Inviting Our Participation: An Interview with Sharon Marie Ross (Part One)

Increasingly, television invites our participation. Some shows, like American Idol, do so through explicit calls to share our thoughts and reactions. Some shows, such as Lost, do so through their deployment of serial structures which demand a particular kind of attention that we associate with cult media. In Convergence Culture, I talk about building entertainment properties to be cultural attractors (drawing like minded people together) and cultural activators (giving these networked audiences something to do). In the recent book, Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet, media scholar Sharon Marie Ross identifies as range of “invitational strategies” in contemporary television which encourage our participation as fans.

Beyond the Box is an important contribution to our understanding of convergence culture, an exciting example of what happens when scholars effectively blend research methods including political economy, fan studies, and close textual analysis, which have historically been set in opposition to each other. Ross is able to understand not only what draws fans to such programs but also to explain what fans mean economically to television producers at the current moment of media in transition. I read this book with great gusto, delighted to find a kindred spirit, and pleased to see this further elaboration of the affective economy surrounding contemporary broadcasting.

I am pleased to be able to share with you this interview with an up and coming media scholar. Here, she not only lays out some of the book’s core ideas but she also applies them to some very contemporary developments in Broadcasting, such as the Writer’s Strike, the Gossip Girl phenomenon, and the release of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible.

Throughout the book, you write about what you call “invitational strategies” surrounding cult television series. Explain what you mean by this term.

The term “invitational strategies” actually emerged from a conversation among me, Janet Staiger, Amanda Lotz, and Matt Hills. I had started with “interpellation” but that didn’t quite work for what I was trying to capture in terms of what I see emerging in TV and the Internet. What I’ve seen, across several genres, is a mode of address (sometimes explicit and sometimes less obvious) where producers/writers, and marketers also at times, create stories (which can encompass the show plot itself, and also how a show is marketed and how a show works with Internet addendums) that reach out to viewers/readers and “prod” them to become a part of the storytelling process. The goal is to have the reader become actively engaged and also to elicit among readers a feeling (and I mean “feeling” emotionally) that the story belongs to them in a significant way. This can run from overt invitations (asking viewers to vote or chat online or buy something) to organic (where a viewer is already likely to be engaged and the invitation is embedded more deeply in the plots) to obscured (where the invitation seems “hidden” and those outside the experience might not see any behind-the-scenes constructing of an invitation at work). I think organic is becoming dominant. The key element is that the reader feels as if those creating the story want their input and involvement in some way–and the reader has the power to refuse the invitation, accept it, bring along a guest, drop by or stay and really party (etc.) A definite two-way event (though as we know, the host ultimately decides what is available for consumption and what the hours of the party might be…I find myself slipping into more metaphors, but hope this explains it!:)

As a fan, I kept asking myself whether we really needed any kind of an invitation or whether fan culture might emerge around any program. You seem to suggest that

some texts are more “inviting” than others and more open to exploring alternative forms of audience participation. How important is that solicitation, whether implicit or explicit, to sparking such responses?

I do think invitations aren’t necessary for people we think of as fans ( a category that is murky in and of itself). Those who become a fan on their own are ready to jump in and especially use the Internet to create their own forms of involvement. However, I do think fans respond to invitations when offered in the right way–not too confining, being key. This is especially true of more cult like shows like Lost or Dr. Who or even soaps. An invitation is appreciated as it shows deference to fans–but that invite better not preclude already established ways on interacting. For those for whom “fan” still connotes “horrors” of geekdom and over-investment, an invitation might provide the legitimacy needed to allow them to overcome the stigma of fandom and become involved in similar ways with a show. So many people still think of TV and the Internet as “guilty pleasures” that can slip into unhealthy involvement, and an invitation suggests that any involvement they then engage in is distanced from those societal fears of falling in too deeply…

Throughout the book, you draw heavily on research on soap operas to try to explain the kinds of responses surrounding reality television and cult dramas. What do you think television critics miss by trying to discuss the complexity of contemporary television without dealing with soaps?

Oh–sooo very much! As far as I’m concerned, soap operas (with their roots in also comics and Dickens’ serials of yore) are the fundamental form of storytelling. Think about it: a story that keeps going–that will always be there for you no matter what stage of life you’re in or what kind of mood–and even persists if you leave; a story that responds to the times and milieu of its viewers; a story that reacts to viewers’ desires to some degree…and that requires careful attention without holding you too much to account. When critics dismiss this genre (often via its lower production values and its association with women) they overlook its core pleasures, which aren’t about missing out on excitement in one’s own life, or having little to do with one’s day. The pleasures are about storytelling in its most basic sense: someone tells you a little bit about this person and their life, and you consider it in relation to your own; then you can consider further in relation to those around you–especially those who have also been told the story. And then you can spin the story outwards–what might happen next and why. I believe that humans inherently need stories to empathize with others, plan their futures (individually and as cultures), dream dreams, etc. Soaps tap into this need–and I think it’s a healthy need. Contemporary TV that doesn’t seem like a soap can often replicate this appeal using soap-like strategies of narration (interruption, open-endedness, current events and mores at work, sprawling plots to follow sprawling casts). If we as critics try to explain the appeal of modern shows without acknowledging their roots in this form and its seriality, we not only do a disservice to history (of the medium), we also are ignoring an understanding of what stories offer human beings. And at an academic level, how can we teach why a show has appeal or how a show needs to be written to have appeal without understanding a genre that has existed since pre-TV? I think scholars have often ignored the soap connection because academia shies away from things emotional in favor of the rational and formulaic…yet stories are all about emotion and psychology because humans are all about emotion and psychology. There are things in life and the world we don’t always understand; seeking the answers is what makes us human. Stories (when done well) tap into this–and soaps especially have gloried in basic human questioning. (Why do people stop loving us? why do relatives die? what am I here for?)

You describe your own experiences in viewer activism around Buffy as paving the way for some of your intellectual interest around this topic. What did you learn through your fan involvement and how did it inform your work on this book?

Oh, very very much is indebted to Buffy!! I became a fan “on my own” and this show spoke to me as a woman, a scholar, a feminist, a lover of TV…It tapped into so many of those human questions mentioned above…I had loved TV before, but this was my first real experience as a fan beyond soap operas proper. I found myself fascinated BY myself (ha ha–narcissism reigns always among scholars!). How could a TV show–especially one so initially disparaged–allow me to grow as a person and as a teacher and scholar? How could such a show appeal to so many different kinds of people (as I eventually discovered)? After focusing on this and Xena initially, I began to see other shows that did the same for other groups of viewers–from wrestling to sports to reality TV. Was there something connecting such disparate groups and such disparate styles of TV programs? And given the role of the Internet with Buffy fandom and the role of Joss Whedon in becoming involved with fans online (and off), was there something about this new medium that was bringing together these areas of culturally “disconnected” forms of storytelling? As I started working on this book, Buffy always served as a barometer of sorts. How was Buffy fandom different and how the same from say American Idol or The O.C.? How did the structure of the show differ and not from other shows? How the content/themes? How the role of the producers and critics? I began to see the storytelling connection as fundamental to linking different things that seemed so very different…In the end, does a show call out to people in such a way that they feel a personal connection AND ultimately a social connection to other people? Last, via my involvement with Buffy fandom both personally and as a scholar, I began to see at work the real role and impact of cultural biases against genres and fandoms and to become fascinated by what can get in the way–and also aid and abet–people’s willingness to embrace a story as having true value and meaning in life–to embrace “entertainment” as something that serves a purpose.

One of the most talked about examples of “viral media content” this summer was the online distribution of Dr. Horrible. How might we see this experiment as an outgrowth of Joss Whedon’s long-term engagement with his hardcore fans?

Definitely an outgrowth! (Loved it, by the way…) Dr. Horrible is a fascinating example of so many themes in my book coming together (after publication, of course! That’s always the way…) People who had come to respect Joss Whedon as an auteur came to this text; along with those who loved Buffy or Firefly; and those who love Neil Patrick Harris and How I Met Your Mother; those who follow viral videos…and of course it was a by-product of the writers’ strike that was immersed in the Internet’s relationship with TV. Some heard of it through friends, some online, some via Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide…So on the one hand, while its success was rooted in Joss Whedon’s awareness that his fans are out there and always looking for new work from him and that they will seek work in untraditional forums, on the other hand the success was also a product of the Internet becoming a more acceptable venue for storytelling in the ways in which I have been discussing it and the ability of the Internet to draw together “unheard of” combinations of fans. In short, when someone reaches out with a personal story (and it was pretty personal to pull this off when a strike was going on), people will respond in kind with personal attention.

You discuss teen television as one genre that reflects contemporary youth’s expectations of participation. What have current teen shows, such as Gossip Girl, learned from the earlier experiments in “teleparticipation” you discuss in the book?

This is funny–I was watching Gossip Girl all summer while pregnant and began loving it as a junior Dynasty. Having interviewed Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage about The OC and hearing about their travails with the show and Internet fans and FOX, I definitely was looking for signs of the old (good use of soap strategies, attention to the role of new media communication) and signs of the new (how to attend to fans without cowtowing to them, how to not spill all of a story too soon). And there I am, watching a week ago, and I see a brief funny bit in which pre-teen girls accost Serena and Dan (the main couple) in the park, offering their totally contradictory two cents about whether or not the couple should stay together, etc. And Serena and Dan became Josh and Stephanie: we hear you, we admire your interest and your new media involvement (hearing about the couple’s troubles via the Gossip Girl blog)–but back off! The story is still unraveling and if we listen to all of you, it’ll all spiral into meaninglessness as a story. This reminded me so much of my interview with them, in which they discussed the many different groups of fans they were dealing with, and how trying to keep up with all of their demands ultimately robbed them of their power to deliver a story they were connected with. You can’t please everyone–but you should listen at the very least.

Teen shows make it tricky–there are so many different social audiences invested, with differing needs and desires. But the teen demo is so very new media savvy, you need to be able to keep up with their interests–and their skills as readers. I see Gossip Girl skillfully negotiating this demo with its older demo (18-34) by weaving in new media more deftly to the plots, by heeding online talk–but ultimately by the producers laying claim to their role as storytellers. (vs. story-givers–where you totally hand the story off and abandon ship.) It will be interesting to see if 90210 follows suit and if Smallville can survive its core Lex/Clark fan base now that Lex is gone (too early to tell). But I think the teen demo is so key to success with many shows that producers are definitely working harder to listen to them, and reach out to them online and via script. The key thing is can they do this without sacrificing their own creativity and their own needs as storytellers? (I think we often forget that writers, even in L.A., are humans too–driven to tell stories for very personal reasons and not solely driven by profit. It’s a mean business and no one sticks with it without really loving it.)

Sharon Ross is an assistant professor in the Television Department at Columbia College Chicago. She teaches courses in the areas of TV history and critical theory and her research focuses on issues of television reception; this semester she is excited to be teaching a 5 week intensive seminar on a single script from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She is the associate editor of the journal for the International Digital Media Arts Association and co-editor with Dr. Louisa Stein of the anthology Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom. She has too many “must see” TV shows to mention but highly recommends Mad Men and How I Met Your Mother this season.