+3).

And thus a show like Limitless was caught in a bind. On the one hand, its ratings were not terrible in the context of End Times—new shows with lower demographic ratings are getting picked up by other networks, and its numbers were not dramatically different from other new shows at CBS or the other shows in the 10/9c timeslot. It’s also owned by the studio, which means they would benefit from its long-tail in other markets.

However, on the other hand, creating long-term value for CBS requires the show to be enough of a hit to generate a long-tail market, and those markets have not yet reached the point where they are desperate enough to invest in a first-season show that is very clearly not garnering a broad audience. CBS knows ratings are unlikely to increase in subsequent seasons—it almost never happens—and there is no questioning that the show’s after-market value has been irrevocably damaged, and so CBS would appear to be doing something objectively rational in the context of End Times by canceling Limitless: Deadline reports that it’s unlikely to move forward, and is being “shopped” (although I can’t think of any outlet that would pick up a first season cast-off).

I would be sad about this situation under any circumstance as a fan of the show, as I wrote about at The A.V. Club on a few occasions, but End Times is not the only context here. The other context is what else CBS is picking up instead of Limitless. Among these projects is a MacGyver reboot that was ordered to pilot without a script, went through extensive reshoots, and fired all but two of its cast members and hired a new writer in the process of being picked up to series. The network’s pickups are also expected at this point include Code Black, a freshman medical procedural that CBS co-produces with ABC Studios, and which drew a lower average rating than Limitless. Suddenly, what appeared to be an objective financial decision tied to shifts in the TV marketplace becomes something different: how are two actors and a franchise name worth gambling on compared to a show that grew and evolved over its first season, and how does a co-production beat out an in-house production with higher ratings in an End Times environment where ownership was expected to matter more than ever?

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The Empty Cup Awards: It’s About Verisimilitude in TV Production

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As a television scholar and critic, I watch a lot of television. It’s an occupational perk and an occupational hazard, because watching a lot of television means that one develops certain complexes—when you see a particular trend move across multiple series, over months and years, it’s hard not to become a little bit obsessive about it.

I am not lacking for such obsessions, and they are united by a common theme: verisimilitude. Television is not real, of course, but for the most part it is invested in making its stories feel as real as possible, despite the various challenges associated with that task. And for whatever reason, I’ve developed a complex as it relates to failed efforts at verisimilitude: the badly photoshopped family photos, the unconvincing car green screen, the improbably high quality video chat. All of these are there to sell us on the story being told, but all are shortcuts: it would take more time to have actors take real photos, there’s way more logistics in taking out a driving rig, and it’s more efficient to just superimpose a webcam-like angle onto a screen than recreating the pixelated mess we experience in reality. But as much as I understand why this happens, I can’t turn off the part of my brain that gets pulled out of the show when I see such blatant disregard for something my brain has decided is critical, unlike 99.9% of likely viewers.

But of these various bugaboos, there is no doubt that TV characters brandishing empty coffee cups has been my kryptonite. While I traced my first mention of this particular objection on Twitter back to 2012, it emerged most significantly in 2014, when a quick succession of examples led to my decision to start tagging them with #EmptyCupAwards. The following eighteen months or so have turned the #EmptyCupAwards into something of a performance art piece, as I’ve used Instagram to document examples of bad cup acting on television. It’s become a distinct part of my online identity: other critics have sent people with the same affliction in my direction, followers have started seeing it themselves and blamed me for ruining it for them, and I’ve even had people warning me about shows before I get a chance to watch them. For better or worse (probably the latter, although I really do get a kick out of it), people know that I am the one leading a Quixotic crusade against actors who are bad at pretending there is something in the empty cup they’re carrying on television.

So when Slate approached me about writing something related to the Empty Cup Awards, I was presented with an opportunity to work through my demons. I wanted to better understand why this particular betrayal of verisimilitude bugged me more than the others, and why it was it was that these cups so frequently appear empty (or, at the very least, emptier than they should be based on the context we’ve been presented). And, in addition, I wanted to create a definitive statement of my objection, in the hope that elaborating on my concern could release me from the affliction whereby I see people on the street carrying coffee cups and start to guess how much liquid is in them (and yes, this has actually happened).

The resulting video essay—which the good people at Slate did a bang-up job on, to the point where it makes me look even more obsessive than I imagined, which is an impressive feat—is more than a little tongue-in-cheek, picking up on the tone of the #EmptyCupAwards posts in general, but at its core is an argument about the semiotics of coffee-drinking on TV shows, and a consideration of how viewers engage with television’s “realism” in general.

The Most Infuriating Thing* On Television: Unrealistic Acting with Coffee Cups – Slate

*The most infuriating thing on television is definitely its failure to address systemic issues with representation, but SEO gonna SEO.

Someone asked me recently what I would say if some of those who are critiqued for their “cup acting” in this video were to reveal that the cups in question were actually full of liquid, and that this was all in my head. And the truth is we’re past the point where this is about truth: it’s about how the persistence of empty cups has fundamentally altered the way I experience television, and exploring the reasons why that’s happened (and will continue to happen for entirely logical, practical reasons that my brain won’t compute because that’s just how it’s going to be).

While the video ends with a “call to action” related to the #EmptyCupAwards, and I would certainly like to see my little project spread to a wider group of viewers who could spot infractions on shows I don’t watch, the real “call to action” is to anyone who has this or any other pet peeve that shapes their experience immersing themselves in television worlds. If the social era of television gives us nothing else, it should create a space where our individual complexes as television viewers can become shared complexes, and our respective pet peeves can come together to help us better understand why we can’t turn off the part of our brain that pulls us out of television’s fictional worlds.

Cultural Observations

  • Okay, so because this video essay is already longer than I anticipated and looking to make a more rhetorical argument, a few footnotes:
  • From my research (there was research), there are some within the TV industry aware of this problem and insistent on fixing it, which means not all cups are empty. But there’s only so much you could control: all it takes is a last-minute suggestion of adding coffee to a scene, and no time to add liquid to cups. Circumstances are always different, and cups are never a priority (nor should they be, realistically).
  • Not all empty cups are alike: if we don’t see when a character purchased a cup of coffee, we can’t necessarily know how full it is supposed to be, and so those examples are less egregious than in cases where we know a cup of coffee is supposed to be full.
  • The deeper you get into this particular obsessive viewing pattern, the more that the angle of consumption becomes important (this is where I sound the craziest, I think). The fact is that you don’t drink a full cup of coffee at the same angle as you drink an empty one, but that angle is controlled by the flow of liquid, making it an even bigger acting challenge than creating the impression of weight.
  • While coffee mugs and take-out coffee cups are obviously related, they’re not necessarily the same problem: mugs have weight, and are less likely to be filled to the brim, so the differences between an “empty” and “full” cup are less noticeable.
  • Necessary credit to Veep’s Timothy Simons, who filmed a video as part of a crowdfunding campaign for a coffee shop where he proposed some necessary standards for cup acting—should we eventually honor the worst of the worst as part of an actual Empty Cup Awards, my earlier offer of a hosting gig still stands.
  • And yes, this post was written from a psychiatric institution, how did you know?



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Keep Your Money, I Got My Own: Lemonade and TIDAL Exclusivity

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As has long been expected after Beyoncé released “Formation” and announced a tour in support of a single song, the full album Lemonade debuted exclusively on TIDAL last night, alongside a visual album debut on HBO (which will also be exclusive to TIDAL after a 24-hour streaming window on HBO’s own services).

Like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and (to a lesser extent) Rihanna’s ANTI before it, Lemonade’s TIDAL exclusivity fed into the internet’s running joke about the streaming music service, which has struggled to gain a foothold in a marketplace where Spotify was “first” and Apple Music benefits from pre-existing cultural saturation. TIDAL first attempted to differentiate itself based on its streaming quality, but has since focused on its exclusive content, helped by both the immediate social circle of founder Jay-Z and an artist-friendly policy that helps the service attract exclusives like Prince (whose absence from more established streaming services was a significant discourse following his death).

But TIDAL has struggled for a variety of reasons: those who already subscribe to other services (and who have built playlists, gotten used to interfaces, etc.) don’t see the logic of subscribing to more than one, given the relatively small number of exclusives (whereas TV has reached a point where this idea is more palatable); those who don’t subscribe to any services because they listen to music for free on YouTube are growing ever more resentful of paying more music in general; those who actually prefer to buy music resent the fact that exclusive albums like The Life Of Pablo and Lemonade are not (at least initially) available through outlets like iTunes or formats like Vinyl where they prefer to make those purchases. And while The Life Of Pablo did convince some people to subscribe, the album’s eventual release on Apple Music and Spotify (which you can use for free, with ads, unlike TIDAL) actually spurred talk of a class action lawsuit from those angry they’d been tricked into subscribing to the service.

That lawsuit foregrounds how the discursive construction of a TIDAL exclusive has yet to be wholly defined: it’s true that West and TIDAL were never clear whether the deal was long term (not that West is ever clear about anything), but I’m more interested in the way the reasons behind the choice can be articulated. Cynically, exclusive content exists to boost subscriptions, and to help the company’s bottom line when a significant number of the people who sign up for free trials forget to cancel their subscriptions or, in TIDAL’s ideal scenario, enjoy the service and continue to subscribe by choice. But West also used the time The Life of Pablo was streaming on TIDAL to continually tweak the album, the streaming window becoming an extension of the lengthy public tinkering with the album West performed on social media. TIDAL exclusives might be there to drive subscriptions, but they can also serve the artist-friendly brand, giving artists—or, at least artists who are Kanye West and intimately connected with the site’s founder—and their fans hope that it can become a platform for experimental modes of distribution.

The same does not apply to Lemonade: this, like ANTI, is a complete and finished album, and is similar to the surprise release of Beyoncé in 2013 that still launched exclusively, but to the industry standard iTunes Store. The logic there was the presence of the visual album, which required digital distribution, and which at that point precluded the use of streaming services: with both TIDAL and Apple using video—and soon television—as significant parts of their streaming platforms (with Apple the home to exclusive music video debuts like “Hotline Bling,” along with Taylor Swift’s 1989 concert film), Lemonade is an experience fit for the current streaming era, but not one that would have been impossible as a more traditional album release on iTunes. Therefore, it’s easy to read its placement on TIDAL as the most significant effort yet at driving subscriptions through exclusive content (with no clear window on if or when the album will be moving outside of TIDAL*).

* Well, there wasn’t a clear window. Hours later, The New York Times reports that Lemonade will arrive on iTunes at midnight tonight (Monday), per inside sources. Less clear, however, is whether or not the visual album will also be available for purchase as part of the bundle, or whether that content could remain on TIDAL exclusively, which seems like an option. The album, meanwhile, is also now available to purchase on TIDAL, as eventually happened with The Life of Pablo.

But in addition to thinking about the cynical business-oriented decision-making behind Lemonade’s exclusivity, there’s also a narrative of what is being sacrificed by making this choice. This likely includes, at least for the moment, any type of Billboard chart placement: TIDAL did not report its streaming numbers for The Life Of Pablo to Nielsen, meaning that despite obviously being the biggest album release of the year thus far, Beyoncé may not have the number one album in the country unless TIDAL (conveniently, which makes it possible) chooses to report those numbers this week. There are cynical business reasons for this (like hiding how few people are really streaming music on TIDAL, even with exclusives), but it also helps support the idea that TIDAL is doing things differently, and “challenging the status quo”: West eventually celebrated hitting No. 1 with The Life Of Pablo, so they’re not devaluing Billboard entirely, but he did so noting it was the first album to go Number One off of streaming.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 12.45.13 PMThat’s admittedly a bit misleading, given it was available for sale on TIDAL and West’s website and much—and potentially all, as I can’t get a handle on whether or not TIDAL included streaming numbers when the album went wider—of this likely came from Spotify and Apple Music, but it had the highest share of streaming of any No. 1, and Billboard reports noted the impressive feat of reaching “the pinnacle” even after being “available” on TIDAL for six weeks beforehand. It was West and TIDAL saying “We can offer the album on TIDAL, tinker with it for six weeks, and we’ll still go No. 1 when we release the album wider.” Regardless, it creates the potential for releasing an album on TIDAL as appearing “outside” of the traditional industry standard, albeit on a service that very much desperately wants to become an industry standard, and which is run by an artist who is just as much a business at the end of the day.

TIDAL will never be an outright counter-cultural service, but it’s a potential node of articulation as it works to convince the public that its exclusive content is eventually going to coalesce into a competitive advantage in the streaming marketplace. TIDAL is built for a world in which everyone subscribes to one music service or another, but we are not yet in this world, and whether or not the current marketplace can reasonably sustain three major services is still an open question. And while Lemonade cannot alone resolve that question, it certainly brings the conversation around “TIDAL Exclusives” further into the mainstream, and will generate a new wave of free trials they hope we forget about.

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Season Finale: Crazy-Ex Girlfriend – “Paula Needs To Get Over Josh!”


Scott Everett White / The CW

There is no question that The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was among the year’s most ambitious shows, but it took me a while to warm to it.

The reason for this is actually fairly straightforward: I struggled with the fact that the “premise” of the show seemed so at odds with what made it compelling. Rebecca’s efforts to win the love and attention of Josh Chan were the central narrative engine of the show in the earlygoing, shaping her relationship with West Covina, and risking defining her character by a relationship I never bought. The show wanted to push against this, and uses its opening theme to give Rebecca a chance to articulate the intended irony of the show’s title, but the text and the title sequence didn’t always line up for me. The show was more about Josh than I wanted it to be, especially given that I thought Josh was kind of a dolt—I didn’t connect to the characters’ relationship, and so I didn’t connect to the primary way the show was pushing the story forward.

The show started to correct itself as it went along, and eventually it emerged with a fairly profound understanding of its premise: Rebecca may have come to West Covina because Josh lived there, but her actual “move” was focused less on what she was running to and more what she was running from: her unhappiness with her life in New York. And more recently, the show has approached a similarly profound realization that instead of moving toward Josh realizing that he was in love with Rebecca, his brief romantic moment with her would instead help him realize that he was unsatisfied in his relationship with Valencia. It was the show correcting my issue perfectly: Rebecca realizes that Josh was a means to an end of getting her into a healthier place, and Josh realizes that Rebecca was there to help him reach his potential (which extends into Rebecca helping him to get a job and believe in himself in other storylines).

And so I went into tonight’s finale believing that the show was heading in this direction, and was accordingly disappointed, although that’s as much on me as it is on the show. Basically, if everything had worked out the way I had wanted it to, there would be no show. Rebecca would be able to happily settle into a life of West Covina lawyering, free to pursue a relationship with Greg or anyone else. Josh could move on from Valencia, and pursue some of his various life goals in whatever way he saw fit. In the back half of the season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend basically choreographed its ideal ending, a realistic and honest consideration of the way we gain perspective in our lives, and so I went into this finale believing that this was imminent…which meant I also forgot that this was a television show.

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Louis C.K. was making a TV show: Of course he went into debt

Horace and PeteYou’ve seen the headlines, I’m sure: Louis C.K. went into debt to make Horace and Pete, his self-distributed, star-studded drama series. It came to light during a Howard Stern interview that, ultimately, represents C.K.’s most mainstream marketing yet for the project, and so his revelation comes as an implicit appeal: “buy my show so I can pay back my creditors.”

When I began reading reports about this interview, I made a joke on Twitter that Louis C.K. thought he was Beyonce, but he was really just Louis C.K. A few people thought that I was taking the piss out of him, but I wasn’t, really—I was just pointing out that he drastically misread the current TV marketplace, failing to realize that the “surprise launch” that rocketed Beyonce’s self-titled album to cultural event status in 2013 was never going to work for a TV series; it is impossible to create the type of sustained financial investment he imagined for this project. Being Louis C.K. still means his project was seen, purchased, and now covered by mainstream media, and will likely recoup its costs (and potentially profit) once additional sales and an eventual licensing deal are factored in—however, the idea that he could bankroll the production of additional episodes through the sales from the first four was a classic case of hubris, driven by that healthy combination of ego and entrepreneurism that has generally served him well but “failed” him here.

But the more I read news reports about C.K.’s apparent financial hardship, I struggle with the idea that we’re treating this as newsworthy. Have we forgotten that “going into debt to make a TV show” is actually the dominant way television gets made? Louis C.K. bypassed the studio/network/channel system to make his TV show, but he ultimately ended up funding it the same way everything gets made: you take a short-term loss in the interest of long-term gain, spending more than you’ll make from license fees (or in this case direct sales to consumers) knowing that you’ll eventually make money when the show enters into secondary markets. It’s called “deficit financing,” and while it’s true that these debts are typically not personal, usually weathered by multi-billion-dollar conglomerates who own TV studios, this is fundamentally what C.K. signed up for when he chose to self-produce an ongoing television series.

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For Your (SCMS And Flow) Consideration: Developing Critical Approaches to Media Industry Awards

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 12.30.23 AMThis week marks the yearly Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, being held this year in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a fantastic opportunity for media scholars like myself to come together and share ongoing research as a field, and it’s one of my favorite times of year.

I have the good fortune to be presenting twice at this year’s conference. The first—G13 on Thursday morning from 11-12:45, if you’re putting together a schedule—is as part of a Workshop focused on studying media industries digitally, where I’ll be discussing the importance of researching Twitter as a platform within media industry contexts as well as how one can use Twitter as a tool to study the industry. I’m looking forward to hearing how others are engaging with digital research in our convergent era, and would encourage anyone with an interest or experience to come and share their thoughts in what will hopefully be a productive session.

However, I wanted to reflect a bit more on my second presentation, which will be held in the same room immediately following (H13)—this is both because of its connection to my past here on the blog and, most pressingly, some plans for the future.

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Why The Walking Dead Didn’t Promise to Walk Away From Georgia

georgia-travel-guide-the-walking-deadThe geographical movements of film and television production have long been understood through the concept of runaway production, an “exodus” of film and television projects from Hollywood to production centers across the United States, Canada, and around the world due to local production incentives and the growing infrastructure supported by them. States like Georgia have been the beneficiary of this now historical development, with generous tax incentives attracting blockbuster films and ongoing television series to an increasingly substantial production base supported by both local laborers and soundstages like Pinewood’s Atlanta Studios.

But while Georgia’s relationship with film and television could be understood as a byproduct of runaway production, its future depends on its ability to navigate a new production reality. In an environment where Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, New York, Louisiana, and Los Angeles—among others—are all actively and aggressively pursuing blockbuster films and ongoing television series, production is no longer “running away”: we are in an age of mobile production (which I wrote about at length for Media Industries Journal last year), where a project could land in—and then later move to—any number of locations given the infrastructure in place across the continent (or beyond), depending on the specific circumstances of the production and changes in a location’s production—and, often interrelated, political—climate.

Change often comes in the form of reduced production incentives as determined by state legislators (as happened recently in North Carolina), but in recent weeks the political climate in Georgia made news for a different reason. The Walt Disney Company, Netflix, and a wide range of producers came forward in opposition to a “religious liberty bill” on Governor Nathan Deal’s desk after being approved by lawmakers in March. As with other similar bills around the country, Georgia’s bill has faced intense criticism for enabling discrimination against LGBT individuals, but it was the criticism from within the film and television industry that started making national headlines. Disney, through subsidiary Marvel Studios, is releasing the Atlanta-filmed Captain America: Civil War in May, and is currently producing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in the region, which gave greater weight to their ultimatum: if Georgia passed this bill, they said they would “plan to take our business elsewhere.”

Disney actively leveraged the realities of mobile production: there are numerous other cities and states that could sustain the production of future Marvel films, many of which have been filmed in London to begin with. Netflix, who issued a similar ultimatum after recently producing two films and a TV project—with two more TV series upcoming—in the state, does not even frame it as any kind of inconvenience: regarding the two future projects, they simply state “we will move our productions elsewhere,” which could mean relocating to nearby Louisiana to take advantage of similar if not identical production incentives. The matter-of-factness with which mobile production was deployed by these industry forces speaks to its entrenchment: these projects have been mobile since they were conceived, and remain mobile in the case that the political situation of a given location changes as it did here.

Ultimately, this pressure—along with, one hopes, common sense, but let’s not get too optimistic here—led to Gov. Deal vetoing the bill, as announced earlier today. It’s a victory for common sense, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that of those organizations linked to the media industry’s protest of the legislation, not all took such a hard line. As we parse through the larger list, it reveals the shifting scale of mobility depending on context. Georgia resident Tyler Perry is among those who spoke out against the legislation, but he made no promises to vacate the state because he was not realistically in an easy position to do so: his relationship with Georgia comes through his growing Tyler Perry Studios, which is among the infrastructural developments that have helped build the state into a major production center. Perry can’t just pick up his studio and move it to another state—mobility in Perry’s case would require abandoning existing infrastructure, which is not impossible but is neither easily nor logically deployed as leverage in this scenario.

WalkingDeadThe MapThe same doesn’t necessarily hold for arguably Georgia’s most high-profile long-term tenant, AMC’s The Walking Dead. But while much reporting around this issue focused on the most popular show on television’s place, and AMC Networks released a statement against the legislation, it is notable that AMC never suggested their intention to move the series out of the state should it be signed into law. While the realities of mobile production create an implicit threat in their decision to speak out, AMC’s choice not to explicitly acknowledge the mobility of the series’ production speaks to the logistical challenges of moving a television series late in its run, as compared with choosing not to mount a stand-alone motion picture or begin production on a new series.

The Walking Dead has built a production apparatus around its location: relationships with studios, state and local governments, and individual communities have been crucial to finding locations, building sets, and serving the basic day-to-day logistics of running a hit television series. Moving would require restarting all of these relationships, and potentially doing so without members of the show’s crew—some might be willing to move, but production incentives often depend on the hiring of local labor, and many workers may be unable to uproot their families to continue work on the series. And while the instability of the show’s setting in any given season could help overcome the loss of existing locations should they have left the state, these disruptions would cost AMC money while also potentially creating logistical problems that could domino their way through the production.


Therefore, while The Walking Dead is—like most films or TV shows in our contemporary moment—technically a mobile production, its mobility comes at such a theoretical cost that AMC was apparently not in the position to make the same ultimatum as some of its industry counterparts. Such an ultimatum would have carried significant weight: beyond the series’ high profile, television shows create long-term benefits for states like Georgia—the Pittsburgh film office has referred to them as the “holy grail”—with sustained employment and potential tourism from fans wanting to visit filming locations. Losing The Walking Dead would mean losing long-term employment, and diluting the significant tourism industry the show has generated in the area. However, AMC didn’t make this threat, signaling it is being cautious with its most successful and thus most profitable production—much as Georgia might be averse to disrupting its “holy grail,” AMC seems to feel the same way about a production apparatus that is crucial to its future as a channel.

The near unanimous criticism of this legislation from film and television studios, along with the NFL and a range of other corporate interests, placed intense pressure on the state of Georgia, and the threat was real: if this legislation had been signed, the production infrastructure that the state has built since introducing incentives would be in jeopardy, along with the livelihoods of those employed by or who benefit from the film and television industry’s potentially temporary presence in the state. But the studios that chose to speak out against the legislation without explicitly promising to leave underline the way mobile production has to be understood as a sliding scale, with financial and logistical considerations weighed against the political dimensions of Georgia’s decision-making.

It is possible that The Walking Dead could have left Georgia should this legislation have been signed into law, but their choice of words suggests AMC is very glad it doesn’t have to face the kind of moral dilemma that the show’s characters are faced with on a weekly basis.

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