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