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?