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?


maria said...


i thought of you when i read of this new reality show (see below). have you heard of it? i suppose the producers @ abc believe that removing the elimination factor makes it more palatable and less exploitive, but, it smells a bit "lord of the flies"-ish to me...

Kid Nation Show Description, Cast & Crew
Cameras follow 40 kids for 40 days, between the ages of 8-15. They are placed in an abandoned ghost town, and attempt to build a new society from scratch. They must survive with no adult supervision or modern luxuries. Rather than have a weekly elimination, the winner (as voted by their peers) receives a special "reward" at the end of each show. All the participants are free to leave and go home whenever they choose.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Maria,

Indeed, I'm intrigued to see this show for a number of reasons. Most significantly, I'm curious to see how ABC handles the "exploitation" factor. Indeed, what bothers me about the premise of the show is precisely the Lord of the Flies element you speak of, or the presumption that kids, left to their own devices, will turn against one another and transform into what's more realistically the model of a dysfunctional, adult society. In other words, I feel as though the show's being sold on an implicit promise of the kids' violence toward (or at least potential for abuse of) one another.

I also suspect the rewards will be "modern conveniences," or really opportunities for product placement. But that's a whole other matter......

Thanks for writing.

Erik J said...

What is the point you are trying to make here about barcodes?

Ted Striphas said...

HI Erik,

Thanks for checking in. The comment about barcodes was, admittedly, somewhat cryptic. For whatever it's worth, I develop this idea much further, and in richer historical detail, in my piece "Cracking the Code: Technology, Historiography, and the 'Back Office' of Mass Culture," which was published a few years ago in the journal Social Epistemology. I can send you a copy of the piece, if you'd like. Just send me an email:

In short, the argument goes something like this: cultural producers have, over the past 50-75 years or so, developed sophisticated "back office" coding schemes by which to help square production and consumption. Leading the way have been the book and grocery industries, both of which pioneered things like ISBNs and barcodes.

What's interesting about these codes is that they didn't have much relevance to a broader public until just the last few years. Some cell phones (though few in the U.S.) are beginning to come with barcode readers installed, for instance, allowing people to scan codes on real estate listings, consumer goods, and other items to get instant access to virtual tours, product information, reviews, etc. In this sense, mass culture's "back office" is beginning to turn inside-out, thereby furthering the effort to square production-consumption. That's the quick and dirty version of it, anyway.

Thanks for leaving a comment on D&R.

Mark said...

oops. Meant to post the URL

Ted - you might find this bit of "backoffice" material interesting in relation to the Kid Nation reality TV program:
. . . I've been thinking a lot about these reality TV shows in relation to Agamben's theorization of "bare life' and "states of exception."

Hope you are well,


Ted Striphas said...

Hi Mark,

Wow--thanks for the link to TSG story. The 21 page contract/liablity agreement is especially intriguing to see. So much of that material forms a basis upon which reality TV works, and yet it tends to remain hidden away in the back office. (And I'm reminded, in a way, of Jane Gaines' wonderful chapter in Contested Culture called, "Reading Star Contracts.) Media scholars need to be investigating further into these kinds of documents. Indeed, it's intriguing to me how dependent upon the law reality TV is.

And by the way, if this is Mark Andrejevic writing, congratulations on the publication of your new book, iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. It already received a mention on Greg Wise's blog. I look forward to reading it.

Mark said...

I don't mind being mistaken for Mark Andrejevic - I really admire his work. But nope, not the same Mark - think farther back in your history . . . ;-)

Ted Striphas said...


Mark said...

:-) . . . Best of luck with the Fall semester.


Ted Striphas said...

...thanks for that, Mark. And good to hear from you.