Robert Andrews

A Level Media Studies A3

AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION AND THE EVOLUTIO OF BROADCAST M D L N O ES IN THE BRAVE NEW MEDIA
At the end of the twentieth century, the world is witnessing an extraordinary convergence of communications media. Essentially driven by the expansion of broadcasting, falling prices in the computing industry and the demand for sophisticated forms of news and recreation, digital media is set to revolutionise die ways in which we receive our information and entertainment, how we buy and sell, and the manner in which we communicate with one another. Yet it is still far more an important issue how we approach this on coming age. It will be about from where we get our information, how much we get, how we process it, and how we use it to our collective or individual advantage. These, and more questions have begun to be asked, and the answers will have implications for each and every one of us. This essay will attempt to explore die issues relating to me ways in which the media in a conternjwrat'y society will develop. It will examine the pressure that established media inslilLitions may find themselves under, the desire on die part of receivers for something more than passive communication, and how the nature of me relationship between these two parties is set to evolve over the coming years, as digital media expands. The nature of the way in which the media is used is changing rapidly, and postmodern culture is me centre of a fascinating debate over who has the ability to communicate effectively, and whether we simply lake possession of the information we receive, or interact with it. The outcome could shake established media institutions to their roots, forcing a cultural revolution of ideas, or it may prove that old dogs do not need to be taught new tricks. To examine how me media will change, we must look to the structures of me established media forms of today, to times when they were fresh and exciting, m each situation, we find that the birth of the medium has been the product of both technological and sociological advances. The issue is whedier technology forces change in society for technology's sake, or whether society will demand a change that technology will seek to bring about. The feeling that led to Gutenburg's printing of the Bible in 1456, and Caxton's printing of the first English book twenty years later, was die desire to communicate, the need to transmit information far and wide. Further down the line, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the deiiianu for more current facts gave rise to the newspaper, which would provide more reliability to the news needed by city professionals than the gossip they would find in their cosmopolitan coffee shops. If receiving this much hard information was seen as beneficial, then the development of [lie radio should have been truly innovative. It was another development which owed its existence to advances in technology creating new opportunities for a new medium (o thrive. All new media places a heavy refiance on overcoming expense and a reluctance for change before their acceptance as essential goods, and the radio was perhaps the first mass communication product to see whole families and streets crowd together to hear sounds from some mystical, far off studio, despite the radio's use, in reality, as a secondary medium; which only commands one sense and can be used while some other task is attended to. The same trends were obvious in the introduction of the television Groups of people would sit around the box as pictures flickered onto the tube This was a fundamental pointer as to how television would be used even to mis date. It is in the notion that each broadcast is seen as an

Robert Andrews

A Level Media Studies A3

event that the viewer loses control over what they watch; when each programme is aired at a certain time; meaning the viewer having to fit in with the schedules of a group of people at broadcasting house through tlie medium of a square box. The very existence of programme guides tells us that the nature of old broadcasting is inflexible, commanding our attention at specified times of the day as we use our eyes and ears to receive dictated messages. This calls into question the nature of the relationship between the content and the user in the situations highlighted thus far, the content has dictated the attention of the user, though if tlie user wanted that content to be useful, they should be able to tell the medium which information they receive, when and where. The excitement with which the first viewers greeted television had superseded the knowledge that they were being dictated to, but me television phenomenon of the twentieth century is one which has bred laziness and apathy. The overriding message here is that the model adopted by media up to the end of tills century has been one to many, offering little more than a one way route of communication from a powerful producer to a passive audience; despite the significant number in which the latter outweigh the former the very nature of mass communication is, therefore, unbalanced. A system in which the few control the information received by the many can be seen as beneficial by those who distribute this information; unfair by those who receive it, and unhealthily divisive by commentators. It is a very powerful situation, and one which is favourable to advertisers, who seek to reach as many people as possible through as many channels. None of me established media mentioned can be said to offer worthwhile interaction of a either viewer producer, viewer content or viewer viewer nature. But television can be thought of as fostering a particularly insular reaction to content, where the end user can offer no feedback on the issues raised in the programme. When we consider Eco's 1981 statement, "The unity of a text lies in its destination, not its origin," we see that broadcasters cannot possibly know what viewers have thought of their programme unless some form of reaction is provided," and that the preferred meaning may even have been misinterpreted. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan identified that, because of the one way nature of mass communications, senders are not in a direct relationship with receivers, and that because this relationship is impersonal and reaches a large audience, it can be packaged and sold as a commodity, unlike inter personal communication, which costs nothing. It is only inter personal communication, via two step flow, which enables post broadcast dissection of preferred meanings, though this is limited. If this discussion took place on a wider scale, via one of the three reaction models proposed above which draw together the sender and receiver; then it would create a real forum for thought, where viewers would become participants, creating a community around the content in which the received meanings are deliberated over, whether the concurrent dominant hegemonic position, negotiated position, or oppositional. This would provide the broadcaster with a valuable insight into the reaction amongst the viewers/users of content; and would further stimulate the shared experience of those who receive and produce it. The result of the same old broadcasting model is an industry which is afraid to experiment for fear of anything that breaks out of hegemonic genericism being a commercial flop. But more crucial to the broadcasters is the notion of power. I have mentioned that being a content producer, disseminating information en masse, is a commercially strong position. Yet it also means that the broadcaster controls the information received by the viewer, and has the discretion to edit or manipulate that information. Cynics would talk about this in terms of the Marxist ideology, where content is distributed by the state for the state's benefit. In fact; this is a situation which begins to look decidedly like George Orwell's 1984 totalitarian nightmare.

Robert Andrews

A Leve) Media Studies A3

Indeed, it is unhealthy for the public to receive information from only a handful of news sources. In order to arrive at a balanced opinion, multiple ideas should be assimilated. Broadcasters are intent on maintaining the old model for reasons of market dominance, but the explosion of plurality, recently and in the next few years, threatens to destroy their hegemony, resulting in hundreds of channels of ideas. This will provide ordinary people with the opportunity to air their own opinions, as has already happened in much of the new media sector and the underground old media. Particularly on the worldwide web, the possibility of setting up sites quickly and easily has granted users the ability to become content producers of their very own. This has led to the rapid expansion of free thought circulating on the Internet where people create communities around their own ideas where they would have been impossible with old media. The key sentiment is that the opportunity to become a creator is extremely empowering, providing one with a potentially huge stage to air one's views. But moreso; it will overturn the relationship between' broadcaster and viewer, bringing the two closer together, as mass communication technology becomes cheaper and easier to use. A new punk ethic is set to prevail, where kids raised on Nintendo and the net, in a society increasingly hostile to politics and big business domination, will see no reason why they cannot make their views heard In fact; where interactive media gives rise to active users, there are positive implications for democracy. In recent decades, there has grown an apathy toward politics, and this may partially be blamed on the media viewers see politicians bickering amongst themselves on television; or read their comments in the newspaper, and they do not have access to them for questioning because they are beyond the closed doors of the one way model. The lack of communication from voter to voted is not conducive to a democratic society. • The British general election of 1997 saw an apparent concerted effort from broadcasters to involve the public in the debate. A range of television shows offered viewers the oppoi [unity to get involved by offering their opinions to the masses and, more importantly, to put their concerns to the politicians vying for rule of the state. They were able to talk back, as well as get talked to. The broadcasters allowed this because they recognised that the next government would be elected not by a handful of corporation executives, but by the people outside the studio; in front of the box. The decision to transform these viewers into participants recognised the power of the consumer and attempted to draw them into the show; where they would be seen as a cross section of the public, in order to gauge the mood of the nation. Some programmes' content was entirely based on viewer interaction, others used studio audiences to put the questions that 'you; the viewer wanted to ask. In most cases, the broadcaster still has ultimate control over the direction of the show, through the nomination of questioners, the interruption of the interrogated; and the casting of votes, This creates a framework in which the broadcaster retains authority; where the newly converted participants can be cut off. But the conversion of viewers to participants is now a trend. A number of television programmes over recent years have sought to incorporate phone in participation in order to increase the reality of experience. Viewer participation is particularly effective in matters of national importance. A television landmark occurred in January of 1997 when ITV ran a live public debate on the British monarchy. Despite pulling in the world's largest television response of 2.6 million; the debate was heavily criticised for a confrontational style which encouraged people to take sides. In

Robert Andrews

A Level Media Studies A3

defence, director of programmes at Carlton, Andy Alien, said: "In the eighties, people were cowed and they didn't speak out. Now they are finding a voice again, and as soon as they speak, members of the elite call it mob rule." Entirely consistent with the idea that viewers in the digital media era want to engage in dialogue rather than listen to monologue, he added: "Television is changing. In the age of the Internet, people want communication to be two way \ traffic." The interactionist standpoint, that the viewer is an active participant, is something of a fallacy if that viewer cannot respond. They may decode the received information and arrive at an opinion which may or may not be consistent with the preferred encoded meaning. But this is worthless if there is no forum of discussion outside of personal company. So, what is the response from broadcasters to the challenges of the new public demand for interaction and participation? In May 1996, the BBC published Extending Choice In the Digital Age, a document which would 'set out the corporation's ambitions for public service digital services; funded by the licence fee.' The main commitments made were to provide BBC 1 and 2 in widescreen, a 24 hour news channel and an electronic programme guide. The ideas fanned the more general proposal of more choice, hardly the boon to democratic interactionism or community building that will be necessary in the future. Indeed, Extending Choice was harshly criticised by many in the industry; particularly John Wyver of independent producer. Illuminations: "The BBC reckons that interaction consists of choosing from a range of pre determined options offered by the provider," he wrote, in Wired 2.10. "All variants of this future still assume the primacy of traditional broadcasting." Wyver, who produced The Net for BBC2, proposed that conventional broadcasting be toppled in order make the worldwide web the organising force for shows, instead of an adjunct. In his own proposal for the way television can work five years down the road, Wyver suggested the primary location for a show would be a web site, where a community built from 'viewers' offer their own comments and tips on the topic of the show. From there; a half hour weekly programme is drawn by professional TV producers from the material collected from the web site ideas in text, pictures and video. He recognised that "to convert audience into community, this scenario depends crucially on finding non television people who can contribute meaningfully to good television." In this sense, the viewer is truly the creative, and the model would require a rethink of the role of the producer, who would become responsible for discerning between healthy debate and a libellous slanging match, creative advice and dangerous nonsense, New media represent a fundamental shift in power from the broadcasters to the public whom they allegedly serve. It slips through the restraints on which public service broadcasting was founded limited access to the spectrum, subordination to government authority, restrictive Operating licences; inadequate access to production technology yet new media also gives broadcasters new opportunities to develop relationships with producers and audiences, rather than simply extending choice. It could create a new type of public service broadcasting that includes, rather than edifies, the public. ' "It is built around the traditional broadcast model with multimedia tacked on as an afterthought," commented an anonymous BBC employee in Wired 3.02. "What it fails to address is the need to redefine the traditional model. Ignoring this is like shuffling the chairs on the Titanic." That traditional model is based around Reithian ideals which are an age apart from today's world. The legacy to educate, entertain and inform was borne out of a war time era which

Robert Andrews

,

A Level Media Studies A3

assumed the public had little choice in what to consume, that the nation wanted to be a whole and that broadcasters have a right to cultural high ground. Postmodern culture is one which provides us with more choice, more plurality of opinion and no reliance on close knit war time communities. Instead, new communities are being forged on line, in cyberspace, New media re builds the uses and gratification model of analysis it requires endeavour to actively seek out the content which is of interest, rather than tossing information at the viewer at time tabled intervals. The user has full control over the time and place of information retrieval, therefore living up to the proposal that users are active in seeking ftut and processing the content they handle. Old media may die hard, or not die at all. Despite the evangelism of interactive media moguls, there are reasons why the established media may be around for years to come Firstly; the capacity to be entertained must not be under estimated There will always be some distinction between professional media producers and users, separated by the need to manipulate digital technologies expertly, no matter how easy they are to use. Stories have been told for centuries, and it is a penchant that will not disappear simply because readers will also be able to tell their own stories. And in a world which will be saturated by vast quantities of media content; there will be a desire for news that is accurate and trustworthy. With the amount of other channels to use, the efforts of independent, amateur new media producers may turn out to be little more than fifteen seconds of fame; swamped by big companies with an ever expanding interest in digital media. Increasingly; technological determinism may play a part; where only those who able to afford the devices for receiving content will be able to enjoy all the benefits described earlier. At worst, this could mean restricted access to free speech, including a say in the democratic process, and certainly no possibility of producing one's own content, Perhaps the most likely stumbling block to the liberation of the media will be one that is little talked about. For interactive media to perform its role, some effort is required on the part of the user. This essay has talked about how television has produced a lazy society which can only sit and digest messages. The transfer from a passive viewer to an active participant is a fundamental one; and many will have to be convinced of the benefits of having to work to get information; whereas it used to be thrown at you. In contrast to McLuhan's belief that sender and receiver are not in direct communication; Golding, in 1974; found "the growth of mass communications is a dual process. On the one hand, it describes the development of an industry; and on the other the evolution of an audience. The relationship between the two is one of supply and demand for two basic social commodities; leisure facilities and information." In a society where anyone can become a producer of these commodities, this theory holds no water up to the point where the producers require a kind of content which they cannot produce themselves. But as long as there are people to send information, there will be people who use it to their gratification. It is perhaps ironic; or tragic, that the new bastion of many to many media, the Internet, may now be ready to turn full circle and succumb to the commercial reality of broadcasting. 1996 and 1997 saw news of the development of push technology', a model which defies the 'traditional' Internet mode of deliverance. Inherently, to find information on the Net, a user is

required to visit a site and actively choose the content they want.

'The push model is in direct opposition to this. Soon, information will be pushed to a user's desktop without the user specifying anything other than an initial categorisation of desired content. Then, infon nation will be pumped onto a continually updated rolling ticker tape, which will return the new medium to a one to many, television model, and will curtail the interactive nature of the Internet before it has realistically took off. Push media is in the pipeline because advertisers have found it difficult to adapt to a new medium where an announcement is heard only if a conscious decision is made to investigate. Precisely because

Robert Andrews

A Level Media Studies A3

the Internet is, or was, an anarchic, unpredictable; many to many system, which defied traditional media, the established content providers have found it difficult to do business there. Now, the centre of interactive media is moving into a post hypermedia environment that will complete the Internet's transformation into a broadcast medium. This will have implications for the way in which it is used, perhaps resulting in a society ignorant to the categories of news not specified. In conclusion, twenty first century media will have to be more intelligent than that of the twentieth century. With so much pluralism, so many channels of information, it will have to compete for our attention. Tt must, therefore, work hard in order to attract us, and offer a unique experience to ensure we use it again. It must also bear in mind that communities can be created regardless of physical distance. The result may be a compromise between one to many and many to many models, for the sake of plurality, which could mean receiving our information in a one way method, but discussing it in a more relevant and useful manner with the aid of digital technologies. In the past, television threw out information to viewers when it wanted to. In the future, it must reel viewers into discussions the}' can join when they want. Welcome to the world of broadcatching,

Robert Andrews

A Level Media Studies A3

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Culture, Society and the Media Routledge, 1992 Michael Gurrevitch, Tony Bennett, James Curran and Jane Woollacott Mass Communication Theory Sage, 1983 Denis McQuaiI Studying The Media Arnold, 1994 Tim O'Sullivan, Brian Dutton, Philip Rayner Extending Choice In The Digital Age BBC.1996 The BBC's Digital Service Proposition; A Consultation Document BBC,1997 Wired UK 2.10 Wired UK Ventures, 1996 John Wwer Wired UK 3.02 Wired UK Ventures, 1997 Meg Carter Wired UK 3.03 Wired UK Ventures. 1997 •Kevin Keiiy, Gary Wolf MediaGuardian, 13 Jan 1997 Guardian News, 1997 Maggie Brown Internet Magazine, May 1997 Emap Business Communications Garret Keogh

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