Cybernetic TV

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Editor’s Note: This piece, originally published here in Volume 3, Issue 4, is reprinted here as part of our “Flow Favorites” issue, in which the coordinating editors (past and present) select an article for republication. While new images and video clips have been added, the original text remains the same. We have also included the original comments at the conclusion, as well as a new postscript by the author and an introduction by one of the creators of Flow and the co-coordinating editor of volumes 1 and 2, Chris Lucas.


Introduction: Here are some of the qualities I appreciate about Cybernetic TV as a Flow article: it synthesizes insights from several programs within a genre or format, it engages contemporary themes and issues in media culture (e.g., interactivity and surveillance), and there is the sense of a scholar extending ideas he knows well and trying out ideas that will inform longer and more developed works to come.

In his article, Andrejevic describes the “promises of participation” at the heart of several hit shows in the reality genre and complicates the buzz word interactive – buzzier then than now – in a way I find novel and useful. The figure of cybernetics was, for me, an ‘aha!’ moment of linkage between media culture and techno-culture and by questioning “participation” in this way, as well as the ostensible line between professional and amateur (the blurring of which was already becoming a kind of leitmotif for producers, critics, and scholars alike), the piece gave me new angles to consider on my own research.

In the early days of Flow we got angsty when a column like this didn’t generate comments or debate. Eventually we realized that Flow’s strength was in the more subtle work of supporting existing networks and relationships of media scholars, providing a platform for new and established voices to mingle, and as a place to get fast bites of theory and research you might not seek out otherwise. I think (I hope) that has been the pleasure of Flow for others and what a collection of favorites like this will demonstrate once again.

— Chris Lucas, 2008


cybernetic tv

Toward the end of an early episode of MTV’s The Reality Show, a recursive show devoted to selecting a reality show for the network, host Dan Levy told the audience, “OK America, it’s time to vote! This is your chance to program our network.” Such promises of participation and shared control have become a recurring theme in the marketing of incipient forms of interactive TV technologies and formats that directly incorporate viewer feedback. By pressing a few buttons, couch potatoes are collectively transformed into talent scouts and production assistants with the power to award recording contracts, dole out millions of dollars in prize money, or kick someone off a show.

andy dick

Andy Dick, host of The Reality Show

This promise of empowerment via interactivity is a slippery one: it envisions a Ross-Perot world of perpetual electronic referenda as a strategy for information gathering and audience monitoring. In the name of shared control it encourages viewers to become emotionally invested in a show by telling them it’s “their” show and then enlisting them to participate in a nationwide focus group. The term interactive is too general and misleading for such shows; they have become cybernetic in their attempts to incorporate feedback into flexible marketing and promotional campaigns.

American Idol is perhaps the most successful example of this sub-genre of audience-participation shows. Its ultimate product is a chart-topping album, and the show doubles as both advertising and market-research. Instead of paying for market testing and talent scouting producers have transformed them into a money-making spectacle by promising behind-the-scenes access to the production of popular culture. Let viewer voyeurs participate in marketing to themselves.

Recent formats that fit into the cybernetic sub-genre include The Reality Show and the USA Network’s Made in the USA, which allows viewers to pick among inventors competing for a chance to hawk their creations on the Home Shopping Network. As spot advertising confronts the threat of digital demise, such shows transform content into advertising with an interactive twist: a convergent hybrid of cyber-advertainment.

made in the usa

One of the inventions on Made in the USA advertising

Thanks to the popularization of the ubiquitous prefix “cyber-”, its original sense has dissipated, leaving in its wake only a vaguely hip, high-tech afterimage. In its original formulation, cybernetics refers to the science of feedback-based control: the ability of self-governing mechanisms to adjust on the fly. One of the inspirations for Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, famously, was his work on guided missile systems, an experience that led him to express guarded pessimism toward the theoretical developments he helped pioneer: “there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power…I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope” (39).

To describe interactive TV as cybernetic is to highlight the distinction between feedback as a strategy of control and participation as power sharing — a distinction too often obscured by the digital-era promise of interactivity, which tends to treat the efficacy of feedback as evidence of shared control. A heat-seeking missile may be cybernetic insofar as it adjusts to signals from its target, but to call it “interactive” or “participatory” would be to suggest a misleading commonality of interests between projectile and target. In the somewhat less ballistic realm of TV programming (notwithstanding the persistent vocabulary of target markets and audiences) the promise of interactivity implicitly identifies the imperatives of programmers with the best interests of those who provide feedback. They are, after all, both contributing to the same goal.

To call a format cybernetic is to invoke the further distinction between those aspects of production that are governed by feedback and those which are exempted from audience participation. Cybernetic control incorporates feedback to achieve pre-programmed goals that remain beyond the reach of interactive participation. We can thus differentiate between two layers of feedback in its broadest sense: the first allows for the adjustment of strategies to achieve a given end (boosting records sales, destroying rockets); the second has purchase upon the goal-setting process itself. Cybernetic TV deploys the promise of shared control at the second level as an alibi for exploiting the marketing potential of the first.

As an example of the limits of cybernetic interactivity, consider the case of American Candidate, an attempt by producer and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler to realize, literally, the ostensibly democratic character of interactive TV. As Cutler envisioned it, the show would transpose the model of American Idol into the realm of politics, allowing “non-professional politicians of conviction” — “real” people with political passion and talent — to bypass normal political channels and run for president. Viewers would select their favorite candidate, who would then, thanks to a cash prize and a TV season’s worth of national publicity, be poised to run for office as a third-party candidate.

american candidates

The American Candidate contestants

For Cutler, who devoted several years to developing it, the show represented the possibility that TV might heal the wounds it had inflicted on the political process in the form of prohibitive campaign costs and junk-food news coverage regurgitated by media conglomerates unwilling to hold power accountable (Cutler, 2005). For our purposes, American Candidate might be considered an attempt to jump the gap between feedback and shared control by channeling audience participation into the realm of the political — that of goal setting, not just strategy adjusting.

The F/X Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, picked up the show — and then, after roughly a year in development dropped it, citing costs. The show was eventually produced as a mock presidential campaign, poorly promoted and relegated to the ratings hinterlands of Showtime, too late in the election season to allow the winner to run for office.

As someone who continues to work with News Corp outlets, Cutler confines his frustration over the fate of the show to speculating that it might have been too political and participatory for the political elites upon whose good will Murdoch’s media empire depends. Since cost estimates didn’t change significantly, he insists that, “The reported reason could not possibly be the full story” (Cutler, 2005). As originally envisioned, the show represented an attempt to deliver on the promise of participation as power sharing — a promise that, regardless of the show’s actual potential (for good or ill), stretched the limits of interactive TV beyond the cybernetic comfort zone of U.S. commercial TV.


Andrejevic Postscript

Shortly after learning this article was going to be re-run by Flow (thanks for the interest!), I came across two New York Times articles that highlighted an increasingly familiar dimension of cybernetic TV. The first noted the growing online “ratings” for streamed versions of popular TV shows; the second documented the tremendous amount of information being gathered about user behavior online. In terms of the Flow article, the ability of viewers to participate in the process of marketing to themselves is greatly extended by the version of interactive TV emerging online. Perhaps those ads are not (yet?) as lucrative as prime-time broadcast slots, but netcasters can sell a lot more of them as they start to break out of the scheduling grid and make their libraries available online. The portrayal of this proliferating form of feedback-based, custom-tailored advertising as one more convenience of the information age is in keeping with the conflation of interactivity and participation – of market research and democratic power sharing. There may be occasional overlapping interests between advertisers and consuming citizens, but in the end their goals are far from identical. The fact that even now this doesn’t go without saying is testimony to just how counter-revolutionary the information revolution has become.

Article 1

Article 2


References

Cutler, R. J. (2005). Telephone interview with the author, Sept. 19.

Wiener, Norbert (1961). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. New York: MIT Press.

Reprint image credits

1. American Candidate logo. Graphic by Peter Alilunas.

2. Andy Dick, host of The Reality Show

3. Made in the USA invention.

4. The American Candidate contestants.


Original comments

TV feedback

By now, experiments with direct feedback mechanisms have been around long enough to show that they’re only sustainable in certain situations. For one thing, the audience needs to be relatively homogenous (e.g. they all love the “American Idol” style of singing).

There’s something very short-term about these efforts to gauge audience desire. Supposedly, the talent scouts, producers and writers that this system aims to replace are “experts” in the sense that they have experience. They know the difference between a show (or a person) that’s a flash in the pan and a lasting hit. As we all know, these “experts” are wrong a lot of the time. But one has to wonder if these shows that are beholden to the week-to-week whims of the audience will have ANY shot at long-term popularity (I suspect they won’t). By that, I mean American Idol may be popular season to season, but the individual seasons won’t be worth much in syndication or DVD the way well-scripted traditional shows are.

By observing these televisual experiments in democracy, I think we can learn a lot about democracy in general. When should democracy be direct, and when should it be indirect? When are experts needed? When does the potential for corruption necessitate more checks-and-balances, more visibility, or signal the fracturing of the larger group into smaller ones? The answers are being played out on TV right now.

The example of “American Candidate” illuminates the bounds of choice. I guess we have a responsibility to keep on eye on which of these shows get pulled and why they get pulled.

Posted by Elliot Panek | October 30, 2005, 7:23 pm | edit


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Watching TV Without Pity

by: Mark Andrejevic / University of Iowa

VoteForTheWorst

VoteForTheWorst.com

Despite their threats and invective, it’s hard to take the folks at Fox seriously when they badmouth VoteForTheWorst.com, the Website that champions the underdogs on American Idol – not out of pity, but in order to have them to kick around a bit longer. Fox has reportedly slapped the site with cease-and-desist orders and dispatched its spokespeople to call it “hateful” and “mean-spirited,” but as is so often the case with Murdoch-style outrage, this reeks of a certain gleeful hypocrisy – as when the network turned suddenly penitent after Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, and trumpeted its remorse all the way to the bank (www.votefortheworst.com). VoteForTheWorst.com is merely one more self-stoking symptom of American Idol’s daunting success. As the site’s founder put it, Fox needs to lighten up: “All we’re doing is getting people to watch their show…We’re [earning] you money for the sponsors!” (Elfman, 2007).

If it’s not already quietly negotiating a deal to buy the site, Fox should learn from Bravo, which recently purchased the well established, rip-on-your-favorite-show site, TelevisionWithoutPity.com (TWoP for short) (Peterson, 2007). For those who have been following its snarky antics since it changed its name from Mighty Big TV and attracted a loyal following of some 50,000 registered users with lots more visitors and lurkers, the sale might be somewhat bittersweet: the site that gleefully ripped on The Powers That Be (TPTB, in TWoPspeak) has officially been deputized by them (Kapica, 2006). All of which might threaten to take some of the satisfaction out of the snark…or not.

A few years ago, I posted an advertisement on the site (which was strapped for cash at the time, before its deal with Yahoo and its purchase by Bravo) inviting visitors to participate in an online survey. In keeping with the general tenor of the site, I received lots (almost 1,800, within a matter of days) of articulate, thoughtful, and highly self-reflexive answers to questions about how TWoPpers envisioned their role in the media food chain. Despite the interactive hype that has inundated the media environment since the start of the millennium, the people who wrote me were, in keeping with the upbeat cynicism that characterizes all but the most unabashedly fannish forums on the site, quite cautious about making any broad claims regarding audience empowerment or subversive consumption. As one respondent put it, “the producers are such prostitutes to advertisers and whatever other show may be popular that giving advice would be pointless. It is all about the Benjamins.”

This response was typical. Most of those who wrote me took pains to suggest that they didn’t have any illusions about transforming or improving the culture industry. The recurring theme in the responses was that contributors post primarily for one another, and that if producers feel like paying attention, so much the better. Some respondents cautioned against the dangers of TWoPpers believing their own press coverage, which included accounts of show runners scurrying back to their computers to see how the boards were treating their shows. As one respondent put it, “Although the artistic personnel of some shows probably read TWOP, I think the posters on the forums think they have more influence than they probably do. If they write posts for the series creators, they are deluded as to their influence.”

Tubey

Tubey

Which is not to say TWoPpers were entirely without hope: the site’s snark is motivated in no small part by disappointment in the persistent inanity and unfulfilled potential of a medium for which contributors and founders alike maintain a perverse affection. As one of the site’s co-founders, Sarah Bunting put it, “We love television, and we want it to be better than it is. Because most of the time — 85 percent of the time — it’s crap” (Vogel, 2006). But improving TV via fan participation is not something they’re counting on: “If TV is watching us, that’s great,” Bunting said, “but it’s not what we set out to do” (Kapica, 2006).

TWoPpers are using a new medium – the Internet – to make an older one more entertaining for themselves and anyone else who wants to tag along or chip in. As one of the respondents to my survey put it, “I would like my TV to be smarter, better written, more intellectually stimulating, and more emotionally engaging. With TWoP, at least my watching of TV can be those things.”

This is the beauty of interactivity from the producers’ perspective: not only does it allow for the spontaneous formation of instant focus groups, but it also allows them to benefit from the free labor of smart people trying to make bad TV more entertaining.

I first noticed this phenomenon when I was spending a fair amount of time in the official chat rooms for the first US version of Big Brother. Despite much hype, the show was often mind-numbingly boring, as were the round-the-clock live Internet video feeds. The chat rooms became, for at least some viewers, the only way to make the show interesting. While watching the cast members’ attempts to entertain themselves in a drab, media-free ranch house on a lot in studio city, online viewers similarly took upon themselves the task of amusing themselves by speculating on plot twists that might make the show more interesting, by sharing information about the various contestants, and by starting online debates.

TWoP has elevated the attempt to make bad TV more entertaining to a popular art form. In the TWoP world, the show is no longer the final product, but rather the raw material to which value is added by the labor – some paid, some free – of recappers and forum contributors. While TWoPpers benefit from the wit and wisdom of their fellow posters and their shared project, so do producers. Not only did roughly one-third of the respondents to my survey indicate that they watched more TV because of TWoP but a similar number indicated that there were shows that they would not have watched without the TWoP recaps.

All of which suggests that it might be worth revisiting the Jenkinsian appropriation of de Certeau’s observation that, “ readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (as quoted in Jenkins, 1988; 86). The romantic appeal of this formulation is unmistakable: it refigures fans of all stripes as latter day Robin Hoods, bandits, and rebels – pirating the wealth of the Hollywood heavies. In the interactive era, the metaphor breaks down in the transition from fields to texts. As economists might put it, the consumption of crops is rival: if I make off in the night with the wheat you worked all season tending, you’ve been despoiled, stripped of your goods. If however, I devote my lunch hour and down time at work honing my wit on the grindstone of American Idol, my enjoyment only enhances the wealth of Century City.

It turns out that the despoilers aren’t tearing their way across the media landscape like rapacious rebels, but perhaps more like unpaid nomadic laborers, turning the soil and enriching it as they go. Fox needs to wake up and smell the fertilizer that’s being lavished on its fields for free.

References

Elfman, Doug. 2007. “Enjoying Their Worst: Suburban Web Site says Idol is ‘Giant Karaoke Contest.’” Chicago Sun Times, March 26.

Jenkins, Henry. 1988. “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 5: 85-107.

Kapica, Jack. 2006. Serious TV Web Forum Getting Serious Notice. The Globe and Mail (Canada), April 13, p. B11.

Peterson, Karla. 2007. “With TWoP in Bravo’s Pocket, Does This Mean the Party’s Over?” The San-Diego Union-Tribune, March 16, p. E9.

Vogel, Charity. 2006. “Living in TV Land.” The Buffalo News, December 10, p. G3.

VoteForTheWorst.com

Image Credits:
1. VoteForTheWorst.com
2. Tubey

Please feel free to comment.




Reality TV Is Undemocratic

Reality Surveillance Cartoon

Reality Surveillance Cartoon

The adjective, “democratic,” like its somewhat more dramatic modern ancestor, “revolutionary,” is rapidly becoming one of the more overused and under-defined terms in the promotional lexicon of the “interactive” era. In its broadest sense, the term is invoked to indicate that the public has been given a choice of some sort, or even more generally that it has been provided with the opportunity to “participate.” Thus, the booming reality TV genre – of a piece with the flexible, interactive ethos of the networked economy – has found itself caught up in the enthusiastic rhetoric of technologically facilitated “democracy.”

Highlighting the ready conflation of politics with shopping embedded in this rhetoric, we are told, for example, that, “The popularity of this format with youth…has a lot to do with their growing up in a democratized society, where the Internet, Web cams and other technologies give the average Joe the ability to personalize his entertainment” (Gardyn, 2001; 39). The equation seems to travel arm-in-arm with the popularity of the genre. One commentator, writing about the success of reality shows in Malaysia, noted that, “Viewers get to vote to help determine the winners. People debate the merits of their candidates in office corridors, chat rooms, restaurants…. You cannot get any more democratic: the people have the power here and they are itching to use it” (Samat, 2004).

Similarly, the overwhelming popularity of the Chinese Super Girl pop-star contest led to repeated invocations of the (supposedly revolutionary) political implications of allowing Chinese audiences to “vote” (although this word was not used by the show). In an article titled “Democracy Idol,” The Economist, invoking the allegedly democratic character of the show, made much of the fact that the state-run publication, Beijing Today, ran a headline asking, “Is Super Girl a Force for Democracy?” The article’s breathless lead exclaimed that China was, “trying to digest the implications of a popular vote involving millions of people across the country” (“Democracy Idol,” 2005). Perhaps the notion of “voting” with one’s dollars – or cents, in the case of Super Girl – typifies The Economist‘s tacit notion of what counts as democracy.

Those in both the academic and political arenas have similarly discerned in reality TV the symptoms of democratic desire – and perhaps a model for political revitalization.

As the New York Times put it after the host of American Idol (misleadingly) noted that more votes had been cast during the season finale than for any U.S. president, “Idol may strike some of its fans as more genuinely democratic than the real democratic process. The popular vote carries the day without any interference from an electoral college” (Stanley, 2006).

In the U.K., the success of Big Brother led to a report outlining the lessons to be learned from the show about revitalizing democratic politics. It also resulted in the appointment of the chairman of the company that brought the show to the U.K. to the Conservative Party’s Commission for Democracy.

More recently, media scholar Henry Jenkins invoked the observation by political consultant and online fund-raising guru Joe Trippi that American Idol anticipates the interactive revolution: “We want the power to choose…. In every industry, in every segment of our economy, the power is shifting over to us” (qtd. in Jenkins, 2006).

Ryan Seacrest on American Idol

Ryan Seacrest on American Idol

This is more than a hangover from the techno-euphoria of the late 1990s – it’s a very tempting promise. It envisions a world that would be wonderful to live in but bears little resemblance to our own.

In the wake of recent revelations about the systematic concentration of power in the hands of an executive branch that cloaks itself in secrecy as it aggressively pursues policies that exacerbate political and economic inequality at home while costing the lives of tens of thousands abroad, it is hard not to write with a certain sense of urgency about the need for critical engagement with the promise of interactivity. An unexamined preoccupation with the incipiently “democratic” character of interactive forms of marketing and pop culture runs the danger of providing cover for the unprecedented concentration of unaccountable economic and political power. In the U.S., the same multi-national media conglomerate that serves up Bush administration propaganda with one hand doles out pop culture “democracy” (American-Idol style) with the other – and uses the proceeds from both to expand its new media holdings.

As new, interactive technologies become increasingly accessible, the challenge is to examine what we might mean when we invoke the notion of democracy. An important starting point would be to consider why reality TV is not democratic. Those who write about it in the popular press and the academic world are careful to point out the obvious: that, with the exception of political reality shows like Vote for Me, such programming has little to do with politics, policies, or political representation. Still, the argument goes, it serves as a metaphor for popular empowerment. And in these postmodern times the distinction between the metaphorical and literal has become as quaint and outdated as the Geneva Conventions are to the Bush administration.

A taste for “participation” cultivated in the marketplace for culture presumably spills over into whatever other realms might still remain. If the literary public sphere anticipated the political one, reality TV voting might serve as the harbinger of the electronic town hall. Jenkins thus imagines a world in which, “the response to reality TV teaches modes of engaging critically with television that may slide into activism around the Iraq war” (Jenkins, 2003).

Freedom is Compliance

Freedom is Compliance

As we await the migration of fans from (the former) SurvivorSucks.com to IraqAttackIsWack.org, it might be worthwhile to consider why reality TV might not provide a particularly good metaphor for democracy. As such, it is little more than the digital-era update of the equation of democracy and the “free” market.

Participation and choice are necessary for democracy, but not just any forms are sufficient. Very different types of participation get lumped together in the democratic promise of interactivity. Sweatshop labor and free labor are both forms of participation (and tightly constrained “free” choice), but not necessarily power sharing. Reality TV is, as Anna McCarthy neatly put it, a “mode of production” (2004) – one whose means remain beyond the reach of the vast majority of its participants. In this respect, reality TV “democracy” embodies Schumpeter’s formulation just as thoroughly as the elitist politics with which it has been contrasted: “Democracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule'” (Coleman, 2003; p. 37).

The ostensible anti-elitism mobilized by what might be described as reality TV’s “savvy reduction” – its ongoing fascination with a simple and repetitive form of demystification – is no more democratic than the Bush administration’s cynical (and profoundly undemocratic) populism.

To argue that reality-TV-inspired politics should, in a gesture of democratic demystification, defer to the common sense wisdom that politics is pursued, “as much for the joy of control as for the benefit of the nation” (Shakespeare in Coleman, 2003, p. 42) is to embrace the savvy faux-populism of George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, the highlight of which was his willingness, in a flight of self-fulfilling prescience, to foreground the untrustworthiness of politicians themselves: “We don’t trust bureaucrats in Washington, DC. We don’t believe in planners and deciders making decisions on behalf of America” (Mitchell, 2000 – back before Bush’s post-9/11 transmogrification into “The Decider”). In short, “we’re no longer going to treat voters as dupes by keeping up the pretense that we’re driven by anything but the narrowest forms of self-interest” – a campaign strategy that proved both effective and devastatingly accurate, as evidenced by a growing litany of charges of corruption and cronyism that plagued the administration.

The thoroughly political aspect of politics is not captured by the savvy concession that those who engage in it are, after all, “only human.” That is to say that they are self-interested and driven by petty fears and desires, such that their political achievements can be reduced to the ruses of a self-interested lust for power. Rather, the promise of politics emerges in the fact that, on occasion, it can be (only) human and distinctly political to imagine – and realize – possibilities rooted in but irreducible to the contemporary constellation of power and its attendant ideology of individualism. A metaphor for democracy that dismissively relegates such a possibility to an outdated pre-“post-deferential” era remains anti-political and undemocratic in ways that have become oppressively, disturbingly, familiar during the reign of George W. Bush.

Works Cited

Coleman, Stephen (2003). “A Tale of Two Houses: The House of Commons, The Big Brother House.” The Hansard Society. Retrieved online July 24, 2005 at: http://www.clubepublic.org.

“Democracy Idol” (2005). The Economist, Sept. 8. Retrieved online at: http://www.economist.com

Gardyn, Rebecca (2002). “The Tribe has Spoken.” American Demographics, September, pp.34-40.

Jenkins, Henry (2006). “Democracy, Big Brother Style.” Confessions of an Aca/Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, July 4. Retrieved online at: http://www.henryjenkins.org

Jenkins, Henry, et al. (2003). “Reality TV.” Plenary Conversation 2 at the MiT3: Television in Transition conference, May 3. Retrieved online at: http://web.mit.edu/cms/mit3/subs/plenary2.html.

McCarthy, Anna (2004). McCarthy made the remarks cited above during a workshop titled “Reality TV and its Implications for Television Studies,” at the annual convention of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Atlanta, GA, March 5.

Mitchell, Alison (2000). “The 2000 Campaign: The Texas Governor.” The New York Times, Sept. 7, Late Edition, p. A27.

Samat, Hafiday (2004). “Reality Takes a Deep Bite.” New Straits Times (Malaysia), July 18; 1.

Stanley, Alessandra (2006). “The TV Watch; ‘American Idol’ Dresses Up For Its Big Season Finale.” The New York Times, May 26, p. C1.

Image Credits:

1. Reality Surveillance Cartoon

2. Ryan Seacrest

3. Freedom is Compliance

Please feel free to comment.




Total Information Awareness – The Media Version

Mr. Monitor

Young lad with many monitors

In a recent issue of Flow, Dana Polan observed that “it's been tempting to imagine that Foucault can be enlisted in the analysis of visual culture and media. But one fundamental problem is that Discipline and Punish is about citizens being looked at while television is about them looking:
how to get from one to the other?” Viewed from a slightly different perspective however, commercial broadcasting has, from its inception, been about monitoring viewers. This is why the history of the ratings industry has become entwined with that of military and police surveillance. Various technologies enlisted by ratings researchers, with varying degrees of success, include sonar, thermal imaging, facial recognition technology, GPS tracking and Radio Frequency ID devices (originally used to identify military aircraft at a distance).1

The industry is quick to find ways to exploit new surveillance technologies – a process that includes habituating users to increasingly detailed forms of monitoring, ostensibly in the name of “participation” in the programming process. The comparatively high tolerance of U.S. consumers for commercial surveillance may be in part a result of their long habituation to forms of monitoring associated with the commercial broadcasting system.

If the reach or range of a particular medium can be thought of as a kind of enclosure (virtual or otherwise), some media enclosures have a higher level of feedback than others – a theater, auditorium, or concert hall provides for a greater level of instantaneous response than a TV
newscast or a newspaper, for example. So too does the wireless internet access plan for San Francisco recently announced by Google and Earthlink – although in a unique way. The companies plan to make the entire city a digital enclosure – one within which anyone with a wireless card and a computer can gain access to the internet. In return, Google will use the interactive capacity of the internet to provide users with so-called contextual advertising based on their movements throughout the course of the day. The terms of entry for this privatized digital enclosure include, in other words, submission to detailed forms of monitoring. Google will know when and where you are using its wi-fi service anywhere in its coverage area. If you happen to be using the internet in a city park or cafe, you might receive a targeted ad for a nearby record store (especially, one suspects, if you've been poking around Google looking for music-related information, or writing to someone on Gmail about the concert you saw last week).

Google surveillance microscope

Google surveillance microscope

The intent of this interactive technology – to gather information about users within the reach of a particular mass medium – is nothing new, despite a recurring tendency to discern in the deployment of interactive media a dramatic break with what came before. Commercial broadcasting, from its inception, relied on the ability to gather information back from the virtual enclosure defined by the medium's reach. Cultural studies of TV have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about the messages: the programming and advertising with which broadcasters saturate the airwaves. They have spent much less time on what remains of central concern to media producers: the flow of information in the opposite direction. The notion that radio and TV are one-way media has perhaps served to deflect attention away from the fact that in their commercial forms, electronic mass media are characterized by this two-way flow of information: content and advertising moving in one direction and increasingly detailed information about viewer and listener behavior in the other.

The history of commercial broadcasting is, in no small part, the history of the second part of this two-way flow: the ongoing attempt by broadcasters to peer into the homes, offices, automobiles and other spaces reached by their signals. Archibald Crossley, the marketing pioneer credited with coining the term “ratings,” demonstrated early on an innovative streak for gathering information from spaces formerly beyond the reach of commercial surveillance. He won a prize from Harvard, for example, for his pioneering garbage studies, which recruited households to supply him with their household waste, which was then carefully sorted for evidence of consumption patterns. He had realized that the relatively recent (at the time) popularity of brand-name packaging had a double function – not just as a tool for helping producers gain control over national markets but as waste-stream feedback: a rudimentary form of “interactivity.”

Crossley also realized that the success of commercial radio relied upon the two-way flow of information – that listening spaces had to be made interactive in some way. Hence his pairing of radio with a two-way technology – that of the telephone, which he and then C.E. Hooper used to gather information about listeners. Later, of course, radio sets and then TVs were made “interactive” in the sense that they were able to gather and transmit information about how they were used. Various iterations of the Audimeter relied on the mail and then on telephone lines to relay data about listening and viewing habits back to market researchers. Nielsen's People Meters still use telephone lines to transmit television data back to headquarters.

Thanks to recent developments in information technology the monitoring process is going through many of the same changes as content delivery: it is becoming increasingly customized, pervasive, multi-platform and convergent. Symptomatic of this change was an announcement last year by the radio ratings company Arbitron to team up with Nielsen Media Research to develop a multi-media Portable People Meter – a device designed to provide a comprehensive portrait of individual media consumption. The Portable People Meter, or P.P.M, is the ratings industry response to the rise of ubiquitous media – the fact that we are exposed to commercial media (and the ads they contain) virtually everywhere we go. As Arbitron C.E.O. Steve Morris put it, “Media is following you not just when you consciously turn on your satellite radio in your car, or when you consciously flip open your cellphone and get some cable channel delivered to it…It's also coming at you when you walk through Grand Central station. It's on the floor and on the walls…Advertising is becoming incredibly ubiquitous, so you need measurement that is equally ubiquitous” (Gertner, 2005).

PPM System

Portable People Meter System

The P.P.M. works by detecting embedded audio frequencies, whether in radio songs and commercials or TV shows, which means the wearer has to be close enough to hear the broadcast. Headphone attachments would allow the device to monitor iPod and other portable forms of media consumption. Ratings researchers are also considering ways of integrating P.P.M.s with GPS devices and radio-frequency ID chips. Down the road, the idea is to develop a convergent, multi-media ad-exposure detector that would be able to capture information not just about the music users listen to and the TV they watch, but the billboards they are exposed to throughout the course of their day and even the magazine and newspaper ads they are near enough to see (thanks to RFID chips embedded in the articles and ads). The result would be as comprehensive a portrait of individual advertising exposure as possible – one that included not just a list of which ads were seen, but where, for how long, and at what time of day.

In the near future, the goal is to create a fully monitored media enclosure by matching up this information with consumption behavior, as measured by consumers who scan their purchases at home. When products are equipped with RFID chips, the P.P.M. could double as a consumer meter, gathering information about purchasing behavior as well as advertising exposure. Nielsen calls this merging of viewer and consumer data “fusion” – a futuristic, vaguely utopian moniker for a goal conceived in the early 20th century: the perfection of the scientific management of consumption. Remember Frederick Taylor standing over his workers with a stop-watch, measuring their every move in order to find ways to make them more efficient producers? An all-knowing P.P.M. is the automated equivalent for consumers: a way to stand over them with a stop-watch (and a battery of other data recording devices), measuring their every move and figuring out how it correlates with more effective marketing – that is to say an increase in the speed and volume of consumption.

This is not to say that the emerging regime of total media monitoring is without its stumbling blocks. Nielsen backed out of the Arbitron deal, but has since announced its own consumer total-information-awareness campaign, dubbed “Anytime Anywhere Media Measurement” (or A2/M2). The campaign relies on the willingness of participants to carry monitoring devices with them wherever they go. Stan Seagren, Nielsen's Vice President of Strategic Research, said the company has considered ways of incorporating the device into an item of clothing or jewelry to make it less obtrusive and easier to carry. The cybernetic imagination of marketers at play in the fields of new media even envisions the possibility of a device small enough to be implanted under the skin like an RFID chip, although, as Seagren points out, “our cooperation rates would go down substantially if we started asking people for implants” (Seagen, 2004).

Perhaps the solution will be much simpler: as media consumption goes portable and compact, it's likely that the devices we use to consume media products will become self-monitoring. Cell phones are already being developed that can be used as electronic credit cards, as well as to download, store, view, and listen to media, and to keep track of our
locations. With just a few more tweaks we may find that we're carrying around an all-purpose monitoring tool in our pockets and handbags: the perfection of audience surveillance within a wireless digital enclosure.

1. For a brief and interesting history of the ratings industry's use of technology, see Erik Larson's account in The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities.

Gertner, Jon (2005). “Our Ratings Ourselves.” The New York Times Magazine, April 10, p. 34, ff.

Larson, Erik (1992) The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. New York: Henry Holt and Co

Polan, Dana (2006). “Foucault TV.” Flow 4(7): http://jot.communication.utexas.edu/flow/

Seagren, Stan (2004). Personal interview with the author, Nov. 24.

Image Credits:

1. Mr. Monitor

2. Google surveillance

3. Portable People Meter

Please feel free to comment.




Life on Animal Planet

Lion killing a zebra

Lion killing a zebra

I’m beholden to Animal Planet’s documentaries. Not since the premiere episode of Cheaters has a reality series delivered so disturbingly on the promise to portray the pathologies of contemporary social reality. What Cheaters did in its ham-fisted way for the emerging surveillance culture, shows like Big Cat Diaries are doing for the current political climate: coughing up partially digested nuggets of ideology for public inspection.

Thanks in large part to its thinly veiled anthropomorphism, Animal Planet’s nature documentaries offer perhaps the clearest exposition of the ideology that legitimates not just the current administration’s penchant for slashing aid to the needy in order to give to the rich but for doing so in the name of “promoting opportunity and compassion at home.”

This version of compassionate cruelty has become so numbingly familiar that the litany of recent budget details serves only to compound the de-sensitization effect (at the risk of adding to it, consider, for example, the recently proposed $77 billion in cuts to education, job training, and programs for the needy to help offset $285 billion in tax relief for the upper-income brackets — or the 13 percent cuts in veteran’s benefits, presumably to shift some of the economic burden of the “long war” onto its foot soldiers).

A pressing question — although not quite so pressing as the need to challenge these policies — is to make sense of them. Perhaps the easiest and most satisfying explanation is to blame it, in the words of cult movie hero Buckaroo Banzai, on “Evil! Pure and simple, from the eighth dimension!” How else to explain the Bush administration’s apparent reluctance to support a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that could save the lives of thousands of women a year on the grounds that the vaccine might make sex less dangerous?

Despite appearances, there may be more than naked cynicism and cruelty at work here — the disconcerting political success of such policies suggests the workings of some kind of belief system. Understanding such a system means more than describing it. It requires some attempt on the part of those for whom it seems incomprehensible to inhabit it — but how? Right wing radio and the National Review are comically tragic but, ultimately, inaccessible to the uninitiated.

The problem isn’t to identify and reproduce the recurring ideological patterns — the genius of the Colbert Report has been to turn such pattern mimicry into low art — but to generate them. This is where Animal Planet fills the gap by serving up a thinly veiled version of safari realpolitik for the masses. It takes only a few late-night sessions of switching back and forth between reruns of the talking heads on the Fox News Channel and, for example, Big Cat Diary, to make sense of the fact that a company with a name like “Pride Power” can support itself by hiring out game park rangers as corporate trainers. For those without the benefit of a corporate expense account, Animal Planet offers a low-budget unsentimental education in the realities of life on the killing-floor, serving up some hard truths for those who may have grown too complacent.

Consider, for example, the recurring treatment of the theme of the fate of the weak and wounded — the lioness in one episode, for example, that has broken her foreleg. We are invited to feel a sense of shattered solidarity as her companions watch over her briefly before leaving her to the hyenas — behavior that, as the narrator notes, while seemingly callous, is dictated by the harsh realities of Serengeti life. In a similar scene, a wounded water buffalo is surrounded by companions that fend off the waiting lions — at least until nightfall when the buffalo pragmatically, inexorably, move on, their numbers reduced by one.

If the impulse of solidarity seems noble it is also, as the recurring narrative indicates, a foolish one. The strong do not have the resources to sustain and support the weak and needy: the result would be to drag everyone down. That the dominant feast first is not a matter of greed or selfishness, but of natural practicality for the group as a whole. The result is a Bush tax-cut primer in a nutshell: the social safety net is an illusory form of protection that drags down all ships since the burden it seeks to carry is too heavy — the task, while idealistically noble, is realistically impossible.

The job of leaders then becomes the thankless one of confronting impractical ideals with reality — a duty taken up with gusto by the current administration with its penchant for dismissing the quaint, deluded, and ultimately self-defeating ideals of dreamy do-gooders in order to, as the vice-president once put it, work “the dark side.”

Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney

It’s all part of taking responsibility for life at the top, which, as the Animal Planet documentaries suggest, is consequently a relentless struggle. Witness the battle scars, dramatic footage of contests for dominance, and the recurring reminder that a leader’s time — in the case of lions, mountain rams, and elephant seals alike — is precarious and short-lived.

The entitlements of leadership then, are justified both by a sense of collective necessity and one of individual reward. Any attempt to diminish them comes across not just as impractical, unrealistic and self-defeating, but as a form of personal affront — even victimization: a lack of respect for the travails of dominance and its hard-earned wages.

As someone with contacts and very brief experience in the finance industry, I can attest to one of its core training tenets: that the work is much tougher than outsiders imagine — demanding enough not just to warrant all its benefits, but to justify the treatment of anyone who might call them into question with the contempt reserved for those who “have it easy” — the notorious low-earning “lucky duckies” that haunt the imagination of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial writers.

But Animal Planet doesn’t go quite far enough — for in the end, its depiction of animal life comes across as fundamentally amoral: bound to the laws of nature rather than the commitments of humanity.

The missing ingredient is supplied by the re-tooled Calvinism of the religious right in the form of an attempt not to rewrite seemingly amoral natural laws, but to provide them with divine grounding. In the absence of a just deity, the random distribution of talent, skill, strength, and luck and its resulting social hierarchy is amenable to critique on the grounds of an all-too-human commitment to social justice — one that might mark the difference between the forsaken lioness and the social safety net.

Viewed as an expression of divine will, however, the amoral scene undergoes a perspective shift from natural brutality to the expression of a transcendent if inscrutable justice. In this regard, the much-hyped battle over evolution can be misleading: the religious right of the James Dobson and Pat Robertson variety has repeatedly evinced its commitment to social Darwinism, albeit the version that carries divine legitimation. This fact is highlighted by the recent debate over so-called intelligent design in which the stakes are not the notion of natural selection itself, but the question of its divine guidance. Pat Robertson’s post-Katrina admonition to the Dover school district that, after rejecting intelligent design, it shouldn’t count on God’s help in the event of a natural disaster, drives the point home: the seemingly random brutality of nature carries moral weight. HPV, in other words, is a form of divine retribution and warning — don’t mess with it.

Such callousness is perhaps not surprising. Those who embrace the ostensibly natural laws of an animal planet under the guise of religion abdicate their own humanity.

Image Credits:

1. Killer Lion

2. Dick Cheney

Please feel free to comment.




Watching TV Poker

Watching TV Poker

a TV poker table

You may win, you may lose, but there’s always something you can learn.

— Former World Series of Poker Champion Greg Raymer, promoting pokerstars.net

The current moment seems an appropriate one for the much-hyped mainstreaming of poker as popular pastime, endorsed by the electronic embrace of TV and the Internet. Gambling and the risk society make a natural pair. Our president wants us to bet our social security pensions on the stock market while legal gambling has become a redevelopment tool of choice, state lotteries rake in regressive taxes, and casino gambling lies at the heart of the latest political lobbying scandal.

The trade-off of the zero-sum wager: vicarious pleasure in the prospect of a large payoff for the few in exchange for the willing sacrifices of the many fits neatly with the current administration’s fiscal policy, its western swagger, and its bluff-and-guts political tactics.

While the pundits continue to ponder the question of whether poker counts as a legitimate sport or not, there is a reasonable case to be made for situating it within the recent reality TV trend. It features the unscripted interactions of real people – some of whom were only recently recruited from the viewer ranks – along with the unfolding of (admittedly truncated) interpersonal dramas, and the promise that a lucky random fan might capture a piece of the multi-million dollar prize pool.

By way of contrast, football and baseball fans don’t, for the most part, watch the games for tips that might help them join the NFL. Poker shows, on the other hand, lay claim to the zeitgeist of interactivity by highlighting the participatory character of the revamped poker tours and offering how-to instructions sandwiched between advertisements for Internet sites where viewers can practice what they’ve learned.

As the publisher of one poker magazine put it, “One of the reasons why poker has become so popular is that anyone can be a poker player, anyone might be the next millionaire…I’m never going to play right field for the San Francisco Giants, but I might be one tournament away” (King, 2005).

A recent episode of the World Poker Tour cited the New York Times claim that some 50 million people in the US play poker regularly, and the televised tournaments are reportedly the third most watched “sport” on cable TV after car racing and football.

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

“Lipstick” Cam Monitors

The recent success of TV poker shows has been attributed to two developments: the “lipstick” spy-cams that provide behind-the-scenes access to players’ cards, and the proliferation of satellite games both online and off that offer amateurs and unknowns an inexpensive, long-shot bid for a tournament seat.

A recent episode of the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, for example, featured a segment about poker fans who parlayed their satellite buy-ins into lottery-sized cash prizes, prompting host Shana Hiatt to observe that, “Playing poker can be a dream come true for anyone.”

One of the staple narratives of the World Poker Tour is the back story of the amateur made good or the rags-to-riches pro. In this respect the show combines the appeal of big-prize game-docs like Survivor with the bootstrap narratives featured on celebrity reality shows like MTV’s Cribs.

Between edited segments of play, the World Poker Tour includes interview highlights with both amateurs and pro-players like Scotty Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant from an impoverished family who, as co-host Vince Van Patten put it, “went to help his family in the only way he knew how: he played poker in the street,” before coming to the United States and working his way up from busboy to poker pro with more than $2 million in winnings.

Poker shows hype the instant version of the American Dream even as its more prosaic version confronts the reality of increasing economic inequality and politicians hacking away at the social safety net. In this respect, the popularity of the spectacle of instant wealth continues the trend that saw the state lotteries work their way back into legality in the late 1960s and early 70s alongside the erosion of the post-war settlement and its attendant run of prosperity.

The current poker boom is also unmistakably a creature of its cultural moment – that of a generalized, reflexive savviness and a passion for debunkery that reduces every discursive claim to a ruse of power. The poker shows cater to the skepticism of those who seek to master the art of visceral literacy – ostensibly bypassing the manipulations of discourse to read the signs of the body. An instinctive “read” takes precedence over deliberation when everyone is assumed to be lying – and when the truth operates as one more ruse. The oft-repeated mantra that in poker “you play the people, not the cards” frames the commentators’ extemporaneous tutorials in mutual monitoring, detection and people-reading.

TV final table

TV final table

As in the case of many reality formats, the poker shows promise to entertain the viewer while educating them. Home viewers are schooled in the art of “the tell.” Slamming your chips into the pot aggressively, for example, is a tell. Leaning back is a tell, as is leaning forward; a show of strength means weakness, and vice versa. As Celebrity Poker Showdown host Phil Gordon, put it, “looking directly at your opponent is a sign of weakness. You’re trying to look at your opponent to look strong; but if I have a good hand, why would I want to intimidate my opponent?”

The goal is to learn the significance of signals that are supposedly harder to control than words – to believe only your own eyes, never the other players’ words.

“This is a lesson for the players at home,” is the repeated refrain of the show’s hosts, who understand that the TV episodes double as advertising for a booming ancillary market in learn-to-play products, and for the tournaments whose jackpots increase in proportion to the number of participants they draw from the audience ranks.

The promise of participation in this context serves the opposite function of that associated with risk sharing. Rather than cushioning the effects of misfortune, it pools loss to generate a large payoff for those who finish “in the money.” Its alibi for regressive wealth redistribution is the democratic character of chance: the fact that no amount of skill or training can dictate the fall of the cards – and even the longest shot sometimes defies the most carefully calculated odds.

Despite this irreducible uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), the message is not the irrelevance of training and preparedness, but rather the need for their cultivation.

The credo of the well-tempered poker player, invoked by World Poker Tour co-host Mike Sexton is “In poker, as in life, you make your own breaks.”

The absence of any guarantee serves as incitement to ongoing training – and helps to displace an undermined faith in communication and risk sharing onto the blind justice of chance.

References:
King, Peter (2005) “Everyone’s a Player in Poker’s New Deal. The Los Angeles Times, July 17.

Image Credits:
1. TV Poker Table
2. “Lipstick” Cam Monitors
3. TV Final Table




What a Long, Bad Trip It’s Been

Temptation Island

Temptation Island

When the giant data-mining company ChoicePoint announced its plans to sell background-check software at Sam’s Club, private investigators complained the company was threatening their livelihood by making the tools of the trade available to the masses. They may have been bucking a trend: ChoicePoint’s open invitation to the public to become amateur P.I.’s represented just part of the proliferation of technologies, products, and services for do-it-yourself spies, ranging from background check Websites to keystroke monitoring software, home spycams, and even downloadable voice-stress analyzers. This multitude of peer monitoring tools, many of which piggy-back on new communication technologies, caters to a reflexive savviness about the staged character of our public personae and offers a default strategy for getting behind the façade.

The omnivorous trend-digesting genre of reality TV has picked up on the theme of peer investigation, spawning a variety of shows that feature friends, family members, and significant others spying on, investigating, and videotaping one another – all in the name of extracting a moment of authenticity, even if that moment merely highlights the inevitability of artifice. Such shows add one more reflexive twist to reality TV, insofar as they stage the search for behind-the-scenes reality, sometimes in the guise of a reality-show-within-a-show. Temptation Island, Average Joe, Room Raiders, and One Bad Trip, all feature segments in which cast members watch “backstage” footage of one another, sometimes with the added element of forensic searches, hidden cameras, and disguises. We, the viewers, watch a second audience engaged in practices of investigation and verification.

The point of lining up examples of what might be called techniques for peer investigation alongside their representation in reality TV is not to suggest that TV encourages viewers or trains them in the pursuit of such practices (nor is it to rule out this possibility). Rather it is to propose an angle of approach to the critical interpretation of media texts that sidelines the effects question construed in the broadest sense. My own recent experience of reality TV discussions has been that the tendency is to yoke together interpretation and effect. An interpretation of what takes place on a show – its portrayal, for example, of surveillance strategies for minimizing relationship risks – can be readily assimilated to an “effects” question: are audience practices and/or attitudes affected by exposure to such shows? Anna McCarthy invoked such questions in her FLOW article on TV and governance when she asked whether “the pedagogical voice of reality TV [is] actually persuasive or effective as a program of rule.” Similar questions of effects, again, in the broadest sense, propel a familiar merry-go-round of debates in media studies (at least in some quarters; in others they’ve largely been settled, albeit in opposing ways). Their persistence derives not just from the depth of their roots in the field – and in ongoing popular and political debates – but also, it seems, from persistent concerns about the purpose of critical interpretation. Why bother studying texts, if not to consider issues of broader social import? How else to avoid the pathology of Rorschach interpretation, which exhausts itself in the repeated discovery in texts of the theories we bring to them?

Perhaps one useful alternative critical approach for an analysis that focuses on textual content is what might be described as a symptomatic analysis. From such a perspective, the split between media and culture or society remains solely one of interpretive convenience. The point wouldn’t be to ask how culture affects itself, still less to ask what media texts do to audiences, or what audiences do with (and to) texts, but rather what such texts, viewed hologrammatically through the lens of theory, can tell us about the society from which they emerge. The test of such an approach would lie in its fruitfulness – the extent to which it illuminates hitherto un-remarked patterns and connections and extends the analysis not solely of media texts, but of the society within which they emerge.

By way of a brief and underdeveloped example, I’m going to focus on MTV’s One Bad Trip – and in particular the changes undergone by the format once cast members figured out the show’s gimmick. One Bad Trip is a parasitic show: producers tell cast members they’re going to be on an episode of something called MTV’s Ultimate Party Show, which documents the hijinks of the young and judgment-impaired at play in well-known party destinations. The twist is that, unbeknownst to the partiers, producers bring along their family members or significant others to spy on them as they let it all hang out for the cameras. The show’s gimmick is that it stages the scene of surveillance: a behind-the-scenes look at people peering behind the scenes. We are presented, for example, with the spectacle of two fathers spying on their college-aged daughters as they frolic on Lake Havasu, drinking, making out with one another, flashing the crowd, and so on. “This might be too much information,” says one father peering through binoculars from a nearby boat, “I don’t think she’s going to end up being a school teacher.”

The show invokes the anxiety catered to by the promise of peer-to-peer monitoring technologies: that since self-presentation is always a performance, it can double as a form of deception – one to be thwarted (along with its attendant risks) by adopting the techniques of the do-it-yourself private investigator. If, as the Abika.com background-check Website puts it, “most people lie a minimum of 25 times in a single day,” we are invited to wonder along with the promotional blurb for the reality show Fake Out, which teaches lie detection techniques, “Is your teenager being untruthful? Is your spouse not telling you the whole story? Is your employee late to work again the fifth time because of a car accident on the road? Can you spot a lie?” A savvy mistrust of representation – what Slavoj Zizek (1999) has described as the erosion of symbolic efficacy – coincides with a default to empirical investigation: don’t trust what people say, see what really goes on when you’re not there. Protect yourself. Order a spy-cam. Sign up for One Bad Trip … or not. The point is not to suggest (or deny) that TV trains us but to consider what we might learn from representations of peer-to-peer surveillance about an era that witnessed the transformation of Google from proper noun to verb.

From MTVs One Bad Trip

From MTVs One Bad Trip

By staging the scene of surveillance, One Bad Trip foregrounds not only the façade of self-presentation, but also the use of reflexive strategies for getting “behind” the façade. After its first season, the show’s producers found that the kids they recruited had figured out the gimmick: they’d seen the ads for the show and had read about it on MTV’s Web site, and they suspected they were no longer on the Ultimate Party Show. In response, the producers “flipped the script” as they put it, adding one more twist. They let the partiers in on the fact that their family members or significant others were spying on them, and then helped set up the spies by staging outrageous scenarios for them to react to. So, for example, a young lady whose parents had signed up to spy on her Las Vegas trip pretended that she was eloping and marrying her boyfriend in a Vegas wedding chapel.

The “script flip” resulted in wholesale role reversal: the investigated became the investigators, the spies were on display. And it is this reflexive reversal that suggests two aspects of contemporary peer-monitoring practices. The first is the default of the voyeur/spy to exhibitionist: the watcher engaging in the process of verification with an eye to the gaze of an imagined audience to which s/he strives to avoid appearing as a dupe. It suggests, in short, the internalization of the discipline of surveillance not just by the watched, but – in an era of reflexive savviness and generalized risk – by the watchers. Perhaps the reality on offer in a show like One Bad Trip is that it stages the redoubling in the figure of the do-it-yourself spy of the imperative to watch and of submission to a monitoring gaze: the default of voyeurism to a desire to be seen as not being fooled.

The second suggestive aspect of the show, which might be described as the George W. Bush moment, is its portrayal of the default of savvy skepticism to a point of fixation that ostensibly bypasses the pitfalls of mediation – the resuscitation of gut instinct as the obverse of generalized savviness. If representation is not to be trusted, we need direct access to presence via cultivation of the kind of x-ray soul vision that Bush famously invoked to gauge Putin’s character (and that his supporters repeatedly invoke to gauge his own). The same faith-based access to authenticity is invoked in the debriefing sessions of One Bad Trip‘s post-flip season. In the first season the spies were exposed to behind-the-scenes realities portrayed as both surprising and troubling (the conservative father who saw his daughter pouring hot wax on S&M entertainers in a Miami bar; the woman who saw her boyfriend hitting on other women). The final debriefing portrayed the impact of this reality upon the watchers – how would they absorb the shocking truth behind the façade?

By contrast, finales in the post-“flip” season revealed this shocking truth as just one more façade. The result was not the universalization of skepticism, but rather an incitation to declarations of trust that bypassed the debunked realm of representation. We see a man explaining to his girlfriend that the very fact that the scene of his infidelity was staged should prove that he would never cheat on her. Those who engaged in outrageous activity used the fact that it was all a set-up to suggest that they would never really engage in such acts. In this respect the show staged a second aspect of contemporary savviness – its correspondence with the promise of direct access to the real: the default of the mistrust of mediation to a desire for the immediate. This staging reflects and perhaps reflects upon its cultural context – a society in which savvy debunkery of media representations, political deliberation, and scientific discourse coincides with the rise of Intelligent Design and the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. One bad trip for the rest of us.

Image Credits:

1. Temptation Island

2. From MTVs One Bad Trip

Citations:
Abika.com (2005) Psychological and personality profiles. Web site. Retreived 2 November at: http://www.abika.com.

Zizek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject. London: Verso.

Please feel free to comment.




Cybernetic TV

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Andy Dick on The Reality Show

Toward the end of an early episode of MTV’s The Reality Show, a recursive show devoted to selecting a reality show for the network, host Dan Levy told the audience, “OK America, it’s time to vote! This is your chance to program our network.” Such promises of participation and shared control have become a recurring theme in the marketing of incipient forms of interactive TV technologies and formats that directly incorporate viewer feedback. By pressing a few buttons, couch potatoes are collectively transformed into talent scouts and production assistants with the power to award recording contracts, dole out millions of dollars in prize money, or kick someone off a show.

This promise of empowerment via interactivity is a slippery one: it envisions a Ross-Perot world of perpetual electronic referenda as a strategy for information gathering and audience monitoring. In the name of shared control it encourages viewers to become emotionally invested in a show by telling them it’s “their” show and then enlisting them to participate in a nationwide focus group. The term interactive is too general and misleading for such shows; they have become cybernetic in their attempts to incorporate feedback into flexible marketing and promotional campaigns.

American Idol is perhaps the most successful example of this sub-genre of audience-participation shows. Its ultimate product is a chart-topping album, and the show doubles as both advertising and market-research. Instead of paying for market testing and talent scouting producers have transformed them into a money-making spectacle by promising behind-the-scenes access to the production of popular culture. Let viewer voyeurs participate in marketing to themselves.

Recent formats that fit into the cybernetic sub-genre include The Reality Show and the USA Network’s Made in the USA, which allows viewers to pick among inventors competing for a chance to hawk their creations on the Home Shopping Network. As spot advertising confronts the threat of digital demise, such shows transform content into advertising with an interactive twist: a convergent hybrid of cyber-advertainment.

Thanks to the popularization of the ubiquitous prefix “cyber-“, its original sense has dissipated, leaving in its wake only a vaguely hip, high-tech afterimage. In its original formulation, cybernetics refers to the science of feedback-based control: the ability of self-governing mechanisms to adjust on the fly. One of the inspirations for Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory, famously, was his work on guided missile systems, an experience that led him to express guarded pessimism toward the theoretical developments he helped pioneer: “there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power…I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope” (39).

To describe interactive TV as cybernetic is to highlight the distinction between feedback as a strategy of control and participation as power sharing — a distinction too often obscured by the digital-era promise of interactivity, which tends to treat the efficacy of feedback as evidence of shared control. A heat-seeking missile may be cybernetic insofar as it adjusts to signals from its target, but to call it “interactive” or “participatory” would be to suggest a misleading commonality of interests between projectile and target. In the somewhat less ballistic realm of TV programming (notwithstanding the persistent vocabulary of target markets and audiences) the promise of interactivity implicitly identifies the imperatives of programmers with the best interests of those who provide feedback. They are, after all, both contributing to the same goal.

To call a format cybernetic is to invoke the further distinction between those aspects of production that are governed by feedback and those which are exempted from audience participation. Cybernetic control incorporates feedback to achieve pre-programmed goals that remain beyond the reach of interactive participation. We can thus differentiate between two layers of feedback in its broadest sense: the first allows for the adjustment of strategies to achieve a given end (boosting records sales, destroying rockets); the second has purchase upon the goal-setting process itself. Cybernetic TV deploys the promise of shared control at the second level as an alibi for exploiting the marketing potential of the first.

American Candidate

American Candidate

As an example of the limits of cybernetic interactivity, consider the case of American Candidate, an attempt by producer and documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler to realize, literally, the ostensibly democratic character of interactive TV. As Cutler envisioned it, the show would transpose the model of American Idol into the realm of politics, allowing “non-professional politicians of conviction” — “real” people with political passion and talent — to bypass normal political channels and run for president. Viewers would select their favorite candidate, who would then, thanks to a cash prize and a TV season’s worth of national publicity, be poised to run for office as a third-party candidate.

For Cutler, who devoted several years to developing it, the show represented the possibility that TV might heal the wounds it had inflicted on the political process in the form of prohibitive campaign costs and junk-food news coverage regurgitated by media conglomerates unwilling to hold power accountable (Cutler, 2005). For our purposes, American Candidate might be considered an attempt to jump the gap between feedback and shared control by channeling audience participation into the realm of the political — that of goal setting, not just strategy adjusting.

The F/X Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, picked up the show — and then, after roughly a year in development dropped it, citing costs. The show was eventually produced as a mock presidential campaign, poorly promoted and relegated to the ratings hinterlands of Showtime, too late in the election season to allow the winner to run for office.

As someone who continues to work with News Corp outlets, Cutler confines his frustration over the fate of the show to speculating that it might have been too political and participatory for the political elites upon whose good will Murdoch’s media empire depends. Since cost estimates didn’t change significantly, he insists that, “The reported reason could not possibly be the full story” (Cutler, 2005). As originally envisioned, the show represented an attempt to deliver on the promise of participation as power sharing — a promise that, regardless of the show’s actual potential (for good or ill), stretched the limits of interactive TV beyond the cybernetic comfort zone of U.S. commercial TV.

References:
Cutler, R. J. (2005). Telephone interview with the author, Sept. 19.

Wiener, Norbert (1961). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. New York: MIT Press.

Image Credits:

1. Andy Dick on The Reality Show

2. American Candidate

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