The Rise of the Active Audience and Stephen Colbert
Rebecca McCarthy / Kaplan University

Colbert wants YOU

Colbert wants YOU

For all its glories, television is a thing that demands our attention while offering us little control in return. Yes we can turn it off, mute it, change the channel, but as an audience we are given little real control in this relationship; we are not active participants. But what constitutes an active audience? Opinions on the role of the active audience have varied greatly over the years. In the 1980s, new audience theories came out of the Center for Contemporary Critical Studies at the University of Birmingham, England. No longer were audiences seen as passive receptors awaiting programming, but as critical thinkers who analyzed our sitcom texts—we were “active” in the relationship. There was a hegemonic power play between the medium and the spectator, as well as a “democratic” polysemous understanding that no two viewings of The Simpsons were ever the same.

And yet, how active was this activity when the audience still had no say in the text being created (Morley and Silverstone, 1990)?1 Indeed, we are left with only a semblance of an active audience.2 Today however, the concept of the active audience is being redefined through the Stephen Colbert character and the innovative programming on The Colbert Report. Extending the concept of interaction, The Colbert Report encourages an improvisational space of creation where the audience is not only spectator, but text/content creator as well. Such improvisational reliance requires not only the host, Colbert, for its success, but the audience as well.

For those who might have missed the Colbert revolution, Colbert, whose alter-ego character is a neo-conservative news and opinion man, ala Bill O’Reilly, first appeared on The Daily Show as a news correspondent, and later landed his own spin-off in 2005. From the beginning, Colbert and Comedy Central worked to woo audience members by linking the internet to the TV show and by offering the audience the ability to determine some of the Colbert text—promoting an active audience.

Unlike reality TV, which offers the illusion of textual impact, The Colbert Report encourages a type of improvisational space where part of Colbert’s text is determined by the audience, what Colbert calls his “Nation.” As Colbert said on July 31, 2006, while promoting the ideals behind “truthiness” and “wikiality,” by agreeing to collaborate and support each other’s text, we bring “democracy to knowledge.” In this way, Colbert not only identified his cause with his audience, but he asked his audience to identify back by being an active member in promoting different Colbert Nation Challenges. So it was that the Colbert Nation as an active audience was born with the July 31, 2006 word of the day: Wikiality

Inspired by the “democratic” workings of the Wikipedia Encyclopedia, where Colbert explains “any user can change any entry, and if enough users agree with them, it becomes true,” Wikiality describes how reality is created through majority rule textual agreement and creation. This was demonstrated in force on August 11th, 2006 when Colbert asked his “Nation” audience to hack or to change the textual reality of the Hungarian M0 Danube Bridge naming contest. After asking his active audience to write his name in for the bridge naming contest, the Hungarian bridge site was overwhelmed with Colbert’s interactive audience and eventually, after virtual ballot stuffing techniques was promoted by Colbert himself, over 17 million votes were cast in his name.

On the heels of the Danube Bridge Contest came the first of Colbert’s Green Screen Challenges. On August 10, 2006, Colbert challenged his audience to create a video background of his waving a Star Wars’ lightsaber in a short green screen video. Colbert’s Nation obliged and on August 21, the audience once again helped determine the show’s text when several videos were aired on the Report. Around this same time, the rock group The Decemberists was holding their own green screen music video contest. Colbert accused the group of copying his efforts and went on to challenge the Nation to insert the Colbert green screen footage into The Decemberists’ video on December 7, 2006. Finally, on September 2, 2008, came the Make McCain Exciting Challenge. Colbert placed green screen footage of then presidential candidate John McCain offering an acceptance speech at the Republican national convention up on the Nation’s website, with the invitation to “go nuts.” The results were once again aired on The Report—allowing for improvisational play between the text, the platform, and the audience.

But it is Colbert’s recent “feud” with Kanye West that demonstrates how powerful an active audience can be with both an entertainment and consumer text. The launch of A Colbert Christmas, The Greatest Gift of All album on Itunes found Colbert’s album selling well below the singer Kanye West’s new release, 808s & Heartbreak. In an effort to send his album from sixteenth to first place, Colbert launched “Operation Humble Kanye,” where he asked his “hero” Nation to buy his album on Wednesday December 3rd at 5pm eastern. In response, West was reported to have retorted by Tweeting the message “Who the F*** is Stephen Colbert?” using the social networking application Twitter. Although West has now formally denied even owning a Twitter account or making the “tweet” (does West have an active audience of his own?), Colbert’s challenge succeeded and the Colbert Nation altered two texts: The Colbert Report and Itunes’ Top Ten Selling Albums’ List.

These hacks—and they are a form of hack because a dominant media text is transformed through audience mobilization—were the start of a new active audience relationship that other networks and traditional TV platforms must now contend with. It could be posited that this new active audience phenomenon and the Wikility philosophy is as passive as the old variety. Indeed, Colbert says “hack” and we jump?

However, I would argue that the active Colbert Nation audience resembles an improvisational text that relies on the inventiveness of an active audience, one that seeks to be both spectator and creator. As in traditional improvisational modes of performance, the suggestions and themes that make up Colbert’s challenges to his audience cannot, in the end, control or predetermine the outcome of the audience’s action. The audience, in being an improvisational performer as well, receives the suggestions and then enacts its own text. What makes the Colbert platform so successful is not only the fact that the audience accepts his challenges, but that Colbert is able to adjust to his audiences’ text, incorporating the outcome, whatever it may be, into his own performance. What we have is a dance, not a directive.

This new paradigm of an improvisational creation between the television platform, the audience, and the text is being explored by innovators such as Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, who in 2005 helped launch Current TV, an independent media company which promotes audience determined, and often performed, TV programming. Audience created content (or “pods” created by “VC2” Producers) is voted on by the larger audience and then the most popular content is broadcast on the internet and on cable. During the 2008 presidential election, Current TV “hacked” the presidential debates by broadcasting viewers “tweets” and 12 Second video over the debates—making a “passive” audience “active.” It is only a matter of time before traditional networks wake-up and get on board.

Image Credits:

1. Colbert wants YOU
2. Front Page Image

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  1. Morley, D. & Silverstone, R. (1990). Domestic Communications: Technologies and Meanings. Media, Culture, & Society. 12(1), 31-55. []
  2. Holmes, S. (2004). ‘But this Time You choose!’: Approaching the ‘Interactive’ Audience in Reality TV. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 7, 213-231. []

16 comments

  • Thank you, Rebecca, for this interesting article. While not wanting to appear overly pedantic, I would like to point out that what you call the Center for Contemporary Critical Studies was, actually, the Centre (British spelling) for Contemporary Cultural (not Critical) Studies. I assume that, in referring to the Centre pioneering work on active audience theory, you are signalling Stuart Hall’s 1974 article which now goes under a variety of titles, most usually ‘Encoding/Decoding’–though, on your dating, you are more likely to be referrring to David Morley’s book, The Nationwide Audience: Structure and Decoding which was published in 1980. Perhaps it should be added that others also contributed to the development of what subsequently became known as active audience theory. One of the most important was Ien Ang who, starting with Watching Dallas in 1985 and including her discussion of active audience theory in Living Room Wars in 1996, was at the forefront of discussions of theories that empowered the audience. Ang was by no means alone, Janice Radway and John Fiske are other theorists that come immediately to mind but there many other who were alos not aligned wih the Center at Birmingham. While not wanting to renew an old debate, it is, perhaps, worth remembering that there was, and maybe still is, much resistance to active audiebnce theory, and the theories that helped span it such as semiotics, in the United States. This is not the place to go into reasons why, but active audience theory has been much more accepted in Europe and anglophone countries such as Australia than in the US. Having said all this, you are, of course, quite right to note that, in traditional mass media, the audience was always already fundamentally disempowered in that this audience had no say in the production of the text itself. Hall, Morley, Ang and the other active audience theorists would entirely agree with you.

  • In the case of Colbert’s projects, though, I wonder about issues of labor and self-promotion. What kind of compensation do the audience participants receive for the work they do producing videos and other media? Sure, some of those videos might be getting on air, but this represents at one level free content for the program, and increased time with the Colbert brand for the audience — are those really valuable to anyone other than Colbert and his show? Is this really anything that disruptive? Or, is it just another way that “viral” advertising and media efforts can help seduce audiences?

    I honestly don’t know. I just wonder about the amount of work that goes into these and what sorts of compensation are available. From what I can tell, Colbert’s made some major branding progress and sold a whole bunch of merchandise. What has his audience gotten from this bargain?

  • This is a compelling portrait of an active audience model….but what is the ultimate end? In other words, so they’re active — they put Colbert at the top of the charts, etc. — but what sort of change is this enacting? I hate to rehearse the decades-old arguments about the actual activeness (or what TYPE of activeness) of the active audiences….but I am curious how this activity figures within a broader political or social sphere. Would Colbert’s viewers mobilize to enact social change in a context broader (or less rooted in hilarity) than overcoming Kayne on the music chart?

  • You may recall that Colbert (in his character, not the real Stephen Colbert) mounted a bid for president, first running from his native state of South Carolina. His audience did mobilize to try to get him on the ballot there. They have also mobilized for two social causes that Colbert has espoused on the show. One is the “Wriststrong” bracelet (created when Stephen broke his wrist, modeled after Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong bracelets) … Donations went to some worthy charity (I believe it had to do with supporting war veterans, but I may be mistaken). The second is that Colbert has mobilized his audience on several occasions to the donorschoose.org website, in which donations support micro-grants to classroom teachers.

    In addition, his audience was mobilized during the Writers Guild strike of last year (Colbert was a supporter of the strike) and Colbert himself provided an incredible call-to-action about the importance of unions, using his (deceased) father’s efforts in a hospital worker’s strike in the 60’s. In other words, he used his platform to take a very serious stance on an issue of the day. There is also a true “Colbert bump” for the authors who appear on his show — and these authors, for the most part, tend to be “serious” authors, often with political or social points of views.

    So yes, I think there is evidence that Colbert’s viewers can and have mobilized to enact change in a context broader than messing with Wikipedia or getting to the top of the iTunes chart. You may want to check out the fan blog of nofactzone.net and search for some more context on the points that I’ve made above. Great article!

  • Re: Karly Cocurek: Obviously the audience gets entertainment out of the exchange, and it asks for nothing more. If someone demanded payment for some contribution the response would be simple: No thanks! That’s not what we’re all about! (yes, I say “we” because once you’ve participated in a few of the “group projects” you start to feel like a member of a community) For the audience members who actually put a lot of time and effort into creating green screen challenges that are eventually selected for airing by Colbert, they can then tout them on their resumes if they are into that particular sort of creative line of work. For those of us who use a few moments of our time to flood a particular website or mess around on Wikipedia, its just a neat experience to watch how a tiny bit of effort from an individual can have far-reaching consequences. (ie. individual irrationality leading to collective rationality, or vice versa).

    And who cares if he mobilizes the Colbert Nation to support particular causes? I mean, that’s a nice added bonus, but the whole thing is about entertainment. Various pundits have criticized Colbert and Stewart at times for being biased in their “news reporting”, which in itself is the fulfillment of their shows’ point! They’re not reporting news or attempting to change anyone’s opinions about issues of real importance. They’re performing social and political satire, and if it causes someone to come to an enlightened position that’s just a positive externality. And if it causes their supporters to wreck Wikipedia or crash some website, well then that would be a negative externality.

    This happens with online communities as well…notably on Wonkette, which regularly mobilizes its readers to cause “havoc” on other sites. (good natured fun! nothing harmful…just jokes, submissions in online contests, or the like)

  • Thank you all for your wonderful comments, thoughts and ideas! I am delighted by the feedback.

    RE: John Stratton, I appreciate your notes on the center and yes I am signaling Stuart Hall. But I am grateful for the other references you have provided here as well, I think it is time in general to revisit the active audience theory mostly because of the internet and how not only Colbert but venues such as Current TV is allowing its audience to determine the script as well. Social media, in my opinion, will change how we view TV in the future if we continue on this road.

    RE: Carly Kocurek, I love you question regarding labor, self-promotion, and compensation. I am not sure I have an answer for you but you have given me a great “think.” I know that for many of Colbert’s “nation” there is a sense of simple gratification for being able to help determine that text but that is a far as it goes. I also think that we will see companies work to capitalize on an audience’s creativity. In the end, this is an important question that I will ponder more specifically. Thank you very much!

    RE: Helen, the potential for the end might be better viewed with current.tv and what is going on there. Here we have a convergence of simple entertainment, to news and, more importantly, mobilization for social justice issues. For example, twitter users are uniting to help bring about clean water for people. The mobilization effort is through twitter and current TV (http://current.com/items/76363.....harity.htm). The Audience at current.tv determines what should be view by the larger cable audience and this issue is on top now. So, for me – here is the potential of an active audience today.

    RE: Sharon, thank you for the additional examples. I felt that his campaign for presidency was particularly important because it was seen a threat once his “nation” started to support him. As @MedianHater suggests, with Colbert mostly we have an entertainment mode of satisfaction. Yet I do believe that what we see with Colbert’s audience demonstrates a wider tendency towards the desire for text creation and promotion among audiences. Certainly these examples along with Current.tv are worth analyzing and watching in the end.

  • I think Helen’s question was an interesting one. What sort of change is Colbert really enacting?

    As much as I prefer the Daily Show over the Colbert Report, I am rather impressed with what Colbert has done with his program. Helen mentioned that topping Kanye West in the music charts is not really a progressive use of audience activism. However, I think we need to consider this situation for a second. Kanye West is a huge music celebrity. This country has a huge fascination with music, and making it to the top 10 on an album chart is a huge deal. If a comedian, such as Colbert, puts out a music or comedy CD, it never makes its way that high in the charts. Why this victory is so impressive is because he was able to bring a comedy CD into the same league as celebrated rapper Kanye West. I think we should be focusing less on “Well, what did that accomplish?” and more “If he could do that, imagine what else he could do”.

    I think Stephen Colbert’s run for presidency was even more impressive. What started off as a complete joke actually built a serious amount of momentum. A guy on a comedy news show developed a fan base that wanted to see him elected. Facebook groups were started with millions of faithful supporters and he almost made it onto the ballot in his home state. He transcended the barrier between comedy news and the political realm. All of this was capable because of his audience.

    Although Colbert is giving power to his audience, I don’t think he is going to be the person who brings about through his audience the kind of social change Helen was mentioning. I consider him to be a forerunner, someone who has opened the doors to audience involvement for future people to embrace. TV has been a medium where the audience soaks in material and has no real say in what comes next. Now, thanks to the digital revolution, not only can the audience make their voice heard, but they can actually make a difference.

    The audience has been in a coma. We are just starting to realize that we have any say in the way the media works. Colbert has sounded the alarm and has let his “nation” know that we all have the power to decide what our media says. The question now is how far the audience will go? How far can we take our media before we run it completely ourselves?

  • I see nothing revolutionary in what Stephen Colbert is doing on his show. The incorporation of audience participation into the show’s format is a concept that has been used by many news programs for many years, the Colbert Report is just mimicking this idea for novelty sake, the fact that it has such an immense influence, is just a byproduct of what otherwise is just a gag on his show. When Stephen Colbert sends his viewers to change a fact in Wikipedia, it is no more than a clever attempt to prove the strength of his show’s influence, over seemingly more serious news programs. The subversive element of the show’s hidden anti establishment messages can be hardly described as any form of counter culture, and so its impact is benign at best, and is hardly promoting any real change in how we view media outlets. The Colbert Report can definitely become a platform for some serious uprising against corrupt media outlets, yet it chooses to “clown around” instead of creating a real voice that should be taken seriously.

  • Christopher Fust

    It’s an interesting point that’s brought up here. Steven Colbert effectively somewhat like a rouge dictator of the capitalist media system in the sense that he can influence events outside the realm of his network that are seemingly tangential or non-sequitur to the ideology of the United State’s media system. Steven Colbert’s work reminds people of how television is not just a device that spits out ideology so it can be soaked up; no, it is a device that relies on that soaked up ideology to be invested back into the system to fuel more production of televisual events. The reason why television exists still is because the morals that are being thrown at the public are being absorbed and followed. Steven Colbert represents this because his work in disturbing the natural flow of the public shows how ideology is being absorbed and by a mass and then invested back into the system, thus fueling Steven Colbert. In the article there was a report of Steven Colbert telling his audience to buy his Christmas CD so that he could be the number one selling music CD of the season. Because his audience followed what he said, he reached his goal of having the most popular CD of the season and showed vital mechanics of how the ideological industry works. Ideology is projected onto a population so they can act out and respond back to it, thus giving it more power.

    However, media is a two-way device and as much as Steven Colbert’s output affects the public, the public affects the media by giving networks target objectives that they must please to keep their audience. In her article Jamming Big Brother, Pamela Wilson shows how the show Big Brother’s narrative was “hijacked by a motley assortment of activist on-line fans and media/culture jammers.” (323. Jamming Big Brother). In a truly rare occurrence of national media, the audience remained the dominating force in the show illustrating the true power the public has over networks. In this reality TV show where contestants have no contact to the outside world, fans/activists showed the contestants propaganda as a means of targeting the network, CBS/AOL. The show’s audience had creative control over the project showing how two-sided the media industry really is. We can’t live without TV and TV can’t live without us.

    Pamela Wilson. “Jamming Big Brother: Webcasting, Audience Intervention, and Narrative Activism” . Reality TV: Remarking on Television Culture Susan Murray and Laurie Oullette. New York University Press 2004

  • This is an interesting article by Rebecca McCarthy. Colbert for the past few years has been using the technique of having the audience participate in various ways. Whether this be having fans submit funny videos, editing Wikipedia, or more recently calling for the audience to vote the name “Colbert” in the naming contest for the new Node of the International Space Station (), he is using the audience in a clever way. He wants the audience to go against dominant ideology yet at the same time he is on the medium in which dominant ideology is pumped out to the masses. This technique of using the audience has become popular enough that eventually other networks will catch on and start doing this more frequently at which point Colbert will have in essence changed the way television works. I am not saying that Colbert is the sole creator of this technique, but he has utilized it the most successfully and gotten the largest results. Colbert’s success is the beginning of a new form of television, a much more interactive type.

  • Cable news was created on the promise that we would be sold facts and knowledge about our world, fed by reporters, that we would otherwise not be able to attain. Years and years of broken promises misrepresented truths directly resulted in the creation of The Daily Show- which then bred The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert is the satire of famed political voice Bill O’Reilly, and has challenged media influence on common knowledge.
    The news has continually promoted hegemonic methods to influence viewers to lean one way on the political spectrum, despite initial promises. By making a mockery of cable news, Colbert has created a coalition of angry viewers with comedic impulses. The results have been unprecedented, together- Colbert and Stewart, the host of The Daily Show- they have created an active audience responsible for creating their own facts. Colbert often asks audiences to complete tasks that will benefit him in some way. In response, they overwhelmingly beat any competition within those said tasks.
    What we see here is a sharp challenge to hegemony, the idea that news should be fed. Colbert has asked us to create the news ourselves- like when he asks his audience to insert facts into Wikipedia articles. The problem with this, however, is that it is not free thinking that creates this activism in television watching, it is almost dictatorial. The viewers are certainly acting willingly, but not for their own sake but for his.
    Ironically, we see perfected systems of active viewer participation with CNN. During the Primary Presidential Debates, CNN asked audiences to record themselves asking political questions for the candidates. Therefore, it is up to the viewer and the network to shape ideology, or create news. Ultimately, neither The Daily Show nor The Colbert Report have lacked material to mock news as they had initially set out to do. The constant mockery still persists and is funnier than ever.

  • The Colbert Report encouraged audience activism and audience participation that sometimes became the entire focus of an episode. Therefore the audience became a crucial element to the show and became part of the show themselves. It’s easy to see why each demand made by Colbert was such a success. With the green screen challenge, audience members were intrigued by the idea of having their work displayed on television, therefore giving them “15 minutes of fame.” It was essentially a competition to appear on television. The other challenges with hacking Wikipedia, the bridge named after him, and the CD sales, were also popular because it added to the ridiculousness of the egocentric character that was Steven Colbert. Audiences participated in Colbert’s request because they knew that it was all apart of a joke. With Wikipedia, the audience member knew that in changing and directly lying about the number of elephants left was a direct commentary on the of flaws of Wikipedia. With the bridge challenge, audiences were fully aware of adding on to the joke and being a part of Steven Colbert’s narcissistic character. Finally with the challenge of outselling Kanye West’s CD, Audience realize that this is a blatant advertisement for his own CD and again add on to the joke when he asks them too.

    However, none of these methods of audience activism are revolutionary nor particularly important. They show that the audience has an important part with what they watch and that with a revolution in technology, it is getting increasingly easier to participate with programs on Television. Before The Colbert Report, such shows like American Idol (2002-) enforced such methods of audience participation as an important factor of the show. The votes from audiences determined who got to continue on in the singing competitions and who went home.

    But perhaps the most revolutionary show that incorporated audience activism was the U.S. version of Big Brother (2002). This show was based off the concept in George Orwell’s book 1984. No privacy and no contact with the outside world. It incorporated both continuous Web feeds and episodes on air. Even though the house guests were suppose to be isolated from the rest of society while within the house, they got constant bombardments from fans trying to communicate with them whether by flying airplanes with banners, shooting tennis balls with newspapers into the enclosed area, or even by shouting messages over a megaphone. The difference between the Colbert Report and Big Brother was the fact that in Big Brother, the audience activism was not asked for, nor welcomed by the producers of the show. The audience members who watched the show on the web streaming live were unhappy with the concept of the show and therefore promptly acted. The messages that were delivered to the members of the house all had the same message; to boycott the show and walk out of the house. The house guests were greatly influenced by all the messages and almost left, threatening the show’s survival on air.

    This was a crucial element in television history. It opened the eyes of the CBS network and other networks that audience participation was a sometimes crucial element to the show. While Steven Colbert uses the method of audience participation in his shows, The Colbert Report was definitely not the first program that had active audiences and because he uses the audience to participate in his jokes, it is definitely not a revolutionary act.

  • The idea of audience affecting a the outcome of show is far from revolutionary. Shows like the American Idol series have revolutionized interactive television. However, the idea that a show, like The Colbert Report, can have such a profound effect on the audience and society is quite innovative. Its typical for a product to increase in sales after it appears on a popular television show but such blatant forms of audience control isn’t typically frequent. Its a common practice for talk shows to brings guests on to advertise their books or music albums. However, Colbert uses its power over the audience to not only sell guest’s products but to disrupt the scheme of society. Colbert has shown the massive influence television has on society while at the same time allows society to dictate what will happen on television. By merely having the audience affect the outcome of the show, the show draws audience attention while solidifying a spot on the viewers television the next week.

  • I don’t really think what The Colbert Report has done with its interactivity is very special at all. It isn’t the rise of anything because other earlier shows and news programs have already had some sense of interactivity about them. During the Obama inauguration one of the news channels was asking people to send in their photos from the event so they could put them all together to make a panoramic image and American Idol and Survivor accepted people’s votes for who stays on the show. Interactivity with the audience on television has been around, it just hasn’t been that obvious to some. Even if The Colbert Report is more interactive than other television programs who cares, the sole purpose of the show’s interactivity is to facilitate the show’s ability to keep advertisers and make money. The whole reason why the show has a website and accepts proposals and ideas is so that fans will get involved, go on the website, and be exposed to advertisements. The producers of the show don’t allow interactivity with its audience because they want to, its so more and more money can be made. The show creates a guise of friendship with its audience but it is in fact being very ambitious and economical. The show uses its fans in a way that makes their advertisers marketing attempts much more efficient and successful.

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