The digital revolution
There is a widespread agreement that we have entered into a third era in television (Ellis 2000). The first era was based on a very small number of networks addressing a relatively undifferentiated, mass audience within national boundaries. The second was an era of expanded ‘choice’, with multichannel systems from the mid-1970s in the USA and the 1980s in the UK, offering more minority interest programmes. This happened gradually in the UK: the mainstream BBC and ITV channels were supplemented by BBC2 in 1963, Channel 4 in 1982 and Channel 5 in 1997, while cable and satellite channels also increased capacity from the mid-1980s. Digital technology in the 1990s brought a new era of ‘abundance’ in which the number of channels has multiplied and extended their global reach, while new interactive and storage capabilities are now being added. Although not yet universal, this new era has been gathering pace as digital access has spread to more than 50 per cent of the 24.5 million homes in the UK by the start of 2004. This has been boosted by the provision of Freeview alongside the existing cable and satellite subscription services (the complete replacement of analogue television is planned for 2010). The full implications of this transition, alongside other changes such as convergence with other digital media such as the Internet and mobile handsets and the integration of television companies into large, global media conglomerates, is the focus for industry and policy discussions. New models for financing television and new regimes of government regulation are being developed to accommodate these changes (Siune and Hulten 1998).
Technological developments have also changed the processes of production. For instance, the miniaturization of digital cameras has made possible the confessional diaries and intimate portrayals that have exposed previously hidden aspects of everyday life (Dovey 2000). In turn, these generic innovations have produced a wider and more diverse audience for documentary, bringing them into the schedule as a commercially oriented ratings strategy. Technological developments have also driven the expansion of the commercial sex industry, with the Internet allowing for cheap and effective marketing and distribution of sexual services and products. Not only has this in itself become a topic for journalistic investigation, it has also changed the context within which television competes for its audience. The restrictions on erotic content on television that were enforceable in the past no longer seem as justified or, indeed, possible when it comes to the supranational footprints of satellite television.
The effects of technological and economic changes in the television industry are not inevitable but the result of the ways in which people respond to the potential they offer. It is a political process in which competing institutionalized interests are in play across the industry and government. Over the past twenty years in the UK, for example, this has produced a recurring debate over the relative claims of ‘public service’ versus ‘the market’ as able to deliver a ‘quality’ television system that provides for minority as well as majority tastes and interests. Among those minority but culturally powerful interests is a concern to preserve television as a democratic ‘public sphere’. In constructing the audience, therefore, in whose name the political wrangling over purposes is conducted, the two key rhetorical figures to emerge are the ‘citizen’ of a nation state and the ‘consumer’ in a global market. These are not static categories but are open to redefinition as, for instance, new claims for citizenship emerge or new markets are exploited for profit. Neither are they entirely separate, as increasingly citizenship has become redefined in consumerist terms, with governments merely providing the conditions within which private enterprise can deliver the services for which consumers pay.
The increasing fragmentation of the audience undermines established ways of understanding the political economy of television and its cultural significance. It has been argued that the ‘era of abundance’ in the digital age has changed television’s ideological role, reducing its power to delineate the centre and the margins, to influence the shared assumptions of a national culture. Instead it is suggested we should now think in terms of ‘diversity’ (Ellis 2000), and a questioning of the ‘myth of the centre’ that television claims for itself (Couldry 2003). The notion of individual consumer control has entered into the rhetoric of the ‘imagined audience’. ‘A more interactive, service demanding model is emerging for whom “content” must be tailored. Narrow – cast audiences are no longer “objects” of mass marketing but “subjects” of choice’ (Hartley 2002: 63). An advertising campaign at the end of 2003 for ‘Sky Plus’, a digital ‘personal video recorder’ linked to satellite television services, had the slogan ‘Create Your Own TV Channel’ as a way to sell its computer-based recording and playback system. Interactive, digital services allow multiple uses for the TV set, including the kind of information-seeking we previously associated with print or computer media. Internet websites also allow ‘communities’ of viewers to construct meanings and uses for programmes that extend as well as respond to the television text (Hills 2002).
One of my central questions, then, discussed more fully in the following chapter, ‘Sexual Citizenship in the Digital Age’, is what effect these shifting conceptualizations of the audience have had on how sexual citizenship and sexual consumerism have been redefined within these larger categories. What assumptions about sexual ‘identity’ underpin the address to citizens and consumers? How does this determine what can or cannot be shown, who is visible or invisible, what is considered normal or abnormal, legitimate or illegitimate, true or false, good or bad? Moreover, what kinds of sexual ‘interests’, in both senses of the term, are the citizen and the consumer assumed to have? In other words, what kinds of sexual information and education or pleasures does television now provide across the multiple genres and ‘platforms’ of the digital age?