Their ability and willingness to buy the goods on offer in a market define viewers as consumers rather than citizens. This allows us to conceive of the market itself as a form of regulation, in the Foucauldian sense, as companies adapt their production output in response to the values and tastes of its potential viewers in order to make profits. This approach counteracts the assumption that the so-called ‘free market’ offers freedom from control. The processes of commodification and the characteristics of capitalist markets are an important determinant of consumers’ access to television (Garnham 1990, 2000). Television companies want to identify and measure the preferences of a ‘consuming’ viewer who can deliver profits for the advertisers who fund commercial television. This marketing data is gathered by specialist companies, Nielsen in the USA and BARB in the UK, that sell the information to the television companies. The schedules are subject to the ratings information gathered and the ability of the company to make money. The influence of ratings has increased as competitive pressures have intensified as the number of channels increases (Bell 2003).
As an example of a Foucauldian technology of regulation the ratings system is exemplary, in that it produces power/knowledge through surveillance and categorization. The system of gathering this information affects what knowledge about the audience is produced. The sample is designed to provide commercially useful information, rather than being an ‘objective’ measure of who is watching. As John Hartley (2002: 61) comments, ‘The industry relies on an agreed construction of the viewer, not a true one. But this figment of the imagination is worth billions.’ When the system of data collection changes, as it has recently to accommodate the need to count the audiences for a greatly expanded number of channels, the statistics also change dramatically. In order to ‘count’ as a commodity audience viewers have to be measurable so that they can be profitable (Meehan 1990). This shows the degree to which audience segments are produced rather than described through these technologies, such as ‘Housewife with children’, ‘ABC1 men’, ‘16-34 youths’. The degree to which these constructs match the real viewers watching these programmes, or the adverts in between, cannot be known, although the ‘truth’ value of what is counted is rarely questioned (Ang 1991). What we can study is how these constructs are used to regulate the schedules and how they classify and normalize particular groups of viewers.
Not all viewers have an equal power to influence these decisions because they are only as influential as their buying power. Only those who can afford to pay for subscription services or are rich enough, despite their few numbers, to be attractive to advertisers will influence the provision of minority television. ‘Women’, for example, became commercially interesting as a commodity audience when they moved into professional jobs during the 1970s and became attractive as ‘upscale’ consumers. Research by Eileen Meehan (2001: 113-14) indicates that previously advertisers had been primarily concerned to attract men in the 18-34 age bracket in the evening prime time, where most of the advertising spend is concentrated. However, by the end of the 1970s new genres of programming were being developed on the main networks to appeal to this market that had a greater focus on women’s lives and interests. By the mid-1980s cable TV included a channel for women called Lifetime. ‘Lifetime built its schedule to attract housewives from morning to early afternoon, to attract the household as it reassembled, and finally to target heterosexual couples during prime time via programming that was both “male and female friendly”’ (Meehan 2001: 115). But in both these cases, Meehan points out, women are still imagined in relation to their role as members of a family unit or one of a couple, not as individuals. It is only during the day when men are assumed to be absent that they constitute a target group. In contrast, sports channels such as ESPN are more single-minded in their address to male audiences.
Generalizations about men’s and women’s preferences are in themselves a construction that masks differences within these groupings. In this way categories of measurement and analysis normalize and stereotype the complex viewing behaviour of actual viewers, who remain essentially unknowable (Ang 1991). Their importance, though, and why this is of interest here, is the way in which these constructions influence what television producers include in their programmes and how they are scheduled. For example, when it comes to sexual content explicit sexual discussions on talk shows are considered to be of interest to women and are scheduled in daytime slots. Explicit visual images on cable porn channels, on the other hand, are assumed to be addressed to men, or in some cases heterosexual couples, and are restricted in access. For example, slogans advertising Playboy Channel in the UK during 2002 (‘£5 can now keep you up all night’ or ‘Forget thinking about it every 30 seconds. Try a whole hour’) address a male consumer despite reports that Playboy has widened its target audience to include the couples market (Juffer 1998). These two examples draw attention to the way that sexual content is not only addressed to different categories of viewers but is also assumed to have different purposes. Talk shows and porn assume a very different kind of engagement by the viewer; it is one of the distinctions that separate them as genres.
The homogenizing effects of the market on the television schedules are a matter of debate. Compaine and Gomery’s (2000) assessment, based on extensive empirical evidence, accentuates the diversity of the schedules. The tradition of aiming at the whole population with each and every programme is gone. Nor will the limitless potential of proliferating outlets, they argue, destroy quality.
If the proliferation of television, books and web sites reveals anything, it is that greater diversity means just that: more low brow shows, trash journalism, pandering politics to go along with opportunities for finding more thoughtful and quality outlets for analysis, entertainment and information. Diversity cuts all ways.
(Compaine and Gomery 2000: 578)
Against this view is the evidence from the US free market system, until now, that the pursuit of profit has meant the networks catering to mainstream tastes and ideologies where the maximum demand is found for their products, thus excluding radical or unpopular views (Curran 1996; Jones 2001). ‘Progressive’ ideologies are pushed to the margins in elite forms of culture, such as ‘quality’ drama, which are instead offered by commercial subscription television on digital channels such as HBO.
Certainly for those who can pay, in the digital era choice will be assured, but widening extremes of poverty and riches in a neo-liberal political context mean there is a sizeable proportion of the potential audience who will not be able to afford these services. The individualized model of the television consumer depends on households having the disposable income to pay the subscriptions to their digital provider, whether this is cable or satellite. It costs the same to make a programme for ten million viewers as for ten thousand. Niche markets therefore have to be financed by expensive subscriptions or by charging advertisers higher rates. A two-tier market develops, the mass and the marginal, but only well-off consumers will have access to both of them (Garnham 1990: 160-163). It also creates a continuing incentive to find cheaper forms of television, especially if they can also find a large audience. This affects the kind of ‘quality’ that depends on resources, such as the amount of time spent on researching a programme to make sure it is fair and offers a diversity of viewpoints. ‘Infotainment’ (talk shows, reality shows) is designed to save money as well as attract new audiences. These economic pressures fuel fears of ‘tabloidization’ and a decline in television’s contribution to an informed political democracy (see discussion in Chapters 4 and 6).
Ideological conformity is promoted by the pressure from sponsors and advertisers for a programming environment that does not undermine the message of their adverts, namely consumption. James Curran and Jean Seaton (1997), echoing Adorno, argue that this means ‘feel-good’ light entertainment rather than documentaries investigating the dark side of capitalism such as poverty or pollution that might make consumers feel guilty. Low-level anxiety, on the other hand, can work to promote consumption. In postfeminist drama, for example, anxiety about the difficulty of finding a man to marry delivers women to the beauty product advertisements. Similar arguments have been offered to explain the ubiquity of tabloid-style reality television, with its sensationalized diet of disasters and crime that offers simplistic solutions to complex social and political problems. Anxiety is provoked in order to be assuaged through the reassuring structures of the commodity form (Mellencamp 1992; Langer 1998; Dovey 2000).
But the system is far from monolithic. The contradictory nature of television and its multiple possible uses makes ideological analysis a complex affair. Ideological diversity is enabled through the difference between the exchange value of a programme for its producers and distributors and its use value for audiences. In order for a programme to be popular it may well need to offer meanings and pleasure that are contrary to the long-term interests of capitalism. The incentive for individual companies to make short-term profits outweighs the long-term incentive of the survival of the system as a whole (Frith 1996). This allows for the expression of controversial or potentially subversive ideas if they can sell products. The unpredictability of success that is a feature of cultural production also means that companies have to innovate in the hope of striking lucky. Although successes are then copied and a new standardized format is established, as the case of ‘reality television’ demonstrates, this works against the incentive always to play safe despite the pressure on television executives to deliver predictable audiences that can be sold to advertisers or sponsors in advance.
Hybridization of genre formats is one consequence of these contradictory pressures. It allows innovation at the same time as retaining familiarity and predictability. Only rarely does an entirely new genre of television emerge that in the process constitutes a new ‘public’ to whom it is addressed (Lara 1998). These hybridized genres continue to embody conventions from a previous era, acting as a form of cultural inertia. This is very significant for the sexual politics of television, given the marginal position that women and sexual minorities have occupied in its institutionalized genres. The cultural authority of heterosexual, middle-class masculinity has held an assured place long after it was subject to political challenges in the wider social sphere. Nevertheless, genres do undergo incremental changes to adapt to changing social and cultural circumstances to stay plausible and relevant. Feminist interventions into television have consciously sought ways to adapt mainstream genres to carry new, more emancipated meanings, for example. But this is uneven in its effects, with some of the more high-status genres remaining relatively unaffected. The potential for women’s pleasure in popular entertainment is, however, being given the weight that their central role in consumption dictates now that the politics of the living room during prime time isn’t assumed to result in deference to men’s viewing preferences (Gauntlett and Hill 1999).
Although the ubiquitous hybridization of factual and fictional genres with the melodramatic conventions of the soap opera is indicative of television adapting to a more feminized aesthetic, and therefore its responsiveness to a previously marginalized group, this cannot be assumed to be synonymous with a feminist cultural politics. Indeed, this conundrum is at the heart of some of the more intractable questions about taste and cultural value in feminist cultural studies. A similar lack of fit troubles the public sphere debates, where concern to protect the spaces for democratic debate often runs counter to the trajectory of popular pleasures. The decline in the cultural authority of an elite is one of the effects of the hegemonic discourses of the market. These debates are taken up in subsequent chapters as questions about diversity and emancipation are explored in relation to the changing forms of sexual representation in a global consumer market.
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McGuigan, J. (1996) Culture and the Public Sphere. London and New York: Routledge. Stevenson, N. (2003) Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Questions. Maidenhead: Open University Press.