Channel Awesome used to be one of the most popular content aggregators on the internet. It hosted a wide range of independent YouTube producers, all of whom talked about media in some form. In the last couple of months, it all went downhill when a long document by many producers was released, making many complaints about how the website was managed.
One major problem was that the website was largely centred on one show, Nostalgia Critic. Some producers now sarcastically refer to the website as The Doug Walker Show. A good deal of the backlash against Channel Awesome has fallen on Doug’s shoulders. That isn’t terribly fair.
The main man in control is Channel Awesome CEO, Mike Michaud. He is the main person who failed to respond appropriately when it emerged that producer Justin ‘JewWario’ Carmichal was grooming and harassing his female colleagues. He’s the main person who should be held accountable for the company not paying its employees for the anniversary crossover movies.
The website spent the first six years of its lifespan under the name That Guy With The Glasses (TGWTG) in reference to Walker. His bespectacled face, in costume as his Critic character, was literally the site’s logo. This makes it clear that the derisive Doug Walker Show nickname is scarcely an exaggeration. Admittedly, Walker is partly to blame for this. Slog through all three-and-a-half hours of the anniversary special To Boldly Flee, written by Doug and his brother Rob, and you’ll find that all the other producers are written to be roughly the same one-note clown. It would be dishonest to pretend that the movie brought fans no joy with its amateur-hour charm but Lewis ‘Linkara’ Lovhaug complained that the Walkers seemed to have little grasp of who the other characters were and little interest in finding out.
Walker’s position as the star of the show has come back to haunt him; indeed, it’s haunting him more than he deserves. Because he was literally the company’s logo, the general Twitter public have largely responded to the revelations by pouring scorn and snark upon him. This makes sense. It’s a predictable reaction. It’s also not to say that nobody knows who Michaud is since his name has been rightfully dragged through the mud too. But, Walker is the simplest, most easily manipulatable image. The actor standing centre stage is obviously going to be the target for rotten fruit even if it’s the director’s fault.
It’s also worth noting the major differences between Walker’s response to the controversy in a Salon interview as compared to the official company response which is widely agreed to have been written by Michaud. The official response is almost entirely given over to denying and refuting a few cherry-picked allegations with a disproportionate focus on former female producers. The whole response was written in an ‘Accusation VS Fact’ format which has been widely derided both for its astonishing tone-deafness and its downright silliness. There have been many parodies, including one by SiivaGunner.
Compare this to Walker in Salon. He admits that mistakes have been made by the company and makes clear that improving communications is a high priority for him.
“It’s something we’re always looking to make better and we’re always looking to grow and with the people that we work in-house with in studio, I mean, I have yet to hear any complaints. And they always talk about how much fun it is to shoot there and we have yet to hear anything bad, so I hope that means we’re improving.”
Of course, this is questionable in its own way. To conclude that everything is fine now because current employees haven’t complained is far from water-tight logic. But, Walker’s co-stars Malcolm Ray and Tamara Chambers have both defended Walker and stated that production on the show has always gone smoothly. It’s impossible to say for sure exactly what happens in their warehouse studio when the cameras are off but Walker at least seems to be dealing with his current co-workers and the controversy better than his boss.
None of this is to let him entirely off the hook. Walker can certainly be accused of complacency within a toxic work environment. Much of Michaud’s conduct over the years took place out in the open and there is no evidence to suggest that Walker pushed against him in any way.
Since the controversy broke, there have been many memes at Walker’s expense. Some of the memes are difficult to dislike if only for the comic timing, like this one. This is interesting because Nostalgia Critic used to be hugely popular and is a big influence on the shape of online video today.
In a recent video about Sonic the Hedgehog 2, YouTuber HBomberguy offered some thoughts on why people distance themselves from disgraced figures in their own communities. It’s not always moral purity. Sometimes, it’s more human.
“When we look at ridiculous behaviour within our sphere, instead of trying to project it out of ourselves, say it’s just some random idiot somewhere doing something dumb, maybe we should accept that <blank> are reflective of a culture that can be reflective of our own feelings and beliefs and values even if we don’t like what comes out of them.”
Essentially, when we see Doug Walker and Channel Awesome disgrace themselves in the way that they have, we shouldn’t dismiss them as other or as people who aren’t as smart as us. We can’t just sit tight and assume we know better. The failings of Channel Awesome reflect the online culture that has shaped much of how we think and how we feel about media, especially YouTube.
As HBomberguy says, “maybe if we learn to criticise ourselves and change our own behaviour, we can start to change the wider culture.”
We’re not going to do this by using Walker’s image as snark fodder. The #ChangeTheChannel hashtag was hijacked to a certain extent by the userbases of 4Chan and KiwiFarms, both known for a culture of harassment. For any user of KiwiFarms to condemn Channel Awesome is hypocritical. Tellingly, these folks have largely focused not on the complaints by the former producers but instead bemoaned the perceived falling quality of the Nostalgia Critic show itself. This trivialises the legitimate complaints. Posting this whining in the tag itself is heinous. Some clumsy reactions are understandable as expressions of anger and sadness but to make any serious criticism of the show itself at this moment in time would be at least tone-deaf, as demonstrated by *squints at notes* Mark Laherty.
Early in the company’s lifespan, Lindsay Ellis was hired to make a counterpart show to Doug’s rodeo called Nostalgia Chick. Dissatisfied with playing second fiddle to another star, she eventually left the company. She was one of the producers who made complaints in the document, although her section was quite short compared to other sections. Recently, she released three videos on the Hobbit film trilogy, including an exploration of the union disputes and mistreatment of workers. Ellis said on Twitter as the videos were being posted that they were written and filmed long before the Channel Awesome controversy broke but that they were accidentally timely.
“If you discover that a brand or a company, like a bank or something, did something bad or unethical, it isn’t surprising,” says Ellis in her last Hobbit video. “But media is different. Media is personal. Media is designed to provide an escape, to stir emotions, to inspire… when we find out that something we loved was made by someone who said or did bad things, it’s like betrayal.
“When people ask whether it’s moral to separate art from the artist… what they’re really asking is: how can I go back to consuming media like I did when I was a kid? … as an adult, you’re expected to be an ethical consumer of media and it’s somewhat inevitable that some people resent that because consuming media the way children do is comforting… I totally understand wanting to return to innocence and I don’t really have an argument against that worldview other than: that’s adulthood.”
Doug Walker and Nostalgia Critic are part of what made internet culture what it is today. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It may be more painful for some than for others but we must make the break – not just edit him into a Family Guy clip and carry on but pause to consider what this says about the internet culture in which we’re immersed. That’s the only way we can turn this around.
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