The Audience is Dead; Long Live the Audience!

Interactivity, ‘Telephilia’ and the Contemporary Television Audience
Deborah Jermyn and Su Holmes

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and beyond, while film studies worked through notions of spectatorship and hypothesised the existence of conflictual subject positions, the growing discipline of television studies was already engaged in building a rich repertoire of audience studies. Never shying away from the methodological and ideological pitfalls of ethnographic research, scholars – from David Morley1 and Dorothy Hobson2 to Ann Gray3 – sought to understand how real individuals, groups of viewers and targeted audiences actually engaged with television, whether in the context of the domestic setting, family relations or wider social networks. Implicit in much of this early work was the notion that the audience was tangible, reachable and somehow quantifiable. As we settle into the twenty-first century, however, this perception, and the concomitant notion of a ‘mass’ audience, has become increasingly fragile and problematic. In this article, we look at some of the reasons for, and repercussions of this shift, while reflecting on where the ‘TV audience’ and the conceptualisation of it may go next. Certainly, the once popular vision of the family gathered regularly round the communal set, while clearly not defunct (see, for example, Annette Hill4), seems a world removed from the contemporary multi–set, multi-channel and multi-media home, in which viewing may be splintered across the Internet, ‘series links’ saved to hard-drive or pay per view. As Jane Roscoe comments:
Content is more dispersed across . . . platforms, and our engagement with it is more fleeting. Our experience of contemporary media is fragmented rather than unified or centralised. Instead of our viewing habits being controlled through the “flow” of schedules,5 our viewing is now clustered around events, and through technologies such as personal video recorders, DVDs, and subscription television services. Choice is the buzzword for both broadcasters and audiences.6

Here, we want to focus attention on two key aspects of this context: the advent of the multi-platform interactive text and changing popular conceptions of the TV audience and their practices.

schedulers or media researchers.’9 The concept of ‘flow’ as defined by Raymond Williams10 was perhaps always more useful in mapping the economic strategies of schedulers or the textual organisation of television.’ Interactivity has also emerged as one of the defining features of media cultures. As Will Brooker and Jermyn observe: ‘The “audience” is equally and simultaneously identifiable and elusive. a core component has come to be recognised as ‘feedback’: ‘the ability for message receivers to respond to message senders. Whether for broadcasters. . enabling viewers to make interactive decisions about programming services or scheduling). the concept of the television ‘audience’ has always been something of a fiction7. this has primarily circled around the advent of interactive technologies.50 Critical Studies in Television 1/1 Press that red button. means that ‘content is now being produced and consumed in new ways. analysis or discourse.15 These spheres are clearly often designed to occupy a mutually reinforcing relationship – such as with multi-platform reality shows (discussed below).’8 But the notion of the television audience being ‘elusive’ takes on new connotations. the processes of digitalisation. within the contemporary multichannel. or an engagement with its ideological meanings. edging the conventional media category of audience toward the ‘new media persona of user. as noted above. than it was in capturing the viewing practices of audiences (see Jostein Gripsrud11). and their apparent blurring of the traditional concepts of ‘production’ and ‘consumption. The dispersal of both content and audiences.an intangible construct brought into being by measurement. For example.’14 The use of the term in relation to television invariably spans software (a text involving the interactive input of a viewer) as well as hardware (iTV as media system or technology. while emphasising how the ‘active’ audience paradigm long since eroded the distinction between production and consumption (foregrounding the essentially productive nature of consumption). digital landscape. in the increasing diversification of the multimedia environment. and enduringly fascinating for all those reasons. imaginable and unpredictable.’12 As a key site posing crucial questions for the study of the contemporary television audience. P. This sense of increasing elusiveness is perhaps best captured by debates over the ‘disappearance of the audience. if this is defined as an intervention in a text. . David Marshall has explained how the distinctiveness of interactivity is that it ‘implies some sort of transformative relationship between the user of the media and the media form itself. as well as some form of reciprocal communication.’13 While a considerable degree of theoretical ambiguity has characterised discussions of interactivity (in television studies and beyond).’16 Estella Tincknell and Parvati Raghuram have similarly argued that the concept of the active audience refers to a response to a text. this notion of a unified site of textual consumption comes under further pressure. as well as the advent of interactive technologies. But. and indeed poses new challenges. This is clearly different from the promise of interactivity.17 . One of the most productive implications of interactivity may be that it offers a timely site upon which to revisit approaches to the ‘television audience’ as an object of study.

These debates clearly reflect back on the move away from conceptions of the mass audience. the relationship between these spheres now seems more crucial than ever where the study of the television audience is concerned: the diversification of media consumption has emerged precisely out of the increasing concentration of media ownership. now that consumers ‘have become key participants in media culture.’ suggesting that we should be studying ‘textual processes’ or ‘textual events. . just what ‘the terms of their participation’ means is perhaps ambiguous. media-drenched society. then. The critiques of the ‘active’ audience – primarily associated with the early1990s (see Jim McGuigan22) – are widely known. it seems. it seems to be getting edged out of the picture here. particularly with respect to the role afforded to notions of ideology and power. and particularly the single concept of ‘audience/ text’ relationship (see Couldry. As Jenkins expands. and the notion of centralised media consumption. but they don’t quite ‘fit. the contemporary media context may well at last make for a more fertile ground on which the traditional split between political economy and audience use can be productively reconciled (see Jenkins27). these debates continue to rage on: ‘To what extent does it matter whether TV audiences can or do perform negotiated or resistant readings of Fear Factor or Punked or The Apprentice or Desperate Housewives?’23 This is particularly so in terms of the traditional split between the political economy of television and the ‘symbolic economy’ of cultural use value.’ This is part of a wider debate in which there has been a call for the decentring of traditional modes of textual analysis.21 This perspective. Nick Couldry has drawn attention to the problem of ‘too many texts.24 In other words. Furthermore. ownership and control. not whether spectatorship is active or passive’ [our emphasis].Interactivity.’20 For others such as Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst. the debate now centres on the terms of their participation. quite explicitly questions whether issues of power and ideology should be the central focus at all. television and cultural studies’ historical ‘preoccupation with bottom-up tactics over top-down strategies of power. the problem with the text/audience relationship is that it leads us back to the rather circuitous debate about incorporation or resistance.26 In fact. ‘Telephilia’ and the Contemporary Television Audience 51 These definitions or comparisons seem to suggest a context in which issues of power and ideology are becoming edged out of the picture: they are there. or activity/passivity.18 Abercrombie and Longhurst19).’25 As Henry Jenkins points out. Although with less visibility. In our highly diversified. But they also speak to a longer heritage of dissatisfaction with the duality of the active/passive debate.28 While there is something to be gained from avoiding the potentially dichotomous parameters of earlier debates. while the idea of the ‘text’ in television studies has never had the same kind of centrality as in film studies (not least of all because of the prominent role of audience studies in the development of the discipline). Just what kind of theoretical and methodological frameworks are appropriate for this changing media environment thus seems to be an urgent question for debate.

multi-media environment (see Holmes. the notion of the audiencefocused. television has always been a medium ‘which constantly inscribes its own popularity into its programming in the way in which it displays its ability to mobilise all different kinds of people to participate. as Charlotte Brunsdon has emphasised. Clearly.’33 in other respects the audience seems more visible than ever.29 Tincknell and Raghuram. Although perhaps most identified with this type of deliberately immersive textual web. Big Brother (Endemol Entertainment UK/Channel 4. and questions of ideology and power? For example. 2004– ) (which appear on both terrestrial C4 and digital channel E4). 2001– ) and Big Brother’s Big Mouth (Endemol Entertainment UK/Channel 4. while simultaneously offering one of the most visible examples of how television is aiming to attract audiences in the multichannel. and the audience is invoked as both producer and consumer of the show (the ‘author’ of its outcome32). are devoted almost entirely to performing the audience’s relations with the show – built around text and phone interaction. the subject position. ancillary TV text is not exclusive to Reality TV. In the case of Big Brother.52 Critical Studies in Television 1/1 The Audience ‘in’ the Text To focus this down to an example. but the audience is constantly hailed in moments of presenter address. and it indeed poses new questions about how we might conceptualise ‘the television audience’ as an object of study. a fan ‘chat show’ where audiences could speculate on the latest twists. ancillary shows such as Big Brother’s Little Brother (Endemol Entertainment UK/Channel 4. But simply because the text and audience are dispersed. from terrestrial television. while the emphasis may have been on the ‘disappearance of the audience. to the popular press and magazines. feeding off a live textual ‘organism’ in often divergent and contradictory ways. Both text and audience are dispersed across a range of media sites.30 Roscoe31). does this necessarily mean that we dispense with more traditional concepts such as textual analysis. For example. the mobile phone. In the UK. television’s ‘live’ rhetoric and range of non-fictional programming has always involved quite direct forms of audience address. These spaces also have their own temporal and spatial regimes. as we are now increasingly confronted with programmes that self-consciously play out the relations between text and viewer as central to . and particularly in conversations between participants. the Internet (both as a viewing site and site of fan engagement). and thus to legitimate it.’34 But Reality TV seems to have accelerated this rhetoric. it is clear that multi-platform Reality TV has capitalised on many of the shifts outlined. digital television. when BBC2 broadcast the second series of 24 (Imagine Entertainment/20th-Century Fox. as the popular form [original emphasis]. 2000–) remains the exemplary case study here. it was immediately followed by Pure 24 on BBC3. Reality TV not only recruits its ‘actors’ from the audience (we often witness participants discussing their previous experience as viewers of the show and actively using this knowledge to shape their performance). Furthermore. 2001– ) in 2003. and the constant solicitation of viewer opinion. and actors from the series phoned in to join the studio debate.

’ They can equally appear as the friendly ally. If. as Jenkins observes in a different context. Furthermore. Judge Simon Cowell tells one contestant ‘12–year-old girls from Hull have to somehow want to be you – are you the person to make that happen?’ while fellow judge Neil Fox later asks ‘But are we going to present the audience with fifty contestants that are so standard and similar?’ Indeed. . and people can see through that.’36 this is not simply a debate about the economic and political dynamics of ‘new’ media platforms. the audience is invoked in a range of different ways.’ This snapshot points to the fact that the debates which we once had outside the text – regarding the power relations between text and audience. “vote her out”. It would be predictable to suggest that how such scenarios are ‘actually’ read would be a matter for empirical audience research. Even while the interactive opportunities themselves may not offer a radical shift in audiences’ engagement with texts. judging antagonist.Interactivity. while self-consciously raising issues about the power relations inherent in the acts of production and consumption. whether we participate in any of the interactive. in that they are constructed as helping to create a star which often challenges conventional ideals of pop masculinity or femininity. as contestant Anthony comments in series six: ‘What do you have to do to get a cheer? That public are harsh .’ or as Shell tells transsexual Nadia in series five: ‘You can imagine every gay man thinking. Nadia.’ after which gay male contestant Dan interjects: On the outside. I love that because – in a way – a lot of it is an act. ‘she has this persona but she’s not really like that. because it’s like [mock dramatic voice] ‘oh she’s soooo tragic. what we might call the performance of interactivity is fascinating in itself. ‘the idea of the active and critical consumer is gaining new currency within media industries. but that’s the beauty of you.” and that won’t be popular.’ contestant and audience. or . from UK Big Brother host Davina McCall’s insistence to ‘Get up and vote. ‘Telephilia’ and the Contemporary Television Audience 53 their narrative form.’ or as Shell comments in series five: ‘People. They are discerning and will make the right choice. Pop Idol in particular uses interactivity to construct a struggle between ‘industry. . 2001–2003). They’ll be like. . but you’ve got another side to you. they can be discussed as an absent. “I love her”. will just see me as the “pretty blonde. . or women at least. they perhaps make us more aware of the ways in which we are being conceived and constituted as audiences. . For example. Gay men love that. this remains central to its modes of textual address. As Derek insists in series six: ‘Leave it up to the public – that is the great democratic thing about [this show]. At the very least. . and that’s great. cross-media. It fosters a narrative in which the viewer is invoked as ‘resisting’ the hegemonic ideals of the capitalist music industry. This happens in a range of different ways.. in myriad different ways. opportunities or not.35 In terms of the contestants in Big Brother. You can sour cream with one glance. Celebrate the fact that you live in a democracy!’ to the discussion of the audiences’ consumer preferences in Pop Idol (19 Television/Thames Television. and the reading strategies employed – are now also increasingly played out on screen.’ It’s like. you are absolutely gorgeous.

’ Telephilia – or. scrutinising and being passionate about a range of popular TV drama are also now more widely dispersed than they once were. with the new arrival of Critical Studies in Television.’ however. we are arguably caught up in a sea change where the phrase ‘event television’ does not only signal the finale of this or that Reality TV series. Of course. where a surge of recent critical interest in popular TV is highly evident. edgier and more innovative territory. it is a question about the study of ‘the text’ – even while this concept is in itself under increasing pressure.37 Sex and the City. Clearly. and the subsequent growing willingness of US network television to move into darker. Academia’s own current agenda bears witness to this. Dennis Potter plays) and there has long been ‘cult’ TV fandom (cf Star Trek [Desilu Productions/NBC. As the title of Robert J. 1966–1969]). But we are arguably caught up in a moment where these processes of lauding. a weekend event at London’s National Film Theatre given over to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in July 2005.54 Critical Studies in Television 1/1 issues of ownership and control. there appears a growing recognition that TV drama now is caught up in a startling and exciting moment of innovation and transition – and that this is something which warrants scrutiny and dissemination.39 The L Word40 and 2441 (to name but a handful) either recently published or in development. The way(s) we are watching TV are thus changing. there have arguably been other equally rich periods (and it is not entirely clear where. indeed. and. but (disposable income and access allowing) the linked opportunities to purchase assorted merchandise. Where this was once perhaps behaviour expected of high-brow academic types or geeky sci-fi fans. exchange thoughts and build knowledge on Internet chat rooms and websites and construct our own libraries of favourite series on DVD. Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age42 demonstrates. collecting. if at all. rewatch and debate television contained under the umbrella of certain genres or authorial ‘names’ (cf documentary. is precisely how it has coincided with the growth in opportunities for interactivity and consumption of the text across multiple media spaces. But when such texts are providing their own commentary on the power relations between text and audience. the ‘second’ one ended and the current one began). has come an era abundant in ‘quality’ series. . the very field that television and cultural studies has historically positioned centre stage. literary adaptations. How I learned to stop worrying and love television Equally.38 Angel. this may highlight the quite urgent demand to fuse ‘old’ paradigms with the ‘new. it has always been ‘respectable’ to watch. It also speaks to both audience and schedulers’ tangible enthusiasm regarding the latest ‘golden age’ of (largely American) television drama in which we are currently immersed. preserving. With the success of HBO in particular. One element of what seems different and pertinent to this latest ‘golden age. such activity is becoming both increasingly prevalent and increasingly culturally acceptable. not just in terms of the increased prominence of interactivity. one should be cautious of overstating the case for the exceptionality of this moment. With edited collections on The Sopranos.

’ Devotion to The West Wing (John Wells Production/NBC. had placed the television text as an object of study ‘under assault. achievement. ‘Telephilia’ and the Contemporary Television Audience 55 The refinement of TV and ‘home-cinema’ technologies. the telephile. Have we reached an age where we can finally speak of the ‘telephile’? This is not to say that cultural hierarchies have been abandoned.’ and the most appropriate critical and methodological tools we use to probe it. 1999– ). this seems to be another significant juncture at which to debate the theoretical dialogue between text(s) and audience.’ ‘your show’). has changed the way domestic audiences can engage with both film and television.Interactivity. it has equally fostered the growth of a relationship with TV drama once more characteristic of cinema. reflective and knowledgeable about TV as film buffs are about cinema. This is also the case with the conceptualisation of the television ‘text. are more diverse than they have ever been. What all this points to is a cultural moment which is rich in possibilities for television studies. and very often (via ancillary texts) parent conglomerates. Equally. is ‘discerning. However. and which demands we continue to revisit the ways in which we .43 Increasing numbers of viewers are being ‘empowered’ and encouraged to become television connoisseurs as deeply passionate. But these hierarchies are perhaps more fluid than they once were: the various spaces and forms of consumption open to the telephile. only certain kinds of television series typically make it to DVD in their entirety. the advent of DVD and the expansion of multi-channel television with its continuous reruns of top series. In 1989. so the television connoisseur is invited to invest in ownership of the text via collection. is embraced and rendered culturally esteemed by the very existence of the term ‘cinephile’. these are sentiments which we might say are also shared on a smaller scale by the ‘everyday’ collector. so that the telephile does not quite have a free rein in choosing and building their television archive in this regard. Today. connotes something very different to devotion to Big Brother (where the viewer would be more likely to attract the label of a ‘fan’ in the dismissive sense). Brunsdon felt the need to argue for the ‘importance of retaining the [television] text as an analytic category. for example. and authority (even authorship)’44 their activity brings them. control. While this zeitgeist clearly has commercial benefits for media industries. including the shift of interest from text to audience. and the role of more traditional ideological debates in this new media environment invites further discussion. whether institutionally sanctioned or otherwise.’45 With the expansion of the textual environment. like the cinephile. the growth of research in redemptive readings of popular texts and the proliferation of intertextual sites. Kim Bjarkman’s fascinating study of AVID TV/video collectors and their work as ‘self-styled media historians’ speaks of the ‘comforting sense of coherence. this does not necessarily signal a move away from the regime of power inherent in the production and consumption of television.’ observing that a range of factors. but is instead hampered by institutionalised hierarchies. or some film at least. cinema has long since surpassed its lowly fairground origins and association with working-class entertainment to become an art form where film. While Reality TV (via interactivity) is promoted to us in terms of our shared participation and investment in the event (‘your winner.

18 Nick Couldry. Routledge. Routledge. Cultural Populism. 2000. Fontana. 1999. ‘Interactivity: A Concept Explication. It is a moment where the means and spaces through which we engage with television. 1998. 1998. Arnold. Arnold. 86. 19 Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst. 253. ‘Introduction. 1991. Audiences. fosters and consolidates the respectability of television studies? Notes 1 David Morley. Inside Culture: Reimagining the Method of Cultural Studies. Boxed In: Women and Television. Routledge. which. Television. The Television Studies Book. 363. 7.’ in Christine Geraghty and David Lusted. Broadcasting. Television. The Nationwide Audience. New Media Cultures. 3 Ann Gray. 1980. 10 Williams. p. Inside Culture. The Audience Studies Reader. David Marshall. Reality TV. 13 Ibid.56 Critical Studies in Television 1/1 characterise and conceptualise the reception and consumption of television. evidently spurred by the expansion of Reality TV formats. 17 Estella Tincknell and Parvati Raghuram. p. diligent and attentive participation than has very often been the case in popular culture. 1982. 4. 22 Jim McGuigan. Understanding Reality Television. 17–32. 11 Jostein Gripsrud. 1992. Flow: Key Metaphors in TV Theory. bfi Publishing. 8 Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. Audiences and Popular Factual Television. ‘Behind Closed Doors: Video Recorders in the Home’ in Helen Baehr and Gillian Dyer. 13. p. 4:3. 2 Dorothy Hobson. ‘Multi-Platform Event Television. 2004. have become more varied and dynamic than ever before. ‘Big Brother: Reconfiguring the ‘Active’ Audience of Cultural Studies?’ in Su Holmes and Deborah Jermyn. 11. Popular commentary prophesised that the expansion of Reality TV would witness an apocalyptic end to television standards across the board – particularly in terms of factual programming. 1987. 21 Abercrombie and Longhurst. 4 Annette Hill. Technology and Cultural Form. Sage. Might this also be the period.’ in Brooker and Jermyn. as a consequence. Audiences. Technology and Cultural Form. Routledge. Jensen and Cathy Toscan. pp. Aaolborg University Press. p. 14 Spiro Kiousis. 20 Couldry. it is evident that this has instead become a moment where the growth of Reality TV has been equally met by a renaissance of ‘quality’ drama and the attendant ascendancy of the ‘telephile. then. 366. 2005. Routledge. 2004. 6 Jane Roscoe. 9 Roscoe. Pandora. ‘Multi-Platform Event Television: Reconceptualizing our Relationship with Television. 7 Ien Ang. 1974. p. New Media Cultures. 2002. Methuen. While the fate of this latter form remains to be seen.’ The Communication Review. 12 P. Sage. 2004. 5 Raymond Williams.’ New Media and Society. p. . eds. 1998. Crossroads: The Drama of a Soap Opera. eds. Interactive Television: TV of the Future of the Future of TV?. 15 Jen F. Desperately Seeking the Audience.’ These revised ways of thinking about the television audience connote a more discerning. 16 Marshall. eds. 359.’ p. 16. ‘Television. eds. eds.

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