Showcase #2: Narrative Complexity and the Active Audience

“While fan cultures have long demonstrated intense engagement in storyworlds, policing backstory consistency, character unity, and internal logic in programs like Star Trek and Dr. Who, contemporary programs focus this detailed dissection onto complex questions of plot and events in addition to storyworld and characters.” – Jason Mittell

Never before now have consumers of worldwide popular literature had almost as much agency over fictional content as the author of the story itself. The rise of ‘narratively complex’ television prompts “a new mode of viewer engagement” (Mittell, p. 38) where the consumer becomes a mechanism that interprets narrative material and, by extension, generates new content. Television series’ of this kind resemble, what Roland Barthes terms, the ‘text’: a device that encourages “play, activity, production [and] practice” (p. 162).

Consider the following diagram:

Stuart Hall’s ‘circuit of television’ expands upon active audience theory, where “the production of meaning does not ensure consumption of that meaning as the encoders might have intended” (Barker, p. 327). There are three distinct ways by which consumers of a television series can ‘reproduce’ meaning.

1) User-generated contentAccording to Henry Jenkins, viewers of television series’ become fans when “translating that viewing into some type of cultural activity, by sharing feelings and thoughts about the program content with friends, by joining a community of other fans who share common interests” (p. 473). Perhaps the most creative and public means of expressing such interest in a television program is through fan fiction which allows fans to write their own narrative set in the story world of the text. Writers of fan fiction can create alternative events to what occurs in the canon and/or explore hyperdiegeses referred to in the author text. These writings result in exhibitions of reproduced meanings, archived in popular fan fiction websites such as Seminal in the uprise of TV fan fiction was Star Trek, a series notable for its complex narrative reminiscent of the ‘quality TV’ format. Of all the programs to feature before it in televisual history, why did Star Trek generate the first instance of overwhelming fan fiction culture?
Camille Bacon-Smith (1986) recognises that over 90% of fan fic writers are female. Television history indicates that seriality and open-ended narrative, the kind associated with Star Trek, has been coupled with femininity (Morris, 2012).

“An influential generation of feminist television scholarship took the medium’s low cultural value as a provocative starting point, exploring the overt gendering of its pathologized, culturally subordinate viewers and its mediation of public and private spheres, and finding possibilities for redemptive or resistant readings in its carnivalesque, anarchic character” – Michael Kackman

If women developed groundbreaking academic discourse from watching the programs we now consider to be ‘quality TV’, we can entertain the idea that their fan fictionalising of such programs seeks to do just the same. Bacon-Smith’s findings suggest the seriality-feminine model encompasses several modes of televisual critical analysis, from the formal (the scholars) to the informal (the fans).

2) Consumer as “amatuer narratologist” (Mittell, p. 38)In the period following its finale or between its seasons, a narratively complex television show leaves time for the viewer to reflect on unresolved or ambiguous plot lines or story elements. “Any online fan forum” will indicate that these narrative mysteries manifest themselves in a myriad of opinions and theories concerning the resolution of said enigmas (ibid.). Lost is one of the most notoriously ambiguous television series’ to feature in the past decade, with most of the major story arcs within the show proving ambiguous every step of the way toward the series finale. Online fandom was rife with theories, plausibilities and implausibilities in trying to piece together the futures of the Lost characters and overall plot. In this reproduction of meaning, if certain storylines remain unresolved by a series’ conclusion, a consumer’s interpretation of that narrative has the opportunity to become popular belief. By “policing backstory consistency” (Mittell, p. 38), fans can also instigate change at the level of the show’s canon – something I’ll expand upon in my next point.

Though I haven’t seen it, it’s been hard to escape the public furore over the finale of The Sopranos. In what could be thought of as an eternal cliffhanger, the fate of protagonist Tony Soprano is left unknown after the final take smash cuts to black in a crucial moment  within the narrative. Relative to television, Umberto Eco’s notion of the open work is realised to its fullest capacity in such a moment. We can liken the finale of The Sopranos to Eco’s analysis of composers Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stochausen:

“In primitive terms we can say that they are quite literally “unfinished”: the author seems to hand them on to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit” (p. 4)

Where the ‘performer’ is the viewer and the ‘author’ David Chase and his writing team, the conclusion of HBO’s flagship gangster series exhibits an “Openness” (Eco, p. 104) that supports an iteration of Barthes’ concerning the “text [as] plural”. The show “accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible” (p. 159). Did Tony live or die? If so, how? Was there collateral? These questions and others stemming from the unexpected conclusion of the series all have answers though none are certain. The outcome of the scene is ultimately different for each individual – their agency over the text shared with the author, who has offered the clues and key narrative moments that will determine the meaning they produce.

One of the very final frames in a remarkably “open” series finale to the hugely popular ‘The Sopranos’.

3) Indirect influence on actual plot. The “amatuer narratologist” is a prerequisite to this one. Again, Lost beckons a collaborative experience between creator and ‘consumer’ (the distinction between this term and ‘contributor’ becoming quite muddy). The first means by which a viewer can indirectly affect the TV show plot is through feedback, where online forums act as polls for gauging what consumers want to see which, according to the findings of one enthusiastLost claims to do.
Television writers will hardly look to online forums for ideas that inform the bulk of a show’s content though. Yet it is the aforementioned fan opinions and theories that creators are at least aware of in resolving major plot lines, as Mittell demonstrates:

“… as in any mystery-driven fiction, viewers want to be surprised and thwarted as well as satisfied with the internal logic of the story. In processing such programs viewers find themselves both drawn into a compelling diegesis (as with all effective stories) and focused on the discursive processes of storytelling needed to achieve each show’s complexity and mystery.” (p. 38)

Essentially, the television series writer must be aware of online musings that have manifested themselves as collective agreements on how a loose end is likely resolved. The writer must then choose which audience expectations are fulfilled and which are betrayed, weighing the public’s satisfaction against it all.

The final hypothesis Roland Barthes arrives at in relation to the ‘text’ concerns “that of pleasure” arising from the ability to rework it (p. 163). Certainly, the perception that ‘quality TV’ usually offers a more enjoyable experience to other formats of television would incite argument from many, if not all viewers of television, to some degree. Mittell states:

“Complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed—personally, I much prefer watching high-quality conventional programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Everybody Loves Raymond to the narratively complex but conceptually muddled and logically maddening 24.” (p. 30)

In terms of entertainment value, I too agree that quality TV and traditionally low-brow series’ can offer as much to an audience as the other at the consumption level alone. The structures, techniques and stylistic elements of ‘quality TV’ programs promote participatory cultures where simply consuming the text only taps into a small section of value on offer. The ability to interact with television at a deep level of creativity and collaboration with the author is something that ‘quality TV’ affords that other formats do not.

– Bacon-Smith, C: ‘Spock among the women’ in The New York Times Book Review, 1986. Pp 26-28
– Barker, C: ‘Active Audiences’ in Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2003. Pp 325-329
– Barthes, R: ‘From Work to Text’ in Image Music Text ed. Heath, S. London: Fontana Press, 1977. Pp 155-164
– Eco, U: ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’ in The Open Work. USA: Harvard College, 1989. Pp 4-5, 104.
– Jenkins, Henry. ‘Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.’ Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York UP: New York & London, 2006. Pp 37-60
– Mittell, J: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at
– Morris, B: ‘Reinventing Genre: Big Love’, Lecture/Class, RMIT University, unpublished. 2012.

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