March 30, 2008
SCMS: Amanda Lotz, Max Dawson, and Laurie Ouelette

One of the most enjoyable full panels I attended at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philadelphia earlier this month looked at the construction of television from a variety of angles. I was fortunate enough to know the work of each of the panelists, several of whom I met at the Unboxing Television event at MIT last November.

The panel began with Laurie Ouelette, who looked at ABC's public service initiative encouraging volunteerism amongst its viewers and establishing the network as a site of extended community serving the public good through bringing citizens together outside the constraints of government to be pro-active consumer/citizens. She looked in particular at how these public service initiatives not only existed as a campaign through the Web site and during commercial breaks on the network but also how these initiatives showed up on a variety of shows, including a storyline on ABC Daytime's All My Children, in which the characters on the show volunteered for Pine Valley's Habitat for Humanity and the projects on Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

Max Dawson writes about the obsession within the industry to locate the "lost boy," males 18-34 who the networks felt were tuning out. His presentation was based around looking at how the industry constructs viewer types, the needs this type of typology serves, and also how reality is often constructed around these types once they are created. It's fascinating, as these constructions remind me of monsters like Frankenstein's creature, constructions that--once you put them together--seem to take on lives of their own and even take over the industry. So, these "types" constructed originally to give us some better idea of a particular phenomena, eventually start to become prescriptive instead of descriptive. Max called the "lost boy" an alluring and worrysome figure, one who inspires and personifies anxieties about limits in knowing viewers and, at moment of new distribution and perception, who shakes the faith in the industry's knowledge of the audience's taste. He points out gendered difference in advertising rates, in particular that advertisers may pay $2,000 to $4,000 more per male viewer than female viewer, even though that disparity has been closing, and he also talks about how the narrowcasting environment of today's cable television lineup helps encourage the tightening of demographic types, particularly based on age and gender.

New C3 Consulting Researcher Amanda Lotz presented about cases in which industry lore failed to promote stasis and reaffirm the dominant status of those in power. In particular, she pointed out that it is dangerous to look at the industry as a simplistic and single-minded creature, pointing in particular to how those with dominant power in the mainstream media industry are usually driven by things remaining as close to the same as possible, while it is always pressures around those companies that drive media change. In the case of online video, DVR use, and a variety of other technologies that are having significant impact on the ways in which the industries are structured, Lotz points out that these challenges come from the outside. She pointed out in her presentation how a variety of the decisions that were at first arbitrary or at least dependent on particular requirements of the moment eventually just became "the way things were," such as the concept of a season, the general understanding of how many episodes are in a season, etc. The industry lore may remain central if never tested or challenged, but initiatives that do eventually change them most often come from outside the center of the industry, such as challenges from the consumer electronics and computer industries. Amanda's research concentrates on changes in industry behavior, rather than numbers, since few numbers are publicly available, but she looks in particular at how online video and offerings like iTunes have changed the industry and how change has come through small experiments that eventually proved some industry lore was outdated or in need of change.

I find Amanda's call for a more nuanced understanding of the industry to be particularly appropriate for the type of work the Consortium is doing, and it makes me excited that she is consulting with us. Our work here is centered on doing just this, by creating ties with industry in order to better understand the production realities and the many forces involved in the creation of media. Her call coincides with C3 Consulting Researcher Kevin Sandler's work on building toward a production studies mode of academic inquiry as well, and I hope to see many more projects coming from Amanda, Kevin, and others in the coming year.

Victoria Johnson also presented on Friday Night Lights as part of the panel, but--with my own writing about this show--I wanted to dedicate a separate post to the subject. I'll post those thoughts shortly.