Dissertation Series: Chapter 1 The Audience Fights Back: An exploration of changing power relations between television viewers and media companies

Increasingly we can see how audiences are moving away from being merely consumers towards a position of empowerment. This new phenomenon is clearly influencing major media companies and the decisions they make in regard to television productions and copyrighted content. In a notable example, viewers actions led to the restart of production on the TV show Family Guy (1999, Fox). Family Guy was originated in 1999 by Seth McFarlane, but following poor viewing figures the show was cancelled in 2002. However, this was not the end of the story. Apart from television broadcasts there was a very high level of DVD sales of the series and equally significant large viewing numbers for repeat episodes of the show, this had

the effect of building a solid fan base and as a result Fox decided to renew Family Guy in 2004 (Kipnis and Levin, 2004) Significantly, large media corporations are willing to change decisions based on the actions of a group of fans of a specific programme or show. This change of fortunes for Family Guy, has led to further groups of fans converging together through the use of social media to launch campaigns to rescue seemingly unsuccessful shows from cancellation.




The best example of this kind of audience participation dates back to 1968 before the Internet when Star Trek fans petitioned NBC to ensure the continuation of the series (Kozinets, 2007). Star Trek fans in a similar way to subsequent fan communities such as Chuck fans in 2009, the Star Trek fan community organised a coordinated campaign to get the show renewed by sending letters to the production team at NBC. According to Kozinets, ‘the ensuing campaign was unprecedented. Star Trek fans, some accounts claim as many as a million of them, Wrote letters to NBC In 1968 begging them to give Star Trek another chance’ […] (Kozinets, 2007, p197).


1.1 Going where no Audience has gone before in Social Media

In 2009, fans of the sitcom series Chuck (2007, NBC)harnessed the power of social media in an attempt to get around the Nielsen rating system – used to rate the viewing figures for television programmess, if the numbers of viewership become low, fans may need to take action. Chuck required a campaign by fans to save the sitcom from cancellation due to bad viewing figures. As Henry Jenkins has noted in relation to Chuck, ‘Fans chose to demonstrate the potential economic value of audience engagement in a tangible way’ (Jenkins, 2013, p.122).


To get around the Nielsen Ratings system the fans of the show sent emails, Twitter messages and Facebook posts directly to the companies that had been advertising their products during the commercial breaks when the show was aired on NBC. By appealing directly to the companies that were advertising on the NBC network, Chuck fans were able to show that they were acutely aware of what was at stake for the advertising companies. The show was saved due to the collective effort and engagement of Chuck fans to participating and converging around a common goal of getting the series renewed in order to achieve their aim. Jenkins observes how the fans were savvy enough to show how their spending power, could influence television advertising, ‘they (Chuck Fans) targeted an individual sponsor, restaurant chain Subway, to demonstrate the value of their attention.’ (ibid)


1.2 Playbook for using New Mediums


The aforementioned example of viewer participation and networking clearly shows how people with a common interest or cause can find common ground and share expertise and skills for the benefit of the whole group. With the advent of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it has become a lot easier for large groups of people to converge and form a networked community that actively participates together.  The evolution of this idea has manifested beyond the world of television audiences and entered mainstream society. It is possible to observe similar

collaborative processes at work during political campaigns; the most famous example is the US presidential campaign of 2008 (Harfoush, 2009, pp. 139-144).


The marketing and selling of ‘Brand Obama’ to the electorate there was done across social media site; songs and videos made for YouTube were all used to great effect during the Obama election campaign. The election showed how active members of

the US public were able to participate in debates with the candidates on YouTube and


Facebook. This campaign was a landmark change in how elections are conducted. The


2008 elections in Ireland followed the successful blueprint developed by Obama’s


team (Burgess and Green, 2009, p. 62- 70).



‘Participatory culture’ describes how empowered people can be more politically active in civic society. It can also have significant commercial impact on cultural objects and products. Cultural objects can also be changed by a community, the video game Team Fortress 2 (TF2) (Valve, 2007) is one such example. TF2 shows how cultural objects change and evolve due to the convergence and participation of a

group of players. Furthermore with TF2 the development has formed a new way of empowering the community from not only adding content to the game but also benefiting directly from the process, players can be more involved than ever before. Making use of Valve’s SteamWorks software users are able to create ‘in game objects’ this user generated content can tell be purchased in the game by other users. This demonstrates how participants have created, shaped and directed the

development of this game since its release. This idea has its roots in earlier theories of how media and the people who engage with it form a dialogue between the user and the technology.


1.3 Hot and Cold media Types: According to McLuhan


While participatory and convergence culture describe the new ways of how the social behavior of people has changed with the emergence of social media. The idea of humans and technology interacting with one another to shape change is not a new idea. For media theorist Marshall McLuhan technology was the driver of change. He famously insisted that:


The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology (McLuhan, 1967, p.7).


For McLuhan the medium is the most important element of any exchange between technology and the audience or person using it. The content that medium is transmitting in this idea is not as important as the medium itself, he argued that,

‘whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of


indifference.’ According to McLuhan’s hypothesis medium’s that consist of more


than one sensory relay are defined as being ‘cold’, for example, television may be considered multi-sensorial and therefore ‘cold’.  This is contrasted by McLuhan’s defining of film as being a ‘hot’ medium because it primarily uses one sensory relay – vision. However, McLuhan’s ideas are less applicable to modern inventions such as the PC or the Smartphone, largely because McLuhan’s theories emphasize technology over content. With the traditional design of the phone being simply about having a conversion over a distance it could be defined as being a hot medium because it

makes use of just one sense, a person’s sense of hearing. However, with newer and modern Smartphone designs enabling the user to multitask; utilizing more than one sense, this leads to the medium’s “message” being a lot harder to define.  McLuhan believed that technology alone was the sole driver of social change and development. By having a rather reductive view on media types McLuhan’s definitions force mediums into simple binary categories, even if these categories scale to form a spectrum of cold to hot. They do not account for the change that occurs in participatory video games such as TF2 (Valve, 2009). To gain a fuller understanding of content and the role the audience plays in the process of change it is important to use a broader theoretical framework.


Raymond Williams’ argument for human agency is in direct opposition to McLuhan’s ideas. Human agency positions society and not technology as the driving force behind social change and technological development. As Williams observes, ‘all technologies have been developed and improved to help with known human practices or foreseen and desired practices’ (Williams, 1974). Williams sought to show that with any given technology like television there are no guarantees that the technology on its own will have an impact on culture or society (Lister, 2009, pp. 77,78). Instead human agency focuses on the use of a technology and not just the technology itself, unlike

McLuhan’s technological determinism viewpoint. The logic in human agency is simple; a given technology alone has little cultural meaning until cultural meaning for technology evolves from the way society uses the said technology.  Williams believes that the agency of a human being is the primary force that opens up new possibilities for technical innovation, while McLuhan argues for the agency of the technology

itself (Lister, 2009, pp. 84,85)There are further differences in how human agency


and technological determinism affects the meaning of a ‘medium’. McLuhan views a


‘medium’ as being a technology or rather an object that carries human sensory inputs


to the person connected to it. Humans then interpret the messages the medium is carrying to their senses. A human agency advocate such as Williams uses the word

‘medium’ to describe a particular use of technology to complete a given task. As Lister observes, ‘it is often implicit for Williams that a medium is a particular use of a technology; a harnessing of a technology to an intention or purpose to communicate

or express.’ (Lister, 2009, p. 88).



1.4 Using the Force of Actor Network Theory


A dialogue of equal actors participating together to form social change is theorised by Bruno Latour and John Law, the authors of Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT attempts to explain the interactions between human and non-human actors involved in creating and shaping new content and technologies.  The interaction between the two actors is viewed as being a form of network where the actors are seen as equals. One human actor and one technological non-human actor, each has an equal stake in the power over the other to influence the network, this is in contrast to the approach of

both Williams and McLuhani.Nick Couldry uses Bruno Latour to explain the actor


network viewpoint:


. . . to avoid the twin pitfalls of sociologism and technologism. We are never faced with objects or social relations, we are faced with chains which are associations of humans . . . and non-humans . . . No one has ever seen a social relation by itself . . . nor a technical relation. (Latour, 1991: 110) (Couldry, 2008, p. 2).




The process of networking interactions described by ANT shape the development of social and technological elements in a technology or object. The objects examined in this dissertation are both cultural and technological, for example, video games. Additionally social media platforms are also now driving it. This change maybe taking place in networks of actors act on objects where human and non-human actors as new relationships to materialize for the social and commercial for the users of the game. In the following chapter I will develop my argument further to demonstrate the power of online fan communities and ways in which they use social media to converge and participate together.

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