Online Fan Reception and Television Content

In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses the developing relationship between online fan reception and television producers, writers, and advertisers. It would be too simple to state that liveblogging as a practice has grown simply out of its online predecessors (listservs, fan sites, and single-author blogs) and not out of the changing nature of television itself. Online interaction with television texts has been influenced in part by changing television formats, while networks themselves are shaping program content based upon the ways viewers are engaging in online communities. I would like to explore, with the help of Jenkins and Jason Mittell, author of the essay “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” where we can see this relationship working, and what kinds of content has influenced and been influenced by the act of liveblogging specifically.

What makes some shows more popular subjects for liveblogging and fan discussion than others? In Television Without Pity’s list of show forums, the top 5 shows with the most posts are, in order, American Idol (FOX) with 495,467, Supernatural (CW) with 381,526, America’s Next Top Model (CW) with 278,889, Smallville (CW) with 265, 655, and Heroes (NBC) with 250,621 (all as of 2/27/09, 3:27 pm). In terms of genre, this list varies: reality TV, science fiction/drama, superhero/drama. This may not be surprising, as comic book and sci-fi fans have long been considered Internet-savvy fans. Just below these in the rankings, however, come shows like the sitcom The Office and the hospital drama House, and as I noted in last week’s blog, AMC’s period drama Mad Men has also become a popular liveblogging subject. So what makes this particular shows so popular in the online fan world (especially when many of them, such as Supernatural, haven’t been so lucky in ratings or criticism)? The question I’m most interested in investigating (though not necessarily answering) is whether the convergence of television and online communities has influenced TV programming as a whole, or just particular shows and genres.

The genre that immediately comes to mind when talking about Internet-television convergence is reality TV. Though we’d already seen the rise of the reality-soap genre with MTV’s The Real World in the early 1990’s, it wasn’t until CBS’s Survivor (2000) that the combination of game show and reality soap became a must-have genre for every major network. Jenkins devotes a whole chapter to this show, entitled “Spoiling Survivor: The Anatomy of a Knowledge Community,” in which he asserts “Survivor is television for the Internet Age—designed to be discussed, dissected, debated, predicted, and critiqued” (25). The focus of Jenkins’s chapter is the practice of “spoiling,” in which fans with mysterious sources spill secret information about the possible outcome of the show. In what he dubs “knowledge communities,” viewers try to beat the produces of the show to the punch, and the producers play the game as well by placing clues and false leads throughout the season. Jenkins writes, “CBS admitted that they, like many other production companies, monitored the discussion lists for information about the audience,” and quotes CBS Communications VP Chris Ender as saying “It’s just the best research you can get” (46).

Though fans within these “spoiling” communities are participating in different kinds of online interaction than livebloggers, Survivor gives us an example of the first show to really influence and be influenced by online communities, from its inception up to the present. This was just the beginning for reality TV, however, and Jenkins’s second chapter “Buying into American Idol: How We Are Being Sold on Reality Television” illustrates this. It’s no surprise that American Idol comes in first on the TV without Pity forums—by a good 100,000 posts. This was a show designed specifically with media convergence in mind: television, internet, and mobile phone. The show’s text message voting system helped phone companies immensely when they were struggling to market messaging plans to American consumers (Jenkins 60). Instead of relying simply on commercial breaks, the American Idol producers also thought up creative ways to incorporate advertising into the show as well as its online component (a Coca-Cola music Web site). Much like Survivor, the show seems perfectly engineered for group involvement and participation. Because audience members vote and determine the winner, there is bound to be much debate and investment among them. Jenkins writes, “Audience participation is a way of getting American Idol viewers more deeply invested, shoring up their loyalty to the franchise and its sponsors. This investment begins with the turnout of millions of would-be contestants at auditions held in stadium and convention hotels around the country. Many more people watch the series that try out; many more try out than make the air; many more make the air than become finalists” (71). By its very design, American Idol relies on a vocal audience for its content and its outcome, making it a no-brainer for Internet forum popularity.

Idol's "Worst": Sanjaya Malakar (image from Time.com)

Idol's "Worst": Sanjaya Malakar (image from Time.com)

Idol fans may participate in the same types on online activities, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bright-eyed Clay Aiken worshippers. A large contingent of the Idol audience consists of viewers who love to hate the show, liveblogging snarky comments (a popular slant on TV without pity) mocking the contestants and the judges alike. The show is designed for this as well, with judge Simon Cowell as the Commander-in-Chief of snark, ruthlessly mocking the contestants, smarmy host Ryan Seacrest, and flaky fellow judge Paula Abdul. Snark is an extremely important component of television liveblogging, particularly with reality shows such as Idol and the aforementioned America’s Next Top Model. In his discussion of the early forum Survivor Sucks,” Jenkins writes, “the recapping process [a variation on the liveblog] was shaped by the desire to talk back to the television set, to make fun of formulas and signal your emotional distance from what’s taking place on the screen” (31). This was taken to the next level by Idol fans in 2007, who started the online campaign “Vote for the Worst,” a protest of sorts against what many deemed the diminishing quality/fairness of the show and its voting process. This campaign was arguably responsible for the long Idol tenure of cloying teen singer and Simon Cowell target Sanjaya Malakar.

Through the examples of Survivor and Idol, we can see that the relationship between online fan communitites and reality shows is an obvious and essential one, without which the content of each would be vastly different. However, what about these other shows, like Supernatural, Smallville, and Heroes? What makes dramas like these popular in online fan communities, and how has the style/content of such dramas adapted to online fandom? In his article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” Jason Mittell argues that since the 1990s, television narrative has become more innovative, most prominently with Seinfeld and The X-Files, and continuing with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more recent shows like Lost and Mad Men. Mittell writes, “this programming demands an active and attentive process of comprehension to decode both the complex stories and modes of storytelling offered by contemporary television. Audiences tend to embrace complex programs in much more passionate and committed terms than most conventional television, using these shows as the basis for robust fan cultures and active feedback to the television industry” (32).

Twin Peaks: Pioneer of the long-term story arc (image from Wikipedia)

Twin Peaks: Pioneer of the long-term story arc (image from Wikipedia)

A major example of this type of change in narrative style began in the late 1980s-early 1990s (Wiseguy, Twin Peaks) and grew as it became embraced by rabid fans on early listservs and fan groups. “Long-form arc storytelling,” as Mittell calls it, involves a series-long story arc (or “mythology,” as X-Files fans dubbed it) which is always being developed, even though not every specific episode addresses it. Supernatural, Smallville, and Heroes all serve as examples of this type of storytelling, as do—in a way—reality shows like American Idol. Jenkins writes, “American Idol is simply following a trend that runs across all contemporary television—a movement away from the self-contained episodes that dominated broadcasting for its first several decades in favor of longer and more complicated program arcs and more elaborate appeals to series history” (78). Narrative innovation has become so important to television viewers, Mittell argues, that for the first time we have hit television show actually named after its storytelling technique rather than its content: the terrorism thriller 24 (Mittell 36).

So, does this mean that the activities of online fan communities have enough power to change the very nature of television programming? Or are these activities largely a result of programming changes made specifically to target these communities? Mittell joins the second camp, stating, “Thus narratively complex television encourages, and even at time necessitates, a new mode of viewer engagement” (38). Though there is solid evidence one way or another, the thing about convergence culture is that it’s not about one thing influencing another, or one medium being absorbed into another: it’s about two (or more) media colliding and adapting to one another, changing each other in ways that can’t be traced to a specific point of origin.

Next week: I’ll be trying my hand at liveblogging, and discussing my experience.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap. 58: Fall 2006. Pp. 29-40.

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