The August Audience

The axed Invasion

The axed Invasion

With September behind us, American television is once more culling its young, as the least successful of the Fall 2005 class of new programs are sent to the chopping block to appease Madison Avenue. For all the advertising dollars spent and promotional appearances booked, channels that have spent the last four months insisting that this or that show will be the next great thing are now all too easily sending this or that show away for summary execution. The whole process would seem very Greek if it wasn’t so American.

What is perhaps even more interesting is the mass of either eulogies or expressions of thanks being voiced by viewers across the nation. If such pronouncements followed the death of longer-lived shows, we would more easily understand the built-up sentiment behind them. But maybe mourning or cheering the death of a newly minted show isn’t all that strange. Life between seasons, after all, involves a great deal of pre-viewing: watching ads for a show, reading interviews or sneak preview reviews, seeing stars appear on latenight television, visiting innovative advertising websites (such as Invasion’s, which poses as a conspiracy theory blog written by one of the characters), and engaging in tentative discussion about what to expect and what is hoped for. By the time a “new” show begins, it is often quite “old.” Pre-viewing television has become a major part of being a television viewer, and “watching television” also means talking about what to watch, being enticed to watch some shows, and deciding not to watch others. This talk is particularly active in-between seasons, but is truly a yearlong activity (“Did you see this? No? You must!”, “Is that any good?”, “That show looks awful!”, “I can’t wait for that to begin,” etc.).

But if this is true, many of television studies’ established models of reading and interpretation would seem to need some work. Take, for instance, Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model (1980), whereby a text is produced, imbued with meaning, but then readers are exposed to it and interpret it, sometimes creating their own meaning, sometimes following the producers’ meaning. This would seem intuitive enough. Except, when we pre-view, there is no official text for us to interact with. We may have textual fragments or shards of textual information, but no actual program. If we were all “good” readers, and refused to interpret the text at this point, encoding/decoding may still apply. But many of us are “bad” readers, and we feel quite happy and qualified to judge the text and to interpret it before actually being given the text. Encoding/pre-decoding, in other words.

For instance, I have not liked Fox’s new The War at Home for several months now. The mixture of its star and the show’s obvious allusions to Married with Children combined two (for me) odious intertexts. I have only seen a few clips of the show in previews, but never the actual show, and I have every intent of avoiding the program. Nevertheless, I have decoded it already, and thus could comment on and react to its overall aesthetic, its political values, and its proposed appeals.

The War at Home

The War at Home

Some Flow readers may well bemoan what they see as my ignorant reading of the text. That misses the sociological point: poor or astute, it is my reading. And being the kind of person I am, I will likely try to convince others of my reading, so that my reading (poor, astute, or otherwise) will “infect” others’ readings. I am playing the pre-viewing game.

I offer this as only one example, but the world of television offers many such examples. There are simply too many shows to watch all of them, much less to watch all of all of them. So we pre-decode, with relish and with wild abandon.

Yet, while “we” as viewers act this way, “we” as analysts frequently forget this point. If we want to measure an audience’s reaction to a text, we like to show them the program; if we want to see what a text means, we watch that program closely. We might decode, or consult others for their decodings — and yet ignore pre-decodings. Which means, by default, that we think of a text largely in terms of how it speaks to those who invest significant time with the text. All of those whose engagement with the text is brief, or those who actively despise a text, fear it, and want it off the air — these are the viewers our methods tend to ignore.

The sociological problem here is significant. For any program could well mean something not just to those who watch, but also to those who don’t, and, as I am arguing here, to those who don’t yet.

Returning, though, to the Fall culling of shows, this seemingly strange and cruel act reveals the industry’s own realization of the primacy of pre-viewing. After all, if a studio head feels comfortable axing a show after two episodes, it is not really because s/he feels that viewers have failed to engage with the characters and plot: it is because the previews failed to connect with enough viewers to bring in critical mass for the first two episodes.

So my humble suggestion (other than to avoid The War at Home) would be for us to go after the pre-viewer. The industry certainly wants to know about this figure, for s/he is the key to securing high advertising rates. But we should too, since s/he is also the key to understanding how viewers choose what (and how) to watch — a decision that precedes any and all decoding. Where is the pre-viewer addressed? How? By whom, and/or by what? Rather than pick up the audience in September or October, in other words, how can we study the audience in August?

Hall, Stuart (1980). “Encoding, Decoding,” in Hall et al. (eds) Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-1979. London: Unwin Hyman, 128-38.

Image Credits:

1. The axed Invasion

2. The War at Home

Please feel free to comment.


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  • Moving beyond the text

    I really like this idea of studying the ways in which things outside of the text itself effect the viewer’s experience of that text. I’m not sure of this, but I would think there have been studies of the effects (and perhaps the poetics) or the movie preview.

    I think many reception theorists would grant that viewers rarely if ever sit down and decode a single text w/o knowing anything going in. The question becomes: how do we understand the mix of partial segments of texts that most viewers engage with (i.e. Williams’ ‘flow’). What I like about Gray’s idea is that it doesn’t conflate disparate texts into aspects of a monolithic dominant ideology. Maybe we could think about all media texts as having “heads” and “tails” that precede (the aforementioned ads) and follow it (fan reactions on message boards). If anyone knows of an account of reception that works w/ these ideas, I’d love to hear about it.

    To the pre-viewer I would also add the partial viewer, who watches snippets of shows and makes judgments based on those incomplete glimpses. Its possible that DVR and TV on DVD cuts down on the partial viewing that the rise of the remote control instigated, but this uncertainty as to whether that it the case is precisely why audience research is necessary. Otherwise, its all guesswork.

  • Ways of knowing the unknown?

    Jonathan does a great job here pointing to one of the quandries of media studies: what are the boundaries of texts and viewers? We know that texts come fully entrenched in extratextual systems of meaning, as do viewers – the key question is how do we study this? Categories like previewer and anti-fan move us outside of the strict conception that reception is limited to the moment of viewing a program (and I agree that even this is complicated by the technologies Elliot mentions above). But either we have to simply add another caveat to the typical reception study, or develop a new way to study how television fits into everyday life beyond the “ideal” moment of reception – a methodological challenge that hopefully can be discussed here on Flow.

  • Audience Laboratories

    Thanks to both Elliot and Jason for their comments. And Elliot’s right to point out some such work does exist, especially on films (Coming Attractions by Lisa Kernan has some great material; Martin Barker et al’s books on Judge Dredd and Crash look at previewing and anti-fans; etc.). Going after the previewer for me just seemed a nice way to “laboritize” the audience reception process a bit. We rarely get to hold things constant when studying audiences, given how awfully slippery a creature the average audience member is, and thus different components of the text (“heads” and “tails” alike) all coalesce. But if we could study texts and audiences pre-release, we could take a knife to the process a bit more, and study its various components.

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