Australian media studies scholar Graeme Turner has a fascinating post in the most recent issue of Flow TV, where he discusses his experiences with the proliferation of choice in American cable TV systems, where we have countless TV stations, not to mention video-on-demand and online options such as Hulu, Netflix, and iTunes. Turner borrows Jack Ellis’s (2002) concept of “choice fatigue” to describe this phenomenon and raises some thoughtful questions about how audiences engage with that diversity of choice and whether this kind of choice is truly democratizing. He’s posing some valuable questions, not just for TV and media scholars, but also, I’d argue for people interested in the new digital distribution channels available to independent and DIY filmmakers.
Turner views this television landscape as an outsider, in much the same way that British media scholar, Raymond Williams, holed up in a Miami hotel, was able to deduce the concept of “flow” to describe the constant stream of images that were the substance of television broadcasts. So his ability to see the U.S. system not as a natural outgrowth of media technologies, but as a product of industry and consumer choices, is beneficial, and something I’ve been mulling myself after my recent participation in the Colombian Film Week, where I got my own crash course in how several Latin American film industries operate (more on that in a subsequent post, I promise). Turner initially reports a sense of confusion about the wide choice available to him via a Philadelphia cable TV system, an experience I shared when I first moved to Fayetteville after going several years without cable. Like him, I was initially open to exploring and, in some cases, sought advice from students and other TV or media scholars, but soon found myself settling on somewhere between 10-15 channels that were semi-regular visits and even a smaller number of channels where I did any focused viewing (such as my nightly updates from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert).
This issue of choice likely wouldn’t matter much, Turner seems to imply, if it weren’t also tied to issues of national, regional, and local identity. Turner writes, “I am interested in this because I have been examining the recent mutations of television with a view to understanding how, if at all, television might still play what was once seen to be virtually its primary cultural role – constructing a local, national or regional community.” He goes on to add that some post-broadcast cultures, such as those in the UK and Mexico, still address a national community, but wonders whether such forms of address are still in place in a relatively fragmented U.S. system. There really isn’t an easy answer here, but I think that Turner is right that we need a better understanding of how choice informs both consumer and citizen practices. After all, TV is not just involved in the production of audiences; it is also involved in the shaping of citizenship, in how we participate in and understand our political system (as the Colbert-Stewart rallies attest).
But I have to ask how and under what circumstances, this seemingly unlimited choice is experienced as “fatigue.” My fiancee is a die-hard Boston Celtics fan, and having access to virtually all Celtics games through NBA TV, for her, is actually quite energizing, or at least exciting (and I’ll try to catch as many Hawks games as I can). But I think that these questions of choice and democratization may have a different valence when it comes to movie distribution. Many of the same questions that Turner asks remain in place: Given the dozens of movies available through video-on-demand, one of the ongoing conversations that independent and DIY filmmakers have been having is the issue of curation: how will people find the movies they want to see? Obviously, the Netflix and iTunes recommendation algorithms have sought to address this, but a sea of titles on a VOD menu might not work as well.
A more crucial question, however, is how unlimited choice fits within debates about media democratization. There is certainly evidence that fragmented movie distribution cultures will help to reinforce political divides. Movies such as the anti-Obama I Want Your Money can circulate just as widely as anything produced by Brave New Films (and likely with little overlap between the two, except among film critics and some political bloggers). During a mid-term election characterized by unusually heated rhetoric, the power of this on-demand movie culture cannot be underestimated, and in most cases, it seems to be reinforcing difference in ways that may not be healthy for our politics, although I think that’s a potentially debatable question.
However, in other ways (especially from the perspective of the artist), choice may not be a cause of fatigue but of energy, a point underscored in some of the discussion of Edward Burns’ latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, which is now available on iTunes and through VOD. I’ve been fascinated by the “homage trailers” that Edward Burns created to support Nice Guy Johnny, a DIY project in pretty much every sense, and in a recent interview with Michael Tully of Hammer to Nail, Burns offers a thoughtful, but pointed, defense of the DIY approach, comparing his form of independent filmmaking to “a Cassavetes model,” in which Burns supports himself by working on commercial projects in order to make the kinds of movies that he wants. It’s a model that isn’t available to everyone–Burns’ unexpected, but well-deserved, success with The Brothers McMullen opened doors for him unavailable to others–but I think it’s a good illustration of the ways in which choice, although a crucial keyword to media industry analysis, remains a difficult concept to grasp.