â€œWeâ€™ll Find a Way to Make Money, Weâ€™re Americanâ€: Notes from the NATPE Exhibit Floor, Part 4
Though, as my previous post stated, this conference wasnâ€™t as fundamentally different from others Iâ€™ve been to, nor were its participants so completely a different breed, let me now nevertheless discuss some key differences that did strike me.
I begin with a rather trivial one: the exhibit floor is way cooler than the book room at SCMS, ICA, etc. Academic conferences have books on display, and occasionally a wine and cheese table if youâ€™re lucky. At NATPE, each network had its own snack and espresso bar. There was a tour bus on the floor. Everyone had candy (are you listening, Routledge?). One booth had performing cats and a sinister looking ringleader with a twirly moustache (are you listening, Columbia University Press? And yes, I’m serious. See here). A tree-cutting machine/vehicle was on the floor, with huge tree trunks too (advertising a cool sounding show called Nosak Raw from Oklahoma that shows trees being downed â€“ imagine the destruction scenes from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition becoming their own show). A young Orphan Annie passed out flyers. Bright lights. Free promo DVDs. Free flavored vodkas. Free bald head wipes. Lots of flatscreen TVâ€™s. All quite fun, and quite impressive.
As for more substantive differences? After the fold…
I found it interesting to see where many speakers saw power as residing. Endless variants of â€œthe audience is kingâ€ were repeated. Tellingly, for instance, the only panel explicitly about fans was called â€œEmpowered By Fans,â€ as though fans had the power, and the industry needed to go to the well to find that power. Technology featured prominently as powerful, too, though usually as a tool of the powerful audience rather than as powerful in and of itself.
This contrasts quite starkly to how television studies as a field often conceives of power in the television industry, namely as producer/industry-held and as rarely shared. What are we to make of this contrast?
First, to a degree, we should read the execsâ€™ comments at face value, and realize the huge power audiences do have, especially with some of the newer technological platforms, and we might realize that while we often see ourselves as audiences at the receiving end of television, when producers need to monetize audiences, sell our viewing eyeballs, capture our attention, etc., they may well see themselves as somewhat powerless in this process, and at the receiving end themselves. Professions of powerlessness were common at NATPE, with quite a few throwing their hands up and trusting in a â€œcycle,â€ whereby everything would come back around eventually and inevitably, and thereby suggesting that they had little agency in controlling, reversing, stopping, or accelerating this â€œcycle.â€
Second, though, the frustrating and tackling thing with television is that each â€œsideâ€ (industry or audience) is receiving different things, and thus desires a very different sort of power from the other. Perhaps hereâ€™s where the problem lies (or perhaps where the magic lies?), in that audiences and execs are often playing profoundly different games. And this is what drew me to the creators (see this post, and my earlier one on Futures of Entertainment, where again I was drawn to the creators), as theyâ€™re the intermediaries, and often the only figures with a stake and a presence in both games. The more I think about it, the more I think television studies could fruitfully examine creators as a separate category of production, and this is why Iâ€™m increasingly interested in constructions and practices of authorship. To use an analogy from the world of Phillip Pullman, think of execs and audiences existing in parallel universes, with many of the same things in each universe; creators are those who wield the Subtle Knife that allows movement from one dimension to the other, so it might be fruitful to chart how this process works.
Third, we could and should also criticize the simplicity of the â€œpower lies with the audienceâ€ dogma. One hears it everywhere in the trade journals, and itâ€™s often fetishized, with over-dramatic proclamations about the â€œseismicâ€ changes caused by DVR, YouTube, and iPod users (even though stats suggest this is still a small percentage of all users and even less of all television viewing). But if they mean it, why did I hear so very little about how to communicate with King Audience? If audience metrics are broken (which I think they are), why wasnâ€™t there more about fashioning new ways to make qualitative sense of audiences? And why were audiences always talked of in peremptory fashion? Especially if audience segmentation has happened, why are audiences still spoken of as a huge mass? And why, for that matter, is every execâ€™s kid seen as the representative of the audience (are millionaire kids in Hollywood really that representative??)?
Either the execs just donâ€™t know how to talk to audiences and how to listen to them, and thus desperately need some assistance. Or theyâ€™re just talking a big game, and donâ€™t really see audience power as anything of much consequence. Audiences have power relative to what they used to have, but are still contained within a game that is well within the execsâ€™ command, might be the logic. (Much as, for instance, a parent may grumble about how their otherwise attentive and obedient eight year-old child â€œneverâ€ listens to them simply because s/heâ€™d rather watch Hanna Montana than hear about the parentâ€™s day at work). As one speaker stated enthusiastically, and with little fear of the days ahead, â€œWeâ€™ll find a way to make money, weâ€™re American.â€ America doesnâ€™t really need to worry about Botswana and French Guyana going all upstart and controlling world commerce, and neither, perhaps, do the execs?
On the topic of listening to audiences, I think here of the late seventies in Birmingham, with Stuart Hall, Dave Morley, Charlotte Brunsdon, Angela McRobbie, and pals all realizing that audience studies had to be qualitative if they were to be truly helpful. Numbers and endless effects studies could help, but ultimately seemed rather ephemeral when one tried to grab them. Hallâ€™s encoding/decoding model still seems painfully simple, and itâ€™s a stinging rebuke to the crudeness of earlier audience theory that such a model was even necessary. And yet the television industry seems to need its own cultural studies moment.
Somewhat related, and segueing off the title of this post in another direction, I was surprised to hear that for all the trumpeting of how important the international markets of FIGS-UK (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, United Kingdom) and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are, the only panels that even bothered to follow up on this observation were those that explicitly dealt with global television. The â€œweâ€ who is finding the way to make money is still very much America, so it seems. (Though, this is another problem that academia shares, where discussions of the international often only truly occur in panels, books, and classes with â€œinternationalâ€ or â€œglobalâ€ in the title). A great chasm still exists between the metrics and the anecdotal stories of what â€œpeopleâ€ did in Taipei on the one week an exec was there on business, and so again I think the industry needs a cultural studies intervention.
All this said, the people I met were on the whole very charming, and I would only construct one voodoo doll if empowered to do so (of a nasty Warner Bros. lacky who very rudely deflected my polite request for a name of who to talk to about promotions and extratexts. At least NBC pretended to give a shit when answering the same question). So Iâ€™m less interested in castigating them to the scrap heap with simplistic labels of Big Bad Execs and more intrigued by how we can sit them down with Stuart Hall, so to speak.
Anyways, class prep beckons, Iâ€™m typing this about 30,000 feet above the exhibit floor, and will post it over a thousand miles away. Thus my reports end. NATPE was a fantastic experience, and Iâ€™m immeasurably thankful that NATPE care enough about education to fund this program, paying the way for multiple scholars to attend, eat, and sleep.Tags: NATPE