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Final Essay

This essay reaches back over the Television Cultures semester and pulls out some of the key concepts. There will be debate regarding broadcast and whether or not we live in a post broadcast era. This will roll into a discussion about transmedia storytelling, including participation and the convergence of media. This essay will conclude with a glance at reality TV, its origins and its audience dividing nature. References to lecture content will be made with support from some of my own blog writings from over the semester.

The broadcast era was in its height in the 1960’s through to the 1970’s. I believe that we are not in a post broadcast era, so I will refer to broadcasts key characteristics in the present. Broadcast television is hinged on its ‘liveness’ and its ability to give insight into events happening locally or on the other side of the world. Broadcast television can play a role of both informing through news, or through entertainment and ‘event television’. Broadcast television is topical and has the ability to bring people together to warm their hands like a proverbial camp fire.

Alright, so maybe this doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but broadcast television is not dead – technology and viewing habits have changed. Technology is in a constant state of flux and its ability to shape audiences viewing is a necessary by-product. That is to say that with the ease, accessibility and affordability of digital, audiences can now pluck what they wish to view from Internet. If a viewer can effectively avoid mainstream programming, then clearly, this would suggest that we are living in a post-broadcast era. However, it is arguable that broadcast television has found its way into the public sphere.

Like some 1960’s sci-fi prediction, we live in the age of the screen. Television screens are in our restaurants, trains station, doctors waiting rooms, sporting grounds and in our hands. It is this ubiquity and omnipresence of the screen that keeps broadcast current. You see, an old media form rarely dies – it gets clever and realises if it is to survive in an ever modernizing world, it too must adapt. In my blog post Tv past – present- future, I touch on the convergence of older traditional broadcast and where it is headed. What is old eventually always becomes new again and audiences will always have, whether they admit it or not, a sentimental yearning for sitting and watching a bit of good old fashioned live TV, whether its the news or sporting event.

But what if storytelling decided it wanted to become an event or a world that audiences could get lost in. Ok so maybe it’s the writers who decide this, however, it’s only possible because of these newer media avenues in which to tell a story. What am I hinting at? Transmedia storytelling. Seminal culture commentator Jenkins describes transmedia storytelling as a grand narrative which is told over a number of different media. Each part of a story can be enjoyed on its own (providing multiple entry points), however, the sum of all of its parts provides a viewer (or perhaps consumer) with a more enriching experience.

What are some of the implications of this? Transmedia storytelling has the potential to over complicate or muddy a viewers experience. Transmedia ingredients can include trailers, or webisodes or gaming extensions all of which are intended to enrich a viewing experience. It sounds a little bit exhausting. Perhaps to successfully ‘do transmedia’ one would need to understand what genre might work and the type of fan that might engage with a potentially drawn out and laborious experience. You would definitely want some deep understanding of fan culture and what gets people obsessing.

In my blog post on participation culture, I discuss some trends where extended storytelling might be an audience hit. It’s important to understand trends and to use available technology to add to an experience rather than just using it for the sake of using it. I suggest that Glee is successfully engaging its fan base to add to the narrative through participation through the media environment being suitable because of how users engage with Youtube. Essentially people can perform and upload onto the Internet and feel like they are a part of the Glee experience.

Participation culture when viewed from a slightly different point of view, is one of the driving features of reality TV. Audiences respond well to real people. This suggests that reality TV has its origins in anything from the game show to something like a talk show. It could be observed that reality TV origins have a number of sub genres which have impacted how it is formatted in its present day interpretation. Observational film documentary certainly has a lot to contribute and this can be seen in the landmark and still in production BBC series 7UP. 7UP was the first of its kind on television, pitching itself as a social experiment but eventually becoming more about lifes ups and downs. In this sense it has become a docu-soap starring real people who have on some level become characatures of themselves over the years.

With the increase in surveillance cameras and the cheapness of handy cameras, shows like Funniest Home Videos have found themselves an unlikely contributor to reality TV. This comes down to good old fashioned voyeurism and the joy of catching people off guard. It’s here that shows like Big Brother hope that contestants will switch off to the hidden cameras and provide producers with golden unawares moments for us to laugh at. Similarly chat shows that actively discuss everyday issues have had a large impact on reality TV. Audiences love to relate to, compare and contrast their lives with others and chat shows provide this forum. Again to use Big Brother as an example, the unscripted and unprompted conversations about taboo or difficult subjects gets brought out into the open – reflecting the influence of a talk show couch.

Reality TV presently has a number of different formats and production value, whether it be game show driven, talent show driven or just plain old observational by following a D grade celebrity around with a camera. Reality TV shows never appear to be pure in their genre. They become at times conflicting or unlikely moralizing compasses when really Toddlers and Tiaras was just meant to be a glimpse into the glamorous lives of junior beauty pageants. In my blog post surviving Big Brother Part 1, I discuss how reality TV shows end up becoming a social barometer for social expectations.
Reality TV can therefore serve much more than audiences perceived purpose of it providing trash talk and controversy. Yes, some reality TV shows market themselves as such, however, my eyes were opened by the depth and quality of another BBC show ‘One Born Every Minute’. This reality TV show, although highly dramatized through its editing has the hallmarks of insight and the depth of the human condition. All mise-en-scene devices are at play in One Born Every Minute, through close-up camera work, hand held camera interviews, diagetic and non-diagetic music and editing pace. Each device pushing the viewer to the desired emotional outcome. As manipulative as this is, I’d still concede that the show is quality although still a hybridizing docu-soap format.

To wind this essay up I want to reflect momentarily on the title of this course – television cultures. It’s of note to me that there is not one defining culture as such, but rather a fluid and developing discourse about audience, industry and content. There is much joy to be found in the creativity of others and equally as much to becoming an active participant in a television culture. We live in such a privileged time to have all of this, essentially at our finger tips. As we look to the future and the potential for even greater immersion and story experience, things can only get better. I for one, cannot wait.

(Sorry this wasn’t more of a literary essay with a bit more research and what not – essentially there’s no reference list. I’m very snowed in by final assignments for my advertising subjects. I did enjoy the course and the content.)

Best Show Evah…

The first time I ever took note of just how bloody good a television series was, was when I was introduced to Six Feet Under. It took my breath away and made me think, my god that is some quality viewing. I think what makes something quality for me is both its craft, characters and creativity in narrative.

From the opening sequence until the final montage, the fraught, dysfunctional family world of Fischer family kept me alive (bad pun) for all sixty three episodes. SFU possesses a cinematic quality that wholly engrosses you. The attention to detail with mise-en-scene creates such an authenticity of a stuffy funeral home. What a strange thought for Alan Ball to want to do a show about death. But then again, I suppose, not really…it lends itself to a lot of reckoning, bargaining, rite of passage, high drama and grief stricken dialogue. Come to think of it, it’s pretty savvy!

Developing a show like SFU is arguably evidence that niche audiences exist and have an appetite for what, in a board room pitch, might sound like a risky venture. Although SFU is a long form narrative, that is to say the lives of the nucleus unfold and develop over five series, there is still some instant gratification with the ‘one death per episode’ format. SFU therefore is a little bit of a soapie drama as well, delivering audiences the best of both worlds.

It really is the authenticity of characters in SFU that just gets you in. The writing is so phenomenonally insightful about the everyday fears and insecurities we all have. There is this strange fixation with mental illness and psychosis. I wonder if this reflects Ball’s childhood or if its an allegory on American society. It really is hard to pick a favourite character, Ruth and Claire are both stand outs. Suffice to say, I can’t watch Michael C. Hall in Dexter because he will always be David to me!! (and these characters are real people don’t you see).

Another attribute that perhaps makes SFU quality television is its ensemble cast which allows for multiple narratives to play out at the same time. A chance encounter with a character might be planted in one episode, not to appear again for several more. Or because we really get into the lives of the family, at times we know more about what’s going on than the family themselves. There’s something really rewarding about that. The SFU characters stuck with me for such a long time afterwards and that’s another sign of quality – nothing is superficial.

So this has to be one of the most fitting endings to a series ever. If you haven’t watched the series, shame on you and definitely do not watch this clip.
Clearly some other people agree – these comments are from today only 13 minutes to an hour ago – that’s some impressive impressions!!

Surviving Big Brother Part 2

Interestingly, reality TV personalities now seem to enter into these ventures with a preconceived idea about fame and possible outcomes. Contestants archetype and brand themselves in their minds long before any audition process. It really only took one series of a reality TV show to establish which ‘characters’ have appeal. However, just being a type is sometimes not enough. Producers love a hard knock story and the harder the knock, well, hopefully the higher the ratings. Australian Idol auditions are the worst for this – but here’s a more recent X Factor example –

Ok so that was a little bit off topic, but there are a few things to consider here. Is the use of Emmannuel exploitative? Here we hear him talk about his dreams and aspirations (the key ingredient for these shows) and of course he gets a few tears from the steely judges – but – what does he stand to gain from this experience? Of course the producers carried him through to the final cut, making the disappointment factor for him even greater – this therefore begs the question, are we exploiting these people who have their heart in the right place?

This takes me back to the original point of this blog post. There seems to be two (and this is a little bit of generalizing) poles of people that enter the reality TV world: those who are completely 100% self-aware and out for themselves – and those who are completely unaware and are therefore innocents. It is often the later category that fair better because of their authenticity of character – Reggie season 3 of Australian Big Brother?

Another classic BB moment was Merlin of Big Brother 2005 who smuggled gaffa tape into the house, taped his mouth shut and made a protest on his t-shirt ‘saying free the refugees’. Here we see someone with a clear agenda, fully aware of the reality TV genre. This was amazing live television. In fact it’s these kind of awkward gaffes that keep the format alive. Unscripted equals, hopefully, unpredictable. These moments are few and far between however.

Realistically the twenty-four hours of a day are whittled down in an ‘edited for TV’ prime time half hour slot. It’s here that Big Brother hybridizes the soapie genre, where there seems to be a story line that can be followed over the week with more than a ‘tune-in tomorrow’ call to action!

I do love reality TV though and my obsession is sometimes so bad that I often convince myself that there’s a camera crew following me around and I’m the star of my own show. I actually used have a reputation for throwing reality TV finale parties which were a hot dinner party invite. One year for Biggest Loser I recreated all of the immunity challenges – of course with the aim to eat all of the calories that the contestants had lost. Ahhh Reality TV, don’t be going anywhere anytime soon…

Surviving Big Brother Part 1.

I’m actually ‘gasp’ old enough to remember watching the phenomenon that was the first season of Survivor – outwit, outlast, outplay! I remember Richard, the winner who was chosen by his peers at tribal counsel as the winner, not because he was the most honest and had the best character, but because he was the one who had ‘played the game’ the best. He was ruthless in his alliance forming and was an adept fisherman that kept the belly of his disciples full. Although, from memory, his belly shrunk massively and he ended up having a bodily transfomation as a by-product.

The finale was a live global TV event that had tongues wagging and viewers polarized. It was the genesis of mass-produced and consumed reality TV. Thinking back now, I wonder what it was that got me (and everyone else) engrossed. There are so many layers and levels to consider with a show like this and perhaps this is where the hybridizing of genres presents it-self…

Survivor is clearly social commentary set to the beat of a game show. The casting was calculated for mass demographic appeal. Yet the real purpose of calculated casting was for the grander narrative of this quasi ‘observational’ drama – the real show is about interpersonal conflict brought on by extreme conditions. This model of casting characters is a template that has been followed by countless other reality franchises (and perhaps was borrowed from 7Up).

What are we to learn from these people and whose story will reflect our own human condition? Audiences often find themselves in conversations about how they would act if put in the same situation? Therefore reality TV shows raise questions of ethics and become a barometer for national standards. Strangely audiences unknowingly become engaged in some form of mass culture philosophical debate – would I enter into an alliance for further gain in a game show or lie that my grand mother is dead just to win a challenge?

The second scenario was hotly debated when a Survivor contestant “Jonny Fairplay” lied to get the sympathy of contestants. He went on to become one of reality TV’s biggest villains and booed and literally tossed off stage at a Reality TV awards (yes they exist) show. Audiences are more invested in standards of entertainment than they realise through peer review – if a fictional character on a show had done the same thing, this would not be shocking – there is a different moral code or levels of judgement in reality TV. The fact that entertainment that is largely considered as low-brow ignites such debate is evidence that there is something a little deeper at play here.

HBO – this campaign is definitely makes it more than TV

HBO was one of the first networks to start creating ‘quality’ content. Quality is a dubious word to use and perhaps it is best to look at HBO as wanting to create a point of difference in the market place. So what better way than to describe yourself as the best story teller?

However, that was a long time ago and now there’s plenty of networks out there who can stake the claim of delivering ‘quality’ tv. That’s why this campaign blew me away in its creativity but also in its goal of reinforcing HBO as the best story teller. I’m posting the case study video so you can see the campaign flow – but have a little dig around and you can view some more of the content.

Representations and Conceptions

I thought I’d reach back in time for this post and reflect all the way back to week two. This post is about representations of television and conceptualizing television. I was looking over my notes from Adrian Danks guest lecture and some of the ideas feel a lot clearer to me now after a couple of weeks of digestion. So what were some of the key points from that lecture?

Some representations of television suggest that TV is a medium racked with guilt or that it is a medium not to be taken seriously or perhaps should be excused. Danks referenced Fahrenheit 451 which depicted television as ubiquitous and having a spooky omnipresence. Here television was interactive and actors could peer into your home and ask you to determine the story line. There was a very sinister undertone to this representation of television. Television within film is often showed as a form of mass communication and social control through the control of information. George Orwell’s 1984 was way ahead of its time in content. The surveillance world that he imagined references the use of television, screens and the media as a form of social control. There are a number of literary references that (Aldous Huxley) that seem to suggest that TV’s role is predetermined in society.

Another example that Adrian showed to illustrate his point about TV being a medium not to take seriously, involved another domestic setting. It was Christmas time and the mother character feared she would have an empty nest. Cue the deliveryman with a television wrapped with a giant bow! What was being inferred in this scene was that the role of television is one that can ‘keep the elderly company.’ In exchange for real human or familial obligations, the TV set was an easy option for families who don’t have (or don’t want to) make time for their aging elders. This movie scene contained a quotable comment that: “now that you have a TV you have life’s parade at your fingertips.” This is largely suggestive that TV is about melodrama and is not to be taken seriously.

Early conceptions of television were used to show the human condition. It is suggested that television could be used as a means of cultural transportation. This is certainly true as television allowed for shifts in spatial and temporal relations…all from the comfort of your living room! Television was therefore able to do what radio was already doing, but with the use of picture. TV is therefore a colonizing technology as it uses ingredients from both radio and television.

When television started to become mainstream, there were concerns about the impact it would have on society. What role would TV facilitate in the home? Will television be a help or hindrance? Early commentary raised concerns about whether or not a device which so strongly represented modernity, could both educate and entertain.  Australia had quite a late start with widespread access to television and Sir Robert Menzies wife voiced opinions about how television might be used. Some of these questions remain the same today. When thinking about about television in the context of news, it’s still a form of mass broadcast today.

What makes the nightly news is often a result of what would look good on television, or rather, it’s newsworthy because it suits a TV format. The news still very much relies on the ‘liveness’ of television and often reporting becomes stage managed for television (live crosses, but also events like war, protests and sports get timed for viewership). However, even though news is very much edited to an agenda, for some reason people still don’t appreciate being misled! Chopper-gate, where channel 9 faked a live cross of their helicopter being overhead a police search scene, is an example.

Trendy transmedia

I’m a bit of a lover of this topic. I came into contact with Henry Jenkins media book, “Convergence Culture” about a year ago. I remember reading it and thinking it was a real game changer. Laid before me was a new way of viewing story telling and the potential to extend a narrative over several media. My understanding of Jenkins definition of transmedia is that a grand narrative exists, yet different pieces of that narrative can be told over a number of media. These different media provide a number of different entry points into the story and can be experienced individually, however, the sum of digesting each part will give a more satisfying and fulfilling experience. This can be referred to as ‘world building’ and ‘immersion’.

Jenkins suggests that transmedia storytelling is not hierarchical and that story extensions like webisodes, trailers, comic books and parallel story lines perhaps exist on a relatively even scale of importance. I blindly followed Jenkins writings until Matt Loads thankfully opened my eyes. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins brings transmedia storytelling to life by referencing The Matrix. I thought this was genius and that using different media such a game or Animatrix to explore peripheral characters was the height of modern storytelling. Yes, sure this is very clever and creates a more complex world to loose yourself in, however, as Matt argues, these extra pieces of communication are really trying to get you to consume the key text.

Matt suggests that transmedia storytelling is still very much hierarchical. Webisodes are subservient to the key text and not really as an immersive experience as you would have imagined. I do agree with Matt on this point as in a business context, webisodes really could be viewed as marketing or advertisements for the a show.

I recently became overwhelmed by the amount of advertising Fox8 was putting into its new teen drama series slide. I decided to investigate and discovered that teenagers were being subjected to a little bit of transmedia storytelling, but more likely, transmedia marketing. There was a very present push in above the line outdoor advertising with Billboards and posters and also cinema advertising with a trailer for the show. The teen market were encouraged to go online and discover more about the characters.

Once online, the target audience are able to explore the five different lead characters through various webisodes that set up each character. Each character has a different passion which is then extended through blogs and myspace. One character is into fashion and photograhpy so you can follow her photo journal. Another character is into music and is in a band, so you can find out what music he’s into (and obviously what’s been used in the show). Another character writes a graphic novel. Fans can take part in games, quizzes and online polls. In fact characters even have twitter accounts and there is a Slide App.

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Beyond that you can follow Slide on twitter, facebook, find them on youtube and chat on the Slide forum. The show is  highly integrated in terms of its use of technology and storytelling. The quizzes recap on show content, and the games and graphic novels are interactive and encourage participants to share their results on their facebook or twitter profiles (essentially turning viewers into promoters).

The result of all of this free to consume content is both about consumption but an attempt to facilitate and create an environment of obsession. I’ve no doubt that the producers of Slide will be innovative in running some parallel stories that teens will discover and enjoy, but the real agenda here, is to get them watching the paid channel, Fox8’s expensive new teen drama. I think it’s a very smart marketing strategy.

All of this free content can travel with you on your smart phone or ipad. Teens can enjoy little bite sizes of narrative, or catch up webisodes for free as they move between school and home. Although some transmedia shows have failed, I think Slide have a real understanding of the teen market and what online activities they’re engaged with.

The TV Week in reflection

I thought I’d do another current since this issue was reported in both todays Age newspaper and todays online Adnews. The issue? Australian content on television is dropping. Adnews reports that the drop is from 52% to 30% since 2008. This is no surprise given the increased fragmentation of audiences since the take up of cheaper wireless and quicker downloading speed. This decline in consumption of home grown shows is also really about a decline in consumption of free-to-air programming.

Viewers can now effectively avoid any FTA viewing by getting all of their content online or subscribing to Foxtel or Austar. Speaking of, check out this Google Ad placement on this article!!

As you just read from the first paragraph, it cost thirteen times more to produce local content. That’s crazy talk. Why does it cost so much to put on a local show. Perhaps Australia needs to come up with a more savvy approach to putting on a show. Surely classic British shows that are often domestic in their setting, Birds of a Feather, Absolutely Fabulous, The Beautiful People, are generally filmed in the one location ought to be aimed for. Not everything needs to be filmed on horseback or on a battleship.

In other news, The Block finale. I hear it was a real fizzer with only one of the houses selling – congrats Polly and Waz…? There were reportedly sour grapes from the four other couple contestants. The sponsors and channel 9 got massive exposure while many of the contestants walked away with not a lot. But seriously, what were they expecting, these ventures are about ratings off the back of unpaid people.

And finally, the news will have us believe that Tripoli has been toppled. Gaddafi no longer has a hold over Libya. Does Libya have any woman though? I haven’t seen one on the news, its an all male affair. Although, this guy looks suspiciously like he’s headed to a Mardi Gras…