- Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet
The subtitle hints at the focus of Sharon Marie Ross' book: Beyond the Box analyses what Ross calls teleparticipation, or opportunities to engage with television outside the show itself, mostly online. Such engagement implicates more than the viewer, who is presented here as an active participant in making meaning: joining the viewer are the show's writers, producers and marketers, among others, no longer lurking, invisible, behind closed doors but now reading the boards and forums where fans congregate to discuss the show – Television without Pity being the most famous example (www.televisionwithoutpity.com). This smart, accessible book can be read usefully with Jason Mittell's various publications on narrative complexity, particularly in terms of Lost (2004–); Matt Hills' analysis of Fan Cultures (2002); Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture (2006); Sara Gwenllian-Jones' work in Cult Television (2004); Annette Kuhn's 1984 study of audience published in Screen 25.1, 'Women's Genres'; and Ross and Louisa Ellen Stein's edited volume on Teen Television (2008).
Ross interviewed and surveyed fans – her sample limited, as Ross admits, in that most were white American women – in an attempt to understand how consumer relates to producer. In her analysis, she explores the notion of an Internet-connected social audience for a television show, now that such a connection is practically a given; how fans, fandom and engagement with the source text might have changed; and how consumption of television has altered. The shows Ross analyses include Xena: Warrior Princess (US 1995–2001), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US 1997–2002), American Idol (US 2002–), Lost (US 2004–) and the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup of cartoons geared to adults, such as Family Guy (US 1999–2003, 2005–) and King of the Hill (US 1997–). One chapter is given over to analysis of teen expectations of teleparticipation. Some, but definitely not all, of these shows might be classified as cult television, a difficult-to-define term that revolves around the (lack of) a programme's perceived mainstream acceptability. Ross describes cult television as a show that tends to invite active fan engagement, such as writing fan fiction. Cult texts often have nonrealistic elements, perhaps supernatural, perhaps fantastic, perhaps science fictional, as well-known examples Buffy and Xena demonstrate. But as Ross rightly points out, although much scholarship has explored the notion of the cult show, in part because the engaged fans create artworks that fan studies scholars like to analyse, the notion that can be drawn from it – a social audience – transcends the cult status and the genre of a programme. [End Page 142]
Ross chooses to focus on television rather than other visual media, such as film or Internet-released, visual texts, because she wishes to emphasise the ongoing nature of the extended narrative, which comprises many episodes and perhaps many seasons. Ross argues, following Walter Benjamin, that 'the Internet as an extension of the TV text may be contributing mightily to a revitalization of storytelling' (25), which, thanks to teleparticipation, extends beyond the source. The move from beyond the screen to an ancillary source, the Internet, imbricates an already extended narrative. Further, Ross wants to deal with the fans of the show, a stance that places her book firmly within the realm of fan studies as well as the more general field of media studies. Indeed, her conclusion describes the empowerment of fans in various fan-spearheaded, save-the-show campaigns, driven in part by a sense of the emotional connections experienced by the fans. Affective engagement results in feelings of ownership, yet at the end of the day, The Powers That Be are still the storytellers and the true owners of the text. Despite this, however, if TPTB decide to engage with fans, they must be prepared to have an actual conversation. They can not drop in, make a pronouncement, and leave: Ross speaks of heightened 'expectations for intimacy and connectedness; and while this dynamic revolves primarily around the community online, it applies to anyone entering that space' – writer, producer or fan...