Web Exclusive Essay
The Online Prime Time of Workspace Media
Ask a producer of digital content about website usage patterns, as I have, and they will tell you how important the audience accessing their content from work is to daily website traffic. According to NBC’s vice president of digital content and development, Carole Angelo, NBC.com designs its daily production schedule to service its workweek “lunch hour” audience. Fox Sports Digital (2009) also adopts this production strategy, as it summed up in its 2009 slogan “lunchtime is the new prime time.” Reporting on this trend, the New York Times observed that American cubicle dwellers were increasingly choosing to spend their break time watching online videos, playing Flash games, and engaging in social network sites instead of heading to the water cooler (Stelter 2008). The entertainment industries are creating digital content for the work space because they see this audience as a dependable online consumer demographic.
Programming for the workspace media audience is crucial to entertainment industry efforts in the online space. It allows producers to adapt familiar television programming strategies for the Internet. In television, producers have long programmed according to “day parts”—segments of the broadcast day designed for particular audiences and viewing contexts. Nick Browne has argued that the scheduling of day parts enabled television companies to reflect and reinforce a “socially mediated order of the workday and workweek” to “mediate between the worlds of work and entertainment” (1994, 71). Each day part carries with it certain assumptions about the needs and desires of audience segments, as well as expectations of modern labor. The scheduling of a workday day part demonstrates the influence that technology has had on the blending of work and entertainment.
The subject and tone of workspace media content is often based on assumptions about the needs and desires of the modern desktop employee. Some producers reveal their assumptions implicitly through the scheduled posting of content (e.g., Twitter feeds, webisodes and live chats posted daily during the lunch hour), and others do it explicitly through their promotional materials. These promotions describe workspace media as transgressive media snacks which audiences will want to share with their friends and co-workers. The focus on transgression, “snacking,” and sharing reveal the industry’s understanding of the workspace media audience and their hopes for the development of viable online business model.
Framing workspace media content as transgressive allows producers to acknowledge contemporary demands for professionalism and productivity while simultaneously validating a presumed need to take personal breaks at work. Thus, workspace media is positioned as the perfect content for personal breaks. The content is designed to counteract the effects of corporate drudgery by revitalizing an employee through entertainment. The less censored nature of the Internet allows workspace media production teams to push traditional boundaries in order to stand out in the crowded media landscape. Workspace media producers create irreverent content so that audiences can spend their break time transgressing social taboos within the safe confines of a conglomerate-owned website.
The scale of workspace media content is also affected by assumptions about the workspace audience. Much of this content shrinks traditional media properties into a “snack size” version. As Nancy Miller (2007) described in Wired, “snackable” media is the digital equivalent of midday pick-me-ups. Most workspace media run from two to eight minutes, which keeps these bite-size treats relatively hidden from the eyes of superiors and IT surveillance. Workspace media producers believe web content needs to offer a quick distraction during moments of downtime. The expansion of mobile media has only increased short-form programming as mobile web surfing capabilities have increased the user’s ability to steal glances at workspace media content.
NBC.com uses a number of strategies for shrinking its content to a snackable size. For a TV show such as The Office, NBC.com offers paratexts in the form of short clips, webisodes, and games. Each uses the characters and tone of the original show but adapted for the workspace audience. The episode “Dream Team” features a scene with the characters playing soccer. In the scene’s workspace media form, it is transformed into a simple Flash game called “Dream Team Soccer.” The game is easy to learn and simple to play, a digital cousin to the Rubik’s Cubes and the labyrinth ball mazes that have adorned employee desks for decades. Jonathan Gray (2010) has suggested that paratexts such as this Flash game perform several functions for media companies. They are promotional, synergistic, and/or peripheral products. The low-cost and digital aesthetic of workspace media production allows this content to be quickly churned out as a branded “touchpoint” for a fan community. Thus, it can serve the traditional media “mothership” text while also attempting to carve out its own revenue stream.
Workspace media generates revenue online by attracting advertisers with consistent audiences. A single-sponsorship model has developed as the dominant business model to support workspace media production. ESPN’s Mayne Street, a weekly web series featuring sports anchor Kenny Mayne, has sponsorship from Verizon, a company with a vested interest in attracting workspace media consumers. Not all workspace media content attracts advertisers. Those that do often have star talent attached to the production, or they have proven themselves as exceptionally popular (such as the video podcast Diggnation) or particularly spreadable (such as comedy website Funny or Die). Sponsored content is more likely to have continuing storylines and an aesthetic that is autonomous from a traditional media text. Without sponsorship, workspace media content is likely to be more promotional. In either case, workspace media asks something of its audience in exchange for an amusing distraction.
As audiences become more difficult to reach in this era of media proliferation, workspace media has emerged as an important day part for channeling audience attention. Media companies can stay connected to their fans by offering digital content that fits the rhythms of daily life and simultaneously builds anticipation for traditional programming. Successful workspace media establishes itself as a part of the wired workday and promotes the cultural understanding that digital content offers a way to break up monotony, connect with co-workers, and steal a little time back from The Man.
Browne, Nick. 1994. American Television: New Directions in History and Theory. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood.
Fox Sports Digital. 2009. “Fox Sports Creates Digital Programming Unit.” FOXSports.com, Sept. 9. http://static.foxsports.com/content/fscom/binary/migrated/20027/10044456_37.
Gray, Jonathan. 2010. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: NYU Press.
Miller, Nancy. 2007. “Manifesto for a New Age.” Wired, March. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.03/snackminifesto.html.
Stelter, Brian. 2008. “Noon Time Web Video Revitalizes Lunch at Desk.” New York Times, Jan. 5. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/05/business/media/05video.html.