Contemporary Television and Convergence – The X Files

When The X-Files was first broadcast in 1993, there was already a sense of what was to come in the way of convergence – but not much more than that. The World Wide Web had only recently gone live, whilst commercial cable and satellite-based broadcasters were still at an early developmental stage. By the time The X-Files was in its tenth season – one that came about through a sustained campaign of lobbying by fans – its universe was fully dispersed across multiple platforms, enjoying the full potential offered by a convergence era that began to take shape at the turn of the 21st century. This convergence has itself been a necessary step for television’s legitimation as an artistic platform worthy of critical scholarly attention, and at times, even praise.

Convergence is a crucial context for legitimation, establishing conditions under which television’s status is being renegotiated”, (Newman, Levine, 2012: p.5).

The long period of quality production enjoyed by The X-Files on television has seen its stories also come to life in cinema, across numerous internet-based social media platforms, and even in print. The X-Files comics are already taking up the story from where season ten left off only weeks ago. Aside from the many official channels of online representation, The X-Files universe is stretched even further across the Internet by numerous fan-fiction archives and discussion forums. It seems that Twentieth Century Fox Television has even secured a future for The X-Files by introducing two surrogate leading characters to replace Fox Mulder and Dana Scully following their possible abduction by extra-terrestrials in the season ten finale.

The longevity that such successful productions enjoy is in part due to its extended outreach across multiple platforms. Such technologies offer audiences much more than just viewing pleasure, empowering a now active audience to possibly even influence the development of studio production – as was the case with The X-Files.

Building on cultural studies’ long-term interest in the active audience, scholars have explored fan uses of the Net, showing how audiences use chat rooms and message boards to discuss their ideas about programs, create their own stories, and even protest network cancellation of favourite shows”, (Spigel, 2004: p.13).

If audiences then watch and interact with television so differently to the traditional practices usually associated with the network era of television, then the cultural significance of television itself might also be subject to a shift.

In this convergence era, most researchers tend to consider television as part of a whole new set of technologies that channel related media to a competent audience. Jay David Bolter refers to this approach as “media theory, that is, the study of technologies of representation and communication”, (2003: p.16). This new approach tends to cater for the fact that audiences are now fractionalised through the proliferation of choice – in content as much as in viewing practices. There are, then, justifiable grounds for the pursuance of such an approach: one that naturally gravitates towards the technological determination of television and its audiences. Alternatively, a more critical understanding of how televisual content has developed in the convergence era might also be established by returning to a more traditional line of sociological inquiry: the result might then be directly comparable to the vast amount of analogous information from the network era. However, an analysis of convergence technologies and televisual content together, might be even more indicative as to the extent that television – as we have known it historically – has been transformed. Bolter suggested that theorists should identify a new digital media form that lends its characteristics to both approaches, thus bridging the gap. Perhaps both lines of discussion can be applied to all media regardless.

Television has consistently strived to encompass all the latest technologies and internet-based solutions in its pursuit of cultural relevance. This was never more apparent than in the case of The X-Files: a programme that ran parallel to such developments. This technology changed the way audiences interact with television.

“…the rise of multichannel cable and satellite delivery…internet convergence…the advent of HDTV, technological changes in screen design, the innovation of digital television systems like TiVo…all contribute to transformations in the practice we call watching TV”, (Spigel, 2004: p.2).

Each technological step has brought about a more evolved convergence, with digital satellite and cable transmissions offering wider variety and choice through the same available bandwidth, HDTV facilitating images more reminiscent of cinematic production, and subscription Video on Demand (VOD) services bringing television in line with internet-based technologies.

As has been touched upon, this technology changes the way viewers interact with televisual content. In most cases, audiences become splintered, watching content that suits them, at a time that suits them, and given the wide range of compatible devices, in a place that suits them. Television has thus changed from being at the centre of many family gatherings, to an intellectualised object of independent pursuit. Amanda Lotz argues that because of this now splintered audience, culture is no longer reproduced by television on the scale that it once had.

…the breadth of the audience reached by network-era programming allowed television to circulate ideas in a way that asserted and reinforced existing power structures and dominant ways of thinking within a society”, (Lotz, 2007: p.33).

However, programmes such as The X-Files have demonstrated how post-television programming reaches a mass audience by the very propagation of different means of reception. The potential to overthrow even the largest audiences from the network era exists precisely because viewers are not bound to a time and place. An episode of The X-Files broadcast on Monday 15th February 2016 on Channel 5, amassed a combined live and time-shifted UK viewing audience of 3.58 million in the first week – a figure that had risen to 3.96 within the month. These figures are relatively competitive within the British broadcasting industry, particularly for a “cult programme” (West, 2016).

If a dominant culture might then be reproduced by television despite a splintering audience, it is only disseminated further through a continuous online stream of exhaustive discussion. This might counter Lotz’s argument that television is not as effective as an ideological state apparatus or as a platform for a global public sphere, as it once might have been. If anything, this new television has acquired the services of the prosumer, with viewers now producing online media that equally serves to maintain society’s ideological infrastructures. The network-era vision of a family gathered around a television that is conspicuously placed at the centre of the living room has then, only changed in some regards. Twitter could be classified as the new living room – or “virtual loungeroom” (Harrington et al, 2012) – and fellow subscribers might then replace the traditional family function insofar as sharing in the televisual. Harrington describes this as…

“…an online space where an audience can commune and centrally share the television experience”, (Harrington, 2013: p.241). 

It is at this particular juncture – where television meets Twitter – that a return to a more traditional line of inquiry might yield a better understanding of how television has shifted in its reproduction of culture. Harrington turns to Wood and Baughman who identify this online prosumer as exploited by post-television television – according to its political economy, as was notoriously the case for network-era mass audiences.

“…the narratives developed through transmedia storytelling by fans on Twitter work to both support the notion of participatory culture and yet, in the creation of these fan projects, also reinforce the consumer behavior that marketed programming depends upon when strategizing about targeting audience viewership decisions”, (Harrington, 2012: p.328).

Although Harrington does not support this viewpoint, he dismisses it without anything but a reference to what he deems a simplistic “surveillance and/or exploited labour paradigm” (2013: p.243), and opts for a more positive outlook on this matter – or he drags the argument back into the realm of new media studies. In so doing, he then hypocritically suggests that twitter “represents a means of inconspicuously observing the activities of television audiences” (ibid: p.245).

However, it is undeniable that social media has forever changed the way culture is consumed. Neil Perryman argues that when Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, it was “grassroots amateur fan-fiction and semi-professional, low-budget video productions” (2008: p.23) that caught the BBC’s imagination. This resulted in the broadcaster “licensing professionally produced fan-fiction for mainstream distribution”, (ibid: p.23). Doctor Who, even more so than The X-Files, has a history that by far supersedes internet-based technologies and social media platforms. It comes rather unsurprisingly then, that the producers of contemporary televisual dramatisations might have taken notice of the BBC’s strategy in this regard, and similarly embraced transmediated fan-fiction and online forums to further their respective universes.

For all the reasons touched upon, it might then seem favourable to maintain both academic approaches to ongoing research. Issues surrounding privacy and surveillance might be better assessed in contemporary studies of new media. Questions of gender, race, equality and diversity remain as relevant as ever, and a study of the content itself – as was traditionally the case in studies of the media – can still inform in that respect.

Whilst viewers are still – at times – able to constitute a mass audience, there unquestionably remains a significant level of splintering – as has been established. This splintering has had an inadvertent effect on television viewing trends, resulting in the rise of ‘niche media audiences’. This raises questions as to how the televisual content has evolved in this convergence era: the term ‘niche’ might similarly be ascribed to the product itself. It has already been shown that audiences have indeed evolved through the proliferation of new media technologies, and that is not to say that the content has not.

In terms of the political economy of television production, there is one notable core element that has had to endure change. Advertising is the basis on which television is funded – except for state funded national broadcasters. With audiences now technologically empowered to avoid advertisements by fast-forwarding digital recordings, and many viewers subscribing to VOD services that no longer break for advertising or sponsorship messages, production funds are now channeled through product placement rather than direct address. Economists Mustafa Soba and Müfit Aydin turn to Mackay, Ewing, Newton and Windisch to explain that…

“…as a result of media proliferation, media fragmentation and decline in the efficacy of traditional modes of advertisement, marketers have now geared themselves towards the adoption of product placement as an integrated marketing communication strategy”, (2013: p.111).

One example of product placement at work is clearly evident in The X-Files season ten opener. That Dana Scully’s first utterance to Mulder – as he clambered out of a taxi following a prolonged dissociation – is “Uber?”, is significant in this respect. Since product placement is now integrated within television production, it can directly impact on the flow of culture – considering how capitalism has seen western societies and their cultures succumb to consumerism in its totality.

However, a splintered niche audience might be subject to an impression that they now enjoy higher quality programmes than what was available during the network era. This perception might be connected to the level of intellectual and technological investment on their part, and the subsequent confusing of aesthetic and artistic characteristics. According to Jane Feuer this is simply not the case – a point she makes with regard to HBO’s ‘Not TV’ marketing strategies. Whilst the subscription service promotes its in-house productions as elitist or highbrow material, the reality is that it is of no more or less quality than some of the classic dramas from the network era and beyond.

Even before a normative notion of ‘everyday television’ had solidified, the idea that ‘quality drama’ existed in the form of the live anthology teleplays of the 1950s. Written by New York playwrights, appealing to an elite audience and financed by individual corporate sponsors as prestige productions, these live TV dramas carried the cachet of the ‘legitimate’ theatre”, (Feuer, 2007: p.146).

The passage of time has judged that The X-Files can be considered a high quality production, since the longevity it has enjoyed would otherwise be impossible in such a competitive market. Yet, creator Chris Carter has openly attributed creative influences to quality sci-fi and mystery dramas from as far back as the 60s, and up until the late 80s. This, but one example of how contemporary production can reflect on, and further cement the fact that quality drama has always existed, and is not solely the product of the convergence era. Its potential to shape an audience is then fundamentally unchanged, regardless of how it is received.

Overall, it has been established that post-television television has not changed significantly in terms of artistic and intellectual content. Much of what has changed is relegated to the aesthetics: the way viewers consume television; the way they interact with it through advanced technologies; how it is presented to audiences through creative marketing strategies; and how production technologies have improved dramatically. This can bring into question the very nature of television in that; if in this post-modern convergence era only audience perception is susceptible to a significant change, then television production might have reached an impasse insofar as to the potential for creative development. The use of such terminology as ‘Quality Drama’, applied as a descriptive term or as a genre type, is but one example. This might even cast doubt over the level of choice that audiences actually do enjoy, since this scenario also implies a deficit in innovation.

Much like the changes that television has been subject to through the technological determination of broadcasting and reception, its cultural significance has similarly then, only changed in an aesthetical manner. The content is still subject to the political economy of its production, audiences still interpret it according to their cultural capital, and re-appropriation by sub-cultures – and consequently by the industry – still constitutes resistance and/or a political statement. Yet theorists and scholars are moving away from a sociological tradition of media studies towards studies of new media, leaving many unresolved issues to one side. If it has been demonstrated that there is no fundamental reason why media studies cannot move forward insofar as both lines of discussion, then the fact that this new approach to media theory had been assumed regardless is indicative that it might be as prone to technological development as its subject. Then, maybe, the cultural significance of television has never, and might never, actually change – only the points of view that are taken.   

Ultimately, if we remove television from all the politics that surround it, post-television television is still television, regardless of the fact that it no longer enjoys a prime location in the living room – except on special occasions.

Christian Gadd (2452 words).

Semester 6 (January – May 2016) : Contemporary Television.

Bibliography

Althusser, Louis, (1970), Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Marxists Internet Archive [Accessed 22nd March 2015] http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

Bolton, Jay, D., (2003), Theory and Practice in New Media Studies, in Liestol, G., Morrison, A., Rasmussen, T., (ed.), (2003), Digital Media Revisited: Theoretical and Conceptual Innovations in Digital Domains, pp.15-33, Massachusetts, MIT Press.

Feuer, Jane, (2007), HBO and the Concept of Quality TV, in McCabe, J., Akass, K., (ed.), (2007), Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, pp.145-157, London: I. B. Tauris.

Harrington, Stephen, (2013), Tweeting About the Telly: Live TV, Audiences and Social Media, in Weller et al, (ed.), Twitter and Society, pp.237-247, New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Harrington, S., Highfield, T., Bruns, A., (2012), More than A Backchannel: Twitter and television, in Noguera, J., M., (ed.), Audience Interactivity and Participation, pp.13-17, Brussels: COST Action ISO906 Transforming Audiences, Transforming Societies.

Lotz, Amanda, D., (2007), Understanding Television at the Beginning of the Post-Network Era, in Lotz, A., (ed.), (2007), The Television will be Revolutionized, pp.27-48, New York: New York University Press.

Soba, M., Aydin, M., (2013), Product Placement Efficiency in Marketing Communication Strategy, in International Journal of Business and Management, Volume 8, Issue number 12, pp.111-116, Toronto: Canadian Center of Science and Education.

Newman, Michael, Z., Levine, E., (2012), Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status, New York: Routledge.

Perryman, Neil, (2008), Dr. Who and the Convergence of Media: A Case Study in Transmedia Storytelling, in Convergence, Volume 14, Issue number 1, pp.21-39, London: John Libbey & Co.

Spigel, Lynn, (2004), Introduction, in Spigel, L., Olsson, J., (ed.), (2004), Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, pp.1-34, Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press.

West, Amy, (2016), New X-Files: Origins book series will explore Mulder and Scully’s teenage years, in International Business Times, [online].

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/new-x-files-origins-book-series-will-explore-mulder-scullys-teenage-years-1545431 [Accessed 30/03/2016].

Wood, M., Baughman, L., (2012), Glee Fandom and Twitter: Something

New, or More of the Same Old Thing?, in Communication Studies, Volume 63, Issue number 3, pp.328-344.

About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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