Cybernetic TV

lucas header

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


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

Please feel free to comment.

One comment

  • Could user generated content from local and independent media outlets that cater to consumer interest destroy or enable this promise of democratic participation?

    While current media remains a mirror for government and corporate to watch viewers who in turn watch them the internet, an intimate, separate, and private space, fights to prevent the invasion of advertising.

    While the internet erodes TV’s current distribution models new forms of surveillance, (I.E: audience ratings systems) are needed to track TV spectators. Could viewing shows from multiple sources (Cell phones, Digital TV and many others) allow consumers to finally escape being watched? Are TV audiences becoming transparent as they consume multiple and different layers of media consumption?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *