Cable and Satellite TV Intellectual Property: Portlandia



Portland, Oregon, where the food is organic and the mustaches are handlebar; this is the place from which IFC’s show Portlandia draws its inspiration. The show lovingly pokes fun at hipster culture, acting as an satirical social commentary on the ever-evolving (also, ever-preserving, as one episode’s intro song states; “the dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland” (Portlandia IFC). Portlandia is created by Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel (who is the primary director); is produced by Lorne Michaels, Andrew Singer, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein; stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein and is filmed on location in Portland, Oregon (Portlandia IFC). Portlandia is owned by IFC (formerly the Independent Film Channel), which is owned by AMC Networks (Trimble, 2013, p. 73).

Portlandia is a rather small-scale show, it does not require many employees (Strassberg, 2014). Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, Jonathan Krisel, and Bill Oakley are the writers and there is also a small film crew and staff that help create and maintain the show (Strassberg, 2014).

Armisen and Brownstein were friends before Portlandia’s creation. They made funny internet videos together under the enterprise name ThunderAnt and the hobby eventually evolved into a polished collection of sketches often centered on the inhabitants of Portland (Talbot, 2012). Armisen suggested they pitch their work as a show and in 2010, Broadway Video; a company owned by Lorne Michaels (producer of Saturday Night Live), signed a deal and approached IFC about bringing it to the television screen (Talbot, 2012). Luckily, IFC was in the process of transitioning its comedy selection to a more laid-back and improvisational style, and decided to take on the show (Talbot, 2012).

Portlandia was IFC’s biggest hit during its debut period, with an audience of more than five million (Talbot, 2012). Portlandia is a highly improvised show, most of the dialogue is added in during filming. A loose script for an episode stems from an observation or conversation one of the writers has had, further storyboarding and context is added in the “collaborative and laid-back” writing room (Talbot, 2012).


Portlandia owns the rights to its original writing, audio, video, and images of original characters, storylines, and slogans. It has also released three books, spin-offs of the Portlandia brand; “Portlandia Cook Book: Cook Like a Local” (Armisen, Brownstein, & Krisel, 2014); “Portlandia: A Guide for Visitors” (Armisen & Brownstein, 2012); and “The Portlandia Activity Book” (Armisen, Brownstein, Krisel, & Riley, 2014). Each book incorporates jokes from the show, demonstrating how Portlandia extends its I.P. beyond the television show to further make a profit. Armisen (a Saturday Night Live alumni) and Brownstein (vocalist/guitarist, Sleater-Kinney) themselves are assets to the show, their unique, but still sizable, fan bases helped to drum up interest and an audience for Portlandia prior to its airing. The pair remain as the stars of Portlandia and the face of its brand.

There have been a couple issues over copyright infringement, dealing directly with Intellectual Property, that have come up in association with Portlandia. One such issue occurred when a woman, Jenny Lawson, was creating and selling bags with the trademark image (a silhouetted bird) and expression “Put a bird on it!” both made famous by Portlandia (Lawson, 2011). The shows’ retaliation exposed a communication disconnect between the show’s copywriters and its representing legal team. There was a two-pronged response to this copyright infringement issue. One response came from the legal team (informing the bag creator to shut down production and pull all items), the other (in direct opposition of the first) came directly from Fred Armisen himself (Lawson, 2011). Armisen reached out to Lawson (2011) and stated that he and Carrie thought the bags were fabulous and had no clue why they were banned. He also asked how they could help, and even “offered to sign some of the bags personally” (Lawson, 2011). Armisen is perhaps the most valuable asset of the show, not only for being the most famous actor out of the main characters, but for individual moments, such as this one, that display his down-to-earth approachability and emulate Portlandia’s brand as a whole. This particular case goes to show how it is the copywriters themselves who hold the power over how strict or lenient corresponding copyright laws may be enforced.

Business Model

Portlandia (and IFC) prides itself in catering to an alternative audience. Sundance and IFC newly merged and formed a joint research study in collaboration with Mediamark Research Institute (Hampp, 2008). The two networks surveyed 3,040 cable and satellite subscribers and found that 76% consider themselves “independent,” and while that word is extremely broad, it is exactly the type of broad audience Portlandia (and IFC) caters to (Hampp, 2008). IFC has described its smaller, target audience and its actual reported viewership as “primarily young, white, male, and wealthy,” which is by no means an unusual target group (Trimble, 2013, p. 78). This specific demographic “has long been regarded by advertisers and networks as the most valuable segment of the television audience” (Trimble, 2013, p. 78).

IFC released a channel advertisement that mocked its competitors, it depicted heads of “meathead” dudes, replacing their faces with the respective logos of Comedy Central, Adult Swim, Spike, and more, a caption stated that these channels were “Slick and loud… TV for guys” (Dreier & Dreier), whereas IFC claimed it had “a different perspective.” Portlandia was the one and only show specifically pictured in the advertisement, paired with the caption: “On-point, but off-kilter” (Dreier & Dreier).

Revenue model

Portlandia is a TV show for a cable channel; the cable channel pays a flat rate to the show per episode. However in the past decade, with the channel’s dynamic, new platforms and increasingly elaborate endeavors, new streams of revenue are being sought out. IFC adjusted its programming in 2010 in an attempt to gain more viewers (Hampp, 2010). Instead of keeping its main, traditional revenue model, screened art-house films backed by sponsorship messages, IFC increased its showing of accessible indie movies, original series, reruns of cult comedies, and as a result, to the viewers’ dismay, traditional commercials (Hampp, 2010). Fan backlash and claims that IFC was “selling out” occurred after the channel began airing commercials in early December of 2010, for IFC had always stood on the platform of being an “independent film” source, free of interruption (Payne, 2010). However, this shift boosted IFC’s (and by extension, Portlandia’s) viewership and revenue (Talbot, 2012).


Portlandia is currently airing its sixth season (Portlandia IFC). However, its latest (complete) season did shift from multiple, unrelated, short sketches (that featured many characters) to longer, more singular, episodic storylines (centered around a specific character duo). Yet, regardless of change, the series plans to continue what it does best, exploring “the eccentric misfits who embody the foibles of modern culture” (Portlandia IFC). As an Armisen character explains in one episode of Portlandia, Portland is “where young people go to retire” (Talbot, 2012); the show leads its audience to not only enjoy this joke, but also to curiously want to be the reason for it.





Armisen, F., & Brownstein, C. (2012). Portlandia: A Guide for Visitors. New York,            NY: Grand Central Publishing.


Armisen, F., Brownstein, C., & Krisel, J. (2014). Portlandia Cookbook: Cook Like a        Local. Penguin Random House.


Armisen, F., Brownstein, C., Krisel, J., & Riley, S. (2014). The Portlandia Activity              Book. McSweeney’s Publishing.


Dreier, L., & Dreier, P. (n.d.). P&L Media. A “slightly-off” proposal for IFC’s annual           upfront deck. Retrieved February, from


“Emmys 2014: Inside the Writing Process of ‘Portlandia’ with Carrie Brownstein”[Interview by R. Strassberg]. (2014, July 25). Backstage


Lawson, J. (2011, September 13). Dear Portlandia: Really? [Web log post]. Retrieved from


Hampp, A. (2008, October 8). Indie Film Channels Work Together to Court Brands. Retrieved February, from


Hampp, A. (2010, December 7). IFC Adds Commercials and Cult Comedies, Exits the Art House. Retrieved February, from 


Payne, B. (2010, December 13). Is IFC selling out? Channel runs commercials now, irking viewers. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from


Portlandia : IFC. (n.d.). Retrieved February, from


Talbot, M. (2012, January 2). Stumptown Girl An indie-rock star satirizes hipster culture, on “Portlandia.”. The New Yorker.  


Trimble, J. L. (August 2013). “Wherever Indie Lives”: Portlandia as IFC’s Signature           Series. “More Than Just Film” : Rebranding Independence on IFC, 1-95.



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