March 13, 2009
Research Update: Platforms, Audience, and Television's Shifting Landscape

Lately, my research at C3 has been making me think of that Nissan commercial with the tagline, "A shift has been made." Thanks to the passive voice, we don't know who made the shift or why. We only know that it happened and that it's trying to sell us a car. Of course, I'm thinking about television.

The way we understand the "time and space" of the television viewing experience has shifted. Networks once dictated when viewers saw television content, but new technologies now allow viewers to "watch TV" on their own schedules. Similarly, content once existed only on television sets, but now "watching TV" can happen on a phone or computer just as easily.

Much of the television experience has remained the same despite these shifts. Though we are confronted with webisodes, character blogs, and fanvids, the general structure of commercial television content has not shifted that much: we still expect 22-minute sitcoms and 44-minute dramas. Content also remains relatively static across platforms. After all, an episode of Gossip Girl contains the same footage on a TV set, an iPhone, or the

"Television," then, becomes a nebulous term. How can we understand television viewing when we're getting the same content from different points of entry? Defining television by hardware becomes problematic as television content can be found on a variety of devices. Defining television by a specific set of behaviors is equally problematic when "watching television" can happen in the living room, on the morning commute, or in a window next to an IM conversation.

To further complicate matters, how do we classify all the content that complements "television?" How do forums and recaps enhance the television experience and how do different modes of participation allow television content to spread through social networks and communities?

Our research is grappling with these problematic questions of platform, audience, and community to understand the television experience. Looking at platforms like Hulu, South Park Studios,, and FanCast, we can begin to identify features that engage audiences. By exploring how audiences use these features we can begin to see how television content functions in social networks and communities. From there, we can begin to formulate ideas about what audience participation means in the contemporary television environment. Finally, we'll be able to suggest mindsets for those looking to engage audiences.

This research has been heavily informed by recent scholarship, much of it from C3 contributors. Amanda Lotz has provided a thorough definition of the "post-network" era in terms of the shifting relationship between producers and consumers. John Caldwell has defined "second shift aesthetics" of television that necessitate a convergence of content across platforms. William Uricchio has traced the changes in television "flows" that happen when new technology gives viewers increased agency over the time and space of TV viewing. Jason Mittell has argued that all of these factors of convergence have allowed for the rise of "narrative complexity" in television content itself. The MacArthur Foundation's Report on the Digital Youth Project has framed online activity in the useful terms of "genres of participation" consisting of "friendship-based" and "interest-based" networks.

All of this work has helped us understand the experience of television and our research this semester hopes to continue the conversation by drilling down on these concepts. A shift has been made and we hope to shed some light on what that shift means.



A couple of days ago, Grant McCracken suggested:
that one aspect of that shift is the dissolution of the "traditional" barrier between the commercial and narrative content.

I can't prevent my traditional mistrust of ThePowersThatBe from citing Mad Men, Queen For A Day, and The Jack Benny Show as representative of perpetual shiftiness in advertising schemes that have always incorporated change as a constant.

It has become very difficult to differentiate the illusion of shift from the illusion of same-old-same-old, but that's much as it ever was, given sufficient historical context.


I agree that there is a breakdown of the barrier between commercial and narrative content, but I think this trend also resembles early television's sponsorship advertising model. So, it does feel familiar Still, as Grant's blog post points out, this shift is a bit different with shows like Mad Men and Trust Me where product placement story lines take place within a fictionalized portrayal of the advertising industry. (I'm also reminded of the Utz story line on Mad Men--another real brand.)

I'm interested in exploring where these advertising trends are going when TV's monetization model is being called into question. (Not that it hasn't been questionable for decades...) I'm definitely not trying to make a techno-determinist argument, but I do think the relationship between content, networks, advertisers, and viewers is shifting if not changing. We all still need the same things from each other (money, audience, or content, respectively) but the terms of those exchanges seem to be different as television content moves into new spaces.