July 25, 2006
Shrinking Distance from Producer to Consumer

This entry builds on some of the themes written about in yesterday's post about using the Internet as a means of discussion between content providers and fans.

David Edery, who helps manage the Convergence Culture Consortium, alerted me to an editorial on the BBC News Web site regarding the blogosphere and the new levels of interaction between producer and consumer that got me thinking about my own research initiatives regarding the entertainment industry.

In this particular commentary, journalist Daniel Pearl is writing about the relationship between journalists and their readers. In the past few weeks, I've written about how journalism storytelling has been affected by changes in increased transmedia content with instantaneous updates, increased diversity of communication platforms for exchange between news operations and their readers/viewers, and further debate about convergence and the essential characteristics of each medium and how journalists in each discipline can best be trained. This commentary brings up another essential part of the impact convergence culture has on journalism, though--reader/viewer response.

However, while Dan Gillmor writes about the phenomenal impact the blogosphere has on journalism, as we found out a few months ago with James Frey, Pearl takes it one step further--saying that readers no longer even have to contact the station to voice their opinion because sites that track the blogosophere--such as Technorati--can give journalists an immediate barometer of how a story has been received among viewers and some clue as to what directions to follow up, based on audience response.

According to Pearl, "blogging had an immediate impact on Newsnight's running order" because the BBC was able to see what fans were focusing on and adjust their plans for how to structure the show based on the news people seemed most interested in.

My thesis project at MIT focuses on the soap opera industry and how one of the oldest genres in television history is adapting to the current convergence culture. I've had extended discussions with Lynn Liccardo, a Harvard graduate who is one of my advisers on the thesis, about changes in interaction between fans and producers. Lynn has pointed out to me that there has long been such interaction, through mail-in campaigns and through the soap opera press, for instance. However, what has changed is the degree to which producers can find out what fans are talking about and thinking about without ever engaging with them directly, since such discussion is readily available in public forums and can be measured fairly easily.

This has a fundamental impact on how people are observed, as fans in fan forums write in a completely different way than in direct contact with the show or with an official publication like Soap Opera Digest or Soap Opera Weekly. This doesn't mean that soap writers take these forums into account often enough or even that they should be the be-all and end-all in measurement, as fans are usually a fickle bunch that will find something to complain about, no matter what. But it does mean that there is a new and unique opportunity for cultural producers to see what people are saying and to adjust content accordingly. Of course, with as far in advance as soaps are written and recorded, it's a little harder to be flexible there than with programming with much shorter turnaround, such as news broadcasts. But it doesn't mean that writers shouldn't be trying to make the incorporation of fan reaction as involved as possible.

The rest of Pearl's essay focuses on the fact that, now that cultural producers have unparalleled access to fans' opinions, fans shouldn't be surprised to know that they are reading. Pearl writes:

The thing I find strange about all this is that often people who write blogs, or contribute to them, somehow think that they are involved in a private forum. I recently came across a comment claiming Jeremy disliked recording his weekly podcast. I posted a response and the blogger seemed appalled - "the BBC's watching us - spooky" was his reply. But if you write something about us on the internet surely I have every right to read it and respond - that's not spooky.

Since readers often don't comment, I know what it's like to feel that you're just talking to yourself in the blogosphere sometimes, but Pearl has an essential point--bloggers should realize that blogs are a publishing forum and that they are then open to everyone. There have been several times here, such as here and here, that we have written about content only to have the person who created the content find our blog and respond in some way. I found that to be an exciting chance to engage with the creator I had been writing about, but some people find it creepy or angering that their public conversation wasn't kept private.

And fans do struggle with this issue. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, when As the World Turns' Benjamin Hendrickson committed suicide, some fans blamed themselves for writing about the actor's looks after his return and some apparent health issues Hendrickson had. Some people believe that the actor's depression had been aided in some degree by fan comments about changes in his look and speaking style, and fans were reminded that the stars they are writing about have Internet access and may actually be reading fan boards.

So Pearl is right in saying that readers and fans, just by having a public forum to discuss and debate, have unparalleled abilities today. But, as Peter Parker would say, with great power comes great responsibility, and fans must realize that their words may potentially have an audience...and that the audience is sometimes the very people they are writing about. This more open relationship between fans and producers is exciting, and it offers great potential for both the fan community and for producers. But fans and readers/viewers must quit being surprised that their communication actually has an audience.

If you want to have a private discussion, get a (chat) room. And, for the world of message boards and blogs, I hope that the open communication trend only grows as sites like Technorati become even more precise in their tracking capabilities. Fans and producers alike have everything to gain from better understanding the potential of such open communication, even though both sides apparently feel a little resistant to giving up any perceived autonomy through a little cultural exchange.

8 Comments

 

I don't think any discussion on the shrinking distance between producer and consumer is complete without talking about Participant Productions (http://www.participantproductions.com/), who "believe in the power of the media to create social change." This is the production company that brought us:
- An Inconvenient Truth
- Syriana
- North Country
- Murderball
- Good Night and Good Luck

Each film has a website devoted it to promote social action at participate.net. These websites are up and running BEFORE the films are in distribution. So think about that...a production company is building an audience before the movie studio begins promoting it. If movie studios have become banks and marketing companies, what happens when the films are funded through other means and the production company builds its own audience? What's the role of a movie studio in that scenario?

I believe it'll be fruitful to watch Participant Productions to see how they answer these questions.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated in any way with Participant Productions, nor do I know anyone there. I have seen many of their movies, though.

NOTE: As of December 2007, Participate.net has become TakePart.com.

On July 28, 2006 at 11:39 AM, Sam Ford said:
 

Joel:

You made some good point about Participant Productions and the role of the movie studio in this process. And I think you allude to a key point here. All of the innovative marketing in the world doesn't matter if your content does not live up to the hype. In the case of the films this studio has turned out so far, they live up to viewers' expectations, both in their quality and in their social activism.

On July 31, 2006 at 3:29 PM, lliccardo said:
 

sam, you mentioned what we discussed re the organized fan mail-in campaigns above. but even before there were soap opera fan magazines, never mind the internet, fans wrote letters to TBTP. would be interesting to know how, or if, producers took those letters into account when deciding how to proceed with storylines or characters in years back. a good question to pose to kay alden. i'm sure you've seen the current discussion on the media domain board addresses this very issue. i've posted the link for anyone else who's interested:

http://www.mediadomain.com/cgibin/netforum/atwt/a.cgi/3-136

the discussion raised some interesting questions, not least of which is, what role should fan reaction play in how a story is being told? another way of asking that question is, how much creative autonomy should the storyteller cede, and to whom? yet, remember what doug marland always said (and something TPTB would do well to remember) that his job as headwriter was not to write what he liked, but to write what the fans liked. which leads to the question, are some fans? opinions more important to TBRP than others, and do the fan boards make it harder or easier for them to tell the difference?

"However, what has changed is the degree to which producers can find out what fans are talking about and thinking about without ever engaging with them directly, since such discussion is readily available in public forums and can be measured fairly easily."

i guess the real question here is how will TPTB use this information. (and, as an aside, i had bookmarked several discussions off the media domain board, when i tried to access them, found that they?d been written over with more current, and unrelated, discussions. so much for archiving.) anyway, what i was going to try and post was a little thread that started with a simple question about jennifer relationship with bryant, which was clarified. i then posted a response about how i thought they had squandered so much potential story by killing bryant and they had just finished the job with jen?s death. the third reply was someone going off on a rant about what a selfish slut Jennifer had always been, as if she were a real person with free will instead of a fictional character. so one question generated a wide variety of responses what i?m not sure can be measured quite so easily given the sheer volume. one more thing for what it?s worth: i?ve been lurking on the pgp board, can?t say that i?ve seen a substantive difference between the discourse there and on the media domain board.

 

Closing the gap between consumer and producer will also jump to the essentials, not just enertainment and info sharing. The gap will need to close on energy production as well. The current consumers will need to become producers, and the current producers will become the consumers. The whole system will flip due to necessity as is the world of communications.

Consume less, produce more.

On August 2, 2006 at 8:48 PM, Sam Ford said:
 

I assume that even back to the early days of the first supercouple, Jeff and Penny, that ATWT fans were organizing such letter-writing campaigns to voice what they like--or usually what they don't like--about a show. I agree that the question should be here whether the more public nature of modern complaints--in that they are published online--have more or less weight than before. I've heard it argued both ways, actually, as some people say that a letter campaign through the mail will get more response than an online movement because of the physical receiving. I don't know if either have that strong of a bearing on what TPTB do, but it's just hard to say.

Your question about creative autonomy is an interesting one. We like the idea of auteurs but also the idea of being responsive to one's audience. Creativity is celebrated, but so is knowing one's audience. I think it's a balance any creative mind has to find--how much room do you cede to critics or to fulfilling popular expectations?

Bringing up Doug Marland also raises an interesting point. Doug may have said that, but he is also one of the most recognizable head writers in the show's history, so one could argue that he definitely wrote what he wanted becuase he left a personal touch on the show. The fact that it coincided with what a lot of fans wanted as well indicates something even more powerful--when the head writer is a fan as well. That's what set Doug Marland apart on ATWT, I think.

As far as the difference between the two boards, I find there to be less individuality on the PGP board, etc. because there are more posters on the PGP Soapbox, most likely.

On August 3, 2006 at 1:49 AM, Sam Ford said:
 

Some interesting comments on your "consume less, produce more" run. I understand the gist of it, especially when user-generated content becomes more an more possible so that we have the question as to who is the user...But I would like more elaboration about such a strong statement...Thanks for the link to the site, by the way.

On August 3, 2006 at 9:45 PM, lliccardo said:
 

"I assume that even back to the early days of the first supercouple, Jeff and Penny, that ATWT fans were organizing such letter-writing campaigns to voice what they like--or usually what they don't like--about a show."

actually, i don't think so. thereís no question individual fans wrote to the show(s). but i donít think there was really any mechanism for a collective effort (would be interesting to know when the first soap opera can club was formed; i have no idea). if you think about, TPTB would likely get a more accurate sense of how the audience was responsding from individuals writing in than from an organized effort.

as for the soap media, i do recall seeing a copy of an early newsletter (mimeographed and stapled) that listed some celebrity atwt viewers (joanne woodward is the only one i remember) in the popular culture collection at the state historical society on the campus of the university of wisconsin, madison (as for actual soap publications, there may be others published earlier, but the first real soap magazine i remember was afternoon tv, which i believe was first published in the mid-to-late 60s).

the collection in madison also holds the papers of irna phillips, doug marland and p&g. however, when i looked through those papers, i donít recall seeing anything that resembled an organized letter-writing campaign from the early years. this would be an interesting question to ask your grandmother. did she talk about her stories with her friends? i could be wrong about this, but my impression is that watching soaps was pretty much a solitary, or familial activity prior to the emergence of the soap media. it certainly was in my family.


about doug marland, it runs so much deeper than his just being a fan of the genre. he brought an abiding respect for the intelligence of his audience and never took them for granted. he made sure that his stories were told in a way that made sense to viewers; if a character was not present who the audience expected to be there, he made sure the absence was explained. when he rewrote history (fanny/sabrina), every i was dotted, every t crossed. i remember one soap opera writer describing it as taking the ship out of a bottle, changing it and getting it back into the bottle without anyone noticing. now, TPTB feel free to run roughshod over soap history: erica had the first abortion on soaps; opps, no she didnít. as weíve discussed, taking the audience for granted, and by that i mean assuming that they will buy whatever line of bs TPTB decide to feed them this week, is a large part of why the soap audience continues to decline. of course, itís not the only reason (and we will be discussing the others down the road), but most of the other reasons have to do with logistics and be overcome if the viewers is emotionally connected enough to the show. but when that emotional connection is brokenÖ

On August 7, 2006 at 12:18 AM, Sam Ford said:
 

Lynn, then I guess soap viewing in the 1950s and 1960s was much different than the other fan community I've studied: pro wrestling. Because of the nature of pro wrestling back then, when wrestling circuits were divided across the country by region, fans became each other's informants, and fans within regions would meet at the live events and form fan clubs, complete with newsletters and regular communication among the fans. Chad Dell completed a compelling sutdy of female fan clubs of certain performers and territories from the 1950s.

I assumed that a similar movement may have existed with soap operas, but I guess there was no chance of meeting that existed for soap fans in the way there was for wrestling fans in the days before the soap opera press. Wrestling magazines have been around for quite a while, and fans had the chance to meet within territories at the live events, so that really sets it apart from soaps, which everyone watched by themselves, with no idea of who else was watching unless it came up in conversation.

I know that I read Andy Worhol was an ATWT viewer as well, regarding famous celebrity viewers.

I have no idea whether my grandmother talked with her friends about ATWT or not or whether she, as a lifelong housewife, had any friends in her life other than relatives and people from church. My grandmother died 10 years ago, but I know that both of her daughters still watch ATWT. They may remember. But, as the above paragraph indicates, I am inclined to agree with you that there probably was only solitary letter-writing rather than an organized effort, unless there were any TV-industry-wide magazines, simliar to a TV Guide, that gave any outlet for soaps fans.

As for Doug Marland, I think that being a fan of the genre makes you treat fans with intelligence since that means you understand both ends of the equation. But I think Doug managed to both fulfill fans' expectations while also creating a distinctive writing style that made him an artist and not just someone who writes for fans. Any great artist working in popular media seems to be able to do both: to have enough originality to surprise people while also fulfilling their expectations most of the time.

As for your theory about soaps, I agree that the ONLY fix for declining numbers is improved storytelling. And improved storytelling is something that takes some time to make any impact on numbers. I remember a time in the wrestling wars when the WWE started producing a much better product. It took a full year for things to turn around and for the numbers to truly reflect the improvement to the show. And shows that build an audience also take a while to show a decline in quality, as fans will stick around for a while with a show that's not as good just because they have so much invested.

Marketers just don't have the patience to say, "Start telling better stories, and we're in this for the long haul." Especially since networks themselves are afraid to commit long-term to daytime serial drama these days, when there is a constant flux in programming.