Web Exclusive Essay
Television’s Invitation to Participate
In Beyond the Box: TV and the Internet (Ross 2008), I argued that television shows starting in the late 1990s increasingly seemed to be “inviting” television viewers to become actively engaged with the TV text, often through the Internet. I saw three forms of invitation emerging: overt invitations, where a TV show obviously invites a viewer to become involved (e.g., American Idol’s calls to phone in a vote); organic invitations, where a TV show assumes that viewers are already actively engaged and incorporates evidence of this within the narrative of the show—or, in some cases, television network (e.g., Degrassi: The Next Generation’s attention to the role of new communications media in teens’ lives, and The N network’s use during Degrassi episodes of interstitials that feature teen viewers texting and IM chatting via The N’s website); and obscured invitations, where a TV show’s narrative complexity demands viewer unraveling that drives fans to online applications (e.g., Lost’s dense referencing of philosophers and artists as clues to the “hidden” meaning of the island and its inhabitants).
In discussions with Henry Jenkins since, I have suggested that organic invitations are likely to become the dominant form of TV invitations to participation. Today’s texting, IMing, web-surfing teens will become tomorrow’s multimedia-tasking adults, who will likely only be followed by a new wave of teen TV watchers who will be engaging in yet-to-be-imagined forms of new media communication.
Such developments are reverberating throughout all of media, from increasing demands on print journalism to be more present online to the use of branding in the spread of media franchises across TV, film, and music in such a way that demands more widespread knowledge of marketing from all media professionals. And such changes tend to spread throughout the TV landscape—even CSI has popular online applications, after all.
The American TV industry (both creatively and financially) is increasingly aware that inviting viewers to be a part of the storytelling process is fundamental to successful storytelling. We are in the midst of a TV revolution (to borrow from Amanda Lotz ) in which popular television shows are honoring the fan—indeed, seeing the fan as the ideal viewer—and in which creative and business folk are beginning to see the very real importance of viewers being able to emotionally “connect” with their TV stories and characters. Television executives and creative professionals are still struggling to determine the best ways in which to tell compelling stories in this changed landscape—particularly how to accomplish this in ways that they can monetize.
In many ways, of course, this revolution is paradoxically nothing new. Successful storytelling has always relied on the listener/reader/viewer feeling personally connected in some way. We are, in point of fact, human because of our stories. Storytelling allows us to understand each other, to find points of connection with each other, and to imagine new possibilities of living that we may not have experienced firsthand in our lives. While we may often sit down with a TV show “simply” to relax and veg out, we return to specific TV shows because we find it fulfilling psychologically and emotionally to do so.
What is “revolutionary,” then, is that the TV industry is actively using all the tools at its disposal (marketing, technology, writing, and the press) to pull viewers into a narrative world that extends beyond the moment of watching an episode to “linger” with stories and characters and to “mingle,” if you will, with the same. Such invitations have begun to create a space for viewers (including those who might never classify themselves as fans) in which their participation engenders a sense of shared ownership of those stories.
To return to my idea that organic invitations are becoming dominant, then, I would like to point to a few current TV examples of shows that actively acknowledge the role of viewers in the storytelling process and that assume these viewers are already engaged in participating with their show beyond watching episodes.
Nickelodeon’s iCarly has successfully encouraged young viewers to participate by creating a narrative in which the characters run a weekly web series featuring themselves and their cohorts—and, at times, featuring videos that actual viewers of the real show have sent in. This complex layering of storytelling assumes that the young viewer can negotiate the murky boundaries between the program and the program-within-the-program and that viewers will visit the iCarly website to further explore the world of the characters and the actors and to submit their own videos.
For the older teen (and beyond), CW’s Gossip Girl centers its narratives on the gossip texts of an anonymous character who reports on the doings of a group of New York City Upper East Side students—at times correctly and at times incorrectly. Characters are joined to their mobile phones or equivalents, texting information to Gossip Girl and reading alerts from her that propel almost every important decision they make (from ending a relationship to choosing a strategy for getting into Princeton). To further embed the viewer into this world, before the show’s second season, CW created a marketing campaign that utilized text-messaging jargon to promote the upcoming season as salacious beyond all compare. For example, one famous print ad featured blurred images of characters in sexual poses, with the “message” “OMFG” plastered over it, suggesting both fans’ and the Gossip Girl character’s potential responses to the upcoming season. In addition, the show featured moments in its second season when walk-on characters express their approval or disapproval of core characters’ actions, with those primary characters responding back in kind that they don’t care—mimicking, perhaps, online commentary and producers’ reactions to it. Finally, a secondary and beloved character (Dorota, lead character Blair’s maid) received a mobisode spin-off (available initially only on Verizon phones) that revealed information only alluded to in actual episodes, indicating a clear assumption that viewers would seek out the spin-off so that they could catch up.
A favorite show of mine, Supernatural (also on CW), had much fun in its 2008–2009 season alluding to the presence of an active fan base for the show. In one episode, the demon-hunting brothers (Sam and Dean) temporarily lose their identities; they nevertheless pursue a ghost, using the website of a duo known as the Ghost Facers. The Ghost Facers seem to hate Sam and Dean yet are simultaneously fans of the brothers and in the past have attempted to create a reality show about ghost hunting to replicate the work Sam and Dean do. To a degree, this love/hate dynamic captures the relationships between many hardcore TV fans of science-fiction/supernatural TV series, who love their show deeply yet often feel that they could do a better job at developing the characters and their stories. The Ghost Facers are genuine fan stand-ins who offer commentary on how Sam and Dean are perceived by those who are on the outside looking in.
In the following episode, Sam and Dean (identities recovered) discover a man who has dreams about Sam and Dean’s life that then later come true; he turns those dreams into a popular graphic novel about the brothers that posits them as fictional characters. As Sam and Dean begin exploring online fan sites for the graphic novel, they stumble across and awkwardly discuss the phenomenon of slash stories (known among actual Supernatural fans as “Wincest,” for the brothers’ last name: Winchester), gently poking fun at fans of the TV series who write such fan fiction.
Perhaps the strongest indicator that organic invitations to participate are emerging as a dominant storytelling strategy is the sitcoms that have begun to create character blogs and extraneous videos (alluded to in episodes) and that even discuss the phenomenon of fandom directly. The most recent examples of this (and perhaps the best) come from CBS. How I Met Your Mother’s website features a blog by Barney, a favorite character played by Neil Patrick Harris (of Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible fame). One can also find full-length music videos that have only partially been featured on the show from character Robin, whose back story reveals that she was a former Canadian teen pop idol. The CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory offers accurate and meaningful discussions of comic book collecting culture, which seem highly unusual in U.S. culture, which has traditionally denigrated comic book fans.
It remains to be seen if this trend will continue and if viewers who do not see themselves as “fans” will “bite at the invite.” But in the meantime, as a TV scholar and fan myself, I am enjoying the party and busily RSVPing whenever I can!
Lotz, Amanda. 2007. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York: NYU Press.
Ross, Sharon Marie. 2008. Beyond the Box: TV and the Internet. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.