What is TV paper: A New Model for Understanding the Television Industry in the Twenty First Century

This paper was delivered at the What Is Television conference at the University of Oregon on March 3, 2012. I believe video from the conference will be available at some point, and I will add the link here when it is easily available. As I mentioned to those present, I had a tech fail and was unable to provide the accompanying graphic – it can now be found inserted below. Although it has already been delivered, this forms a part of my ongoing work, and as such, any constructive criticism is always gratefully appreciated.

(Paper appears after the jump)

A New Model for Understanding the Television Industry in the Twenty First Century

Mark Stewart – University of Auckland

On the plane ride over here, I read the excellent recently-published book by Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz, which nods towards numerous points of this paper, which in turn is drawn from my ongoing PhD thesis. I will try to indicate where possible moments where their work intersects with mine, and hopefully the points where we diverge a little, but I apologize that further work will still be needed to synthesize their key ideas into this paper.

I also just need to clarify that in the abstract in the programme, I suggest that I will use Survivor as a case study to try to exemplify the ideas put forward in this paper. I will actually use American Idol instead, not because I think that Survivor makes a weaker argument, but simply due to the practicalities of this coming from a PhD thesis in progress, the order of my case studies changed. Having said that, I believe that American Idol perfectly highlights the rationale behind the shift I am proposing.

One thing that seems to be not up for debate, as has been a common theme across the latter portion of this conference, is that the current period of television is showing many shifts from those which has come before, even if there were some suggestions yesterday that it might be back to some things we have seen in the past. This is not to say that it is better, or to be hyperbolic about the breadth of shifts that have been seen, but simply to acknowledge that shifts in technology, economics, audience and programming have lead to a dynamic industry, leading changes or being forced into them. Television studies and media studies in general have adopted circuit models in numerous forms over the years, in order to juggle these competing contexts and shifts. I am not aiming to reinvent the wheel here. What I am arguing in this paper, is that traditional circuit models may not be best suited to comprehend the specific shifts that have occurred since the mid 1990s. I am suggesting a modified circuit model which makes use of a different series of nodes, in order to better understand the specific and, I would argue, unique televisual situation in which we find ourselves.

In discussing the history of television studies, Lotz and Gray very carefully identify the variety of approaches that have been taken by different practitioners, highlighting key areas as text, audience and industry, as well as acknowledging additional contexts which have also surrounded them. These areas have traditionally been the three nodes of circuit models, with some theorists focusing on an individual node, and others examining the relationship between two or even all three of them. However, I believe the lack of specificity of these areas leads to some key recent shifts being overlooked, or at least sees academics struggling to fit them into existing scholarship.

I don’t want to spend too long belabouring this, as I realise it will be familiar territory to many people here, but I do want to clarify that this period in which I am most interested has been identified by several theorists in slightly different ways, although usually described in roughly the same terms. John Ellis wrote about the era of abundance, Amanda Lotz of the Post-Network era, and Rogers, Reeves and Epstein, followed by several others, have developed the idea around TV III. All of these theorists describe this period in terms of the breadth of content available and the variety of platforms on which it is (or will be) available. It is this particular period in which I am interested, and which I feel benefits most from this different model which I am proposing.

So what I’ll do is I will explain the 3 nodes, and hopefully as I go, the rationale behind my proposed shifts will become clear.

Firstly, and this is not a node as such, my model separates out technology from the circuit model. I feel that including technology within the circuit can lead to being overly technologically deterministic, or at the very least technologically optimistic. There have been huge technological shifts, and while some of them do impact on the shifts within television, how particular technologies are adopted, and the use to which they are put is by no means proscribed, and thus although they impact on each of the nodes, I feel technology needs to be understood separately, as part of a base upon which the circuit model rests.

The first node I am suggesting replaces the traditional “audience”, I’m calling this “reception and response”. Traditionally audience studies has often been about reception, has been about encoding and decoding, and polysemic readings. However, especially in the past 15 years, this has become more of a two way street (although this is not to ignore the level of fan action that has occurred earlier). The rise of the internet has provided audiences with a medium in which they can respond to each other, on message boards, on wikis, on twitter and other forms of social media, or in the form of transformative works. I has become accepted practice on US network television in the last 18 months to include a twitter hashtag on screen, encouraging this form of audience interaction. But in some cases, these forms of engagement are now also possible between audiences and at producers and creatives, either as a form of paratext where the audience feels that they are getting a behind the scenes view of the production context, or feasibly as a way for creatives to gauge audience reaction, and possibly to tweak the text in response. In addition to this, this node also covers for me notions of media convergence, of how audiences actually access their television content. Whether audiences view a show on live broadcast, or from a DVR, from a site such as Hulu, or one such as Netflix, whether on DVDs months or years after original broadcast, or via illegal streaming or download, the context of how the audience practically receives the text is important, and needs to be considered.

Secondly, I want to elide two of the nodes found on traditional circuit models. I am not as interested in micro-level textual analysis, as I feel that has less to say about the industry- and society-wide shifts that have occurred, but that doesn’t mean that I see texts as irrelevant. Instead, I am interested in the macro-level shifts that have gone on within the industry, such as the rise of reality television, a shift towards including seriality in a much greater proportion of content, the rise of the showrunner etc. Given that these all implicate the text, but occur on the production side, I’m labelling this “textual production”.

And finally, the economic models behind television have shifted dramatically, away from the frameworks of second-order economics, where people sacrifice a little of their watching time to view ads, to a more complex inter-relationship involving merchandising, home video sales, online content, product placement, subscription fees, along with the increasingly complex relationships between production companies and broadcast networks. I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that these are necessarily new concepts to television – I could see from the twitter feed earlier that a presenter was discussing the fact that these ideas of sponsorship & product placement go right back to the very early days of television, but I think that thinking about why these models might be seeing a resurgence in the modern context is important.

So what does this actually mean? It means to me that we might talk about the success of reality television such as American Idol, which would fit into the node of textual production in terms of the notions of format sales and the general rise of reality television as a dominant program genre. However, in thinking about that, we also need to think about the reception/response opportunities which allowed for it, such as the way that groundswell support for the show has existed online, the way that it has engaged with its audience across a variety of social media in recent years, the idea that it serves as a direct call to action, a requirement to respond from its audience in terms of voting. On the reception side, it has also proven a ratings force by penalising those who do not watch live – if you have it on your DVR for 24 hours, you are not only excluded from the discussion, you are also excluded from having your voice heard. Thus delayed viewing and piracy are both actively discouraged by the form itself. This might be seen as a response to my third node, the shifting economic requirements which make it increasingly difficult to provide audiences to advertisers with any certainty. And this economic shift is also matched by the revenue streams that Idol is able to tap into in order to supplement the traditional advertising income, with the parent companies enjoying significant success over the years from record sales, concert ticket sales, merchandising, and also through the direct inclusion into the show of a number of brands via product placement, the ubiquity of Coke and the train-wreck beauty of the Ford Music Videos being two examples which readily spring to mind.

What I am trying to suggest within my thesis is that these nodes are all inherently connected, that none of the shifts could really have occurred without all the others, and that by leaving out one or two of these nodes, we perhaps miss aspects of these important shifts that have occurred.

I am not suggesting that this is the model for everyone in TV studies, far from it. But I do feel that those who are looking at the current televisual situation, whether you want to call it the era of abundance, or the post-network era, or TV III, do need to think a little more holistically about the variety of factors that have impacted, and are still at play in our shifting and changing television experience.

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