Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Reality TV: The new opinion poll

It's over. Summer break, that is. Today started orientation for new graduate students in my department here at Indiana University, which means fall semester has begun for all intents and purposes. Honestly, summer really ended about 10 days ago for me, when on last Monday morning there arrived an avalanche of emails pertaining to things that needed to happen NOW before the semester started. And on top of that, my department moved buildings. More on that, later.

The summer was a reasonably productive one, as I'm sure readers of D&R already know. When I wasn't writing, reading, prepping for fall classes, or traveling, I spent a good deal of time watching reality TV. It seems as though that's becoming an annual occurrence for me, as one of my posts from last summer attests and as my colleague, Jon Simons, reminded me today during one of our orientation sessions. This year I got sucked into two cooking competitions, Fox's Hell's Kitchen and Bravo's Top Chef, in addition to On the Lot (a competition to become a feature film director) and So You Think You Can Dance. (Yes...I watched So You Think You Can Dance. Snicker all you want.)

Most of these shows wrapped within the last week, and so with a little critical distance under my belt, I'm moved to reflect on their significance as a genre. I'm especially intrigued with shows like On the Lot and So You Think You Can Dance, both of which, like American Idol (Pop Idol for my readers from across the Pond), base their weekly contestant eliminations on audience call-ins, text messaging, and internet voting.

This is marketing research, and a clever form of it at that. It's so clever that rather than costing money, it actually generates income for show producers who subsequently sell the already-proven skills of the contest winner in the form of CDs, music downloads, movies--you name it. Think about it for a moment. Rather than someone from some random opinion-polling firm calling you up during dinner, bothering you with questions about whether you'd prefer to see this or that type of film, TV program, or performing artist, viewers contact these shows of their (our) own volition to provide essentially this type of information. We do it en masse. Now, this isn't perfect research, to be sure. People typically can vote as often as they'd like within an allotted period of time. But even so, what's essentially happening is that the unsexy drudge-work that used to be hidden away in mass culture's "back office" (i.e., opinion polling) now is emerging front-and-center as a key aspect of the entertainment value of these shows. And of course, it's never called "opinion polling" or "market research." In good "democratic" spirit, these shows always stress audience interactivity and empowerment. (I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard Ryan Seacrest proclaim, "America voted, and here are the results....")

All this is part of a larger set of trends. From bar codes becoming things that people other than cashiers now pay close attention to, to the widespread, public testing of "beta" versions of products and more, the boundaries between what used to be called "production" and "consumption" are increasingly fuzzy. And oftentimes, it seems, this fuzziness provides not only for a richer, more potentially informed and interactive relationship with TV programs and other cultural consumables; it also opens up weekly, hour-long opportunities to test-market products in front of millions of viewers.

Focus groups are just sooooo 20th century, aren't they?

Monday, August 06, 2007

Paris, c'est moi!

Well, I've been back from the University of East London's "Cultural Studies Now--An International Conference" for almost a couple of weeks. I'd intended to write sooner, but my head's just been dizzy trying to process the event--and getting caught up. Funny, isn't it, how you often need a break after returning from a trip?

Overall, the conference was a good show. Anything with a keynote by Stuart Hall is bound to be excellent, as far as I'm concerned. I also enjoyed the plenary sessions featuring Kuan-Hsing Chen, who talked about "Asia as Method," and Ien Ang, who offered a provocative reflection on where cultural studies might be headed. I regret having missed Rosi Braidotti, though I'd never been to London before and, well, London was calling. The panels I attended generally were quite good, and for my part I was pleased to present my work-in-progress on cultural studies and the politics of academic journal publishing. Gil "Revolution on Stick" Rodman and Melissa "Home Cooked Theory" Gregg have posted their thoughts on the conference, so you might want to check out their responses, too.

As you can see from the subject header, this post isn't really about London, or about "Cultural Studies Now." It's about the side-trip I made after the conference to Paris, France. It's an amazing city, and it's long been a dream of mine to go there. I wasn't disappointed. The art museums, the food, the architecture, the people, the language--it's just a remarkable place. I'll have to go back sometime soon...and maybe next time my near non-existent French will be a bit more existent.

Last year, when I traveled to Italy, I made a point of swinging by Rome's Protestant Cemetery, where the Marxist activist and political theorist Antonio Gramsci is interred. In the same spirit I tried tracking down the burial sites of some of my favorite French philosophers before heading to Paris. Unfortunately, I didn't get very far. Michel Foucault apparently is buried somewhere in northern France, Jacques Derrida in a Parisian suburb. FĂ©lix Guattari may be interred at La Borde Clinic, where he worked, and who knows where Gilles Deleuze is?

Anyway, I did discover that France, unlike the United States, cares a great deal about its intellectuals. As such, the country has a habit of naming public places after the most prominent among them. I visited two such spots. The first was the Place Sartre-Beauvoir, which is a good-sized square located off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. There I had coffee at Les Deux Magots, which, along with Cafe de Flore, was one of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir's favorite hangouts back in the day. I also dropped by the College de France, where I had the pleasure of stumbling across the Square Michel Foucault. I'm sure there must have been other, similar sites that I missed. Even so, it was a treat just to find these two. Both seemed to embody how people and their ideas can matter.

P.S. This is post #100 on Differences & Repetitions. Thanks to all for your readership, comments, and encouragement.