I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

Cultural buzz or helpless consumption?

2014-12-14 by Nick S., tagged as digital media

The Conversation this week provided some commentary from Nicolas Suzor and Eleanor Angel on the Australian Government's recent instruction to Internet service providers and copyright owners to come to an agreement on policing file-sharing. At the end of the article is the crux of Australians' recent complaints about unfair and extortionate pricing of access to blockbuster television programmes: "exclusively restrict[ing] access to premium channels — such as Foxtel — are more profitable than making the same content available faster to more people at a lower price". This being so, why would anyone expect copyright owners to do anything else?

Suzor and another colleague, Paula Dootson, discuss the issue at greater length in an academic article linked to the statement above. They paraphrase the director of Game of Thrones as saying that "these series depend on 'cultural buzz' — the discussion generated and fed by viewers". What's more, "the entertainment industries have become adept at encouraging this 'cultural buzz' in order to drive up demand for their premium offerings." Fans of Game of Thrones and other series value being a part of this buzz, and feel cheated when if they can't participate because the companies behind the series delay its release into the region in which the fans live.

An alternative reading of cultural buzz is that, for all the talk of user participation and empowerment over the past 10-15 years, television viewers remain helpless consumers of the entertainment industry, unable to choose whether or not to watch a television programme, or at what time to watch it. (Of course such consumers complain that they want to watch it at the time of first release, but who chose that time?)

Over at the ABC, Mark Pesce presents himself as one such helpless consumer. Pesce complains that film studios put a lot of effort into generating interest in their films, only to cruelly ask viewers to pay for them when they're released and to castigate those who take it without paying. It isn't clear why he thinks they should behave any other way — what business would want no interest in its products, and no one to pay for them? — and perhaps pro-copyright folks can take some heart from the number of commenters who lined up to call out Pesce's rant as unconstructive, illogical and immature.

Against the "helpless consumer" interpretation, though, one could contend that participation in any cultural buzz, even one pushed by entertainment companies, is nonetheless participation. What's more, participation requires access to the material at the centre of the buzz at the same time as everyone else. In this interpretation, television viewers are instead "time-critical participants".

Against the "time-critical participant" interpretation, one could point out that hardly any of us alive today participated in any cultural buzz surrounding the release of Hamlet, 1984 or The Lord of the Rings, yet many of us nonetheless continue to enjoy, discuss, and be inspired by these things. The first release of an artwork can only ever be ephemeral, and a work's real worth evolves over a much longer period of time than the one at the focus of debates over restricted releases. In ten (or even one) year's time, will anyone care whether they saw Game of Thrones yesterday, today, tomorrow or, indeed, at all?