How Can We Tell the Future
Jonathan Gray / University of Wisconsin – Madison
To first ask about television’s future, it would seem to make sense to know about its present: where is the medium at the beginning of 2014, where are we in relationship to it, what’s it doing, what are we doing, what is the industry doing, and what might this tell us about trends to expect for the future? And here’s where I hit a sticking point, since ultimately I don’t think we have a very good sense of where television is. Thus, as a waypoint to discussing possible futures, I’d first like to discuss the mechanisms and tools we use to work out where the medium is.
Here, I’m haunted by the unflattering image that Todd Gitlin presents in Inside Prime Time of television execs making major decisions based on wonky Nielsen numbers when it’s convenient, or on what their teenage children or partners think is cool when that conveniences them. Timothy Havens has noted the prevalence of “industry lore,” whereby all sorts of “knowledge” about what works and what doesn’t is created with as much evidence as exists for that story that somebody’s cousin told a guy you know about the ghost that appears in your rear view mirror on Fill-in-the-Blank Highway. I’m haunted by this (the prevalence of lore, not the ghost) because I wonder how we in academia are any different. We allow the experiences of a couple of classes of undergrads to stand in for “the way it is,” or else we fall back on the impressive-sounding numbers that the industry throws our way through promotional venues.
Let’s focus this on something we all “know” to be happening: the crisis of distribution. Nielsen tells us that less people are watching television on the television set according to the schedule offered by the networks. We know from our students that people are watching online, on mobile devices, sometimes streaming content legally, often doing it illegally. But what’s caught between these two sources of information, the scant anecdotal discussion of television’s informal economy, and the numbers that businesses want to share with us for the formal economy? After all, neither site of knowledge is especially representative. On one hand, Nielsen and the ad economy it represents largely cares only about 18-49 year olds (in a rapidly aging nation), it cares more about young white male viewers, it cares more about the middle classes, and it’s admitted that it under-samples people of color for its viewing sample. On the other hand, many of our undergrad classes skew young, middle class, white, and – since a large amount of television studies that is shared far and wide is American – American. So when we consult our regular, easy sources for information – undergrads and industry data or reports – we’re seeing very little of what’s actually happening more broadly.
We really can’t say what television’s future will be until we know what its present is. If one sees my wagging finger as I write this, though, it’s not a self-aggrandizing one: I can’t pretend to know any better, or to have done much more, to work out what’s going on. I’m also being polemical, and in the process I risk underplaying the wonderful work that some scholars are indeed doing to provide other sources of knowledge. I apologize to them for my clumsy, sweeping rhetorical gesture.
But the challenge for all television scholars, is to make better sense of all that’s happening. How?
Part of the answer lies in more ethnography. Audience studies in the critical/cultural tradition enjoyed a boom in the 80s and 90s, but has nowhere near the same following now. Rephrased, television underwent a series of major industrial shifts at the end of the 90s, and we don’t have enough ethnography to make sense of the ensuing environment. Thus, I feel that I understand the politics of the 80s living/sitting room better than I understand the location of television viewing today. A lot of that work in the 80s was locked into making a rhetorical point (about audience “activity”), too, and thus is limited in scope. Fan studies kept the audience studies banner alive, but fans can’t stand in for all audiences.
Part of the answer lies in taking control of the stats. There’s this funny thing that media and cultural studies academics do, wherein we excoriate positivism and quantitative work, yet regularly fall back on others’ numbers when it’s convenient. Almost all of us believe in numbers deep down. Maybe we could use them more and with less self-hatred (or hypocrisy) if we created some ourselves. For instance, I would love to know more about viewing clusters, by which I mean what sorts of things people who watch Show X also watch, and whether patterns exist. I’d also love to see a qualitative weighting of the Nielsen ratings that tells me not only how many (estimated) people watched a show, but how many people really liked what they were watching (is there vanilla TV that few love but many watch, for instance? I sense there is, but it’s just a sense). I’d love to see attempts to chart viewership across various platforms, and attempts that don’t stop at the borders of the legal. Or, speaking of borders, I’d love to see numbers that aren’t always already national, and that reflect attempts to make sense of transnational currents. Instead of waiting for the scraps that are thrown our way from the Nielsen or industry table, let’s make our own numbers.
Part of the answer, on a slightly more upbeat note, is already happening, as more and more work is examining production cultures. Versus the political economy approach that all too often relied on balance books and shareholder reports, cultural studies scholars have been stepping up efforts to get to trade conferences and conventions, get to the sites of industry, and to examine how decisions are being made, how creativity is conceived and practiced, how labor is managed and used, and so forth. Reports from Variety and Broadcasting and Cable will always be helpful, but they’re still only what some in the industry have decided to share, and the current surge in production cultures research promises to ask its own questions.
Okay, so that was the upbeat paragraph, but I’ll now return to pessimism by noting that all of the above three answers require more funding, or creative ways around funding. Ethnography takes time and resources, especially if it has an international or transnational component. Making good numbers costs money. Production research costs money. Where that money will come from when the Humanities at large are bleeding is a mystery to me. The way forward, therefore, won’t be easy, and it will require a lot of work. Such as it ever was.
The rewards for getting it right could be considerable, however. They will be to actually understand the future of television. Rhetorics of the future are often accompanied by pervasive exclusion, as we focus inordinately on “early adopters” and on the tech savvy, resource rich. It’s easy to be swept up by grand visions of future nirvanas: the industry says that X will happen and is now possible, so we envision a world of X; an undergrad excites us by saying that she does Y, and so we get carried away and see a future of Y. It’s no harder to be swept up by dystopian visions, whereby this or that stat, this or that practice of our students, is projected on a grand scale onto a dark, forbidding future. But if we’re going to guess at the future, let’s do it in as informed a way as possible, by seeing where we are, and by developing and using more, new, and existing tools to map out television’s present.
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