New Television Production and Reception Practices | INA Global

New Television Production and Reception Practices

Article  by  Mélanie BOURDAA  •  Published 01.12.2011  •  Updated 08.12.2011
Twitter Account for The Big Bang Theory
With the arrival of new technologies, how have producers adapted their series to the deeply penatrating modifications of the television industry? With more engaging storylines for the viewer, reception practices are at the center of new strategies, and are continuously evolving.

Summary

Introduction

Bringing new technologies into the way programmes are produced and watched has shaken up our relationship with the media, and above all our relationship with television. Television is turning into a platform for audience participation, and the proof of this is in the development of smart television, or connected television, so that viewers can build their own television environment. It is within this context that the cultural practices of viewers have changed considerably. In this new ecosystem, faced with ever-stronger competition, the producers of television series are trying to develop storylines that are increasingly appealing for viewers, and more particularly, for fans.

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The beginnings of storyline serialisation

In 1991, Twin Peaks, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, revolutionised the world of television series and the strategies for making them. This series marked the beginning of a movement referred to as “quality television” by English-speaking researchers[+] NoteMarc JANCOVITCH, Quality popular television. Cult TV, the industry and fans, British Film Institute, 2003; Kim AKASS, Janet McCABE (dir.), Quality television. Contemporary American television and beyond, IbTauris, 2007.X [1]. This movement, although partly subjective in nature, has characteristics allowing its boundaries to be defined. Quality television supposes the reinvention of a genre (the space opera with the remaking of Battlestar Galactica) and sometimes a mixture of pre-existing genres, where viewers have to follow the lives of a number of characters (referred to as the ensemble cast, where each role is of more or less the same importance); the series must have continuous story lines (story arcs)[+] NoteA storyline that develops throughout a season or series.X [2] that are complex and realistic, and which draw the viewers into the plot. Twin Peaks fulfilled all of these criteria: the series had complex storylines providing a mixture of dream and reality, combining several genres (film noir, soap opera and horror) and it enjoyed a solid fan base that discussed the show in the early days of online forums. Under its slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO”, the cable pay channel HBO started to produce these quality series from 1990 onwards, making, for example, The Sopranos and The Wire, its two flagship series that were unanimously praised by the critics. Quality series are now the domain of cable channels (Showtime, HBO, FX, and even AMC), which have fewer restrictions in terms of audience figures and advertising time than network channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and CW), and can therefore come up with a more daring aesthetic look for the shows and create bolder structures for series storylines.
 
These series have essentially changed the way stories are told, and have reworked the narrative systems of television series. Until the 1980s, series were produced on an episode basis, where each episode told a stand-alone story and was self-contained. However, the second season of the soap opera Dallas changed this. For the first time, viewers had to follow the episodes week after week to get into the story and understand the various narrative arcs produced by the scriptwriters. This strategy became more firmly anchored at the start of the 1980s with Hill Street Blues and then in 1990 with Twin Peaks, and to a lesser extent with The X-Files; this format is now used for many series by cable channels, and, with a few noteworthy exceptions, on network channels (Lost, Fringe or even Pretty Little Liars, for example).
 
To capture and retain viewer attention, drawing them back to their television set every week, producers slot strategies into each episode. Most commonly, a brief summary of earlier episodes announcing what was “previously on” to the viewers is shown; the most important moments in previous episodes or seasons are briefly summed up to help viewers understand the upcoming episode. This strategy helps to refresh the memory of avid viewers, and enables new viewers to get a latch on the story arcs. Another strategy to capture audiences entails the use of a cliffhanger at the end of an episode or season. This final shocking scene leaves viewers aching to see what will happen next. Fringe played brilliantly with this strategy in the final season: in the last episode of season 1, we see a view of the Twin Towers in New York, which tells us that there is a parallel universe with different versions of the characters in the series; in season 2, the FBI agent, Olivia, gets stuck in the parallel universe, and is replaced in our universe by her double; and during the last episode of season 3, Peter, one of the main characters, is removed from reality.
 
The narrative structures of television series have changed to adapt to an increasingly competitive environment. Producers have to use strategies that keep viewers involved in the show.
 
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Transmedia storytelling extensions

The producers of television series can also make use of the opportunities afforded by a range of interactive media platforms to create an immersive and appealing experience for viewers, and in particular for fans. Such experiences are referred to as “transmedia storytelling” if they focus on creating an extension of the narration[+] NoteHenry JENKINS, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, New York Press, 2006.X [3] or as deep media if the experiences focus on the viewers[+] NoteFrank ROSE, The art of immersion. How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories, Norton, 2011.X [4]. An immersive transmedia experience is “a process whereby the various parts of a fictional storyline are spread over a range of media platforms in order to create a coordinated and unified entertainment experience”[+] NoteHenry JENKINS, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, New York Press, 2006.X [5].  Thanks to transmedia storytelling extensions, it is possible to create a complex series environment that is immersive and provides interactivity for the viewer, by making use of all available media platforms (video games, Internet, comics, books, series, films and alternative reality games, or ARG, for example). Series are broken down into various parts, which are then disseminated via a range of platforms, while the storytelling arcs form a puzzle to be put back together by fans who want to get involved and immerse themselves in the reception of the series.
 
Find 815, an Alternate Reality Game about the series Lost.
 
For example, to develop the narrative and give depth to the characters, the producers of Lost created several fictional websites relating to the series (the website of the fictional airline Oceanic), documentaries on the Hanso project, an Alternate Reality Game inviting fans to resolve the enigma of flight 815 in a group (“Find 815”), and even a “university” to get behind the mysteries of the series (Lost University). The creators of Fringe came up with comics for their fans telling the story of the meeting between William Bell and Walter Bishop, a fictional website on Massive Dynamic, and vinyl records by a fictitious group with lyrics containing clues. Social networks are also an excellent way for producers to maintain a link with the fans and to bring the characters to life beyond the fictional setting. For example, the characters of The Big Bang Theory all have a Twitter account so they can interact with each other and chat with fans.
 
Transmedia extensions create a more in-depth series environment and encourage fans to immerse themselves in this.
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New fan reception practices

Fans are a special kind of viewer: not only are they experts on a programme, but they are active in their reception of the series. However, what sets them apart from other viewers is the fact that they have the technical and technological skills to take part in, interact with, and create a customised televisual environment.
 
Fans create new media timeslots for themselves to complement the time they allocate to work, leisure and everyday activities. Thanks to DVDs, digital recording devices, streaming, legal downloading (VOD platforms) or illegal downloading (via peer to peersharing programmes), fans create viewing times that are a far cry from normal rigid programme schedules. Thanks to new technologies and the Internet, fans can lengthen the reception time, getting involved before, during and after the show is broadcast. The act of reception becomes a continuous loop[+] NoteMélanie BOURDAA, L’interactivité télévisuelle, ses modalités et ses enjeux. Comparaison de programmes États-Unis – France, Doctoral thesis, 2009.X [6]. At the same time, they break away from the very principle of seriality. For example, with a DVD, they can indulge in binge viewing, watching excessive numbers of episodes, or watching episodes one after the other, reducing the impact of the cliffhanger.
 
Fans are also involved in creative and collaborative activities that make up a significant part of their reception practices. Fans form communities of practice[+] NoteNancy BAYM, Tune in, log on. Soaps, fandom and online community (new media cultures), Sage Publications, 1999.X [7] to share their creations. Fan activities can be split into four categories that may complement each other:
 
Creational activities: fans set up websites dedicated to their series or their favourite characters, to which they then regularly add analytical articles and anecdotes. In addition to making fan videos or fan art, they also write fan fiction[+] NoteSébastien FRANCOIS, “Fanf(r)ictions. Tensions identitaires et relationnelles chez les auteurs de récits de fans”, Réseaux, vol.27 / 153, 2009, pp.157-190.X [8]. Fan fiction entails writing stories and reinterpreting the series, requiring an input of time as well as personal commitment. The act of writing fan fiction always reveals a little about the author’s character; he or she can talk about himself or herself. Fan fiction about the series Xena, Warrior Princess[+] Notehttp://www.academyofbards.org/X [9] is highly popular among lesbian fans, and most of the writing involves romantic scenes between Xena and her partner Gabrielle that the authors fantasise about. This relationship is part of the subtextin the series, but the fans have made it the main text in their stories.
 
A social bond: social networks give fans the opportunity to continue their experience beyond the show and form a social connection with other fans of the series. By recreating “ceremonial television”, fans gather around a common theme in the same place to chat about episodes they are watching, replaying in real time their common viewing experience.
 
Sharing episodes: the fans’ main activity entails providing other fans in the community with the most recent episodes. To foster international viewing, regardless of which country the show is broadcast in, fans put episodes online, and teams of fansubbers take care of providing subtitles, which is essential for the series to be understood by as many people as possible. These teams of fansubbers fall within a set hierarchy, where each person has specific skills: translating, proofreading, and encoding. They are the mediators for this form of culture, which they legitimise through their knowledge and subtitling.
 
“Collective intelligence” projects[+] NotePierre LÉVY, L’intelligence collective. Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace, [Collective Intelligence. In support of an anthropology of cyberspace]/ Essais, 1997.X [10]: given the growth of transmedia storytelling extensions, or deep media, fans are starting to work together to solve puzzles related to television series. To pool their work, and share their findings and theories, they set up wikis. Fans also split into groups to advance their research: there are organisers who moderate the community, detectives who try to solve mysteries, hunters who gather data on the series spread across a range of media platforms, and lurkers who watch the progress of the community without taking part[+] NoteIvan ASKWITH, This is (just) a game. Understanding Alternate Reality Games, MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, 2009.X [11]. This breakdown of fan “jobs” within the wikis and forums is all the more obvious when the fans play an Alternate Reality Game.
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A new television and series environment, new kinds of fan reception

Producers of television series are implementing new production strategies within the actual show, or are making use of media platforms. Fans are forming communities where they create activities and social links to share, join forces and chat.
 
These new production and reception strategies are signalling the start of a new structure for television as a medium, a new era in television, referred to as “techno-television”[+] NoteMélanie BOURDAA, L’interactivité télévisuelle, ses modalités et ses enjeux. Comparaison de programmes États-Unis – France, [Interactive television, how it works, and the issues involved. A comparison of US and French programmes] Doctoral Thesis, 2009.X [12]. We are now going through a period typified by major convergence between technologies, interactive transmedia extensions, greater involvement by television viewers and fans, and immersive storytelling for television series.
 

Translation by Peter Moss

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Illustration credits:
- Screen shot from The Big Bang Theory Twitter account ;
- Screen shot of ARG Find 815.

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REFERENCES

- Ivan ASKWITH, This is (just) a game. Understanding Alternate Reality Games, MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, 2009.
 
- Kim AKASS, Janet McCABE (dir.), Quality television. Contemporary American television and beyond, IbTauris, 2007.
 
- Nancy BAYM, Tune in, log on. Soaps, fandom and online community (new media cultures), Sage Publications, 1999.
 
- Mélanie BOURDAA, L’interactivité télévisuelle, ses modalités et ses enjeux. Comparaison de programmes Etats-Unis – France, Doctoral Thesis, 2009.
 
- Sébastien FRANCOIS, “Fanf(r)ictions. Tensions identitaires et relationnelles chez les auteurs de récits de fans”, Réseaux, vol.27 / 153, 2009, pp.157-190.
 
- Marc JANCOVITCH, Quality popular television. Cult TV, the industry and fans, British Film Institute, 2003.
 
- Henry JENKINS, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, New York Press, 2006.
 
- Pierre LÉVY, L’intelligence collective. Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace, La découverte Poche / Essais, 1997
 
- Jason MITTEL, “Narrative complexity in contemporary American television”, The velvet light trap, number 58, pp. 29-40, 2006.
 
- Frank ROSE, The art of immersion. How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories, Norton, 2011.
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  • 1. Marc JANCOVITCH, Quality popular television. Cult TV, the industry and fans, British Film Institute, 2003; Kim AKASS, Janet McCABE (dir.), Quality television. Contemporary American television and beyond, IbTauris, 2007.
  • 2. A storyline that develops throughout a season or series.
  • 3. Henry JENKINS, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, New York Press, 2006.
  • 4. Frank ROSE, The art of immersion. How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the way we tell stories, Norton, 2011.
  • 5. Henry JENKINS, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, New York Press, 2006.
  • 6. Mélanie BOURDAA, L’interactivité télévisuelle, ses modalités et ses enjeux. Comparaison de programmes États-Unis – France, Doctoral thesis, 2009.
  • 7. Nancy BAYM, Tune in, log on. Soaps, fandom and online community (new media cultures), Sage Publications, 1999.
  • 8. Sébastien FRANCOIS, “Fanf(r)ictions. Tensions identitaires et relationnelles chez les auteurs de récits de fans”, Réseaux, vol.27 / 153, 2009, pp.157-190.
  • 9. http://www.academyofbards.org/
  • 10. Pierre LÉVY, L’intelligence collective. Pour une anthropologie du cyberspace, [Collective Intelligence. In support of an anthropology of cyberspace]/ Essais, 1997.
  • 11. Ivan ASKWITH, This is (just) a game. Understanding Alternate Reality Games, MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, 2009.
  • 12. Mélanie BOURDAA, L’interactivité télévisuelle, ses modalités et ses enjeux. Comparaison de programmes États-Unis – France, [Interactive television, how it works, and the issues involved. A comparison of US and French programmes] Doctoral Thesis, 2009.
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