While waiting for the full programme of Media Mutations 10 – The -“tainment” Effect, we are pleased to present the abstracts of the two keynote addresses.
The Tyranny of Tech Empires: Engineering Consumer Containment Inside Digital Ecosystems
Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media – UCLA
The tech platform giants—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon—have ushered in a new era of online entertainment that uses robust cloud computing capabilities to harness artificial intelligence (AI) and user experience (UX) design features in order to streamline and personalize the consumer experience inside totalizing digital ecosystems.
This talk examines the heady, tumultuous, and disruptive social, economic, and ideological culture industry wars that are unfolding in the second decade of the 21st century, 2010-2017, as the traditional Hollywood media manufacturing pipelines (the incumbents) and the Silicon Valley tech platforms (the challengers) battle for supremacy over online, digital distribution of a global entertainment industry.
By definition, the tech platforms prefer to leave the risk and expense of premium content manufacture to third party companies in order to focus on amassing buyers and sellers inside their two-way networks or virtuous cycles; however, once Netflix entered the original premium content programming derby in 2013, the tech giants were forced to follow suit. Despite this recent incursion into the perilous world of premium content manufacturing, the tech giants have maintained a laser-like focus on capturing and sustaining consumer attention using tech-driven forms of interactivity and immersion, such as live streaming, virtual reality and augmented reality. The contradiction inherent in the tech economy’s totalizing systems of control is that online media experiences are seen primarily as lures to keep users inside these digital ecosystems for extended periods of time to amass and sell consumer data. Savvy digital media production companies (e.g., Tastemade, Twitch) finance their productions by forging deals with legacy Hollywood media industries or consumer product industries, which see these content-promotional hybrids as their best hope for accessing cord-cutting millennials; however, the real beneficiaries of these connected viewing experiences are the tech giants, whose hidden forms of power are allowing them to infiltrate not just entertainment but a vast array of interconnected social institutions: journalism, government, law enforcement, health, and more, all in support of their vast commercial empires.
Reality Entertainers: the Hidden Work of Warm Up Acts for Reality Television
Reality entertainment is a phenomenon that is best understood not in isolation, but part of wider socio-cultural practices, including production, communicative modes, and audiences. Typical to reality entertainment is the live show, a spectacular with hosts, contestants and professional performers entertaining a large studio audience and live public who watch, talk about, vote and interact with the main screen and related social media. What is missing from this picture is the warm up acts; the entertainers who routinely perform before and during breaks in the televised show. Warm up acts are below the line workers in the new television economy (Mayer 2011); they offer a craft of live audience management that is hard won through years of creative and precarious labour practices (in theatre, cabaret, television, and leisure industries), and yet they are invisible in television production and academic research. Why are warm up acts given such low cultural value?
This research builds on production and audience studies, using a qualitative and cultural approach to explore the hidden work of warm up acts as performers in the co-creation of reality entertainment. The empirical research is used to think through the paradox of the high recognition of warm up acts by crowds at live events and at the same time their hidden work in the production industry and on screen. The data suggests a cruel optimism (Berlant 2011) at the heart of the reality entertainment world; this cruel optimism rotates between desire for recognition by warm up acts and audiences for their creativity and performance, in the form of an ambition for being professional performers or the stars of the show, and at the same time a recurring series of obstacles to that optimism, in the form of precarious labour practices, gender and class barriers in the creative industries, and the sheer luck needed to break through into celebrity stardom.
The affective structures of reality talent competitions are carefully managed to produce a sense of creative ambition, both in relation to warm up performers (who may hope to host their own show) and in relation to live audiences, including families and young children (who hope to make a difference to the outcome of the show through their interaction and voting, and in some cases desire to be future performers themselves). This marshalling of optimism for creative success, as a host, dancer or singer for example, and the channelling of desires for celebrity stardom, drives the market in emotions for reality talent formats. And yet recognition of creative value is fleeting at best; the actual value of the warm up performer and their relationships with live audiences is lost in industry obsession with ratings and social media buzz. But the warm up performer is someone who creates a meaningful connection with audiences and understands the value of cultural experience in entertainment television. The warm up act shines a light on the cruel optimism of recognition and stardom in the creative industries.