Interview with Mark Stewart, Part 2: Beyond the Valley of the Clueless

Earlier this year, I interviewed the academic and researcher Mark Stewart about the changing nature of television in the digital age. Our discussion, presented in two parts, explores the geography of televisual culture: who gets access to what TV and when? Whose content is privileged and whose is excluded? What happens when you can’t get the shows you’re looking for, because you find yourself in the “wrong” part of the world or wanting the “wrong” content?

Mark also talked about his personal journey to becoming a television studies researcher and how he found himself reading his way into a culture of shows and movies which had not featured in his New Zealand childhood. You can read the first part of our interview here.

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I want to return to this question of networks, and awareness of what is out there, from online Buffy fandom, to the streaming services’ cornucopia, to the grey market trading in unlicensed material. How do you map the television landscape? 

Mainstream content providers are locked into a framework which is colonial. It consists of a set of privileged spaces which generate and export content for the rest of the world – both as a capitalist endeavour but also to establish certain values and norms.

In the age of subscription streaming, you enrol into the system, you accept that you’re its subject; you play by capitalist rules as you subscribe, you accept that they’ll tell you: “This is what comedy looks like, this is what drama looks like, this is what sexy looks like…”?

Part of the intent is to share a set of cultural values and assumptions that make the environment more hospitable to the content provider. One of those assumptions is that there is a homogenous nation of television watchers. Yet in every corner of the world, we’re way beyond that kind of homogeneity; we understand that the nation is an imposition. Its boundaries are permeable, it’s filled with diverse and ill-fitting and resistant elements.  

In some televisual contexts that might be less significant than others; for example, there’s interesting work on the viewing habits of the Turkish diaspora in the UK. To access Turkish television, all people needed was a big enough satellite dish pointed in the right direction; there were ways of accessing the same content as in Turkey. Similarly, on the US/Canadian border, people in, say, northern Michigan could pick up Canadian channels terrestrially.

I’m reminded of the “Tal der Ahnungslosen” in the old East Germany – the “Valley of the Clueless” which marked the only parts of the country which couldn’t receive West German television programming. 

It’s really interesting in this age of fake news to consider how East Germany worked to spin West German media that was coming into their territory, including rebroadcasting Western clips with added critique & commentary on their own show, der schwarze Kanal.

There’s always been this bleeding across borders, and ways in which people have pushed back against the constraints that were imposed – but in New Zealand, you’re not going to pick up a stray terrestrial feed! Occasionally you see someone with a twelve-foot satellite dish in their back yard, picking up Pacific television, members of a Fijian or Samoan or Tongan diaspora, but there wasn’t this same leakage across the borders – until the Internet arrives.

Now digitalisation means that if you are part of a diaspora, if you are looking for content that reflects another identity outside of what is thought to be the mainstream, it is much easier to access.

Some countries with the broadest diasporas have the most readily accessible grey markets for television. The Philippines, for example, has a very large diaspora around the world, but also a fairly heterogeneous population – many people of very different cultural and ethnic heritages. Because of those factors, access to content through grey channels, both in the Philippines and beyond, is easier and more prevalent. People want access to familiar content from their culture.

The content producers serving these communities have less budget for chasing down the grey market than the North American industry does, but they also have less to lose from the grey market. You’re not making a tonne of money from selling content around the world; once you’ve sold it to that community where you are going to make some money, in some ways it’s no skin off your nose if material then gets circulated more widely.

I would say there is still very much a set of imperialist drivers to how we access content. That might be based on what the BBC chooses to air, versus what they put on iPlayer; what Netflix chooses to really push and promote, and what they choose to hold back, what they choose to present in search results, or what the algorithm recommends. Even what gets dubbed, what gets subtitled; how the material is presented in search results; all of these elements have ideological underpinnings. 

Safiya Noble’s work on “algorithms of oppression” is worth looking into in this regard: ideas of the algorithm as somehow pure and unbiased are nonsense, as algorithms are based on datasets and codes which are shaped, structured, and coloured by human assumptions. Ideology is baked into the business of content search, discovery, and availability.

When we talk about televisual ubiquity, the question is: available to whom? Up until recently, one of the major streaming services in New Zealand didn’t offer subtitles, on the claim that it was too technologically difficult: the service was ad-supported and dropped ads into the gaps in programmes, and the service claimed it was too hard to sync subtitles to the content with those ads dropping in. So they’re telling you about their values and priorities by their choices, and the things they claim are in the “too hard basket”. 

Do illicit providers sometimes serve as gap-fillers, meeting needs that go unmet or underserved by the legitimate distribution channels?

Licit and illicit access to content are both provided via networks. In those illicit networks, there’s a tiered structure: a small number of people with a great deal of expertise do the labour to make things available. Some of them are doing this for financial gain, but that’s pretty rare for most kinds of content. 

It’s more likely to be something like a subreddit where people are posting the latest material from, say, British television: one for panel shows, one for non-panel shows  — that’s one of the odd divisions these networks use to categorise content! Some of these spaces are in Reddit or BitTorrent; some of them are in places you could never find unless you were explicitly invited to them.

People go there to catch up on the latest shows, to ask after things that they missed, or early seasons, and then others will upload the material to a link which time-expires. People are spending serious amounts of money to maintain hardware, have good internet connections, and so on. Interestingly, while these communities will often be focussed on a particular language or region – Australia/New Zealand content, UK content, French content – the people who make up that online community will be from all over. This speaks again to the question of televisual ubiquity and challenges the notions of an undifferentiated “world of television”.

The next tier consists of people who might not be able to get the content in the first instance from the provider, but will have downloaded it and will be willing to share it with someone else, or point others to somewhere they might find what they’re looking for. And there’s a third tier of people who just dip in for one specific request: do you have this episode of a show my Granny was on, do you have episode 12 of this quiz show because I was on it and it’s no longer streaming on iPlayer, and so on.

The size of these networks matter, too; if you’ve just got 300 people exchanging content quietly, is that worth the BBC’s time to chase them down? They might as well spend that time taking things off YouTube, where they’re open to a much wider audience, rather than figure out these intricate networks. 

The ethic of television piracy, how people feel about accessing television in licit and illicit ways, is fascinating to me. Do people feel differently about piracy of music, movies, television of different kinds? Do they feel guilty about watching something illicitly posted on YouTube, which is not perceived as a “dodgy” space? And what about the work ethic of the people who are capturing thirty hours or more of British television each day, uploading it, archiving it, managing those networks?

What I’m hearing is that television has its own geography, and that this territory perhaps sits within a wider world of digitalisation. You can’t even quite say it’s intangible, as it is so dependent on information technologies, but it could feel like a ghost world superimposed on our own, with borders and barriers which may be invisible and don’t always map perfectly onto the political or physical geography of the “real” world.

I’m reminded of the “equality vs equity” image that periodically does the rounds on social media in different contexts. Given all you’ve said, do you have a sense of what televisual equity would look like in this globalised, digitalised world?

I’m not sure, in the world as it stands, that equity can be achieved. We have a hundred years of the US as a preeminent exporter of content. Its popular culture structures what we watch, what we listen to, what we read. This affects even literature – you’ll see stickers on novels telling you they were New York Times bestsellers, and that’s a mark of prestige.

The fact that Bollywood, Nollywood, and the Chinese industry all produce so much, and yet barely impact on cultural spaces by comparison to the US, points to the hegemonic power which the Anglophone world continues to wield.

On an individual, national level, we can strive for televisual equity: consider Canada’s quota system, which requires Canadian talent to be employed on content production. However, even that will be gamed: you get these shows where the lead is an American, because that will help the show sell in the US, but everyone below the line is Canadian. I’ve yet to see a solution that I think really gets over this notion that local productions are in some way inferior or supplementary to the shared US-dominant culture. 

For all that we talk about how fragmented our culture is, and how no-one is watching and sharing the same content any more, we’re all in our bubbles – within the Anglophone world at least, we’re really all just engaging with the same set of content, even if we’re picking different items from what’s offered by Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and their kin.

I don’t think Netflix cares how much you watch in a given month. They pay overalls for the content, which means they don’t have to pay for every single time something is watched. It doesn’t matter to them what people watch, or how much, as long as people are watching enough, and the subscription fee is low enough, that they don’t cancel – what’s called “hitting the churn point”.

That means the dance is about always promising content that’s coming. Whether or not you find the thing you actually want to watch, as long as you’re happy that the subscription isn’t too much and you feel that there’s something that appeals to you on the horizon, you keep going.

Rival providers complicate the issue, as viewers start looking at all these various subscriptions they have mounting up, and ask themselves: Do I really need all of these?

You can see services employing clever strategies to avoid people churning, to avoid what used to happen with HBO where people would get the service for the 12 weeks that The Sopranos was on, then cancel until the next season of that show arrived. 

Disney+ and their like will make it easy for you to rejoin if you do choose to cancel, because they don’t want to impede people being members – but they’ll focus on making sure there is always something coming next month which you are enticed by, which will keep you signed up – whether it’s a new Star Wars thing, or a new Marvel thing, a new release of a Disney movie, or even dropping five classic seasons of The Muppet Show because February is a quiet month and they don’t want to lose subscribers between now and May, when the next round of Star Wars or Marvel or whatever comes out.

Disney+, as far as I’m aware, are one of the few providers that have the exact same offering globally, because they’re not licensing anything. That’s the point I suspect Netflix wants to get to, where they’re only drawing on content that they own and which doesn’t cost them anything to have there – maybe just spiced up with one or two big licensed movies now and then.

If you’ve got Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes and others on deals to make things for you, aren’t you generating something that Disney already has because of history: filling your archives so that you’ll have those five seasons to pull out of your back pocket in time to come?

Disney knows this game very well, because they’ve always played with scarcity – releasing and withholding their animated films on a very tightly controlled schedule when it came to home purchase. A film would be in the vault for five years, and for those years it wouldn’t be available in any format. When that time had elapsed, there could be a new Blu-Ray, a new DVD, a special edition, with all the fanfare, generating demand — while in the meantime, another item was being put back in the vault. 

This has basically been their game since the 50s and 60s, including making films available for television. You might go ten years without being able to see Snow White on television, the scarcity would build up, and then you could do a cinematic re-release, or license it to a broadcaster for a big fee.

This isn’t a new game, figuring out how to make the absolute most out of your content; and the winning move is not to take all the content you have and throw it at your audience. It’s about creating scarcity. 

I think we’ll see Marvel’s phase one movies starting to disappear, to become unavailable, to be scarce and be missed. And then they’ll be released again, as nostalgia pieces – a big event, revisiting Marvel Phase One week-by-week in the build up to some new future mega-release.

Nostalgia pieces need never end now, with the possibility of digitally resurrecting actors. Donald Glover’s interview with The New Yorker in 2018 addressed this discomforting decision to have to sign over your digitised likeness so that it could be used in future ventures.

With Star Wars, George Lucas also understood this kind of scarcity: restricting which editions were available on DVD, VHS, or laserdisc, and for how long. It maximises what the industry can get out of their product, and this is done very cannily. 

There’s also little motivation to release everything from the classic archives: many of these movies won’t have had streaming rights negotiated, so there would be legal work to be done. Aside from that, they’ve discovered that for the exact same price as you’d pay for access to their 100 best films, you’ll be equally happy to pay for just their ten best films, and another fifty which have cost them next-to-nothing to put up there. The economic model for the future of television is not fixed yet, and you’ll see a lot of providers trying a lot of different things, but I suspect that scarcity will remain at the heart of it – scarcity that has been crafted to feel like abundance.

For all the talk of televisual ubiquity, the vaults are filling up, but the doors to the vaults are not being thrown open.

So what gives you hope?

That people find they are now less bound by the old structures which confined television.

Pop music had its restrictions too, the emphasis on the three-minute radio-friendly pop song and so on, but it never stopped people from also trying eighty-minute concept albums; it didn’t stop “Bohemian Rhapsody” from becoming a hit. In cinemas, there was space for Lawrence of Arabia alongside your ninety-minute standard Hollywood fare.

Television was always more constrained, right down to the episode lengths and structures which accommodated ad breaks and so on.

I see new content now which is still unmistakably television, in terms of its episodic format, the content and tropes that it draws on, but which is now unconstrained and untrammelled in comparison to the television of the past. Episodes can run to the length that suits the story they are trying to tell, and can vary. Seasons don’t need to run to fixed numbers of episodes, there is leeway now. 

Creators are learning how to use that as a strength, not to be indulgent but to know how to write an episode that can be a tight twenty-five minutes, but run longer when it suits. They’re telling stories just as television always has, but within a more flexible format and structure which allows for give and take.

The creators being given that licence now are Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, people who already have power and clout and cultural cred, but it’s only the beginning. This is still unmistakably television, but liberated from the industrial realities of the past. And that means that, just sometimes, we are starting to see new types of stories be told, new voices be heard, that wouldn’t have appeared in the television of the past – because the stories they sought to tell wouldn’t have fitted into the old, constrained television industry.

Even if the vault doors of the past aren’t being flung open, that new way of making television does open up opportunities which I find exciting.

Find more from Mark Stewart on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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