The August Audience
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
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.
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