When asked to conjure up a traditional perception of television viewers, one might immediately think of the “couch potato”. Wilson (2016) notes that consumers of the medium are often seen “as lounging on their couches, passively soaking up low brow, undemanding entertainment” (Wilson, 2016) – a sentiment echoed throughout the medium’s lifetime. As early as 1961, Minow claimed that “when television is bad, nothing is worse” (Minow, 1961), and that its programming was mainly a “vast wasteland” of game shows, violence and, worst of all, commercials – “many screaming, cajoling, and offending” (Minow, 1961).
In contrast, consumers of Internet-based “new media” are usually viewed as an active, engaged audience (Agirre, Arrizabalaga, & Espilla, 2016, p. 134). Their experience is “increasingly multidimensional and interactive” (Agirre et al., 2016, p. 134), and based on participation rather than consumption – as evidenced by the fact that “user”, not “viewer”, is the noun most commonly used to describe them (Agirre et al., 2016).
But do the differences between these two mediums boil down to an active / passive dichotomy? From anecdotal evidence, I have noticed that certain programs (such as documentaries) can stimulate thought-provoking discussion amongst co-located viewers; and that online areas for participatory discussion and debate (eg. forums), which often contain material of little relevance, can be read to pass the time. Bird (2011) confirms that the difference is not clear-cut – she argues that “much online activity is simply inconsequential banter” (Bird, 2011, p. 505) (often written, we may assume, by trolls who are neither active nor engaged), and that “we should not lose sight of the more mundane, internalized, even passive articulation with media” (Bird, 2011, p. 504) (as espoused by TV show fans who vehemently discuss their favourite programs, but never post, tweet or create memes about them (Bird, 2011, p. 504)).
In fact, some of the most common mechanisms for facilitating audience engagement with ‘passive’ media (be it TV, radio or print) have existed for decades. Talkback radio recently celebrated 50 years of legality in Australia (Arneil & Butler, 2017) (allowing people to talk about everything from “music” and “missiles” to “books, boots [and] Beatles” on air (Arneil & Butler, 2017)), and letters to the editor have probably existed for as long as newspapers themselves.
Uses and gratifications theory further confirms the similarities of both mediums. It splits media usage into two orientations – “instrumental” (which is a targeted and “goal-oriented” use of media to obtain information (Cooper & Tang, 2009, p. 404)) and “ritualistic” (using media to alleviate boredom (Cooper & Tang, 2009, p. 404)). It’s quite clear that television viewers may have instrumental orientations (watching the 6pm news to see the latest headlines), and that many internet users are ritualistic (spending hours aimlessly scrolling through Facebook). However, as “internet use is typically conceptualized (sic) as more goal-directed and mindful” (Cooper & Tang, 2009, p. 407), ritualistic behaviours amongst web users may be less widely acknowledged.
Is TV ‘passive’ and the internet ‘active’? The answer, as with many other aspects of digital culture, is highly subjective. I am inclined to agree with Bird (2011), who claims that we are not all produsers and that “action spurred by media takes many forms other than the creation of more media” (Bird, 2011, p. 512). “Offline mediated practices” (Bird, 2011, p. 509) will undoubtedly remain important into the future, and the venerable water cooler conversation is not dead yet.
Note: Page numbers are not cited for Wilson, as the class reading version (from UWE) appears to have a different layout to the published version (in Television & New Media), and I couldn’t find full text for the latter.
Agirre, I. A., Arrizabalaga, A. P., & Espilla, A. Z. (2016). Active audience?: interaction of young people with television and online video content. Communication & Society, 29(3), 133-147. doi:10.15581/003.29.3.133-147
Arneil, C., & Butler, R. (2017, 12th April). 50 Years of Talkback Radio. NFSA. Retrieved 26th May 2017, from https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/50-years-talkback-radio-australia
Bird, S. E. (2011). Are we all produsers now? Convergence and media audience practices. Cultural Studies, 25(4-5), 502-516. doi:10.1080/09502386.2011.600532
Cooper, R., & Tang, T. (2009). Predicting Audience Exposure to Television in Today’s Media Environment: An Empirical Integration of Active-Audience and Structural Theories. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 53(3), 400-418. doi:10.1080/08838150903102204
Minow, N. N. (1961). Television and the Public Interest. American Rhetoric. Retrieved 26th May 2017, from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/newtonminow.htm
Wilson, S. (2016). In the living room: Second screens and TV audiences. Television & New Media, 17(2), 174-191. doi:10.1177/1527476415593348