Who Reaps the Rewards of Live-Tweeting in the TV Attention Economy?

A few weeks ago, I shared the syllabus of a new class I am teaching this term in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism focusing on helping my students acquire the skills and knowledge they are going to need to put a more public-facing dimension on their scholarship. This experiment in training public intellectuals has continued with great success. Over the next few weeks, I am going to be sharing here the blog posts my students produced, reflecting a range of different research interests in media and communications. These posts should allow you to hear the voices and get a sense of the commitments which drive this generation of students. I am pleased to be sharing their work with the world and I am enormously proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish in a very short period of time.

 

Who Reaps The Rewards of Live-Tweeting In the TV Attention Economy?

by Katie Walsh

When the newest season of The Bachelorette rolled around this summer, I was excited, not just for the male antics and cattiness I unabashedly take pleasure in as a fan, but as a writer and media studies student interested in the machinations of reality TV. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the show’s 9th season would provide a wealth of resources for my research into reality TV fans and their online productions. With the first TV spots advertising “MAN TEARS” in bold letters, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of the humiliations Mark Burnett and co. would subject to newest bachelors, feeding the needs of the tweeting, recapping viewers who tune in for the spilled tears, and not so much the fairytale romance.

I began my research into The Bachelor/Bachelorette ABC franchise as a fan (albeit as the kind of fan who tuned for the opportunities to snark with friends). Despite, or because of, my feminism, I was compelled by the showy courtship ritual-turned-competition, and the best and worst that it brought out in its participants. As an avid reader of recaps, and a live-tweeter, I wanted to understand more about how these disparate texts worked in tandem with each other. I am of the mind that the instant feedback received by reality show producers, in the form of recaps, comments, and live-tweets has influenced the shape of their product, particularly in terms of the narrative.

Anna McCarthy describes the reality TV genre as a “theater of suffering,”[1] and part of reality TV fandom is often the voyeurism and perverse pleasure in the exposure of humiliation and pain that these love-seekers go through (exhibit A, the blog Forever Alone: Faces of Rejected Bachelorettes, which consists solely of screenshots of crying women). Women are expected to perform their gender properly in order to “win” the bachelor. When they fail, often by committing the cardinal feminine sin of being “mean,” or being too sexual (or not sexual enough—just the right amount!) they are either rejected, or humiliated, or both, by both fellow cast members and producers in the way they shape the narrative. The camera invades private moments of suffering, such as the infamous reject limo shots, which shine a spotlight on the women as they mourn their rejection. This practice has seeped into the The Bachelorette, as men descend into gossiping and accusations about those who are “not there for the right reasons.” Male contestants are emasculated onscreen for their over-the-top demonstrations of emotion, such as singing embarrassing ballads, too-soon declarations of love, and crying (hence the advertised “MAN TEARS”). Both of these practices reinforce strict, and traditional, gender stereotypes: women must be nice and not too sexual, but not frigid, and men must be stoic, masculine, and controlled.

My initial assertion was that these recaps and live-tweets demonstrate the “anti-fan” readings that many fans engage in, and that they affected the show in the editing and narrative structure. But, this summer, Team Bachelorette did me one better: they slapped those tweets, good, bad, and snarky right onto the screen. The narrative structure of a show like Bachelorette is uniquely suited to a social media enhanced viewing experience, which is often a necessary part of getting through the bloated two-hour running time.  Knowing that some viewers were engaging with a second screen platform during the show, producers brought that second screen inside the screen itself, keeping viewers’ eyes on both their tweets and on advertisements. One can’t really live tweet unless one is watching during the broadcast time, which means real time ads—no fast-forward or time shifting here. This is all the better for letting advertisers know just how many activated, interactive viewers are participating—lucrative commodities for sale in the attention economy.

Bachelorette allowed a variety of tweets onscreen, in terms of content and sentiment about the show. Not all of the tweets were straightforward fan praise, so it’s clear that Team Bachelorette is fully aware of those audience members who like to poke fun at the extravagant love contest. It’s unclear how exactly they chose the onscreen tweets, many hashtagged #TheBachelorette or tagged the official account @BacheloretteABC, but this wasn’t consistent across the board. There were several tweets featured from the Bachelor “fan” site Bachelor Burn Book (their Twitter bio reads, “How many witty and sarcastic comments can we make about The Bachelor/Bachelorette/Bachelor Pad? The limit does not exist”) often snarking on the contestants’ hair or even host Chris Harrison’s shirt choices (they hate the bright colors and prints).

Part of the appeal of competitive reality shows is the viewer’s ability to participate in the game itself through technology, whether it’s determining who goes home each week on American Idol or The Voice, or voting for a fan favorite contestant on Top Chef or RuPaul’s Drag Race, a process that Tasha Oren refers to as a ludic or game-like interaction in her article “Reiterational Texts and Global Imagination.” Live-tweeting can be a way for fans to participate with a favorite TV text in an increasingly interactive culture, but that practice isn’t just simply fan-generated fun. These interactive efforts are also extremely lucrative for networks and producers vying for viewers. Oren states, “game culture and the rise of a play aesthetic have not only emerged as an organizing experience in media culture but are central to an industry-wide reconfiguration towards interactivity and intertextual associations across media products.”[2] Viewer interaction is now an integral part of television viewing, as a result of an industry-wide effort to sustain attention in a marketplace where attention is increasingly fragmented.

This attention is what television networks and producers need to sell to advertisers, which is why viewer activation is such a priority for those networks losing viewers to Hulu, Netflix, and DVR. Live-tweeting is something that fans do to enhance the viewing experience for themselves, but they’re also providing an important service to networks, offering not only feedback but numbers of engaged audience members. They’re doing the heavy lifting of audience activation by activating themselves. Their efforts are then incorporated into the show’s text, which enhances the product for the fans, yes, but they are essentially “buying” that product with their attention, twice.

This isn’t just a boon for TV networks, as social networks scramble to be the destination for television conversation, as they expand promotions and advertising within their platforms. As Twitter gears up for its IPO, its place at the top of the online TV chatter heap enhances its value. As the New York Times reports this week, “Facebook and Twitter both see the social conversation around television as a way to increase use of their sites and win a bigger piece of advertisers’ spending.” The attention of activated viewers is now being bought and sold on both screens.

The draw to interact with the text for a viewer is often the feeling of control. Audiences that feel like they can affect the outcome feel an authorship or dominance over the text. Snarky tweets about Chris Harrison’s shirt choice allow viewers to feel like ABC isn’t getting one over on them, that they are subverting the system and its production. This phenomenon is explored in Mark Andrejevic’s piece “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans,”[3] but his results are less utopian than us anti-fans might imagine: ultimately, this labor still renders the work that we do subject to the mass-mediated text itself, and the networks have created us into an army of viewer-workers, exerting effort to make these shows interesting for us, the product of these efforts splashed onscreen as part of the attention grabbing television show itself.

bachelorette tweet

This onscreen tweet campaign was not a completely harmonious union, however. As mentioned, part of the appeal of interactivity is control, and inundating the lower half of the TV screen with snarky tweets may have been efficient for viewers already used to participating in a second screen experience, but not for all. One tweet slipped through the filter, expressing not humor and snark but dissatisfaction and alienation with the format. It read, “I wish the tweets at the bottom of the screen would go away on the bachelorette. #noonecares.” Entertainment Weekly, Mediabistro, and Buzzfeed, who all reported on it, noted the irony of the dissatisfied tweet slipping through into exactly what it was complaining about in a moment of meta-textual anarchy.

While the onscreen tweet producers work on those cracks in the matrix, it seems appropriate to question the economic implications of this practice. One can argue that fans, especially technologically empowered ones, are going to produce as a part of their consumption, whether or not the networks are involved, so why should it matter if ABC decides to use the products of this practice to their own advantage? However, the exploitation of this production becomes more clear when considering just what ABC uses as a commodity to sell to advertisers: audience attention. The onscreen tweet practice is way to take advantage of that viewer attention even further. Audiences can now pay attention on two screens in order to enjoy the show, which is a value-add for the online and television presence. Are onscreen tweets simply an innocuous add-on to the text of the show itself or a way to capitalize on the increasingly rare attention commodity?

And it’s not just TV networks seeking a piece of the pie, as Twitter gears up for its impending IPO, the amount of TV viewers chattering on their social network makes their public offering even more valuable, as they add more ads and promoted content in users’ timelines. Even Nielsen is getting into the game, finally updating their ratings system with Twitter metrics this week. Though this is a case of the corporations organizing themselves and driven by the habits of consumers, it’s important to examine these practices and see where those benefits actually land in the end.

 

Katie Walsh is a writer, critic, academic, and blogger based in Los Angeles. She has contributed film reviews, TV recaps, and interviews to the The Playlist on indieWIRE since 2009, and has written about media and culture for The Hairpin and Movieline. She received her M.A. in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2013, and is currently a first year doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, focusing on television and new media.

 


[1] Anna McCarthy, “Reality Television: A Neoliberal Theater of Suffering” Social Text 93, Vol. 25, No. 4. 2007

[2] Tasha Oren “Reiterational Texts and Global Imagination: Television Strikes Back,” in Global Television Formats, ed. Tasha Oren and Sharon Shahaf (Routledge, 2011), 368

[3] Mark Andrejevic, “Watching Television Without Pity: The Productivity of Online Fans,” Television & New Media. 2008.