Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet.

By Sharon Marie Ross.

Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-1405161237, $84.95; paper: ISBN 978-1405161244, $26.95. 280 pages.

Review by Novotny Lawrence, Southern Illinois University

In Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet, Sharon Marie Ross examines tele-participation, an emergent trend in which viewers are utilizing the Internet to become more actively engaged with television programs. Significantly, Ross goes beyond an exploration centrally focused on merely watching a program and includes discussions of fandom, save the show campaigns, and how network executives are now taking the tele-participating audience into consideration when developing new content. The introduction of the book effectively outlines the methodology utilized throughout the study explaining the styles of “invitations” or calls that encourage tele-participation: 1) overt, or situations in which writers’ and producers’ intent to activate viewer participation is easily discernable within the text of the series; 2) organic, a completely natural style designed carefully to appear as if the show (or in some cases the network) is not asking the viewer overtly to extend the text; and 3) obscured, which suggests that any invitation to participate resides primarily in the narrative structure and content [sic] of the show itself through a certain “messiness” that demands viewer unraveling (8-9). Used in conjunction with scholarly discourse and data collected from bloggers and industry executives, Ross examines the ways in which the “invitations” operate in popular TV programs throughout the book which is organized into four primary chapters: “Fascinated with Fandom: Cautiously Aware Viewers of Xena and Buffy,” “Power to the People, or the Industry: American Idol Voting, Adult Swim Bumping, and Viral Videoing,” “Managing Millennials: Teen Expectations of Tele-Participation,” and “No Network Is an Island: Lost’s Tele-Participation and ABC’s Return to Industry Legitimacy.”

In “Fascinated with Fandom,” Ross explores “the relationship between notions of taste and quality in terms of fandom/cult fandom” (36) and “the role that the Internet played in the enjoyment of Xena and Buffy” (36). Ross makes valid assertions in this chapter, contending that Xena contains organic invitations, featuring several episodes that offered storylines that focused on the existence of Xena fans (39). She provides solid examples to validate this claim discussing two episodes in particular, “You are There” and “Send in the Clones,” both of which allude to fans’ curiosity regarding the true nature of the relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. In contrast, the discussion of Buffy is not quite as effective. While Ross establishes the fact that the producers of the series often visited fansites to “listen in” on discussions of the show, “The Wish” and “Dopplegangland,” two episodes from Buffy’s third season, used as examples to illustrate their reaction to the chatter are thin. Both episodes center on a character named Willow who becomes a “sort of gay vampire” which Ross explains that online fans who had been engaged in fiction writing centering on similar themes, saw the storyline as a direct response to their narratives. Unfortunately, the argument is speculative, making it difficult to fully engage in the material offered in the remainder of the chapter.

Although chapter 1 is a bit problematic, chapter 2, “Power to the People, or the Industry,” more than makes up for its shortcomings. This chapter “explores more specifically, television viewer’s experiences with and thoughts about tele-participation, focusing on . . . overt invitations” (71). Ross blends the discussions of Idol, “Swim” programming, and viral videoing together, examining issues of authenticity, community, and the complexities that can potentially arise for networks when extending overt invitations. For instance, the discussion of viewer in-fighting about “true” fandom and websites such as which seemed to interrupt the invitation extended to audiences by America Idol are critical to understanding the drawbacks of tele-participation.

As the Box evolves, it becomes increasingly apparent that an additional strength of the text is Ross’s examination of peripheral questions intersecting with socioeconomic and cultural issues which include but are not limited to, race, class, and gender. This is most obvious in chapter 3, which is perhaps the strongest in the text. Here Ross’s primary focus is on two teen-oriented shows— FOX‘s The O.C. and the Canadian produced series Degrassi: The Next Generation. The author effectively correlates the “Millennials” upbringing in a more technologically advanced environment with media producers, who in order to make programming that relates to them, must create TV products that can cross-platform or “thrive in different media forms, most crucially television and via the Internet, the cell phone, and the iPod/MP3 player” (127). Ross thoroughly explains that The O.C., and Degrassi depict characters frequently utilizing new media technology and that producers of both series created sites where fans could discuss the shows. Although significant, the strength of this chapter lies in the questions that Ross raises in regard to The O.C. and Degrassi’s depictions of pressing social concerns such as school shootings and underage drinking, as well as the representation, or lack thereof, of race and class in U.S. programming versus Canadian TV. Significantly, Ross challenges U.S. television by juxtaposing the lily-white cast of The O.C. (which mirrors the majority of America TV) with Degrassi’s multicultural cast. Thus, the text also addresses a pressing concern that U.S. television has struggled with since its emergence as a form of popular entertainment.

Beyond the Box is a significant contribution to the existing and growing discourse on new media which continues to profoundly affect the media landscape. Ross’s research is thorough, and the inclusion of blogger responses adds tremendous insight into the fact that viewers are tele-participating as well as the ownership that they take over their programming. Of equal importance is the fact that Ross blends a number of other elements into the examination and concludes by detailing some of the implications that tele-participation may have on the TV industry. While the conclusion goes on a little too long and relies too heavily on feedback from industry executives, it presents an array of potential directions for future research on the topic. Indeed Box demonstrates that the industry has taken a dramatic shift from traditional broadcast TV and includes pertinent information for fans, industry executives, and scholars alike.

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