November 17, 2007
FoE2: Opening Comments for Day Two

Day two of the Futures of Entertainment began this chilly Cambridge morning with opening remarks by Jason Mittell, Middlebury College; Jonathan Gray, Fordham University; Lee Harrington, Miami University. Sam Ford, C3's Project Manager moderated.

In this session, the panelists talked about the "holy trinity" of media studies scholarship, tensions between industry and academia, qualitative versus quantitative understandings of audiences, and improving the connections between academics and insdustry in the future.

Live blogging the session were Xiaochang Li, Josh Diaz and Eleanor Baird.

Sam Ford: Welcome, etc.

Jason Mittell: Teaches media studies at Middlebury. The panelists worked together to define what they were going to address: what do media scholars have to say into the "holy trinity" in media studies: industry, texts, audiences.

Extending the "holy trinity" metaphor, Mittell defined Industry as the all powerful creator, text as the son, and a hybrid space, and audience is the elusive holy spirit but ultimately drives the system. If we push it a little further in the father figure, what do industry and academics have to say?

But industry is not singular entity - Mittell encouraged a polytheistic pantheon of powers. For example, WGA strike shows an industry at war at self. This is key point for scholars.

Many scholars have a top-down model for understanding the media industry, thinking only power and money matter. But when conversing with people in industry, you see how untrue that is. Not everyone communicates to each other, and that doesn't filter down into the creative process. There are multiple dimensions, and many different languages and logics at play at different times. Mittell used the example of promotional activity: when NBC put videos on their site online, it's promotional; a user posting the same episode on YouTube, despite it's promotional effect, is piracy. Writers are not getting paid no matter what. It is an increasingly complex system with multiple players and interests, but it is all industry.

Mittell encouraged us to think of the industry as more varied than usually conceived of in academia. However, he acknowledged that scholars are skeptical of industry power, and there is a feeling that talking to "the man" is not something you should do. Industry critiques are often made at arms' length from industry.

A theory that is embraced in media studies is the death of the author. Text is not fixed by creators. User-generated content shows us there is no centralized author, and that text can be emergent. But something is lost. People still embrace the author and authorial control and intention. For instance, with Lost and the consumption of spoilers -- even fans who short circuit the way they read text still really believe in the authority of the storyteller. They just want to explore that in different way.

Jonathan Gray: Wants to talk about the text. This term doesn't get used often in industry, where it is conceived of as "content" or a "product". Scholars cling to the notion of text, as it is helpful in understanding how audiences relate to cultural objects. Roland Barthes made a key distinction between work and text: work is what you produce, text is the point in which it assumes meaning. Work doesn't have meaning until people care and engage and invest in it. The text isn't something just industry can produce. Industry can produce work, but audience has to give something to it themselves before it becomes "text," which is a product with contributions of both the author and the audience. This allows us to distance ourselves from the proprietary rhetoric of the industry. It might be your program, but it isn't your text.

People don't engage with content or product, people care about and engage with text. The challenge is how to work towards better creation of text, and understanding how industry can contribute to this, rather than thinking that they are grand instructor who makes it.

Then there is the idea of convergence and what that means in this environment. The concept of "overflow ," from Will Brooker maintains that convergence is about multiple platforms coming together, but overflow goes in the other direction as well. It is content that is simply too big to go into a show. These work in tandem, oscillating according to the beat of the text. When we look at the text as that process, we start to understand why people engage with the text and care about them the way they do.

In looking at most successful texts, for instance Star Wars, to understand what it meant in pop culture, watching the three movies only gets us so far. The experience goes beyond the film itself -- between the movies, we played with the toys and created stories. The text was part of our lives. What Star Wars means wasn't just what Lucas produced, but in the toys, in the construction of what it was by the audience. Peripherals and overflows become a vital part of the

Another example is The Simpsons. The success of the show is beyond the show itself. You could argue that George Bush Sr. constructed The Simpsons, which grew as a form of cultural resistance. If you liked the Simpsons, you were telling George Bush to fuck himself. The counter-cultural elements of the Simpsons played a substantial role in its success.

The challenge is not just how you can contribute, but how to contribute through the peripherals. In the process of creating peripherals, industry often sees them as promotional materials, not as cultural artifacts in themselves. However, the texts that capture people's imaginations in the peripheral space capture the oscillations between the text and the broader involvement of the audience through the overflow peripherals.

Another key element is the audience's passion-points. One concern in the world of metrics and measurement, and we can record what people like, through Amazon, Blogs, etc. The problem is that the there are dangers in letting metrics and measurement lead us. Qualitative measurement is ultimately the most helpful way to understand audiences and the texts that they engage the most with. Take the example of The Wire (HBO). I am the most desirable demo (male, under 35, educated, middle class), but there's no saying what I like about The Wire, even though you know I like The Wire. If the same person likes Pushing Daisies as well, that doesn't mean he would want to watch a hybrid of The Wire and Pushing Daisies. (He would, as it happens, but that's incidental.) Even if you know what he likes and his passion points, but his passion point lie in places he doesn't even know. The real challenge is how to get away from measurement and metrics and move to qualitative evaluation.

Going back to the metaphor, if the Text is the Son, ask "what would Jesus do"? The Idea is to create and contribute to text.

Lee Harrington: I'm a Professor of Sociology at Miami University. At one level, we're still asking the same questions from 50 years ago: who is the audience, and what do they want? Now it's plural -- audiences -- and also, where are they? Yesterday, these questions came from the crowd. What is the value of user-generated content for other users, and how do we answer new questions about privacy, and what's the actual entertainment value?

One of the key questions is what are we measuring? What kinds of things are measurable?

There are also questions of gender and class. When we talk about access to technology, we mean economic access. Who can hook up, and who can sacrifice the time to be the audience? Media literacy, technologies, these things changes faster than users. There are also questions of who wants to access content, and who industry presumes want to access. Those last two are arguably different questions. All of these questions are shaped by race, ethnicity, gender, and age, and how they intersect.

I was glad to hear during the Metrics and Measurement panel that people are sick of hearing about more research on "millenials". First wave of baby boomers applied for social security, and that is changing the audience landscape. Aging of world is a world phenomenon -- witness the stark contrast between birth and death rates overseas.

If we don't know what audiences want in general, we also don't know what older audiences want. Older television market yearn to be marketed at, and sometimes are (i.e. pharmaceuticals), but what are the consequences of ignoring them?

Sam Ford: Interesting questions cropping up -- most deal with qualitative research. What methods can we use to answer, and what can we do to make it meaningful on a mass audience scale?

Lee Harrington: The immediate challenge is the pace of market versus academic research, and how to make them align more closely. There's a lot that qualitative methods can tell us, but it's a slower method of research.

Jonathan Gray: Industry can benefit from reading more media studies, but there is hostility between academia and industry because they don't see themselves as contributing to the same project as all. When I wrote a book on The Simpsons, I didn't contact any producers because I was afraid of a Cease and Desist notice from Fox.

Many researchers have had experience of not getting permissions for photos and other materials for their research, and are often warned away by studios' legal teams. There's a lot of great qualitative research, but it is not being looked at.

Jason Mittell: The issue with qualitative research is that it's not generalizable. It's not a study that says small group is representative of the whole. The question that academic researchers study audiences and ask don't converge, don't make links and say this is what we've learned and this is how it might peoples to what you do. Most of us who are here would love to see influences, but the modes of presentation and engagement are hard to conceptualize given the structures of academia.

Jonathan Gray: In the spirit of good qualitative research, one requirement is that you have to be willing to be surprised. If you go in just to answer one question, you're not doing good qualitative research. But in industry, that's a problematic model, because you don't want to fund research that wanders. But academic studies can wander and add that richness.

Sam Ford: Advocacy doesn't just happen in academia. Someone was saying that even market research isn't happening fast enough. We had members of the Metrics and Measurement panel who work on measuring 'buzz,' which is gaining currency these days. In industry, focus groups are synonymous with qualitative research, and they encounter the same problems as they do with their quantitative research -- that there is too much generalization. The blogosphere and discussion boards are richer, even though they are also problematic to understand in an aggregated way.

Lee, you've written a book on fandom. What is the value of fandom to industry?.

Lee Harrington: Online audiences aren't representative of the audience as a whole. In soap operas, focus groups were huge, and directed the genre and reeled in the 90s with that dominance. All these things have their place, but no one methodological approach solves all questions. It's what the question is that you're trying to answer that will determine the best approach.

Jason Mittell: One of the things that good qualitative research does is to remember that media consumption happens in the context of the audiences life: family, community. We must ask what this community is, what ideas they bring to it, and how do they consume media. Focus groups don't show that, because they are temporary, artificial communities, and therefore cannot truly represent the way people really consume.

Jonathan Gray: We need to see fewer focus groups. Online, we can see how conversation about the media goes when there is not artificial intervention.

Lee Harrington: It's not very helpful to pitch quantitative versus qualitative research. Sometimes one is appropriate where the other is not. It's about what question you want to answer.

Sam Ford: Products are made for a certain market, and become texts when they are activated by someone's interest. At C3, we're interested in surplus audiences. For instance, older soap viewers aren't targeted specifically, but those audiences are key to pulling in new viewers. For any genre show, they had an audience that wasn't the audience they wanted. Veronica Mars is a good example of this.

Jason Mittell: The Wire is a great example of the surplus audience. It really has two main audiences: the white middle class, "dream" market . . . and urban drug dealers. There have been cases of drug-dealers using techniques from the Wire. The creator of the show has endorsed this piracy and he's happy because the text speaks to these surplus audiences.

Jonathan Gray: The challenge of how imagine multiple-layered audiences.

Sam Ford: TV Land targets baby boomers. It's an interesting market, but there is a pervading feeling that capturing the 18-49s is the measure of success. As you move to "engagement ," although admittedly problematic, as the model, how does that change our reliance on age, gender, and other demographics? Does the mode trump the demographic markers? How can we move forward?

Jason Mittell: I try to differentiate between an audience and viewer. Audience is constructed by industry, viewers are people who are actually watching. Nielsen ratings and metrics like them are designed to create audience category, but the measure helps create what it measures. I would love to see a more bottom-up version of measurement. Numbers that are not proprietary and that people can engage with. Not sure whether that can happen or not, but a movement from the bottom, may filter up to the top.

Lee Harrington: Industry members and academics agree on the problems. For instance soap operas and intergenerational programming, and industry also says it's a problem that older viewers aren't valued. Something is happening at the sociological level. Their importance in the culture industry in the same way we are in other parts of the economy.

Jonathan Gray: We need to get away from the idea that Nielsen is god. It's not really good science, or reflective of the larger audience. It tricks us into asking questions that aren't as helpful as others. Not sure if market research isn't fast enough. It comes back to the issues of engagement with the text. When we're talking about impressions, where to make most impact, it's not about knowing what happened last evening, but the longer term approach. It's a luxury I have of thinking and not fearing being fired for not making quarterly targets in industry.

Sam Ford: This is an interesting group of industry people and academics - about 50/50 at this conference. This makes a fascinating mix, so how can we foster ongoing conversations ? It's often hard to share work between the two worlds, of academia and industry - what's your opinion in terms ofyour own projects?

Jonathan Gray: I work more on things like narrative and genre, so the people I want to talk to are creative personnel. They are very receptive if you can get a line of communication through to them, but unfortunately, many of these lines run through legal departments, which sometimes cut those lines. Ability of creative personnel to be able to connect through something like C3 it's crucial. Media scholars can offer a sense of history and of context, and time to reflect on a larger context because they work on a different time frame. But on the academic side, there's a skepticism and a fear of selling out. Hopefully new generation of scholars will be more open to that combination.

Sam Ford: Some academic blogs have said some bad things about C3 because of our relation to industry. But also there's people in industry who had a hard time justifying funding to come to this conference and the value of engaging with academics. So, we have the disconnect on both sides.

Lee Harrington : It depends on what part of the industry you're talking about. I do some research in Global TV, and that's a field that is very hard to find people who will collaborate, while soaps are great for that. One of the challenges is to produce research that's readable to people outside academia.

Sam Ford: Language is an important part of this. Historically, academia is known for not being able to communicate around disciplines. Among our industry speakers at this conference, many acronyms are used that few understands except the panel. Language matters.

Jason Mittell: I just saw that on Backchannel! And yes, the language we use to communicate in matters. As to Nielsen as god - I don't know whether they think that in the industry or not. But it seems like it sometimes. But if Nielsen's not god within the industry, the blackbox of the television industry projects that the opposite. There's a logic that shows get cancelled becasue of low ratings and shows get low ratings because no one's watching. Shows get cancelled because of the ratings, but I ask industry to explain why these things are happening outside of Nielsen. That'll change viewer attitudes.

Jonathan Gray: Maybe it's the way we see depictions. We know South Asians aren't like Apu. In the absence of other depictions, we fall back on what's there, what's easy. Nielsen is the same -- in the absence of better things, smarter measurement systems, we fall back on it.

Jason Mittell: One thing I'm optimistic about on the academic side is that new modes of publishing like blogs -- faster and written for a big audience. I hope people in industry start reading these, Henry's blog, the C3 blog, my blog, FlowTV. Television scholars aren't just writing for themselves. We want to be heard and read and commented on. Hopefully more people in the industry will consume and participate in those spaces.

Jonathan Gray: It goes both ways. I had to tell colleagues that a writer's strike is on.