Social media interaction, and the dichotomy between public service and commercial broadcasters

Social networking services, or SNSs, are increasingly employed by commercial broadcasters in their fight to regain viewers (Moe, Poell, & Dijck, 2015, p. 104). By facilitating an active audience (through “audience discussion, interaction, fandom and other social activity” (Harrington, Highfield, & Bruns, 2013, p. 405)), SNSs have become excellent sources of market research data (Harrington et al., 2013, p. 406), and may even cause viewers to avoid time-shifting (when discussions occur during a program’s initial broadcast) and, therefore, have a greater level of exposure to advertisements (Harrington et al., 2013, p. 407).

For public broadcasters, however, the role of SNSs is more complex (Moe et al., 2015, p. 103). When Australia’s ABC developed a successful political panel show (Q&A) with strong social media engagement, were they simply building a “brand” that was “innovative [and] able to reach young users” (Moe et al., 2015, p. 103)? I suggest not. Instead, I argue that public broadcasters in democracies have always attempted to encourage societal participation, and that SNS integration is the next logical step.

Fuchs’ (2014) first definition of sociality emphasises that “human thought [can be] shaped by society” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 58); by observing that all media exposure involves “engagement with texts that reflect social contexts” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 58), we can conclude that mass media exert a societal influence even when the flow of information is unidirectional (eg. broadcast TV). Habermas’ “public sphere” theory (the titular concept is an arena in which members of society can freely engage in political debate (Fuchs, 2014, p. 60)) further reinforces these ideas – it considers media to be the main provider of public information, which is interpreted by social actors to “make meaning of the world” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 66). Public broadcasters have long been aware of this, with the BBC (since its official inception in 1927 (Tremblay, 2016, p. 193)) pursuing a famous Reithian objective to “inform, educate and entertain” British citizens (Tremblay, 2016, p. 194).

Now, due to SNSs, the role of public service media has moved closer to public sphere ideals. As well as carrying public information into private spaces (thus facilitating debate), media increasingly infuses private information into the public domain, and hosts debates itself (Fuchs, 2014, p. 71) – thus truly becoming “a service of the public, by the public and for the public” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 72). For example, breakfast shows “regularly ask people to provide their thoughts about daily news topics through Twitter” (Harrington et al., 2013, p. 407), and Q&A displays, on-air, the “most… incisive” tweets from its audience (Harrington et al., 2013, p. 407).

While SNSs are relatively new entrants in the media landscape, their adoption by both commercial and public broadcasters has been influenced by rather traditional motives. Viewers treated as “consumers” must be persuaded to buy the latest advertiser products, leading to a focus on audience metrics and time-shifting avoidance (Moe et al., 2015, p. 99). Alternatively, when viewers are seen as “citizens”, the media’s duty is to encourage them to “participate to a fair degree in public life” (Fuchs, 2014, p. 72), hence the use of SNSs to facilitate political debates.

Far from being derided as a mere marketing tool or novelty, SNS integration with broadcast programs should be examined in the context of the programming type to which it is applied.

References

Fuchs, C. (2014). Social Media and the Public Sphere. tripleC, 12(1), 57-101.

Harrington, S., Highfield, T., & Bruns, A. (2013). More than a backchannel: Twitter and television. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 10(1), 405-409.

Moe, H., Poell, T., & Dijck, J. v. (2015). Rearticulating Audience Engagement: Social Media and Television. Television & New Media, 17(2), 99-107. doi:10.1177/1527476415616194

Tremblay, G. (2016). Public service media in the age of digital networks. Canadian Journal of Communication, 41(1), 191-206. doi:10.22230/CJC2016V41N1A3062

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