Producers, Publics, and Podcasts: Where Does Television Happen?

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica

The distance between television creators and television viewers has always seemed to me to be exaggerated, in mainstream as well as academic conceptions. “The industry,” that mysterious source of texts, is put over in one corner, and the “audience,” endlessly receiving (actively, passively, or otherwise), is parked in the other. We scholars look into each side fairly well, but rarely do we examine what happens when they meet. John Fiske once wrote about “moments of television,” where television “happens” in the interaction of text and audience.1 I’ve always liked this conception, but would suggest that we scale it back beyond only the text (which always matters, of course), to the institutions and people who made it. “Television” happens somewhere in this meeting of people, institutions, ideas, and technology.

Unfortunately, while the various parties of this relationship are generally analyzed on their own, they’re rarely brought together. The industry is all too often viewed as either a monolith or a set of fiefdoms, with transparent intents and machinations (i.e., to make lots of money). While this conception is valid, if banal, it lacks an analysis of the complex workings of the television industry, its components, and its people. The pursuit of profit alone doesn’t explain the prevalence of hand-held camerawork in single-camera shows, the explosion of procedural dramas, or even how Ashton Kutcher became a reality show mogul. Meanwhile, textual analysis, while invaluable, still separates process from product. This isn’t the place to ruminate on the interpretive role of the critic, but surely, as Keith Negus detailed in his study of genre in the music industry, the motivations, calculations, and judgments of creators and other industry personnel “matter,” at least in principle.2 Finally, while the audience has received the lion’s share of critical attention (whether categorized as viewers or fans), their documented encounters with television generally begin and end with the text, or with the texts they create. Television creative personnel rarely factor into such studies. However, many television creators today (writers in particular) consider themselves fans, and actively foster relationships with fans. These “fan-professionals,” including creators like Damon Lindelof, Ron Moore, J. Michael Straczynski, and Joss Whedon, present significant opportunities for connecting the dots between producers, texts, and viewers.

While fans have long contacted series producers and writers (dating back to radio), the growth of organized fandom over the past forty years has provided producers of particular genres with ready-made, eager and receptive, if often difficult, audiences for their work. An array of media and fora, ranging from magazines to conventions, have developed over this period to facilitate (and, yes, exploit) this connection. Over the last dozen or so years, the internet has greatly expanded the range and volume of these creator-fan encounters. Engaged creators can now obtain instantaneous feedback on their work from their most enthusiastic viewers. Some writers and producers (and in a few rare cases, actors) even directly engage with fans on their own turf, posting on fan-run message boards and blogs. Most recently, however, creators have taken an even more active role in this relationship, offering up extensive online commentary and discussion about their work.3

The producers of the new Battlestar Galactica didn’t have to put blogs (text and video), galleries of production art, or weekly podcasts online, but they did. This material has gone beyond the usual staid promotional package you’d expect on official websites, to include frank discussions about the series’ production, and salty on-set actualities. In his unprecedented podcast episode commentaries, executive producer Ron Moore is mostly concerned with explaining the “whys” of televisual storytelling, justifying narrative elements, detailing rewrites, lamenting production difficulties, and even regretting some choices. As a grizzled veteran of the rise and fall of Star Trek in the 1990s, Moore is keenly aware of the demands of fans, of networks and studios, and of commercial television itself. He effectively communicates the exhausting process of pleasing all of these masters, and yet can still gush with unapologetic fannish glee at an actor’s performance, at a shot sequence, or at his series’ much-noted moral ambiguity.

Although Galactica’s official web presence is certainly robust, Lost arguably represents the most extensive online interaction between creators and fans on American television right now. As with Battlestar Galactica, a weekly podcast enables series producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof to talk directly about their work, discussing that week’s episode, and answering a few fan questions about the narrative each week. Unlike Moore and Eick, however, Cuse and Lindelof focus primarily on teasing the narrative rather than explaining how things were done. This approach runs parallel with both the dominant treatment of the series (as unfolding puzzle) and the other components of its online footprint (e.g., cryptic websites for Oceanic Air and the Hanso Foundation). Their fannish enthusiasm comes across in anticipation of “what happens next,” rather than in Moore’s “here’s how we did it.” In addition, each Lost podcast also includes an interview with a cast member. Thus far, these interviews have served as fairly standard publicity fodder, although as the podcast form becomes more established, perhaps they will evolve into something more substantial as well.

Lost

Lost

Like their fan-produced counterparts (which number in the dozens), these official blogs and podcasts offer new spaces for analysis, interpretation, and creator-fan interaction. That said, these practices shouldn’t necessarily be taken at their face value. They still function primarily as promotion material, drawing fans not only to the programs, but to ad-supported websites and other media. Moreover, significant cultural and social power differentials still remain between creators and fans, no matter how sincere the formers’ intents may be. Still, though, creators like Moore and Lindelof are clearly enthusiastic about their work, and about talking about their work with other enthusiasts. There’s something in these exchanges that needs to be acknowledged and studied, rather than ignored or written off.

Thankfully, there are precedents in television studies for “connecting the dots.”4 These works trace the connections over time, revealing how creators sometimes rely upon viewers for creative acknowledgement and even political support, and how viewers communicate their perspectives and concerns to creators. What emerges in these accounts is an understanding of how television texts (and even institutions) are ongoing collaborations of expectations and possibilities between creators, networks, advertisers, viewers, fans, and technology. In other words, television isn’t just what happens in the proverbial living room between eyeballs and screens.

The mushrooming of content (online and otherwise) related to series — what used to be called “extratextual”–presents not only further avenues of interpretation, but also alternative conceptions of what “television” is, or can be, or was. Moreover, as discussed elsewhere in Flow, the rapidly shifting distribution of television adds to this redefinition, and arguably enhances the importance of creator-viewer interaction. The distance between the dots is shrinking, and has been for years. It’s high time to connect them.

Notes
1John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987).
2Keith Negus, Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (New York: Routledge, 1999).
3The prevalence of commentary tracks and other “behind-the-scenes” features on DVD releases is another signficant incarnation of this phenomenon.
4A few examples: Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion (Durham, NC: Duke, 2001), Julie D’Acci’s Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney and Lacey (Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina, 1994), Laurie Ouellette’s Viewers Like You?: How Pulbic TV Failed the People (New York: Columbia, 2002), and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado’s Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (London: Methuen, 1983).

Image Credits
1. Battlestar Galactica

2. Lost

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