Boddy: VR & DVR

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Like radio, the initial invention of television was years before its eventual take-off and acceptance as a commonplace household technology. Where radio went through many modes of use before landing most generally as commercial broadcasting, television was produced fairly fully formed, and took just a long enough time to catch on that it petrified the industry who worried it could “turn into the biggest and costliest flop in US industrial history” (46). However, this time, as well as experience from the launch and acceptance of radio, the industry was incredibly introspective about how to market and produce a television product that people would accept. There were entire trade journals, such as Radio and Television Retailing, devoted to demonstrating to consumers the vitality in integrating television into their home and how to do it. Similarly to radio (yet again), producers worried about how women, preoccupied with housework, would adjust to this new technology in their home.

Boddy breezes through several decades of television history, citing an overall period of “remarkable economic growth and institutional stability” (56). It is not until the 1990s that major shifts begin to occur, as a variety of new technologies to watch television develop and the global market grows significantly. Boddy points out that these changes also affected critical media research. The clash between cultures and generations forced scholars to examine ideas about broadcasting, television, and their relation to national identity in new ways. Discussion of the convergence of media into a global context was a popular topic overall in the decade: Fortune described a new culture of “one-world pop-tech civilization” (65).

The discussion of virtual reality provides an interesting point of examination of a technology that never took off as envisioned. Boddy unpacks the discourses surrounding the launch of VR as he considers “the historical agency of the ephemeral, fantastic, and utopian” to be as important as the reception contexts of more successful technologies (78). The introduction of VR does come at a time of turmoil, where gender roles, particularly masculinity, were seeking redefinition, and general social anxiety about the growing numbers of new technologies increased. These new technologies promised to remake (or even “kill”) television, long associated with the feminine, and remake it in a masculine tool, thanks to the new buzzword “interactivity” (69).  The idea of interactivity gave the user power and control over the television, and brings to mind the advent of past technologies (such as the fantastical devices described by Carolyn Marvin) that also promised the exploration of new worlds and exciting adventures, all from the comforts of home. However, these “comforts of home” and the recurring imagery of the TV armchair reminds us that connotations of passivity and domesticity still remained underneath (77).

Boddy discusses the transition to digital television in terms of difference between the US and UK. The relative explosion of the industry in the late 1990s, with large numbers of new technologies and new players all looking to set the course is reminiscent less of the beginnings of radio, with its emphasis on user-produced meanings, and more of the beginnings of the telegraph, where numerous companies all looked to capture and define the market. Boddy sorts the competitors by their primary interest in digital television: the consumer electronic industry’s interest in a market that required all new televisions to receive high-definition picture quality, broadcasters’ interest in greatly multiplying the number of SD programs and channels, and finally many groups not as traditionally associated with television, such as computer and television companies, retail, publishing, and banking all looked to see how interactivity would help them target consumers (79).

The introduction of the digital video recorder further upset the traditional and long-standing meanings of television: “as quotidian, advertising dominated, audio driven, visually impoverished, female centered, and passively consumed” (100). TV had long been been centered on these ideas, as well as its inherent “live”-ness and its role in producing national identity. The DVR, which allowed TV to be recorded and viewed at the same time, meaning that users could select which specific content they wanted to view as well as when, “eroding the experience of simultaneity and liveness” which some considered to be the core of the TV experience (103). This, of course, also brings into question Raymond William’s conception of flow. Flows would be certainly altered and more uniquely tailored to the individual with this kind of user power. The more primary concern that made the DVR such a contentious object was it allowed viewers to skip commercials. For an industry fairly built on the relationship between the broadcast networks and their advertisers, this was no small problem. Advertisers went immediately to work creating new, more inescapable kinds of ads: more product placement, on-screen banner ads, and programming/commercial hybrids.

One particularly controversial new form of advertising was virtual advertising. Described as a “counter-weapon” to new ad-avoiding technology like the DVR, virtual advertising allowed for material to be digitally added to any program, including live events. Three main types of advertising were provided: sports enhancements, virtual billboards (used in sporting events and news programs), and virtual product placements (more entertainment programming) (110). Not only did virtual advertising eliminate the possibility for viewers to skip the ads, it also allowed advertisers to target groups more specifically, especially in a global market. The same sporting event could be broadcast in multiple countries, but with each seeing nationally specific ads (112).

However, this solution was greeted with ambivalence by consumers and advertisers alike. Should ads be discreet or obvious? Would audiences tolerate this pseudo-reality, or was it crass? The Washington Post critically stated programs were becoming “subservient” to advertisers’ needs and we were allowing them to “shape the entertainment and information content of this society” (117). The question certainly highlights the anxiety felt by many about the new technology, but it should also be noted that advertisers have shaped new technologies time and time again. It was certainly not a new phenomenon in TV, at the least.

These fears would soon be proved to be far greater than the actual fallout. DVRs were slow to catch on, labeled as having a “negligible” impact on the industry (127), as well as being primarily consumed by a small demographic of mid- to upper-class males who still viewed at least some commercials (130). The companies producing these products were faced with marketing and defining an entire new category of television, and trying to get their version out front. (TiVo seems the victor in this case, as it is to DVR what Kleenex is to tissues.) Some companies, such as TiVo, tried to get the advertising industry on board by assuaging their fears – omitting a commercial-skipping button on the remote and four “branded areas” on the screen and hard drive devoted to advertising (129).

Still, advertisers persisted in finding new and different avenues to reach consumers as the power of DVRs took hold. Virtual advertising persisted, now featured in popular syndicated shows such as Law & Order, and relabeled “product presence” indicating its inseparability from the actual content (144). The sudden popularity of reality programming also was a boon to advertisers; programs such as Survivor deeply integrated products like Mountain Dew and Doritos into the text of the show (146). Detractors of ever-present advertising were sharply put down by none other than Ben Affleck, saying, “As if you had some inalienable right to have commercial-free television! What do you think pays for this show?” (149)

Overall, new technology relating to television is both excitingly new and exactly the same as technologies to come before it. Tensions between the consumers and producers, the public and the private, masculine and feminine, utopian ideals and dystopian fears all continue to arise in discourse of new media. As historian Tom Gunning puts it, we all have technology deja vu (166).

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