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January 26 2016
Political Economy: The emergence and economics of reality TV
What did you think about the Oullette and Murray article? Is there anything there that surprised you, or you disagree with, or found interesting?
According to Oullette and Murray, what are some of the characteristics of reality TV? And what do these elements do to the bottom line?
What does it mean to say that reality TV is “unabashedly commercial”?
Oullette and Murray characterize reality TV as offering “nonscripted access to ‘real’ people in ordinary and extraordinary situations” (3) and a “fixation with ‘authentic’ personalities, situations, problems, and narratives” (5). The authors deliberately put “real” and “authentic” in quotation marks. What does it mean when you put a word in “scare quotes” like that?
When Oullette and Murray characterize reality TV as offering “nonscripted access to ‘real’ people in ordinary and extraordinary situations” (3), why might they take issue with the idea that these are just real people in ordinary and extraordinary situations?
When Oullette and Murray characterize reality TV as demonstrating a “fixation with ‘authentic’ personalities, situations, problems, and narratives” (5) why might they take issue with the idea that what we are seeing are authentic personalities?
All representations are constructed and inherently unreal. Representations are inherently partial, incomplete, unreal and biased. Reality TV is no exception.
What Oullette and Murray are trying to highlight with their quotation marks is that reality TV makes a claim to realism that other shows don’t. We are told that these are real people in authentic situations and even if we don’t believe it, it is still part of the allure and characteristics of these shows.
It is what Murray and Oullette refer to as the “promise of the real” (6) or the “entertaining real” (5).
Another characteristic of reality TV is media convergence. This is the delivery of television content across a range of digital formats.
As a result, advertisers no longer buy just commercials, they buy packages that include: commercials, product integration and online integration. The content is spread out across formats / media so that viewers are directed from the television to the internet for extra footage to their phones for voting and back to the television and so on.
In terms of reality TV, these are new ways of engaging and tracking viewers. This is sometimes called “Participation TV” (Madger) or interactivity (Oullette and Murray). As Oullette and Murray write, reality TV is known for “the convergence of new technologies with programs and their promotion,” as well as the “expansion of “merchandizing tie-ins” (15).
Taking the example of American Idol, how does the series direct us to use “new technologies”?
What are some of the merchandizing tie-ins?
Also, voting has been shown to produce more loyal viewers. There is a kind of emotional investment that accompanies voting and loyal viewers are more likely to watch commercials and retain the brands that advertised on the show.
And viewers who watch these shows are more likely to watch them “live.” Why do people tend to watch gamedocs live to air? And how does this impact the bottom line?
Increasingly, we also see “user-generated content” on reality TV as well. Murray and Oullette highlight this change. For example, shows like ANTM started integrating fan reviews into the series. Again, this cultivates fan loyalty and emotional investments, offers a chance for fans to be selected to appear on the show, and also is free content for the series.
Coke partnered with American Idol for 13 seasons and was able to recapture ground it had lost to Pepsi with younger demographics, especially teens.
Madger tells us that advertisers and television networks have a special interest in viewers aged 18-49 and 18-34. These are considered the most valuable demographics. Why are these thought to be most valuable?
So age is important, but wealth is important too. In general, networks look to target middle-class or more affluent viewers.
Television is a kind of peculiar medium because on the surface it looks like networks are selling TV shows. Their product is the TV series and we buy it or we don’t. But when you actually read television trade journals like Cable & Broadcasting it becomes clear that the “product” that is delivered is slightly different than what it might appear to us as viewers. Does anyone have a sense of another “product” that is being sold to advertisers by television networks?
What are television ratings?
Why have ratings mattered to television?
Why are traditional ratings increasingly difficult to get?
“Time-shifting” is also something that Madger talks about in terms of streaming and PVR. What does time-shifting mean?
Recording, streaming and time-shifting have made it more challenging to count ratings and therefore harder to count and characterize the audience in order to sell advertising. Reality TV has thrived in this context for some of the reasons I’ve just outlined. These technological pressures influence the content and the delivery of content.
Madger says that there have been a few rules that US network television has played by for many years in trying to create content that is friendly to advertisers. He makes three points (148):
- “deliver audiences in a ‘buying mood’ to advertisers; viewers need to be tuned in but not unduly upset or disturbed by the program’s content.”
- “stick to established program genres and avoid challenging the genre expectations of viewers.”
- “recycle and copy successful shows” (148).
How do these principles influence content?
In this vein, Madger discusses the “prepackaged formats” that are popular today. What is a “prepackaged format” on television?
Reality TV has thrived in this technological and economic environment.
Some might say that reality TV has proliferated because that is what viewers really want to watch. What does Madger say about the notion that television “gives people what they most want to watch or that TV responds primarily to the interests and needs of viewers” (146)?
Madger takes us back to television pre-2000 when networks were focused on “primetime”—this is from 7:00-10:00 on a weeknight—and this was the most valuable timeslot because there were the most viewers and therefore the most ad revenue. Pre-2000 what kinds of shows populated primetime?
Survivor and Big Brother were suddenly drawing the same ratings and ad revenue as Friends and ER. According to Madger why was the network airing the reality TV series coming out ahead financially?
And why do dramas and sitcoms tend to get more expensive over time?
How does this compare to reality TV?
In this sense, reality TV is like many other areas of employment where well-paid permanent and long-term contract employment are increasingly being replaced with lower paying work with no benefits or longterm commitment on the part of the employer.
Today’s readings address, in part, political economy. Political economy refers generally to what is happening off-screen in terms of economics and politics that influence what we see on screen at any given time. What is the corporation / network that makes the show? How does the show make money? What is the political climate in the country? How does the content challenge or fall in line with that political climate? These are some questions related to the political economy.
Political economy: “[I]t is important to stress the importance of analyzing cultural texts within their system of production and distribution, often referred to as the political economy of culture… The system of production often determines what sort of artifacts will be produced, what structural limits there will be as to what can and cannot be said and shown, and what sort of audience effects the text may generate” (Kellner, 2003, 12).
Kellner, D. (2003). Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture. In Dines, G. & Humez, J., Gender, Race, and Class in the Media (9-20). California: Sage.
After all of this information about the format and characteristics of reality TV, I want to give you an example of a very early reality TV series and offer a very brief synopsis of how political economy has been analyzed by critical media scholars.
COPS: “Reality-based crime show” 1989 to present (FOX, now SPIKE)
Spawned: Bounty Hunters, America’s Most Wanted, LAPD: Life on the Beat
Who are the bad boys?
Who are the heroes?
The “money shot”
Political economy research addresses how off-screen elements like a writers’ strike, a national “war on drugs,” and government cuts to food stamps and social services appear on television. With reality TV, because these are ostensibly “real” people in authentic situations we are invited to take up the COPS version as a credible representation of who: deals drugs; does drugs; is dangerous; is poor and why they are poor; is a victim; is a hero; we should trust; and we should steer clear of for our own safety. Reality TV dramatizes race, class and gender in often very polarizing terms, whether we are talking about Cops, Big Brother or The Real Housewives.
January 19 2016
Welcome and Introduction
- distribute paper syllabus
- welcome and introduce myself
- run through syllabus including: topics covered (political economy, audiences and textual analysis); focus on social justice and neoliberalism; and assignments.
- attendance — please tell me the year you are in, major and favorite Reality TV series