Everything is Under Control

by: Daniel Chamberlain / USC

Much of the promotional and popular discussion addressing the current televisual landscape emphasizes the concept of control, usually celebrating the ease with which a television viewer can select, adjust, and display desired content. The word “control,” often modified by “total” or paired with the marketing-friendly “freedom,” is used to describe an engagement with television through handheld remotes, time-shifting systems, or place-shifting technologies. In the ahistorical rhetoric of new media hype, what was once the passively-viewed province of the couch potato is now the dynamically-managed terrain of the techno-savvy. As usual, the effusive deployment and embrace of liberationist terminology is working hard to cover up the contradictions accompanying great change. In the case of contemporary television, the dominant references to viewer control figures as the ideological stalking horse masking the simultaneous functioning of control in other registers, notably in the consolidation of distribution and inherent systems of surveillance.

To be fair, individuals really do exert control over their television experiences through their engagement with and customization of televisual interfaces. One can watch an entire season of a program in a day, catch missed episodes on-demand or online before the next is aired, and stream recorded programming to a mobile phone or distant computer. In examples like these, control figures in popular discourse as a promise of empowerment, of consumer sovereignty over technology, information, and consumption.

Yet even such popular narratives of viewer control belie a subtle complexity. As the gadgets we use get more complex, so do the registers of control At its most fundamental, baseline control follows a logic of connection: turning on a television; powering-up a mobile phone; subscribing to cable, satellite, or broadband service. Low-level control follows a logic of selection: picking a channel to watch; entering a url; conducting a search or scanning through clips. Mid-level control follows a logic of personalization: setting preferences with a remote control; programming a digital video recorder; creating lists of favorite channels or blocking those deemed uninteresting or unsuitable. High-level control follows a logic of adaptation: TiVo recording programs it thinks its owner might like; Netflix’s collaborative filtering software selecting television programs to mail out; a mobile phone providing alerts regarding the availability of a new episode. The lower levels of control are governed by an ideology of participation, whereas the higher levels are governed by an ideology of efficiency, even to the extent that participation is sacrificed to technological agents rather than exercised directly.

The Slingbox

The Slingbox

Alongside all of this viewer controlled consumption are new forms of viewer controlled production. Television viewers have long produced eyeballs for sale by networks to advertisers, but the increased degree of control is resulting in more nuanced forms of production. The avid time-shifter or online video viewer, for example, produces his or her own televisual flow in a manner that consistently and instantly avoids undesirable elements of the programmed flow. Through tightened and networked feedback loops, acts of televisual consumption also produce new patterns of viewing for both the individual viewer and those participating in the same network. That is, my TiVo habits can become your TiVo suggestions, and YouTube videos soar in viewership when linked to, rated highly, or ranked into the “most viewed” lists. Going beyond the surface of the screen, televisual display devices increasingly move both within and outside of the home, producing media spaces out of offices, commutes, parks, and coffee shops. And, of course, certain new television technologies allow for the sharing of self-produced content alongside programming traditionally considered televisual.

But the actual functioning of control is more complex than a blind focus on time-shifting or remixing suggests. These celebrations of viewer control display a marked historical shortsightedness, reveal a familiar deployment of gendered discourse, and raise questions about inequality of access in a rapidly tiering television environment. Moreover, the emphasis on viewer control masks the preponderance of control exercised by the media conglomerates that own the broadcast networks, cable and satellite channels, television production companies, and financial interests in the primary new television-related companies. While the number of programs, channels, and modes of viewing may be multiplying, the source for a large part of the content – and certainly that programming which commands the majority of viewer attention – is still controlled by a small number of large corporations. On the one hand, this means that the benefits of time- and place-shifting should be understood as still working largely with the programming supplied by the recognized gatekeepers of television. It is well and good to watch a commercial-free episode of Lost in a cabin over the weekend, but we should not pretend that this act represents a wholesale transfer of control from Disney to viewers. On the other hand, these same interests exert a significant amount of control over most emergent televisual developments. TiVo, for example, counts America Online (Time Warner), DirecTV (News Corp.), NBC, Sony, CBS, and Disney among its equity investors. Google-owned YouTube has partnership deals with CBS, BBC, and NBC, among others, and competitor Joost has announced both content and financing deals with Viacom and CBS. Even in those examples where a major new player enters the market – like Apple selling television programs through its iTunes store or Google serving up both commercial television and user-generated video – the influence and control of the entrenched television distributors remains paramount.

TiVo Remote

TiVo Remote

Beyond the contradictions between viewer and distributor control, emergent televisual hardware incorporates control into new registers of power. Most of the latest technologies are inherently underwritten by surveillance, as in most cases it is required for a technology to function appropriately. Compare broadcast television with digital cable and a DVR. In the earlier mode, the broadcast station sent its signal out but had no sure means of knowing who was receiving it. The digital cable operator, on the other hand, is expected to respond to user requests – made through the interface – and thus has more data on user viewing habits than it knows what to do with. Not only does its set top box provide a premium user experience, it also has the capability to capture user preferences and viewing patterns. The ability to track and measure user behavior is now the foundation of TiVo’s current business model, and the TiVo-to-go system, like the iTunes Store, relies on digital rights management software that tracks which devices are authorized to access purchased content. Such hardware and the programming code that drives them set limits on what viewers can do, monitor actual behavior, and potentially induce surveillance-aware behavior patterns. Enter the control society.

The surveillant nature of such systems and devices suggests that control is the organizing logic of power whenever and wherever the flexibility and mobility of television interfaces are connected to a network. Data is gathered every time someone downloads a video to a mobile phone, rates a program using a digital video recorder, or visits an even moderately sophisticated website. As beloved companies like Google, Apple, and TiVo continue to roll out new services customized to individual user’s preferences, they further become information warehouses. Taken at their word, such vast stores of data will be used to improve technology, services, and the user experience, but this massive centralization of data should be noted by anyone concerned with privacy rights. To judge by the millions of mobile phone, digital cable, and digital video recorder users, the tradeoff of privacy for perceived empowerment is worth making at most any level.

Image Credits:
1. Slingbox screen shot from Sling Media US home page

2. TiVo remote control from TiVo accessories page

Complete control
DVR Death Match
Logitech Universal Remote Control
Gain control over your entertainment experience
Watch and control your living room TV from anywhere
Jason Mittell column describing watching Veronica Mars via bittorrent in a week
YouTube most played list
TiVo Equity Partners
Ray Cha column on network and web-based television

Please feel free to comment.


  • Thank you for raising these issues. I am personally very interested in the nature of “surveillance” in our contemporary business models, which, for those who proclaim their innocence is simply “data-collecting” to better meet consumer needs, but is also, for those (such as myself) who distrust such open access to every single electronic transaction that I make, a specter that looms over my shoulder. It’s not just that I distrust the massification of media that such data-collecting tends to propagate, nor that that massification is largely led by audiences whose tastes I find distasteful in many cases, it’s also that I think that most people are actually un-aware of the systems their media choices sustain.

    When I teach media classes, to students who are presumably light-years ahead of me in terms of being immersed in contemporary media and technology (as evidenced by how many times I have to make someone turn some device off in class), they are almost universally astounded by lectures and readings that link their choices (be it box-office or download, etc.) to trends in media production and distribution…trends that ultimately want them to be mostly consumers and not producers of mass culture. Despite being astounded, though, they seem to be entirely comfortable with the fact that they’re just targets for cross-promotional strategies within pop-culture infotainment media that has shaped their lives. In the proliferation of media that younger generations than I have grown up with, they embrace something that makes my skin crawl: the filters set-up by congloms that make each individual feel like the media they watch is assembled for “me,” especially in Internet environments. They’re thankful for shortcuts that help them search for new products to consume — and really so am I — except that they are never asked to question the naturalization of these presences in their lives, and the naturalization of automated individualization of media. What they perceive of as “choice” and even as “empowering,” I perceive of as conglom-manipulated targeting of the next generations of consumers. Somehow I just slipped into Althusser territory….

    I don’t know how clear I’ve made these thoughts, but would love to hear comments on how others negotiate both their own subjectivity in the new mediascapes, as well as how you approach pedagogy for students immersed in seeing only the benefits of these mediascapes. Without diminishing the benefits possible, how do we think critically about our place in contemporary and future media offerings?

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