There are so many things going on in today’s media and entertainment landscape that sometimes it is hard to keep up. These past few weeks, however, have been something else entirely. Out of the heaps of every day occurences that reshape the way we consume entertainment, three recent events in particular caught my attention. Let’s review them chronologically.
Firstly. A month ago, filmmaker and FX artist Jeff Fowler disclosed the trailer for the upcoming Sonic The Hedgehog movie. The response was appaling: immediately, fans started complaining about the main character’s design. But can you blame them? The iconic Sega character looked downright odd – more like my uncle Oscar wearing a dollar store costume than a multi-million CGI generated character. It only took SEGA and Paramount 24 hours to address the criticisms in the best possible way, announcing that they will redo the whole character.
— Jeff Fowler (@fowltown) April 30, 2019
Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear… you aren't happy with the design & you want changes. It's going to happen. Everyone at Paramount & Sega are fully committed to making this character the BEST he can be… #sonicmovie #gottafixfast 🔧✌️
— Jeff Fowler (@fowltown) May 2, 2019
Wow, that was fast.
A day later, the creator of Sonic Yuji Naka took to Twitter to thank fans for their contribution. It is actually rumored that Naka did not like the design himself, and the public’s complaint helped his cause.
Secondly. You may have heard of this one: a Game Of Thrones fan created an online petition for HBO to redo the entirety of the show’s final season. Were not for the fact that he got more than a million and a half people to sign it, this would not have made the news. And the petition is not even four weeks old!
Thirdly. Disney bought yet another piece of the ‘competition’. Disney has struck a deal with Comcast that will give it full control of the streaming service Hulu.
Will Disney eventually own television? Well, it certainly looks like a possibility. If you take a look at the infographics below, you will see for yourself.
What do these three events have in common? Apart from being super recent, they are an example of the existing tension, or contradiction, between two different paradigms in entertainment consumption. Technology in general (and social media in particular) is enabling fans and consumers to raise their voices, to the extent of taking part in the creative process. On the other hand, capitalism and monopolistic practices are slowly suffocating diversity and divergence of voices in entertainment.
This tension we have just described is the product of entertainment and mass media’s own history. The publishing and broadcasting giants we all came to know so well emerged to meet the needs of a certain type of society: the urban mass society, the one the Industrial Revolution created. During the first decades of the 20th century, the entertainment industry was already well oiled and established. The advent of television would take entertainment to unimagined levels.
Still, there was concern among the social scientists community. During those early years of the century, sociologists believed that the people was helpless before the media giants. It was believed that every message broadcasted had a definite and fixed effect on the masses, and critical thinking was either rare or impossible. Later and further research changed this consensus: people are not necessarily indoctrinated by media.
In 1974, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote that mass media were pushing audiences towards a passive role. Communication was a mere information transfer. According to Baudrillard,
“mass media exercise an unidirectional kind of communication. They forbid a response, turning every exchange impossible – except for simulated exchanges, integrated to the emission process. The entire mass media structure is based upon this definition.”
And then there came Internet to change the game. According to author Vicente Fenoll Tome, the Web 2.0 – the Internet phase characterized especially by the change from static web pages to dynamic or user-generated content and the growth of social media – created the cybermedia. What is a cybermedium? Basically, a content issuer which is willing to mediate between the facts and the public, using journalistic techniques and criteria and, obviously, is updated and published on the Internet.
With this new concept, the origins of the contradiction become more evident. In 2019, cybermedia and traditional mass media still coexist. Not every piece of entertainment is available on demand. Some people still get the papers.
But the relationship between content creators and audiences has been fundamentally changed.
At first glance, one could think that there is a linear correlation between technological advances and audiences’ attitude. If this assumption were true, then the entertainment consumers of the year 2019 must be history’s most participative public. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
It may seem unbelievable, but there is a 19th century precedent for the Game Of Thrones petition. After killing off his most acclaimed character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received hundreds of letters from Sherlock Holmes’ fans. The public was enraged, and demanded the fictional detective to be brought back to life.
Moreover, the serialized novel genre (extremely popular around that time) had a very intense relationship with the public. These stories were published in parts, as a newspaper section. After reading each installment, fans would write the papers to voice their opinions about the course of the events. Authors would take these opinions into account, reshaping the story or even postponing the ending indefinitely because of the series’ popularity.
In 1997, Netflix started operating. As of 2019, the streaming service has 150 million suscribers. This user base has become extremely comfortable inside the platform’s environment. So much so, that they are missing out on a lot of content – that which is not available on Netflix. Tacitly, Netflix has become an equivalent to television for many people. By mistaking content for structure, they implicitly accept that “if it’s not on Netflix, it doesn’t exist”.
Last December, Netflix series Blackmirror got into gamification with an episode called “Bandersnatch”. ICYMI, the story provides the viewer with choices that have to be made in real time. Every decision has an impact, and the ending each viewer gets depends on their previous choices.
When I look back on “Bandersnatch”, I am yet again reminded of Baudillard’s simulated exchanges. The audience feels like it is interacting with the story, when in fact it is trapped inside the platform.
Technology is becoming increasingly available all around the world. The information is there. We have all we need in order to become prosumers – more informed, active and conscious consumers. In times like these, of inequality and economic concentration, it is time to stay vigilant. We have a right to be entertained, but also to diversity in entertainment.
And that is no laughing matter.