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

Today, I continue my interview with Sharon Marie Ross, author of the new book, Beyond the Box. I’m pleased to announce that Ross will be one of the featured speakers at our Futures of Entertainment 3 conference which will be held on Nov. 20-21. We will be releasing details and opening registration for this event next week. Whether you’ve attended our earlier events or simply heard about them, you are going to want to hold the date. Last year, we sold out in only two weeks time.

In the discussion which follows, Ross talks about the ways the media industry thinks about and represents its fans, the role of seriality in supporting transmedia experiences, the implications of the recent Hollywood Writer’s Strike, and the recent move of Fringe to cut back on story arcs in favor of more episodic stories.

Many of your examples of innovative practices come from smaller networks, such as Sci-Fi, The N, CW, Cartoon Network, and E! Why have these networks been so eager to experiment with alternative uses of the web? Why have the traditional networks adopted a more conservative “wait and see” response? Is this changing?

While the more traditional networks have been slower to adopt the practices of the smaller ones you mention, they are “changing their tune” to a degree. NBC and CBS especially are trying, with CBS doing quite well with blogs attached to shows (How I Met Your Mother) and of course with sports; NBC has very interesting things going on with Heroes, also. ABC is trying with Lost, but I think the show is the factor there more than anything.

The smaller networks have been more eager to adopt web strategies for a number of reasons. One is that they have built in niche markets who are already prone to go online and play with new media. Another reason is they have more to prove and as has been historically the case, when networks are struggling or trying to prove their viability, they are more willing to take risks–not just with strategies such as online applications, but with who they hire (younger execs) and with the shows they produce (more hands on producers who have embraced the internet). As the “big four” find themselves needing to compete for key markets they are likely to begin adopting more of what they see at smaller networks–especially with individual programs that lend themselves to the web (sci-fi, reality, and sports).

Throughout, you argue that programs which incorporate “seriality” and the “aesthetics of multiplicity” are most apt to also solicit audience engagement and participation. Explain. What are the implications of this argument for understanding the place of procedurals and episodic programs in the current programming mix?

I’ve been chatting with Belinda Acosta of The Austin Chronicle about episodic and procedural programs…It is true that the lack of seriality at work in such programs means there is less to do with them online, definitely. When a story ends within one viewing, viewers have little impetus to expand the text in a significant way–it doesn’t garner them much in terms of their next viewing is perhaps the easiest way to think of it.

A serialized show, however, taps into an aesthetics of multiplicity. By this I mean that a show has layers of storytelling at work, embedded deeply into the text–seriality being the key element that breeds these layers. The possibility of differing outcomes prompts speculation and prediction–what might happen? WHY might it happen (or not)? Can I play an active role? Will producers be listening? The more layers at work, the more possibilites exist for the viewer to get in on the action–and when you can return in a week (or even a season) to see if you were right, you’re more likely to take the time to weave your own psyche into the mix. People enjoy attaining a sense of mastery over the unknown, and open endings and/or multiple strands (dueling plotlines, large casts of players) provide ample opportunity. I think there will always be procedurals–no one wants to work hard all the time, after all–but I also think we will see more multiplicity built into such series (such as Bones‘ and the CSIs’ relationships among characters and occasional lengthy story arcs) and when we see this, internet applications will likely arise for these programs. Especially as younger viewers savvy online age into mature markets, we’re likely to see this. But I myself like the occasional break a procedural or closed sitcom offers…there are only so many hours in the day! This need for some “simplicity” is also why the most convoluted shows (such as Lost) work best also when they can be viewed without needing to go online to fully enjoy the story.

You provide a number of different perspectives from media producers about the value of fan input and “buzz” in making creative and programing decisions. What do you see as the current fault lines in the industry’s understanding of fan consumers?

The current fault lines are many…The industry overall is paying attention to what fans can offer them, both the positive and negative. Fans’ ability to mobilize via the internet has become key, as one example. When a show adored is canceled without fair warning, fans can smear a network in ways approaching a good old fashioned political campaign and networks hate bad publicity–and LOVE looking like they’re heeding “the little people.” But playing with fans is fraught with peril–if you don’t have people in the industry who embrace fandom, you can misstep all too easily. I am curious for example to see what happens with ComicCon as more industry folk use this venue to promote and launch shows. Will fans begin to feel like they’re being pandered to? Or that the industry is taking over their turf? I believe real change will occur when the industry begins hiring the right people (those with fandom in their background) and when they start according more power and respect to writers who truly care about their stories and their readers. So far this is occurring at ComicCon–but I worry the industry may overstep their boundaries (and knowledge) and begin pushing shows that are low quality simply because they have some of the “right” components (seriality, e.g.) or make promises they can’t keep (“we’ll have forums! and comic books! but shh! only as long as it’s profitable…”) Fans are the smartest viewers out there–the industry needs to really know this in their bones and act accordingly.

You cite several examples of misfires where the networks tried to personify their audience on air — the Aerie girls around Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars, the ATT campaign around American Idol. Why have networks had such trouble constructing images of participatory audiences and what might such failures suggest about their (mis)understanding of their consumers?

This taps into some of what I discussed above…Often the industry (especially at the network level) thinks of their viewers in simple, market-research oriented terms. Executives often forget that viewers are complex human beings who come to any given program with a plethora of expectations that can defy what a survey reveals or what a PR professional assumes about a given audience for a show. Networks are so very much driven still by numbers and trends–the business elements demand this–and people more often fall outside the norm than within it.

NOTHING is more irritating as a person than having someone make assumptions about you–we don’t like it in everyday social circumstances, so why would we like it in storytelling? This is why the industry has to work harder (with writers and producers especially) to communicate with their viewers–”you can mess up, if you fess up” is how I see it. Admit when something misfires, be willing to take risks but explain why.

The producers of Farscape understood this well–listen, explain, but learn to not abandon your own role as a storyteller. If networks would accord more power to creatives (or think more creatively themselves), we would see not only better success–but also better stories overall. This means, of course, the ability to take financial risks–and fans have to understand this as well–especially in a market-driven TV industry like we have in the U.S.

The recent writer’s strike center in part on the question of whether web extensions of television show should be understood as promotional materials or as part of the creative content of the program. Your analysis suggests that the same content may serve both functions. Any thoughts on how the industry will resolve its uncertainties about the status and value of such materials?

I am wary of what the industry learned from the strike. The best online materials have had storytelling at their heart–driven more by that than by the need to promote. But I fear that the strike may result in industry attempts to cut back on such applications if they have to pay for the work involved. (Unless the show is a smashing success.) The issue lies in vision: the industry needs to understand the value of building long term viewer relationships–which means the payoff might come later. They used to get the “later” with syndication. But with less syndie occurring, the payoffs are in the areas of (monetarily) DVDs and online advertising.

The real value comes in brand loyalty, I think. When viewers think a network will go to bat for their creatives and their viewers, they are more likely to commit to a new project the network offers. The N has managed this wonderfully–but they can do so because they are a small network within an umbrella of larger corporate structures that can absorb any financial losses. One route to embrace would be more co-productions globally to offset financial risk.

As J.J. Abrams has launched Fringe this year, he keeps stressing that the program will be accessible to people who only want to watch a single episode. He clearly wants to escape criticisms that have surrounded the seriality of Lost and Alias, yet in doing so, he may undercut the forms of viewer loyalty and participation that are generated through seriality. In the book, you offer an extensive case study around Lost. How might this case study help us to better understand the stance Abrams is taking around his new series?

Fringe will be fascinating to study! Abrams, like Joss Whedon, really gets it all–he understands fan loyalty but he also understands how the business side of things work. Lost hit at the right time and under the right circumstances–a struggling network was fundamental to this show succeeding. But Lost has lost (ha ha) fans along the way and also held off viewers who do not have the time or inclination to follow every strand. Yet, those surrounding the series have been quick to amend mistakes that have occurred with plotting and with online applications–they very wisely have ensured you don’t have to go online to love the show. This is what is being applied to Fringe. And the thing is, fans of Lost (or any other highly serialized and mythology driven series) are not the stereotype many imagine: the most loyal of the fans are the ones who first and foremost appreciate good storytelling. By which I mean, these fans do not have to have every show they watch be as “messy” as Lost. Good storytelling CAN occur with one-shot storytelling if the the characters are developing. I think character growth is key. Look at Mary Tyler Moore or All in the Family or Scrubs today. The storytelling occurs with the growth of the people involved in the story world…slow, intimate, and enhanced by regular viewing–without demanding constant attention. And in the end, in my humble opinion, the pleasures of Lost lie with the characters and how they grow.

As a final string of thought, I think what we’re seeing with TV and the Internet is an extension (versus a brand new “something”) of what the best of TV has always given us: the opportunity for viewers to sink their teeth into stories that make us feel more connected to the world around us, the opportunity for writers to tell stories that matter to them, and in the best case scenario the opportunity for the industry to find new ways to make people find TV relevant and worth attending to! Please include my thanks to the many writers, marketers, industry execs, critics and fans who helped me with my book–I found people all over who fundamentally loved a good story and were eager to share their thoughts and genuine feelings with me. The best scholarly work, I believe, emerges from such communication…I am only “reporting” what many people took the time and passion to share with me.

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.