Contested Spaces: The Internet Ate My TV, The TV Company Ate My Internet Site – Djoymi Baker

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Beyond the usual location of the television set in the private home, television discourse extends into other spaces, such as those created by TV gossip, journalism, and merchandising. In the age of the internet, virtual space has become the site of both official and unofficial television discourse. These virtual television spaces have been the site of conflict between TV fans and the copyright owners who have increasingly fought to curtail web-based fan activities. In particular, for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Star Trek fans, this conflict has seen legal warnings and fan site closures. Djoymi Baker focuses on the way in which the battle over the sites can itself be characterized in terms of cross-media textual expansion, extending both the television text and the television “viewing” experience.


Beyond the usual location of the television set in the private home, television discourse extends into other spaces, such as those created by TV gossip, journalism, and merchandising.  In the age of the internet, virtual space has become the site of both official and unofficial television discourse.  From late last decade, these virtual television spaces have been the site of conflict between TV fans and the copyright owners who have increasingly fought to curtail web-based fan activities.  In particular, for Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Star Trek fans, this conflict has seen legal warnings and fan site closures.  What I wish to focus on here is not the legal position of web-based fan activities, but rather the way in which the battle over the sites can itself be characterized in terms of cross-media textual expansion, extending both the television text and the television “viewing” experience, and complicating notions of the public and private, fictional and factual, which merge in the process of storytelling enabled and extended by the internet. [1]

Private/Public, TV/Internet

John Hartley and Tom O’Regan note that when the first television sets arrived in homes, they created a social focus, as neighbours without sets would come over to watch television. [2]  But

[a]s ownership or rental became more widespread, and as the novelty wore off, television viewing began to lose its quasi-cinematic, social aspect, and to take on its more recently characteristic patterns – it became a private, family activity, with just one family per set. [3]

Thus the television, in becoming more widespread, paradoxically also became more insular in its use.  At the same time, the notion of "one family per set" became a powerful cultural idea, and one utilized in advertising; an unrealistic image of how families used televisions. [4] Apart from the more complex realities of who in the family watches what and when, the physical location of television has lead many theorists to stress "the domestic isolation of the viewer" in the private sphere in contrast to the outer, public world. [5]    However television brings representations of the outside world into private space, unsettling the differentiation between the two spheres.  So too, gossip on and about television blurs the private/public distinction, making private information public, and public information the topic of private discussion. [6]

The internet, in turn, has changed the public/private dynamic by providing a virtual public space where fans of television programs [7] can ‘meet,’ accessible without necessarily leaving the home for a convention.  X-Files fan Gil Trevizo argues that "the Internet… has replaced ‘cons’ as the main gathering place for fans.  There isn’t really an X-Files community to speak of offline." [8]   While approaches to the concept of virtual fan communities have tended to focus on MUDs which involve role-playing and narrative development, critics such as James A. Knapp have approached "discussion groups and bulletin boards of the Internet" in terms of creating a space for public debate, albeit one that blurs this distinction between the public and private, both spatially and discursively. [9]   Drawing on Jurgen Habermas’ notion of public space as one that facilitates "public debate by private individuals," Knapp argues that the Internet provides a "public sphere" for multiple voices, even if different perspectives are often curtailed from interacting with one another by virtue of segregated, topic-specific sites. [10]

By contrast, Richard Wise argues that Habermas’ ideal has never been realised.  Wise suggests that while it serves as a useful and powerful model to aspire to, the notion that it has been achieved on and through the internet is highly ideological, masking the inequality of access to the technology, as well as its military origins and subsequent commodification. [11]   For Wise, it has been important ideologically that the internet be seen as a democratic public space, particularly in relation to ‘virtual communities’ made up of minority groups, because this serves to offset and detract from "the increasing domination by monopolistic capitalist media conglomerates." [12]   Since Henry Jenkins and John Tulloch’s studies on Star Trek and Doctor Who fandom, [13] academic fan theory has tended to move away from models of the ideologically and commercially passive fan in favour of more active models.  However much this has counteracted simplistic ideas of the fan-as-dupe, it is equally important to see the fan as a discursive and contested site, and one under considerable strain from media conglomerates, issues emphasised by the role of fandom on the internet.

Remediating Fans: Corporate Cyborgs Online

Given the cross-media expansion of Star Trek since its inception more than thirty years ago, it seems hardly surprising that Paramount and Viacom increasingly refer to the Star Trek range of products as "the franchise." [14]   Star Trek‘s textual and commercial extension reflects the shift in the entertainment industry to a conglomerate structure, which began back in the late 1950s. [15]   Following this shift, Paramount in particular became known for the close interaction between production, distribution and marketing. [16]   The parent conglomerate, now Viacom/CBS, uses its subsidiary companies to produce related merchandise, such as the Star Trek novels produced by Pocket Books. [17]   Within the growing conglomerate structure, Star Trek has been a useful pre-sold commodity, with a large fan following as a ready market for seemingly endless re-articulations that could be differentiated by media, yet be given the Paramount/Viacom seal of approval as an “official” Star Trek text. 

Star Trek‘s cross-media applications have increased with each decade, entering into an era in which cross-media marketing has become the norm rather than the exception for successful media products.  But while official merchandise covers an increasing field of narrative and media possibilities, fan activities have followed suit, embracing new media themselves in order to create their own additions to pre-existing fictional worlds.Henry Jenkins notes that "most commercially released Star Trek digital artifacts" focus on action and technology, which have tended to appeal more strongly to male fans. [18]   Many female fans, by contrast, are more interested in characters and character interaction, which in digital terms have found their expression more readily within fan-created internet chat rooms and MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons/Dimensions). [19]   While these gender divisions are by no means absolute, in its attempts to cover the media field, Viacom has nonetheless been unable to respond to all the different types of pleasures that fans have in relating to the Star Trek world, including the ability to do so on their own terms – a feature difficult if not impossible to program into a product, no matter how interactive.Jenkins argues that "interactive technology contains the potential of controlling and regulating fan pleasures at a time when Viacom has increasingly sought to centralize and constrain grassroots fan activities." [20]  

Late in 1996, Star Trek fan sites began to close down under the threat of legal action by Viacom for the use of copyright material. [21]   Having received mail from concerned fans, Paramount issued an open letter to fans outlining their policy, which was aimed at stopping site constructors from gaining any financial advantage from the sites, and the removal of copyright material. [22]   The letter also took the opportunity to advertise the new official site, although Viacom has since denied that its crackdown is related to this launch. [23]   There has been considerable fan debate over the move, due in part to substantial confusion over how far copyright might be seen to extend into their activities.20th Century Fox in turn targeted X-Files fan sites in 1997, and in subsequent years also marked Millennium and Buffy sites for their attention. [24]   In response, the operators of Buffy fan sites organized a voluntary shut-down, or ‘blackout day’, on May 13th 2000 – not to capitulate to Fox but rather to "stress the value of the free publicity that Fox has been getting" from the fans. [25]  

Companies such as Fox find themselves in the difficult position of trying to protect their copyright yet alienating the fans who are their biggest customers.One Buffy fan site operator, Simoun, argues that Fox’s stance "is akin to a vampire feeding off my blood." [26]   This casting of Fox as the new demonic enemy, is found on many of the protest-oriented Buffy fan sites.  For a series which displays a love/hate relationship with vampires depending on their identity or state of mind, in which boundaries between good and evil are constantly open to negotiation, locating a new vampiric baddie who also happens to supply the desired program fits neatly into Buffy‘s thematic concerns.  Or perhaps, rather, it has been made to fit.  By couching a real-life resistance movement in diegetic terms, fans assert their desire to construct their own Buffy stories in which they can be active participants. [27]

Similarly, Viacom’s attempts to curtail web-based fan activities have been subsumed by fans into the larger Star Trek text.  On web sites such "Viacom as Borg," we are told that "[l]ike the Borg Viacom is trying to assimilate the Internet, but this time resistance is not futile."  Like the cyborgs of the series, who take over humanoid life-forms and divest them of all individuality, Viacom is seen as denying fans of their autonomy and attempting to remove it by force – albeit legal force in this instance.  In successive Star Trek series, resistance against the Borg has been anything but futile.  First introduced as a formidable enemy in the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation ("Q Who", Rob Bowman 1989), by the fifth season the potential for individuated, even sympathetic Borg was posited ("I, Borg", Robert Lederman 1992).  By the sixth season, a faction-group of individuated Borg was introduced ("Descents, Parts I and II" Alexander Singer 1993).  The introduction of an ex- or semi-Borg female as a lead member of the cast in Star Trek: Voyager further humanized and individualised the Borg, and in its second-last season the program revealed that even for Borg still part of the collective, individuality is still possible within a communal dream-world ("Unamatrix Zero" Allan Kroeker 2000).  The assertion of individual identity has been the key means of undermining the Borg collective within the Star Trek world.

The correlation of Viacom with Borg on fan protest sites integrates fan resistance into this Star Trek story world, using a model not only of ruthless assimilation but also of the continued fight for individual expression in the face of such assimilation. Fan fiction, fan editorializing, and fan protest become part of the same process of retelling Trek, in which the heroic struggles from the TV diegesis are replicated in fans’ constructions of their own stories and activities.  To many it would be tempting to read this as yet another example of fans’ loss of distinction between the real and the fictional, however the language is clearly metaphorical; nowhere is it suggested that the fans literally mistake corporate representatives for aliens.  Rather, the metaphorical language of Star Trek is used as the base of both fictional and factual storytelling, to speak to real concerns through the language of fiction, and enabling a performative relation to both realms.

Used by fans both as a story realm and as a language of metaphor, Star Trek has proven to be extremely malleable, including its web manifestations.  As Jenkins and Janet Murray have argued, "like larger fan culture, online Trek worlds extend the possibilities of the narrative without being bound by canonical events," [28] free to continue the Star Trek story endlessly in multiple directions.  This multiplicity of the cross-media Star Trek ‘text’ draws upon and reworks the notion of the series.  The original Star Trek television program followed a series form, continuing characters and the basic diegetic situation while depicting self-contained stories each episode. [29]   In the contemporary cross-media environment, serialism extends in multiple forms simultaneously, both in terms of new texts and a pre-existing textual history.  Thus Jim Collins has argued that for long-lasting fictional worlds, each "re-telling" necessitates some reworking of the previous re-tellings, for these "have become as inseparable from the "text" as any generic convention or plot function." [30]   The amalgam of previous and current re-tellings may not resemble the series as we have understood it in single-media terms.  But the word series comes from the Latin sero, meaning join, and within the popular culture array of texts [31] we are able to follow a character, fictional world, or actor through a series of interconnected texts which extend the story realm.

Online, this serial interconnectedness is made more explicit by the use of threads and links, which although setting out predetermined connections nonetheless allow for multiple serial journeys.  When conceptualised through Collins in terms of an array of interconnecting texts and popular culture knowledge, [32] series expansion can be seen to incorporate not only new fictional narratives, but also an entire discourse on that narrative realm.  Thus official Star Trek texts, fan fictions, journalism, fan editorials – and academic musings – become part of the same series array, all part of story production whether in themselves they are fictional or factual in nature.While the internet is by no means the origin of this storytelling process, it has enabled a larger, non-professional distribution of television discourse.  John Havick has argued that "the Internet turns every user into a potential reporter or newscaster as well as a receiver." [33]   Because "the Internet encourages interpretation and editorializing" by the public, Havick argues that it offers sufficiently different communication properties to existing media, and television in particular. [34]   While Havick is realistic about the unequal access to the internet based on issues of finances, literacy and skill, its public editorializing capacity means that it functions particularly well in concert with other media, which in turn become the subject of this internet commentary. [35]

This tendency can be seen as an extension of the way in which the internet has been used by many commercial ventures such as television networks, who support both internet sites and television broadcasting that are sometimes interconnected, sometimes separate. [36]   Bolter and Grusin note that legal approaches to the internet may change "as it comes to look more and more like television – and as television comes to look more and more like it." [37]   At least for now, advances in television-based technology employed by companies such as Web TV have been accompanied by concern for the privacy rights of the viewer/user rather than the legal rights of the producer or provider. [38]   As internet access through the television and interactive TV blur both the physical and functional distinctions between the internet and TV, the way in which media forms ‘remediate’ and rework themselves in relation to each other [39] is paralleled by our own attempts to resituate ourselves and our media practices.

In an internet editorial for Wired Magazine Online, Jason Ellis advised fans that "[i]f you want to help save Trek on the web…you must act… stop using copyrighted materials on your Web site.  If there’s nothing there that is illegal, Viacom can’t shut you down." [40]   Ellis’ message is one that many fans do not want to hear, particularly as many are unsure just what is legal and what is not.  For fans denied of this legal information, actions such as those of Viacom seem like the beginning of the end of all fandom on the web, or at least, the end of the type of online fandom they have enjoyed thus far.  While this legal battle remains a serious issue for the fans and copyright holders alike, I have chosen to focus on the media and textual dynamics of the debate rather than its legal underpinning, in order to highlight the way in which fans have developed a virtual public discursive forum which extends the private viewing practice, yet ultimately blurs distinctions between the non-diegetic and diegetic, public and private.  But we have to remember that in the retelling process through which old stories and old media are redefined in cross-media, serial expansion, we are all part of such blurring, even if for many people, we have not yet written ourselves explicitly into the script.

Endnotes

1)
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the 31 st Popular Culture Association Annual Conference, Philadelphia , April 11-14, 2001 , and the Society for Cinema Studies Annual Conference 2001, Washington D.C. , May 24-27, 2001 . I would like to express my thanks to the participants at both conferences for their comments. Responsibility for the interpretations contained within rest with the author.

2) John Hartley and Tom O’Regan, "Quoting not science but sideboards,” Tele-ology: Studies in Television, John Hartley (London & New York: Routledge, 1992) 206.

3) Hartley and O’Regan 206.

4) Hartley and O’Regan 112. Lyn Spigel, "Television in the Family Circle: The Popular Reception of a New Medium," Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (London: Indiana University Press & BFI, 1990) 77.

5) John Ellis, Visible Fictions: Cinema: Television: Video (London & New York: Routledge, 1982, 1992) 166.

6) Patricia Mellencamp, High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age & Comedy (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992) 149, 180. The distinction between private and public spheres has been problematic for feminist scholars, who point out that for women the private realm has traditionally been marked by (unpaid) work rather than leisure, and the public realm has often acted as a sphere of exclusion. Mellencamp 360-2, 366.

7) While my particular focus here is fandom based around television programs, many of my observations could also apply to online fans of other media texts.

8) Steve Silberman, "Fox Slams Bootleg Millennium Sites," Hotwired Special < http://hotwired.lycos.com/special/millennium/> 1 April 2001.

9) James A. Knapp, "Essayistic Messages: Internet Newsgroups as an Electronic Public Sphere," Internet Culture, ed. David Porter (New York: Routledge, 1997) 183. Linda Carroli, "Virtual Encounters: Community or Collaborations on the Internet?" Leonardo 30:5 (1997): 359.

10) Knapp 1997: 182, 192-94. By contrast, for Corroli the appeal of the internet lies in its very inability to achieve consensus and unity, instead creating ephemeral collaborations that celebrate this fluidity. Carroli 362.

11) Richard Wise, Multimedia: A Critical Introduction ( London & New York : Routledge, 2000) 184-195.

12) Wise 193, 198.

13) Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (New York and London: Routledge 1992). John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

14) Stephen Edward Poe. A Vision of the Future: Star Trek Voyager (New York: Pocket Books, 1998) 50.

15) Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: U of Texas P, 1994) 70.

16) Wyatt 87-88

17) Wyatt 133.

18) Janet Murray and Henry Jenkins, "Before the Holodeck: Translating Star Trek into Digital Media," On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMS and the Promises of a New Technology, ed. Greg M. Smith (New York & London: New York UP, 1999) 40, 54.

19) Murray and Jenkins 40, 52, 54.

20) Murray and Jenkins 39.

21) Murray and Jenkins 55. Steve Silberman, "Paramount Locks Phasers on Trek Fan Sites," Wired 18 December 1996 , < http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,1076,00.html> 1 April 2001.

22) David Wetheimer, "Dear Star Trek fan…" < http://www.paramount.com/openletter/> 19 July 2000.

23) Amanda Lang, "Viacom Cracks Down on Trek Web Sites," Financial Post, 10 January 1997 , < http://www.canoe.ca/JamStarTrek/jan10_treksites.html> 1 April 2001.

24) Brian Courtis, "Buffy Battle ," The Age 30 December 1999 , Green Guide: 6. Silberman, "Fox Slams Bootleg Millennium Sites." Silberman, "Paramount Locks Phasers.”

25) Courtis 6. Lynn Burke, "Fox Wants Buffy Fan Sites Slain," Wired 1 March 2000 , < http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,34563,00.html> 19 July 2000.

26) Burke.

27) By stories here I mean the stories of the fans’ own resistance, rather than any fan fiction that may also be found on the sites.

28) Murray and Jenkins 54. For the Star Trek MUDs discussed by Murray and Jenkins, fan activity consists of role-playing, character development, and multi-authored narrative expansion.

29) Roger Hagedorn, “Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation,” Wide Angle 10:4 (1988): 7-8.

30) Jim Collins, "Batman: The Movie, the Narrative, the Hyperconscious," The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (New York: Routledge, London: BFI, 1991) 167.

31) Collins describes the interconnection of multiple texts and cultural knowledge as forming an "array." Jim Collins, Architectures of Excess: Cultural Life in the Information Age, (New York: Routledge, 1995) 41. Collins “Batman” 170-80.

32) Collins Architectures 41. Collins "Batman" 170-80.

33) John Havick, "The Impact of the Internet on a Television-Based Society," Technology in Society 22 (2000): 279.

34) Havick 284.

35) Havick 275-6.

36) Jay David Bolter, and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999) 209. As Bolter and Grusin argue, for these enterprises "their earlier and newer media both rival and support eachother.” Bolter and Grusin 209.

37) Bolter and Grusin 210. Dan Schiller, "O What a Tangled Web we Weave," Index on Censorship 26:3 May-Jun (1997): 68.

38) "New Bill Targets TV Privacy," Wired February 2000, < http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,34516,00.html> 19 July 2000.

39) Bolter and Grusin 5, 210.

40) Jason Ellis, "Big Brother is Watching You!" Wired December 1996, < http://members.aol.com/mprofile/edit9701.htm> 1 April 2001.

 

Bibliography

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999.

Burke, Lynn. "Fox Wants Buffy Fan Sites Slain." Wired 1 March 2000. <http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,34563,00.html> 19 July 2000.

Carroli, Linda. "Virtual Encounters: Community or Collaborations on the Internet?" Leonardo 30:5 (1997): 359-363.

Collins, Jim. Architectures of Excess: Cultural Life in the Information Age. New York: Routledge, 1995.

—. "Batman: The Movie, the Narrative, the Hyperconscious." The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio. New York: Routledge, London: BFI, 1991. 164-81.

Courtis, Brian. "Buffy Battle," The Age 30 December 1999, Green Guide: 6.

Ellis, Jason. "Big Brother is Watching You!" Wired December 1996. <http://members.aol.com/mprofile/edit9701.html> 1 April 2001.

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema: Television: Video. London & New York: Routledge, 1982, 1992.

Hagedorn, Roger. “Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation.” Wide Angle 10:4 (1988): 4-12.

Hartley, John and Tom O’Regan. "Quoting not science but sideboards.” Tele-ology: Studies in Television. John Hartley. London & New York: Routledge, 1992. 202-217.

Havick, John. "The Impact of the Internet on a Television-Based Society." Technology in Society 22 (2000): 273-287.

Jenkins, Henry. "Digital Land Grab." Technology Review March/April 2000. <http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/jenkins0300.asp> 30 April 2002.

—. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.

Knapp, James A. "Essayistic Messages: Internet Newsgroups as an Electronic Public Sphere." Internet Culture. Ed. David Porter. New York: Routledge, 1997: 181-97.

Lang, Amanda. "Viacom Cracks Down on Trek Web Sites." Financial Post 10 January 1997. <http://www.canoe.ca/JamStarTrek/jan10_treksites.html> 1 April 2001.

Mellencamp, Patricia. High Anxiety: Catastrophe, Scandal, Age & Comedy. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.

Murray, Janet, and Henry Jenkins. "Before the Holodeck: Translating Star Trek into Digital Media." On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMS and the Promises of a New Technology. Ed. Greg M. Smith. New York & London: New York UP, 1999. 35-57.

"New Bill Targets TV Privacy." Wired February 2000. <http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,34516,00.html> 19 July 2000.

Poe, Stephen Edward. A Vision of the Future: Star Trek Voyager. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.

Schiller, Dan. "O What a Tangled Web we Weave." Index on Censorship 26:3 May-Jun (1997): 68-76.

Silberman, Steve. "Fox Slams Bootleg Millennium Sites." Hotwired Special <http://hotwired.lycos.com/special/millennium/> 1 April 2001.

—. "Paramount Locks Phasers on Trek Fan Sites." Wired 18 December 1996. <http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,1076,00.html> 1 April 2001.

Spigel, Lynn. "Television in the Family Circle: The Popular Reception of a New Medium." Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Ed. Patricia Mellencamp. London: Indiana UP & BFI, 1990. 73-97.

Tulloch, John and Henry Jenkins. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. London & New York: Routledge, 1995.

“Viacom as Borg Info Page.” <http://www.ibiblio.org/kevina/protest> 1 April 2001.

Wetheimer, David. "Dear Star Trek fan…" <http://www.paramount.com/openletter/> 19 July 2000.

Wise, Richard. Multimedia: A Critical Introduction. London & New York: Routledge, 2000.

Wyatt, Justin. High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.

Television Programs

"Descents, Parts I and II." Star Trek: The Next Generation Dir. Alexander Singer 1993.

"I, Borg." Star Trek: The Next Generation Dir. Robert Lederman 1992.

"Q Who." Star Trek: The Next Generation Dir. Rob Bowman 1989.

"Unamatrix Zero." Star Trek: Voyager Dir. Allan Kroeker 2000.

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  2. […] an intensification that is oblivious to reason or to the reasonable limits of the organism. Contested Spaces: The Internet Ate My TV, The TV Company Ate My Internet Site by Djoymi […]