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The Implicit Contract

Alec Austin
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Everyone wants something from their entertainment. Whatever this desire is, audiences’ satisfaction with a product is dependent on whether their expectations are fulfilled or exceeded. As such, viewing the relationship between the provider and the audience of an entertainment property as a contract helps explain why audiences enjoy and accept some content choices yet reject and are angered by others.

Creators and critics of fiction and film have been aware for quite some time of the need to entertain audiences without boring or distracting them. One quote that is regularly cited in online writing communities comes from science fiction author Larry Niven, who described the reader as “entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling that his time has been wasted, you’re in violation [of the implicit contract]” (quoted, for instance, in Salway 2006).

While Niven describes the implicit contract in terms of engaging and entertaining the audience, film theorists have taken the metaphor further. Thomas Schatz (1977) and Henry Jenkins (1992) use the lens of a contract to discuss relationships between media producers and audiences. Schatz describes a film genre as a tacit contract which governs a reciprocal studio-audience relationship, while Jenkins argues that Schatz undermines the reciprocal dimension of the contract by assuming that what Hollywood delivers is what the audience wants (1992, 123).

I believe, as Jenkins does, that the exchange in which audiences and providers are engaged is complex. Audiences have expectations about both content and the way that content will be delivered. The exchange involved in entertainment media can easily be broken down into its component parts:

Audiences offer Providers

  • Their time
  • Their attention
  • Sometimes (e.g., movies, cable TV) their money

Providers offer Audiences

  • Entertainment
  • The delivery structure they expect

When entertainment providers are seen to have violated the implicit contract created by the audience’s expectations, they risk alienating their audience.

The alert reader will have noticed that we are dealing with the perception that the implicit contract has been violated. With an implicit contract, each audience member’s subjective experience will determine whether he or she feels that the contract’s terms have been fulfilled. While the parties to a legal contract can bring their dispute to a judge for a binding decision, entertainment providers cannot appeal to authorities who will declare whether they have held up their end of the bargain. In most cases, creators and purveyors of entertainment can only respond to such criticisms through the marketing and content of a work.

In the case of iterative media such as TV or comics which regularly release new content, conditions are slightly different. While creators working in such a medium can respond to audience dissatisfaction by changing the content of later work, there is inevitably a delayed “response,” given the lead time necessary to produce new content. As such, even creators that work in serial media are likely to feel powerless or frustrated when audiences interpret or react to their work in a way they see as misguided or unsympathetic.

Consequences of Contract Violation

While entertainment providers may lack control over how their work is interpreted, the audience for a property has little control over its creation. Furthermore, without an enforcement mechanism for perceived violations of the implicit contract, audience members must take on the enforcement role themselves.

Audiences have three means by which they can attempt to redress perceived contract violations. The first is dissatisfaction, which manifests itself both as lessened engagement with an entertainment property and complaints made to other fans and the property’s creators. The second is withdrawal, which manifests itself in the loss of the audience member as a viewer or customer. And the final means is boycotting—audience members actively trying to dissuade others from supporting or engaging with a property.

Audience members for fictional media content typically become dissatisfied with an entertainment property due to contract violations that are relatively minor (repeated continuity gaffes, for instance). Such violations erode the audience’s engagement, but the damage can be repaired by supplying content that’s more in line with what the audience desires. Some critics might challenge the idea that minor erosions of an audience’s engagement actually matter. However, my work developing E. P. Thompson’s (1971) and Henry Jenkins’s (1992) idea of the moral economy strongly suggests that it does. When a purchase supports an individual or company that has treated an audience member well, that purchase has added value. Conversely, a creator or company that has treated an audience member poorly will encounter resistance when trying to make a sale.

In addition to the economic impact of the moral economy, it has an emotional dimension, as audience members develop relationships with creators or rights holders. Over the long term, “legitimate” behavior and sincere engagement can cause audience members to become personally invested in a company’s success. Conversely, consistently behaving in ways the audience deems illegitimate creates resentment and an environment where audience members become invested in the company’s failure.

When seen as part of the moral economy, minor violations of the implicit contract have a clear effect, as they create audience resistance and can lead to boycotts when audience members who feel their trust has been betrayed choose to actively undermine a property’s success.

Creators and producers who are concerned about triggering an audience backlash over a perceived violation of the implicit contract should be aware that marketing and creative choices can do a great deal to shape both a property’s audience and the terms on which it will be received. As such, if fulfilling the implicit contract is a priority, it is critically important that a product’s marketing creates genre and structural expectations that are consistent with the actual product and that the product itself lays the necessary groundwork for the direction in which it develops.


References

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Salway, Sarah. 2006. “Wednesday, March 15, 2006.” Sarah’s Writing Journal (blog), March 15. http://sarahsalway.blogspot.com/2006/03/reader-has-certain-rights.html.

Schatz, Thomas. 1977. “The Structural Influence: New Directions in Film Genre Study.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 2 (3): 302–312.

Thompson, E. P. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present 50:76–136.

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