In a previous post for CST I began thinking about the question of multiplatform quality. There I suggested that not only did different notions of quality circulate within the production cultures of television and digital media, but that notions of quality in multiplatform production were often too tightly connected to ‘innovation’: a tag that would not be sufficient to see the ongoing investment in multiplatform production by the UK’s public service broadcasters. Instead, we might need to conceive of a quality multiplatform aesthetic as going ‘beyond an extension of the look and feel of the programme, and offer users an engaging, deeper, interactive and perhaps intimate experience that enhances the pleasures, knowledges, feelings and information on offer in the programme’.
I want to argue that Channel 4’s recent dystopian drama series Utopia is just such an instance of quality. Moreover, it is one in which the multiplatform experiences might offer some kind of response to the charges that ‘convergence culture’ – particularly as theorised by Henry Jenkins – produces only vapid, commercial, inconsequential, banal or even bizarre outcomes in relationship to wider democratic, political or media citizenship concerns. Here I am taking my cue from the excellent series of essays collected by Nick Couldry and James Hay in a special issue of Cultural Studies rethinking convergence culture. Hay and Couldry rightly lay out the fundamental problematics of Jenkins’ notion of convergence culture and the studies that have followed in its wake: namely that the assumptions they make about ‘culture’ not only extrapolate from the practices of demographically niche and privileged fan cultures, but also that such an analysis is increasingly taking place in an individualized, mass-customized mediascape that questions the relevance of culture as shared meaning (2011, p. 481-2).
I agree with much of their, and their contributors’, analysis.
Indeed, my argument about Utopia should fall at the first hurdle they set out. Utopia is, without doubt, a very demographically small and niche audience: 1.5million viewers for its broadcast airing and even smaller online, where just 9.5k users have liked its Facebook page. Given it deals with conspiracy theories that are foretold in a cultish graphic novel, which falls into the hands of a group of ‘ordinary geeks’, this audience also most likely fit into the fan cultures that Jenkins’ discusses as predominantly young, male, white and middle-class.
It would appear, therefore, that little extrapolation about convergence culture can, and should be, done from this instance.
But, as various scholars engaging in the quality television in the UK have demonstrated, notions of quality matter in much more wide-reaching ways than the aesthetic enjoyments offered to their fan, or other, communities. Instances of quality come to inflect and inform policy debates about the future of public service broadcasting. It is with this in mind that I think it is worth engaging further with the way in which Utopia can be seen as an example of multiplatform quality, particularly because it falls outside of the often ‘highbrow’ instances that are discussed in these terms. Moreover, the way in which the multiplatform experience highlight issues around digital surveillance offers some intriguing possibilities for the political and demographic potential of convergence culture.
Televisual quality: A muted aesthetic of surveillance
As a piece of standalone television, Utopia is excellent – if a little violent and subject to the charge of masculine bias’ inherent in many debates about quality TV. Cinematography captures the isolation, paranoia, confusion and mundaneity of the central characters, ‘the group’, being on the run. James Walters’ work on close analysis in television draws our attention to the way in which it is often the ‘synthesis between performance style, visual composition and thematic progression’ that is a marker of quality television (2008: p. 69). For example, Utopia’s use of muted palette across décor, costuming and even sombre skylines are matched by the very close to mute performances of two key characters: Jessica Hyde and RB. The aesthetics and performances of such muteness are worked through thematically across the series to underscore the unspeakable nature of what has, will and can be done to key characters in the pursuit of uncovering the ‘Utopia Inquiry’.
What is particularly intriguing about a series that deals with a dystopian scenario in which power is wielded by a shadowy ‘network’ who constantly monitor the activities of the ‘group’ (and, it is implied, society as a whole) is the absence of direct visual imagery of surveillance. Instead, the actions and interactions of our protagonists are haunted by surveillance and the feeling of being watched – captured in the performances, writing and cinematography of the series. The technologies of surveillance, if not entirely absent from the screen, are lo-fi and innocuous. Equally there is no fetishisation of the group’s computer prowess as a form of counter-cultural ‘hacking power’.
Off the grid, off television: multiplatform quality online
The notion of being ‘off the grid’ is a key plot line in the series that offers the crossover point for the multiplatform experience of Utopia. As digital producers of the series TH_NK explain, the multiplatform offering – The Utopia Inquiry (TUI) – aims to challenge users’ digital lives, which often forfeit privacy in exchange for automation, recommendations and the ‘desire for an easy life’. Building the series’ hyperdiegesis, the multiplatform offering invites viewers to consider how this exchange might have made them ‘more vulnerable than [they] may realise’. Beyond this tie-in to dark conspiracy theory of the drama’s plotline, however, is a range of information from reputable news sources and NGOs and self-testing tools that ask users to consider how, why, where and by whom they are monitored. In turn, it asks users to what extent they agree with this monitoring – and have the power to change it.
The Utopia Inquiry offers an important example of both convergence culture and transmedia storytelling in #multiplatformpsb quality. TUIis radical in the way it expands the multiplatform universe of the series: rather than media franchising or merchandising, TUI’s hyperdiegesis mixes the dramatic and real via our online world. In so doing it connects users with kinds of debates Couldry and Hay argue are so often absent from convergence culture. TUI’s web offering, and some debate it provokes on Facebook, provides an aesthetically pleasing experience that encourages users to explore a range of information and viewpoints on digital surveillance. In so doing it draws users’ attention to the kinds of surveillance activities that Andrejevic’s piece in the special issue of Cultural Studies outlines.
Andrejevic suggests that if the interactive economy is to thrive, we must bet on its ability to predict our behaviour to make up for lost revenues from traditional platforms. If it fails, then the commercial future of convergence culture is in jeopardy (2011, p. 618). Utopia specifically draws a wider viewing audience’s attention to this double-bind. In so doing, the multiplatform experience clearly fulfils C4’s remit for innovative, challenging content and remediates this for an online, convergence culture age. As always with C4’s best work, the series’ is radically political and controversial in the way it goes about this.
Conclusion: Multiplatform quality?
The argument here is a tentative one towards understanding issues of multiplatform quality and the relationship between television and digital/convergence culture. I’m conscious, however, that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it – in at least two ways that I’m immediately aware of:
Firstly, that TUI offers C4 the same possibility for tracking, monitoring and surveilling the Utopiaaudience it ostensibly critiques – measuring its affective response to the drama and the advertising connected to it, and modulating the broadcaster’s and its advertisers’ behaviour in response/anticipation. True. But C4’s public service commitment to experimentation and non-commercial imperatives means that over-commercialisation or selling of the audience is not always the priority for C4, who look at multiplatform commissions to make ‘contributions’ either in terms of public service or commercial value (Bennett, et. al., 2012). Arguably the 9.5k online users of the series are more valuable in terms of demonstrating the PSB potential of multiplatform than they are as a commercial commodity.
Secondly, and to return to my point about failing at the first hurdle of niche and small-scale demographics at the outset of this post, there is the issue that Utopia is not a widespread experience nor one generalisable from in terms of audience participation. However, my point is that to unpick Utopia’s place as an example of multiplatform public service broadcasting quality can meaningfully return us to issues of democratic concern. That is, the place of PSB in a multiplatform, convergence culture future. Here the very fact that the series might target a youth orientated demographic of fan cultures can be seen as an important in a wider context. It is, after all, only through capturing these younger viewers/users attention that the radical mix of commercial-PSB television in the UK will survive.
Whilst public service organisations like C4 continue to exist there remain alternatives to the commercially driven experiences of convergence culture and their emphasis on surveillance for profit or more sinister reasons. Utopia, as a multiplatform offering, shows what this convergence culture future might offer.
Dr James Bennett is Senior Lecturer in Television Studies. His work focuses on digital television as well as TV fame. He is currently the Principal Investigator on a 2-year AHRC grant, multiplatforming public service broadcasting (AH-H018522-2), which examines the role independents and multiplatform productions play in the future of PSB. He is the author ofTelevision Personalities: Stardom and the Small Screen (Routledge, 2010) and the editor (with Niki Strange) of Television as Digital Media (Duke University Press, 2011) and (with Tom Brown)Film & Television After DVD (Routledge, 2008). His work has been published in Screen, Cinema Journal, Convergence, New Review of Film & Television, and Celebrity Studies Journal.