In this paper I will explore the concept of the creative audience and the impact that present-day participatory audiences have on the creative industries and their production of cultural and media products. I will investigate the social factors that motivate audiences to actively engage with media and explore whether technological developments have changed the nature of the creative audience. I will explore how different organisations and media producers have responded to the participatory audience and using examples, primarily from the television and film industries, attempt to determine whether the creative audience poses a new threat to established modes of cultural production. I will also explore the theory that in order to survive in the modern cultural economy, media producers and intermediaries must adapt their production and distribution methods to an increasingly creative and participative audience.
The Creative Audience, the Cultural Industries and Cultural Production
In the context of this paper, the creative audience consists of individuals who are not simply passive recipients of media and cultural products (Ross & Nightingale, 2003, Kenyon, et al., 2008), but who borrow, remix and manipulate creative materials as standard practice when consuming these products (Crisp, et al., 2013, p.319; Jenkins, 2013), thus adding value to and shaping them to produce new creative content (Meikle & Young, 2012; Jenkins, 2013).
In this paper, the scope of the creative audience is limited to audiences and consumers of creative and cultural content produced by individuals and organisations within the creative industries, which the UK government defines as “those industries that have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” (Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2001, p.5). This definition is pertinent as it highlights the need for revenue generation from creative production and associated intellectual property, as well as those products having an origin in individual creative skills. As I discuss later, conflict between the creative audience and artists or producers arise in both of these areas.
Given my investigation into the impacts of technology, I will be focusing on the online activities of these audiences in response to cultural products and media. Such activities include audience production of original material (which may be off or online), based upon the original texts and media, including fan fiction, music mash-ups, artwork, blogs and videos and more passive forms of engagement, such as ‘liking’ on Facebook, creating Spotify playlists or providing data to Google by performing a Google Search; using functionality provided by online tools (Fish, 2013, p.376). I will also consider those who sort and re-circulate the content produced by others, such as ‘sharing’ on Facebook and posting on Pinterest and those who create content in response to others’ content, such as reviewers on Amazon or commenters on YouTube (Macek, 2013, p.296).
In the context of this paper, cultural production is defined as the physical production process of a cultural, creative or media product, including the distribution of that product. Examples used include the production of television and radio shows for broadcast and film production.
The Nature and Impacts of the Creative Audience
Fans are discussed at length as a subset of the active or creative audience and are highly participative individuals who have an emotional motivation and engagement with a specific media (Ross & Nightingale, 2003; Shefrin, 2006, p.89; Jenkins, 2013). Whilst a creative audience member may not necessarily be a fan, I believe a number of the motivations and behaviours of fans also apply to less emotionally engaged, but still participatory ‘mainstream’ audience members. Indeed Jenkins (2006a; 2013) draws on fan activity as a historical precedent to understand current and potential future trends of audience creativity.
Kenyon et al. (2008), Jenkins (2013) and Macek (2013, p.298) suggest that fans choose a specific media based on their affinity with the subject matters covered and the characters featured, as well as its potential to be used for self-expression and to ultimately be a contributor to that individual’s social and cultural capital. Ross and Nightingale (2003, p.137) describe these as intangible assets which are used to maintain and enhance an individual’s social status and cultural identity.
This gives fans a deep emotional connection to the media text and as such a sense of ownership and desire to protect the integrity of the text and the messages it contains (Jenkins, 2013; Macek, 2013; Ross & Nightingale, 2003). In using a media object to represent themselves, audiences may intentionally construct and circulate different meanings onto the text from those intended by the creator to better fit their sense of self, irrespective of how explicit the creator is in stating the intended meaning (Kenyon, et al., 2008; Meikle & Young, 2012; Jenkins, 2013, p.45).
This causes a conflict between fans, who have this sense of ownership and entitlement but are aware that they do not have control of or power over the characters or plotlines and the “producer, author or owner” (Crisp, et al., 2013, p.319), who has an artistic vision which may not align to the expectations or desires of the fans (Jenkins, 2013). This can lead to fans acting with “hostility and anger” towards these perceived power-holders (Jenkins, 2013, p.24), particularly if decisions appear to have been made for commercial gain (Crisp, et al., 2013). This may motivate the audience to actively engage with the media, crafting their desired outcomes, such as changing a character’s story or generating new plotlines, through self-made creative works (Jenkins, 2013). Using online tools such as Social Media, fan communities are able to grow global networks (Duffett, 2015) and these motivated communities of fans can become powerful lobbying bodies, able to effect change and with “enormous potential for transforming existing structures of knowledge and power” (Jenkins, 2006, p.136; Shirky, 2010) which they may use to lobby against a producer or network’s decision (Jenkins, 2006; 2013).
When creating Episodes 1-3 of the Star Wars film franchise, Producer George Lucas perceived online fan suggestions, reviews and creative activity to be stifling to his creative freedom, a misuse of intellectual property and a threat to the intended values and meanings of the brand (Shefrin, 2006; Jenkins, 2013). Lucasfilm sought to regain control, viewing Star Wars fan publications as competitors and threatening legal action against editors who published works using Star Wars intellectual property and which did not align to the creative values of the Star Wars franchise (Jenkins, 2013, p.31). Shefrin (2006) argues that Lucasfilm’s response exacerbated the conflict and based on the theories discussed above, I believe it may also have reduced control over fan activity, as the less receptive and responsive a producer is to fan critique and feedback and their desires for the media, the more likely it is that fans will attempt to take control of the text and characters.
Therefore, from the creator or producer’s perspective, this fan pressure, lobbying and deliberate manipulation of the meanings within the media object may be viewed as an infringement “upon the producer’s creative freedom” (Jenkins, 2013, p.30). Jenkins (2013, p.24) describes this as an “ongoing struggle for possession of the text and for control over its meanings”.
However Jenkins (2006), Shefrin (2006) and Shirky (2010) claim that benefit may be gained from engaging and encouraging dedicated, intrinsically motivated fans as a ready-made lobby group of activists who will campaign to save a television series and act as protectors of the brand and its intellectual property.
The Impacts of Technology and the Creative Audience
Shirky (2010), Gauntlett (2011) and Macek (2013) argue that human nature includes the need to create, share, collaborate and interact with others, that these needs are intrinsically linked to an individual’s identity and cause the audience to want to be creative and participative. Examples of offline fan activity pre-dating the commercialisation of the internet in the 1980s, such as 1970s Doctor Who fans shooting their own episodes of the TV series, supports this theory (Jenkins, 2006)
However, outside of fandom, audiences were largely passive, only able to participate under tightly controlled circumstances, such as audience phone-ins and polls to contribute to television shows or news stories (Franquet, et al., 2011). Channels of communication were clearly defined and largely one-way from broadcaster to audience, with clear differentiation between and definition of the two roles (Jenkins, 2006; Collins, 2011; Gauntlett, 2011). Audiences were tightly controlled by media organisations and had minimal power to influence producers, needing to lobby media producers for the outcomes they desired, through private, low-visibility means such as letters (Jenkins, 2013).
The reducing costs and increasing ease and availability of access to the internet has led to widespread web usage, with 90% of UK households and 71% of the European population having internet access in 2014 (Miniwatts Marketing Group, 2014; Real Time Statistics Project, 2014). The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies have allowed users to collaborate and interact more easily, providing two-way channels of communications between media producers and consumers and between peers online (Gauntlett, 2011).
Increased access to and competence with technology, the incorporation of social media into daily life and increased online visibility of fan activity significantly lowers the barriers of entry to formerly exclusive ‘fandom’ and as such there has been a rise in participation and fan-like behaviour from the ‘mainstream’ audience (Jenkins 2006; Gauntlett, 2011; Sullivan, 2013).
Although the concept of a creative audience is not a new phenomenon created by these advances in technology (Gauntlett, 2011; Crisp, et al., 2013; Macek, 2013; Walmsley, 2013), they have increased the visibility and capabilities of the creative audience and created what I term a ‘new creative audience’. In the following sections, I will explore some of the impacts of this on the creative industries.
Production and Distribution
The availability of affordable professional-level production technology has enabled amateur creatives to produce media content of a quality that can rival those produced by professionals (Jenkins, 2006; Newman, 2013), redefining and blurring the descriptions and relationships between these roles (Meikle & Young, 2012, p.80; Fish, 2013). Whereas the amateur film-makers creating Doctor Who episodes had limited means of distributing their work, possibly only reaching friends, family and any offline fan network to which they belonged, the modern creative audience has an almost zero-priced, global distribution channel via the internet (Jenkins, 2006; Handel, 2008; Newman, 2013). For audiences seeking ownership and control of media, this provides the opportunity to create the materials and storylines they wish to see and share it with like-minded audiences globally (Jenkins, 2006; Gauntlett, 2011; Meikle & Young, 2012).
Shirky (2010) explains that as the internet becomes increasingly populated with content, capturing audience attention becomes more difficult, therefore even if this amateur content is not commercialised, both amateur and professional content creators are competing for the same, limited attention and as such, the content generated by the creative audience becomes a genuine competitor to the creative industries (Goldhaber, 1997; Anderson, 2009; Burnett & Wikstrom, 2009; Meikle & Young, 2012).
These technologies also make it easier to copy and distribute content illegally, with near-zero production and distribution costs (Newman, 2013). In response to a recent surge in illegal downloads triggered by the The Game of Thrones Season 5 launch (Haroon, 2015), anti-piracy firm Irdeto stated “many people believe that it is acceptable to pirate these TV shows if they don’t have access to them through legal means. If people want to continue to have great TV shows like Game of Thrones, business models need to be protected” (Sweney, 2015). Burnett & Wikstrom (2009), Smith & Telang (2009) and Sinha et al. (2010) draw on similar examples from the music and films industries. All of these writers imply that piracy is a significant threat to the sustainability of media organisations as consumers seek free alternatives, leading to reduced viewing and sales figures and subsequently reduced revenue from physical media sales, streaming services and advertising.
Control of Brand Reputation and Intellectual property
In addition to difficulties in controlling the circulation and distribution of intellectual property, organisations struggle to retain control of the associations made with their media content and brands (Burnett & Wikstrom, 2009; Fournier & Avery, 2011). As interactions between audience and producer have become two-way conversations in an uncontrolled, public domain, the relationships and flow of power between the two have changed (Shefrin, 2006; Jenkins, 2006a; Fournier & Avery, 2011).
The voice of the audience is now public and extremely visible (Jenkins, 2006a; Meikle & Young, 2012) and this gives them a great deal of power, with potentially damaging impacts on an organisation’s reputation (Fournier & Avery, 2011). In response to this, organisations need to monitor, moderate and respond to audience activity on forums, social media and other online ‘places’. As these places are disparate and may not be controlled by the media owner, this becomes a time and resource intensive activity and may require specialist skills and processes (Fournier & Avery, 2011; Ullrich, 2014).
How Organisations are Adapting to These Changes
There is much discussion around a changing economy; away from one of commodities, towards one of information, knowledge and attention, which has been caused by the increased global usage and information culture of the internet (Stewart, 1998; Rifkin, 2000; Shirky, 2010; Jenkins, 2013a).
Jenkins (2006) claims that media and content producers must adapt to this new culture, shifting away from commodity-based principles of intellectual property ownership and embracing the opportunities linked to information, knowledge and attention. In this section I explore some of the adaptations and methods employed within the creative industries in response to the ‘new creative audience’.
Use of the Creative Audience for Audience Research at the BBC (Information)
UK television viewing patterns have been extrapolated from a panel of metered sample homes since 1981 and audience research is carried out using physical focus groups (Broadcasts Audience Research Board, 2015).
With the advent of the internet, digital viewing and the activities of the creative audience in response to broadcast media, it is also possible to derive audience information through monitoring social media and online audience activity (Jenkins, 2006; Birmingham, 2015; Gregory-Kumar, 2015; Shaw & Bell, 2015). Meikle & Young (2012, p.43) claim that the BBC “has made some of the most sophisticated responses” to the creative audience with dedicated teams working on identifying methods of interacting with and deriving benefit from participative online audiences (Shaw & Bell, 2015).
Using specialist software, BBC production teams are able to monitor online audience activity, identifying trends of, for example, hashtag usage on Twitter or posts on Facebook pertaining to specific scenes and moments in a particular episode (Jenkins, 2006, p.117; Franquet, et al., 2011). This not only gives an indication of what invokes an audience response, and therefore the audience’s preferences, but also the users’ profiles can provide useful socio-demographic information, allowing producers to better understand the profile of their online audiences (Birmingham, 2015).
An additional benefit of monitoring audience activity on Social Media channels, is that the unfiltered, unmoderated comments provide broad, organic feedback on content (Crisp, et al., 2013). This visibility also allows mitigation of any potential reputational or brand damage due to negative comments or inappropriate interpretations of programmes, by enabling intervention and reassertion of control by the BBC.
As predicted by Crisp et al (2013), information generated from monitoring social media is also used by organisations such as the BBC to provide input into creative direction, editorial and scheduling decision making (Birmingham, 2015; Sanota et al., 2015). However, there is still a traditional ‘linear’ audience, who may not be reflected in online metrics and as such statistics based on online participation must be used with caution and in conjunction with traditional methods of audience monitoring (Jenkins, 2006; Birmingham, 2015).
Use of the Creative Audience for Co-Creation (Knowledge)
Fans have specialist knowledge, skills and a unique insight into fan communities (Jenkins, 2013). This can be leveraged by producers through engaging the audience as co-creators. When creating the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Producer Steve Jackson actively sought input and feedback from fans via online forums and existing online fan networks, and shaped the films based on this input (Shefrin, 2006). Shefrin (2006, p.85) claims that this allowed him to gain “credibility with the future audience”; an important factor especially as his work was an adaptation of an existing text with a strong fan following.
Audience involvement during the production process may result in a media product which better meets consumer needs, leading to improved reception, lowered support demands (in the example of software or games), increased audience loyalty and engagement and ultimately increased revenue (Jenkins, 2006; Shirky, 2010; Walmsley, 2013).
Therefore if a cultural product is developed with fan input, the story, characters and plot development are more likely to align with fans’ expectations and desires. Furthermore, I theorise that the fan-produced materials subsequently created and circulated may align more closely to the message and intended meanings of the original creator. By allowing the fans input into the creative process, the creator indirectly gains more control of the consumption and re-distribution of their materials. Walsmley (2013) and Jenkins (2003) note however, that it is imperative that a balance is struck between audience collaboration and protecting the creative objectives and intellectual property interests of artists and producers.
Use of the Creative Audience for Promotion and Reach (Attention)
As like-minded individuals build online global networks of communication, word of mouth promotion becomes easier to leverage (Anderson, 2009; Fournier & Avery, 2011) and as such, online fan communities can be used by producers to promote their media products (Shirky, 2010; Jenkins, 2013). Even without intervention, these communities offer a host of free advertising as they create and share content, discuss plot developments and speculate about upcoming plotlines (Shirky, 2010; Carter, 2012).
Jenkins (2006, p.140) claims that “the value of any bit of information is increased by social interaction.” By this theory, as a cultural product is shared online, discussed, reworked into fan material or remixed to produce new content, even if this is illegal use of intellectual property, its value should increase as the share of attention it can potentially gain increases.
Indeed, YouTube actively discourage copyright owners from pursuing legal action against users who illegally use their intellectual property in online videos, claiming there is greater benefit to the attention gained from allowing it (Gould-Stewart, 2010), whilst the BBC actively encourage online audience action to generate Social Media hype around upcoming episodes and broadcasts, to generate what they term as “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) and gain attention (Birmingham, 2015; Sanota et al., 2015; Shaw & Bell, 2015;).
Although some writers argue that co-creation and using fan networks for promotion is exploitative (Terranova, 2000; Ross & Nightingale, 2003), I believe that it represents a symbiotic relationship between the audience and media producers. In exchange for creativity with a cultural brand’s intellectual property and potential co-creation of the media with which they are emotionally engaged, fans provide free labour and allow their social networks to be used for promotion. Both Jenkins (2013) and Walsmley (2013) claim that there is intrinsic reward for those audience members who are engaged as co-creators, as they feel a “sense of worth and self-esteem” (Walmsley, 2013, p.113) and Walmsley’s findings from studies of co-creation in performing arts imply that the audience are aware of the benefit they are providing to the artist or producer and consider this to be an acceptable exchange for the opportunity for involvement.
Gaining Control through Immersive Experiences and Online Places for Participation (Attention)
There are examples of content owners creating immersive experiences and digital places that encourage the audience to be creative, such as Why So Serious, an online immersive Alternative Reality Game released alongside The Dark Knight film (Jenkins, 2006; Crisp, et al., 2013). Crisp et al. (2013) claim that this is a form of democracy, allowing the audience to participate and interact with the material, generating and contributing their own content. However, whilst there is a perception of being able to participate creatively, there is significant control exerted by the producer (Shefrin, 2006; Crisp, et al., 2013).
I believe that if a content creator provides a place for the audience to be creative which sufficiently fulfils the audience’s desire for creativity and gives the impression of ownership over the direction of the story or characters, then there is an increased chance that the audience will be creative in the provided place, rather than in disparate places online. The content owner has captured the time and attention of the user sufficiently and has subsequently recovered an element of control as whilst the audience are still generating content, they are doing it in a visible place, in which data can be derived about users, market research can be carried out and additional products can be marketed. In addition to this, the content owner may exert control over what is acceptable content, therefore they have more chance of ensuring that fan-generated content aligns to the intended meaning of the media and does not threaten the intellectual property or the brand (Crisp, et al., 2013, p.320). Whilst the users of Why So Serious appear to be aware of this control exerted by the brand owners, the high quality storylines and immersive gaming experience are sufficient to encourage a compromise in freedom of creativity and ownership “for the illusion of inclusion” (Crisp, et al., 2013, p.321).
However, there is a fine balance between restricting and controlling participation whilst keeping the barriers to usage low enough to encourage the audience to be creative in this visible, dedicated space. Whilst Crisp et al. (2013, p.320) report that these experiential places provide a “strong sense of ownership and empowerment”, I argue that if the ‘formal’ online place is too restrictive, is too controlling of what can be posted or has too many rules, users may revert back to less restricted online spaces, creating their fan materials, or their comments, photographs and reviews, in an uncontrolled place, where it is more difficult for the producer to leverage benefits and exert control.
The creative audience is not a new concept, from historical examples including fan fiction produced by the original readers of Charles Dickens’ work in the 1800s through to the use of photocopiers to mass-produce fanzines in the 1970s, the motivations for audience participation remain the same. However, the widespread adoption and advancement of web technologies in the last decade has converged with the increase in access to, and reduction in ownership costs of technology to provide the creative audience with a largely uncontrolled platform with which to create and globally share their ideas, knowledge and creativity. This gives us a ‘new creative audience’.
This has led to tensions between cultural producers and the audience, as traditional structures and expectations of power, control, roles and relationships are in flux. There is a need for cultural organisations to take action in response to this as ignoring the ‘new creative audience’ will potentially lead to an unsustainable commercial organisation.
From my research, it seems that the media industry is at a turning point, with some traditional media companies resisting the creative audience and fighting, often with legal action, to retain control and power and prevent what they perceive to be a risk to their intellectual property. Alongside these are more progressive media producers who have accepted the effects of technology on the creative audience and are seeking ways to retain control and business sustainability in such a way that allows the audience some creative freedom and retains fan relationships. In some cases this has entailed openly exploiting the creative audience to leverage benefits, such as using them as part of a marketing strategy, harnessing their knowledge, loyalty and networks or engaging them in the creative process. There are a number of examples of the creative audience being successfully exploited as an opportunity rather than a threat, to the benefit of both the audience and the producers of the creative product.
Therefore whilst there is indeed a threat to the established modes of production and ways of working, it is not the creative audience that poses this threat, but the abilities, power and reach of such an audience when facilitated through technological availability and online platforms in the modern connected world. Therefore the ‘new creative audience’ is a threat to established modes of cultural production, as many existing modes of production have become irrelevant or unsustainable amidst these social, economic and technological changes.
I believe that if a creative organisation fails to recognise and adapt to this, this could become a threat to the survival of the organisation. However this does not necessarily need to have negative connotations as there are many examples of successful innovations and adaptations of modes of production that have resulted in this threat being successfully converted into an opportunity, As such the ‘new creative audience’ could become a significant, new, opportunity for cultural production.
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