Wednesday, 29 July 2009

TVless Life

Television used to be my life.

I decided that was what I wanted to research when I saw my first Oprah Winrey Show in Chicago in 1992. Those were the days of mothers who dated their daughters' transvestite boyfriends. That kind of anarchy on TV, the most official and powerful of all media! Afterwards, as if to balance this out, I got to calculate content diversity indices for annual studies of the Ministry of Communications of Finland. I realised that television systems and programming strategies could also 'create audiences' and be real sites of (media policy) power struggles. I spent some 10 years researching the small screen.

TV Disappears

But since January 2008 when I moved to New York I haven't had a TV. People talked about 30 Rock and enthused about the last episode of Battlestar Galactica. I had no clue.

I noticed that I didn't desire any of it. I read online from the New York Times that my favourite show ever, ER was about to have its season and series finale (what is it about all these grand finales in 2009?) and would log on to Hulu, to see it after the 'real time' broadcast.  I would also check some excerpts of old Finnish sitcoms, on YouTube, that someone would share in their Facebook profile. I read a lot at night.

TV = Less Life

Now, having spent 6 weeks in Finland this summer I realise that more TV equals less life. I was back being hooked.

Housesitting a friend's place with a nice HD wide screen TV, I started the mornings with the public service moning show.  Serious discussions about the necessity of biking helmets. Afterwards, I felt bored (but in a good way),  engaged (in a distanced way); in other words, ready to start my day as a citizen.

Then I stayed tuned in the PSB channel TV1 for the Canadian soap, set on the 19th century Nova Scotia. Road to Avonlea (remember, anyone?) .  My taste degraded as the day grew old: The enlightened Oprah and the spin-off favourite, Dr. Phil; followed by reruns of fashion-related reality shows (Australian Top Model) and B class romantic comedy series (the Ex List) in commercial channels.

TV is National and Nostalgic...

This experience has taught me two things: how old habits such as media practices stick with us, and how broadcast TV is still very much a national construct. Although I don't miss American television, I feel attached and drawn to the kind of programming, on Finnish television, that resembles television culture that I grew up with (I'm 41).

But I also found out, as I bet many expats and fans of foreign TV shows before me, that no matter of all the webstreams and digi-TV-ready computers, the present copyright regime keeps the (free or low-cost) flow of television programming within national borders.

The Case of TV-Kaista

Professor Hannu Nieminen of the University of Helsinki has recently written a unique case study on a Finnish attempt to bypass national borders in television webstreaming (in print: Jostein Gripsrud and Hallvard Moe, eds.: The Digital Public Sphere: Challenges for Media Policy, Nordicom).

He tells a fascinating story: 

From summer 2006 TVkaista has offered a global service which allows anybody from anywhere in the world to have access to all Finnish free-to-air television broadcasts for a small fee. Only difference to watching live television is the time that it takes to record the programme before having access to the copy.  In autumn 2006 major Finnish television companies challenged TVkaista for breaching their copyright. The argument was that in effect, TVkaista was nothing but commercially motivated re-transmission of the TV-companies’ copyright-protected programmes, and as such it was plainly illegal. TVkaista, in turn, claims it only offers recording service, not the programming.

Nieminen concludes:
  • TVkaista as a service-format is an exciting example of the hardships that today’s global copyright governance faces. There is an urgent need to study similar experimentations and their reception in other countries. Does the prevailing copyright regime offer any real solution to TVkaista’s challenge? 
  • The case of TVkaista brings out interesting topics concerning cultural democracy in the digital era, especially regarding both the creation of comprehensive and publicly accessible national audiovisual archives, and the competencies of the ex-patriots to actively participate in the social and cultural life of their home countries. However, is this participatory potential is real or is it just wishful thinking? If it is real, what more is needed in order to make it stronger?
  • From the viewpoint of the European public sphere, the case of TVkaista includes promising prospects: these kinds of services can be seen both to represent and to promote a new kind of European cosmopolitanism. Again, the problem is if this cosmopolitan promise is just our optimistic projection or do we have some concrete evidence of the democratising effects of such services?

Nieminen's article depicts a case par excellence of how TV could matter, precisely because it's national but its distribution is potentially global. At the same time, the discussion on the role and funding of Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) continues, e.g.,
online in yesterday's (8/19) biggest Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat. The core idea simplified: although people might not watch TV they are likely to follow content though some distribution channel. Consequently,  every household should pay a 'media fee' and that would be used to fund public service media. 

As noted in my last post, commercial media houses are in a mission to challenge YLE's existence in all possible ways. Not surprisingly, a new poll (commissioned, unsurprisingly, by the Finnish Association of Newspapers,  a major opponent of PSM) showing people's major discontent to the idea most comments to the news item seem to call for a narrowed mission for PSB, and budget-based funding. 

Long Live TV!

Television is no longer only the apparatus in the living room. Public service is no longer only broadcasting. And mainstream audiences are indeed getting more and more comfortable in watching content on their laptops,  as the New York Times recently reported:

By some estimates, one in four Internet customers now uses Hulu, an online home for NBC and Fox shows, every month. “Dancing With the Stars,” the popular ABC reality show, draws almost two million viewers on, according to Nielsen. (...) While online video is not going to replace television anytime soon, it is now decidedly mainstream. About 150 million Internet users in the United States watch about 14.5 billion videos a month, according to the measurement firm comScore, or an average of 97 videos per viewer.

At the same time, TV still gathers biggest audiences, most ad money, and even changes the aesthetics and duration of the online video. From the aforementioned NYT article:

Production companies are now creating 10- and 20-minute shows for the Internet and writing story arcs for their characters — essentially acting more like television producers, while operating far outside the boundaries of a network schedule. (...)

Yet TV networks get much of the credit for the longer-length viewing behavior. In the past two TV seasons, nearly every broadcast show has been streamed free on the Internet, making users accustomed to watching TV online for 20-plus minutes at a time. 

To echo the scholar/media practitioner John Ellis, who set to write his book Seeing Things about the death of television, but had to change his mind: Television is not dead. Television did not kill cinema. Net/mobile video content will not kill television. There will be interaction, and mingling and mixing, and convergence. 

As the case of my old habits and TVkaista show, the conventional, 'old-fashioned' characteristics and qualities of television (national-bound aspects, public service traditions,  'liveness' and simultaneous consumption) could be used to its advantage. In the times of Ipods, vinyl records became popular again. Rephrasing Ellis: the lone net surfer may increasingly begin to yearn the sense of common witnessing.

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