PASSIVE OR ACTIVE? THE OLD CONUNDRUM by Geoff Lealand
So much has been written and so much has been spoken about television as a ‘passive’ medium. Indeed, the frequent accusations about television viewing as a passive activity is in the same league as other commonplaces like “some people watch too much television” or ‘don’t believe everything you see on television’. In response to the former platitude, I usually respond “What is ‘too much television’? or “Is it possible to watch too little television?’; in response to the latter, I usually respond, “Quite possibly, for like all forms of media, television is a mix of fact and fiction”.
But the active:passive paradigm remains very persistent in respect of television. The ‘active audience’ strand in media research has provided a significant challenge within scholarly circles, but the passive claim continues to dominate the public discourse, particularly in constructions of the relationship between the child viewer and television—even though research shows that passivity is only one of a wide range of possible interactions.
Certainly, the advent of digital/computer technology has added fuel to this old debate, with the claims that the computer:human interface represents a more active relationship than the television:human interface. I regard this as a contestable and often unsubstantiated claim but I have had a recent experience of an unusual synergy between computers and television, where interactivity was key.
New Zealand television has just screened the local version of the international format Masterchef. Given the 2012 outcomes, with the winner this year being a 28 year old blonde called Chelsea Winter, I should probably revise my judgements, in an earlier guest blog, about television cooking shows as being male dominated (n ‘Class, gender & cupcakes’, 10 April 2012). Normally, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to Masterchef as cooking is the only task I don’t do in our household. I was drawn to it because Lawrence Mikkelsen, a bright young media teacher in Auckland, initiated an imaginative experiment around it.
New Zealand Masterchef 2012 winner Chelsea Winter
Every Tuesday night, during the run of the programme, Lawrence set up a Facebook conversation thread which started with the opening credits of Masterchef, and produced a fast and furious interaction with the programme over the ensuing hour or so. There were usually between 8 to 12 people contributing and postings always exceeded 300, sometimes approaching 400. The general tone was disrespectful, sometimes scatological, often insightful and witty—and very, very interactive! Those posting were fans but seldom uncritical fans, and very quick to pick up on malapropisms, tortured language and the irritating traits of both judges and contestants.
Most of all, it was fun and a great way to spend a multi-tasking Tuesday evening. Lawrence has initiated similar events for Neighbours At War and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding but these are easier targets and Masterchef remains the premium event, where interaction added to the richness of the viewing experience.
Geoff Lealand is Associate Professor in Screen and Media Studies, University of Waikato, New Zealand, where he teaches and writes about world cinema, television, children and media, and media education. You can check out his current research activities HERE and HERE. A yet to be fulfilled ambition is to watch all episodes of The Wire. Currently developing a telefeature proposal about Shirley Temple look-alike contests in Christchurch (NZ) in the 1930s, as a discourse on Hollywood, fandom and memory.
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