Book review

Television and new media: Must-click TV, by Jennifer Gillan

Lindsay Giggey

University of California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Branding; Contemporary television history; Media convergence; Network television; Television industry; Transmedia

Giggey, Lindsay. 2012. Television and New Media: Must-Click TV, by Jennifer Gillan [book review]. In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9.

Jennifer Gillan. Television and new media: Must-click TV. New York: Routledge, 2010. Paperback, $35.95 (328p) ISBN 978-0415802383.

[1] In the past two decades, the proliferation of the Internet has had far-reaching implications for entertainment consumption and production behaviors. Transmedia now provides strategic sites for simultaneous interactions between media entertainment and commerce across multiple platforms, which have effectively destabilized traditional relations between producers and consumers. In Television and New Media: Must-Click TV, Jennifer Gillan takes on the changing television landscape as she engages with broadcast networks' attempts to redefine themselves in relation to evolving viewer expectations in the digital era. Gillan traces the evolution of fan interest in extended engagement with television narratives and the subsequent rise of corporate authorship in creating, validating, and legitimizing multiplatform content. In an era of narrowcasting, diminishing audiences and threats to the traditional ad-supported economic model, Gillan shows how broadcasters have responded by trying to better consolidate, connect with, and co-opt fan practices, chiefly through increased branding efforts.

[2] Gillan uses NBC's successful "must-see TV" programming slogan as emblematic of traditional network scheduling practices, and she subsequently coins the term "must-click TV" to describe the current television landscape. In the must-click TV paradigm, Gillan argues that "series utilize standard notions of televisual flow between [their] broadcast network's programs and across [their] scheduling grid and capitaliz[e] on emergent modes of overflow" (1). Applying this model to US broadcast networks in an age where TV is no longer limited to television, Gillan illustrates how industrial shifts have caused broadcasters to redefine televisual flow as circuitous in order to better engage with new media technologies and viewser (that is, viewer/user) behaviors. Since viewser entry points are more numerous than ever, content producers have attempted to drive increasingly diminished audiences between media platforms as a means of feeding sponsors, the network, and parent media conglomerates. Broadcast networks are also increasingly using these different platforms to establish and reinforce ties between their content and branded identities.

[3] In each of her four chapters, Gillan presents an in-depth case study of a different broadcast network and shows the evolving relationship between television programming, network branding, and multiplatform extensions. Gillan chronicles the way in which broadcast network programming has transformed over the last 20 years "into platforms for the promotion of other media…and then into a multiplatform series of networked texts" (2). Largely via textual and industrial analysis (with textual analysis in service of her larger industrial argument), Gillan historicizes how unsanctioned fan activity has increasingly been integrated and co-opted by corporations into official multiplatform content licensed by producers. Throughout, Gillan augments her chronology by historicizing timely concepts, including platforming, networking, tracking, time shifting, place shifting, and microsegmenting alongside her historical network and program analysis to engage in an exploration of larger cultural shifts in media consumption and network branding.

[4] Gillan's first chapter, "Fan Tracking, Targeting, and Interaction from the Web to the WB" presents a "prehistory of multiplatform TV" (18). Gillan traces how online content surrounding television programming increasingly moved from bottom-up fan creation and curation toward top-down controlled corporate production. In her analysis of early fan Web sites surrounding The X Files (1993–2002), Gillan illustrates how fans created the templates for promoting and engaging with televised material, which was eventually mainstreamed by the networks in their official Web sites. Gillan also shows how broadcasters realized the value of their content as a means of connecting with select audiences through examining early corporate web extensions surrounding NBC's Homicide: Life on the Streets (1993–99) and The WB's Dawson's Creek (1998–2003) and Smallville (2001–11). Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gillan argues that the WB and the CW, in particular, recognized new media as an opportunity rather than as a threat and they pioneered the practice of platforming their material, designing it for networked viewser engagement on air and online. These networks not only increased the number of ways audiences could interact with content, but also provided a "promotional platform for lifestyle brands" that simultaneously delivered audiences to sponsors and served to brand the network itself (18).

[5] In her second chapter, "Timeshifting, Circumvention, and Flow on FOX," Gillan explores ways in which network branding has taken place within a program's diegesis. Specifically examining 24 (2001–10) as representative of shifts toward nontraditional television viewing, Gillan considers Fox's response to the proliferation of television viewing on DVDs and DVRs. Both technologies empower viewers to decide when and how to watch episodes, circumventing broadcasters' carefully constructed on-air flow. In combating commercial fast-forwarding on DVRs, Gillan argues that Fox redesigned its on-air flow to blur distinctions between narrative and commercial content, reasserting broadcaster dominance by forcing viewers to pay attention during commercial breaks.

[6] Gillan brilliantly analyzes the way in which Fox innovated DVD featurettes to achieve what she defines as "network identity integration." The DVDs themselves are branded products engaging interested audiences with the program, and Gillan shows how News Corp. infused its politics and aesthetics into 24 as a way of branding each as part of the other. Within her analysis of one DVD featurette dedicated to redesigning the central Counter-Terrorism Unit's (CTU) set, Gillan traces how 24 integrated aesthetic aspects of other Fox properties into its own aesthetic. The original CTU set was modeled after the set of Fox Sports, whereas the redesigned CTU incorporated the red, white, and blue color palette used by Fox News and its local news affiliates. In this way, Gillan points to the way in which the CTU set served as "a site of storytelling as well as promotion" (94). Such connections were heightened when actual Fox News broadcasts were featured on CTU monitors and commented on within the diegesis.

[7] Gillan further connects 24 with other Fox properties by positioning Justin Lewis's idea of associational logic as the central method of argumentation for character actions within 24 and in Fox News's "fair and balanced" claim. Rather than presenting a rhetorical argument, associational logic arguments present carefully juxtaposed claims to an audience, forcing them to make connections from what they see. This concept unifies information presented as part of another DVD featurette about the threat of bioterrorism, where the comments of the show's head researcher, an epidemiologist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and creator Joel Surnow are juxtaposed with shots of the same ravaged body. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Surnow suggests (though does not explicitly state) that bioterrorism is a legitimate threat to America rather than a compelling plotline for hero Jack Bauer to overcome. Gillan applies this line of reasoning to reinforce cultural and political associations between the show, its creators, the network, and Bush administration policies. This particular claim lacks the analytical punch of Gillan's textual analysis connecting 24, Fox News, and Fox Sports. It does suggest, however, that 24 and Fox's branded identities were established enough with one another to serve as cultural shorthand to engage in larger political discussions.

[8] Gillan moves on to explore network anxieties surrounding place shifting—that is, viewers' ability to move programming from their televisions to their hard drives or mobile devices—and the impact of new media behaviors on programming and scheduling decisions. Throughout her third chapter, Gillan posits Lost (2004–10) as emblematic of how programs designed for new media viewsers are not ideally suited for traditional linear scheduling and lead-in logic because shows like these are too complex to attract or keep casual viewers. However, Lost is an example of a successful transmedia narrative, which created a canonical space for dedicated multiplatform engagement that previously existed largely within smaller, fragmented fan communities. Lost emerged as the signature piece in the revival of broadcast fictional series in direct response to the rise of original quality cable programming as well as reality programming like Survivor clogging broadcast airwaves. Moreover, as broadband Internet access became widespread, more fans could engage with the overflow generated by Lost's large cast and complicated overarching mystery. Gillan argues that Web interactivity is inscribed into Lost's televisual aesthetics in ways that mimic Internet interfaces as well as audience abilities to reconstruct strands of narrative elements, themes, and clues as one would manipulate a database.

[9] Unlike most other Lost scholarship, Gillan puts Lost in conversation with its predecessor, Alias (2001-2006), and shows how Alias's narrative, scheduling, and multiplatform failures informed Lost's successes. Both shows directed audience traffic outward from the television program to engage with the sponsored Internet content through alternate reality games. These games effectively tracked levels of fan engagement and demonstrated how overflow could be a highly commercialized space. Both shows also featured complicated narratives that created challenges for long-term viewer engagement, especially within traditional scheduling practices. ABC responded with alternative scheduling for both programs (foregoing fall premieres to air its long-arc serials without reruns), compressed time between distribution windows, and alternative content delivery systems, including streaming content through their Web site. More importantly, these mechanisms allowed the network to track viewing patterns and incorporate time-shifting and place-shifting behaviors into ratings calculations. Lost succeeded where Alias did not because ABC attempted to transform Alias's unique cult elements into mainstream television fare but effectively did little to attract new viewers, eventually alienating its core audience.

[10] In her final chapter, "Branding, Synergy, and Product Integration on NBC," Gillan analyzes NBC's increasing commitment to branded television through an examination of its television comedies. Gillan argues that "by the 2008 season NBC was also applying the circulatory paradigm inherent in the Must-Click TV model to transform television series into potential circulation platforms for network brand assets as well as sponsored goods" (180). In addition to flooding their schedule with comedies featuring former Saturday Night Live stars, NBC transformed its series into franchises with Web, mobile, and other extensions to best monetize their content through an ever-blurring blend of storytelling and promotion. Gillan points to how shows like The Office (2005-present), 30 Rock (2006-present), and Kath and Kim (2008) used irony to make product integration more palatable to the hip audiences advertisers wanted. Gillan focuses on 30 Rock's regular metacommentary on product placement, synergy, and network practices and its simultaneous engagement with the very practices it mocks. More interestingly, she alludes to how NBC seamlessly integrated itself into the diegesis through 30 Rock's Rockefeller Center setting to the constant guest-starring roles given to former NBC stars, which reminds viewers of other NBC content available for their consumption.

[11] Noticeably absent throughout Gillan's discussion is broadcast ratings juggernaut CBS. Although CBS's more procedural programming does not lend itself as easily to the overflow Gillan highlights as natural for expanded fan or corporate created cross-platform content, a further discussion of CBS and its rating successes would have been valuable. Even if CBS does not feature groundbreaking televisual or Internet content, broadcast network behavior is still heavily tied to traditional identities and practices, and a comparison to the most traditionally minded broadcast network adds to Gillan's argument about how transitional the current moment is.

[12] Furthermore, in the current era, all the networks are part of larger media conglomerates, which also have interests in cable. Although Gillan discusses cable peripherally as competition for broadcasters, she misses an opportunity to further establish network dominance and branding practices, especially as many cable networks feature largely repurposed broadcast content. This repurposed content regularly generates some kind of Web content on cable network Web sites, and even with the most basic informational Web sites, "classic" broadcast programming is used in order to construct current cable network identities. How do syndicated shows from one network or conglomerate airing on another affect network branding practices, especially in light of Gillan's consistently persuasive argument that broadcast networks are using the current crisis moment as an opportunity to brand themselves in ways relevant to new consumer behaviors and media technologies? Do cable network strategies diverge from how broadcast networks used the same content in establishing their own identities? It would also be interesting to examine how these trends in network branding fit into larger economic schemas regarding media conglomerations where broadcast networks are part of financial profiles alongside cable networks. Are there shared practices, especially within one conglomerate family? Gillan gets closest to these questions in her analysis of how 24 aesthetically and narratively mimics aspects of Fox News and Fox Sports, but I assume similar trends exist in other conglomerates.

[13] One final note. Although Gillan establishes viewser behavior and activities as influential to broadcast practices, she doesn't offer further evidence of any continuing negotiations between fans and broadcast networks once corporate structures are in place. Is there fan agency to reshape or influence corporate material once it is presented? Gillan's initial argument focusing on The X-Files suggests that fan behavior was pivotal in shaping official Web sites, but her discussion on fan impact on production ends there. Yet I would argue that the relationship between networks, fans, and fan activity remains crucial to the development of any branding practices. It would have been illuminating, for example, to consider how fan vidding practices have been adapted into network content, as was the case with ABC's cooptation of the Fine brothers' "Lost: What Happens Next" series of parody videos that used the series' action figures to recap recent episodes. The aesthetic of these popular videos made its way into ABC's Lost Untangled and sparked a debate about the limits of intellectual property and fan expression (Weinberger 2009). Further, how do fan interactions with content change when corporate interests or oversight become part of the product as in NBC/Bravo's takeover of fan message board/recap Web site Television Without Pity?

[14] Although issues of fan cultures and fan products largely fall outside the scope and focus of Gillan's project, her book serves as a call for future contributions that can serve to complicate her arguments and create a richer view of the contemporary media moment. However, fans and scholars will be interested in how Gillan's project illustrates how current network practices are ultimately rooted in fan activity. Implicitly she argues throughout that dedicated fans formerly on the fringes have become more sought-after than ever. In light of rapidly changing technology and viewer expectations, broadcasters utilize fan practices in hopes that fans will act as network brand advocates. As audiences experience television on and off traditional schedules, Gillan deftly examines broadcast network industrial practices that in turn affect the production and consumption of current network and networked content.

Work cited

Weinberger, Jill. 2009. "A Tangled Web: The Fine Brothers Comment on ABC's Lost Untangled.", February 9.