Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Between the New Medium and the Old

Author Mark Andrejevic begins his book with a brief depiction of reality television’s history in an attempt to develop a context for the way in which the medium has affected contemporary culture. Although Andrejevic makes some astute observations about the nature of reality television, he also overemphasizes the power and presence of interactivity within the medium itself. Most notably, I would suggest that the “interactive” component of reality television rests on the ability of the broadcast medium to respond to viewer input primarily through text message votes, which inherently represents a number of limitations for any sort of feedback beyond voting.[1] In fact, the recent rash of interactive spots on reality television (ostensibly designed to keep viewers from channel switching and to feel a connection to the program) often take the form of a viewer poll that has no real effect on the content of the show itself, unless the show is specifically designed to include viewers’ votes as part of the process.

Moreover, Andrejevic’s initial mention of Ana Voog is counterproductive as it blurs the line between social media and reality/interactive television; this overlap is something that Andrejevic continually attempts to sort out throughout his chapter without ever clearly differentiating. For example, reality television understandably presents the image that fame is achievable by all, through its elevation of the “everyman”—which in and of itself may be a contrivance—but Andrejevic aligns this democratization with the leveling power of social media which promotes access in a different way for different reasons. Andrejevic does however correctly speak to the ways in which social media has the potential to redistribute power in society (e.g., consumers are no longer passive and are, in fact, also the producers) but misses the larger idea that true power now rests in the hands of those who control the means and modes of distribution; platforms like Google, YouTube (which happens to be owned by Google), iTunes, and the discussion surrounding net neutrality indicate that filters and access represent the current revolutionary battlegrounds[2].

Further muddling the issue, Andrejevic’s argument for the “work of being watched”—that the same technology providing us with a more personal experience (labeled “participatory interactivity”) can be used against us (“productive surveillance”)—is not untrue but also aligns much more closely with social media than reality television, with one notable exception (2004).[3] Andrejevic accurately describes reality television’s ability bargain with its viewing audience:  fame and fortune can be had in exchange for access to personal details and a sense of intimacy. This point is not insignificant as when looking around at the current media landscape, we can see that we have entered into a culture of mediated confession, where individuals treat their secrets, tragedies, and identities like commodities to be sold on the open market.[4]


[1] Contrast this with the growing ability of television shows to respond to and adapt based on Twitter feeds (as one example), which represents a form of social media. This potential to interact in a practical way does not manifest meaningfully in the area of reality television as a stand-alone construct, unless, again, we consider voting as a meaningful expression of voice.

[2] Even though YouTube had not been launched when Andrejevic’s book was written, the debate surrounding Napster should have indicated that control over distribution and access was going to be a point of contention that incorporated many of Andrejevic’s points regarding consumers as the new producers.

 

[3] The debacle with Facebook’s Beacon and other forms of tracking outside of reality television seem to possess much more of an ability to develop modes of interaction and also commodification of our personal information for marketers.

 

[4] Consider talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and Maury Povich along with reality fare like Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition and it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that we have become a culture that rewards the exploitation of personal tragedy. I would also add that Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition has the unfortunate side effect of raising the social norm for adversity with its constant portrayal of incredibly devastating circumstances.

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