I have a radical idea to put forward: each person that watches and experiences a TV show will read it in a completely different way. Essentially this is Stuart Hall’s main argument with his Reception Theory of communication: the encoding/decoding model. Sounds like a pretty obvious thought, really. How, then, can we have words that box these viewers into generic stereotypes, like ‘fans’? Williams is on to something when he suggests that there is no such thing as ‘masses’, only ways of seeing people as masses. (Williams, 1960).
We are all unwillingly thought of as ‘masses’, particularly by advertisers, scholars, broadcasters, producers and others who see us as ‘the audience commodity’. To them, what matters about a television show’s success, is not necessarily its particular reception, but how its rates. Jenkins points out that
‘ratings reflect only a narrowly chosen segment of the television audience – a “commodity audience” – which can be sold to national advertisers and networks, but which reflects neither mass taste nor the taste of an intellectual elite’ (Jenkins, 1992, pg. 29).
For example: the first episode of Dancing With the Stars (season 1 Million, or whatever we are up to) might have high ratings, but does that mean it is considered by “the public” to be a “good” show? Chances are, no. In fact, Myles McNutt points this out in a blog post:
Kate O’Hare, who writes for Zap2it, was discovered to be a fan of Dancing with the Stars: accordingly, one of the comments that made it onto her review before she shut down comments suggested that
“Once you said you watched trash like dancing with the stars, your opinion became worthless.”
Some shows, like this – and often it is reality TV shows – are really looked down upon. I don’t know how they survive. To quote my friend Gareth:
“People need to get over reality TV. It needs to go away.” (Fishwick, 2012)
Point is: ratings do not equal success. And they do not indicate taste whatsoever. Taste is where things change a little, and where people really just can’t get placed into a ‘fan’ box. What is the line between regular viewer and ‘fan’ anyway? Who decides what is fan-like activity? Particularly in today’s society, in which the Internet and television are such important parts of our lives. Doing a little more research on TV shows is normal, as is engaging in conversations through social media and becoming more ‘immersed’ in the following of the show. You don’t have to go out of your way to watch webisodes or read reviews, it is simple enough to just stumble across them. Surely happening to stumble across something on the Internet relating to a TV show is not fan-like behavior. Or perhaps it is true that being a fan is more mainstream now. Maybe we all join in the following of our favourite programs just because it is so easy to do so and because television is an integral part of how we live.
Back to the subject of taste. As Brian pointed out this morning, there is always a hesitation regarding our particular tastes. We are all a bit concerned about how our tastes will align with those of others. It is a personal thing, and I think this is what I was a bit wary of when I wrote my first post on this blog. I was just so self-conscious about the fact that I watch Dr. Who, Once Upon a Time and How I Met Your Mother. It really shouldn’t matter, and people obviously don’t care that my tastes are different to theirs! But still, there’s that worry that because our taste coincides with our identity, there will be some judgment from others.
Perhaps this is what reviewers struggle with when they start discussion on a new TV show. Game of Thrones, for example. I can imagine the mental tension that would have ensued, particularly for a female, having watched the show and then deciding how to write it up. How much can you trust your own taste? Do you go by your initial impressions alone? Or do you have to take into account the history of television, genre and gender? It is hard to say whether Gina Bellafante was expressing her own views on her review of Game of Thrones, or whether she just wanted to get a good reaction. Which she did.
Taste, as we can see from the hysterical responses to Bellafante’s review, is not dependent on gender or genre. On female blogger put it like this:
“the growing numbers of modern female fantasy fans might suggest that the genre is heading in the right direction… A cursory glance of the blogosphere shows there are many female fantasy fans.”
There are women who enjoy fantasy. There are men who are not so into it. There are some that may love fantasy but don’t like Game of Thrones! So on and so forth… Taste is not subject to preconceived presumptions about audiences, because we all read and experience texts differently. RIGHT STUART HALL????!!!
Yet somehow there is still a general overall assumption that taste can be collective. I think this is all related to how audiences are viewed as ‘masses’, and as a commodity in themselves. Raymond Williams points out:
“It is worth noting, finally, that the idea of taste cannot now be separated from the idea of the CONSUMER. The two ideas, in their modern form, have developed together, and responses to ART and LITERATURE have been profoundly affected… by the assumption that the viewer, spectator or reader is a consumer, exercising and subsequently showing his taste.’ (Williams, 1976, pg. 315)
Williams, R. 1976. Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gina Bellafante, ‘A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms’, The New York Times, 15 April 2011.
Williams, R. 1960. Culture and Society. Doubleday & Company Inc.
Jenkins, H. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Psychology Press.
Myles McNutt, Cultural Learning Blog
geekgirlDIVA, ‘To Ginia Bellafante REgarding Your “Review” of Game of Thrones’, geekgirlDIVA blog, 15 April 2011
‘Game of Thrones: Girls want to play, too’, The Guardian