Researching Media Experiences

Utopia research report now avaliable

Annette Hill  –  21 December 2016, Lund, Sweden

Our research on the cult TV drama Utopia is a prime example of why industry and academic research matters. We’ve published the complete report here and hope you enjoy the amazing dialogue between the creative producers and their audiences about why this drama still lives and continues to make a mark in people’s lives.

The production and audience research for Utopia involved a method of cultural conversations, where the voices of producers and the values they create are connected with the voices of audiences and their experiences. A total of 77 qualitative interviews with producers and audiences were conducted from April 2015 to April 2016. The data includes 21 production interviews with executive and creative producers and actors; and 56 audience and fan interviews with individuals and groups of young adults and adults, aged 16-38, from Europe, Russia, America, Canada, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand.

The key findings from the empirical research highlight how Utopia hits home, appealing to an underground, international audience that goes far beyond national audiences or formal distribution models. The writer, director, and the Kudos production team engage in a geo-political conversation with alternative viewers, watching the drama in informal ways. By far the most significant theme of the research relates to the way the drama dares to address moral and philosophical issues and asks audiences to consider the big question about the fate of humanity. The transgressive aesthetics of Utopia, experimentation in image, colour and sound, all contribute to a unique audio-visual experience. This experience has a profound impact on audiences and fans, as they passionately engage with multi-faceted storytelling about power and morality. For many fans, Utopia is happening – the drama speaks to them directly about current affairs, global capitalism, and political regimes. Although Utopia is over, the drama lives on, whether through online fan discussions, in people’s dreams, or in media and political activism.

We were so lucky to work with the production company Kudos, and Douglas Wood at Endemol Shine; without their trust in the research and their belief in the value of audience research there would be no record of why Utopia is one of the most significant television dramas to grace our screens in recent years.

Here are some comments from the creative producers on the value of the report, showing how much the voices of audiences and fans are valued by these artists and their reflection on this drama.

Dennis Kelly (Writer, Utopia)

It was very exciting and moving to read this. It’s not only a great record of what we were trying to achieve with Utopia but also of how an intelligent audience interacts with a show, broadens it and helps it live way beyond it’s original broadcast. It succinctly captures the making, the viewing and the discussing of Utopia and perhaps gives a glimpse into why a show this odd and fucked up couldn’t really survive in our existence for very long.

Marc Munden (Director, Utopia)

This is a beautiful thing! Epic and detailed, mixing technical and creative views with the voices of audiences and their views of Utopia. As a filmmaker, it’s so rare to be party to such feedback on television, so it’s inspiring to hear of the audience interaction that has taken place around the series.

Cristobal Tapia de Veer (Composer, Utopia)

This is great, because it feels as if Utopia and its audience have a relationship close to a band with its fans. It’s not disposable and forgettable like most shit on tv.


Magical Media Audiences

Annette Hill – 10 December 2016, Lund, Sweden

How does imagination fit within audience studies? There is no magic trick. Audience researchers are not magicians who perform sleight of hand, nor should they be skilled in the art of deception. And, yet there is magic in media audiences.

Audience research involves patience, hard work, and a sharp eye for detail. But, there is also creativity within audience data and there is a challenge to audience researchers in we recognise this in our research and writing. There is a symbolic magic to research, where people’s actions, thouP1000098ghts, feelings and experiences are transformed into data, and in turn that data is transformed into ideas. Although the magic of audiences may be symbolic, without it research becomes flat and uninspiring. It lacks the dynamics of transformation.

I recently read the book Keeping Good Time by Avery Gordon (2004, Paradigm). In this book she extols the power of the imagination in what she calls magical feminism. She takes inspiration from the Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano, a novelist, poet and journalist, who said that his style of magical Marxism of the history of Latin America was made up of one half reason, one half passion, and one third mystery. Gordon loves the unconventional mathematics of this approach, where the parts exceed the whole. She quotes from Galeano (2004: 1) in a story called the ‘Celebration of Fantasy’ to show what he means by magical research. Galeano is standing by some stone ruins, writing in his notebook. A local boy asks him if he can have his pen. Rather than give him the pen, Galeano offers to draw a pig on the boy’s hand:

Suddenly word got around. I was surrounded by a throng of little boys demanding at the top of their lungs that I draw animals on their little hands cracked by the dirt and cold, their skin of burnt leather: one wanted a condor and one a snake, others preferred little parrots and owls, and some asked for a ghost or dragon.

Then in the middle of this racket, a little waif who barely cleared a yard off the ground showed me a watch drawn in black ink on his wrist.

An uncle of mine who lives in Lima sent it to me, he said.

And does it keep good time? I asked him.

It’s a bit slow, he admitted.

Gordon argues, along with Galeano, that the imagination of people, sometimes called a social imaginary, or global imaginary, is crucial to the study of people because through narrativising and re-narrativising culture people have a capacity and skills to analyse the conditions of their own experiences often better than academics and elites.

And isn’t this what audience research can do? In our work we can explore how ordinary people understand and recognize and sometimes push against the social and cultural conditions of their lived experiences.

Audience research involves reason and passion and, perhaps above all, imagination.


The Bridge and a Sense of Place

Annette Hill – September 2016, Lund, Sweden

Our research on The Bridge has just been published in the book New Patterns in Global Television Formats, edited by Karina Aveyard, Albert Moran and Pia Majbritt Jensen (Intellect 2016). The chapter ‘Sense of Place: Producers and Audiences of International Drama Format The Bridge’ explores the specificity of place as built into the storytelling of a format like The Bridge that is located in the geo-cultural politics of border territories in three versions of the drama series set between Sweden and Denmark, Britain and France, and USA and Mexico (Filmlance International and Endemol Shine). These cross border territories provide the backdrop to a crime drama, where generic elements such as criminal detectives, or a melancholy mood, are interwoven with regional landscapes. In this way, the drama format works double time in engaging local and transnational audiences in a sense of place that is embedded in a cultural geography of cross border territories, and also connected to an aesthetic and emotional landscape of the crime genre. This multiplicity of place as geo-cultural, generic, aesthetic and emotional is perfectly encapsulated in the following comment by a viewer of Bron//Broen: ‘They put you in this place and give you a sense of magnitude and perspective. So it’s like they’re dropping you, like little human beings, in this massive story, these mysteries’ (58 year old American male web designer).

Here is an extract from the introduction, below, and you can read the full piece in the book.

The Bridge addresses what Moran and Aveyard (2014) call the ‘geo-cultural paradox’ of international formats. This paradox refers to the inherent contradictions in the quintessential ‘go anywhere’ value of a global format that works alongside an appeal to local audiences. Moran and Aveyard (2014: 20) call on researchers to ‘explore the characteristics of these multi-layered geographic interrelationships.’ This research considers the geo-cultural paradox and aims to understand how television format producers attempt to engage both local and transnational audiences. The Bridge is uniquely positioned for a critical analysis of the geo-cultural paradox of international television formats. The ‘go anywhere’ value of a global format means a television drama risks being any place and no place at the same time. Producers of The Bridge strategically use the specificity of place by embedding the storytelling in geo-cultural politics. In this way, producers can attempt to engage local/transnational audiences through a sense of place that works in various ways, for example through distinctive landscape and locality, or genre, characters and emotions, that grabs viewers and keeps them in the here and now of specific stories.

The idea of sense of place is explored through the case study of production and audience research of The Bridge. The multi-method and multi-site data includes industry ratings and social media analytics, interviews, focus groups, and participant observations with executive and creative producers and audiences of this television format. This ongoing research is conducted in Sweden, Denmark, Britain, France, America and Mexico and includes a sample of 100 participants during 2013-2015 (see research note). Adrian Athique (2014) argues that audience studies fails to account for the specificity of place. He notes how transnational audiences and internet users wander anywhere and everywhere, but in doing so become placeless. Athique challenges audience researchers to empirically explore the specificity of place within global formats. This article takes up the call to consider place, both within production and audience studies. The benefit of looking at the specificity of place in production studies ensures researchers can critically examine television producers’ creative treatment of place as multiple points of connection with audiences. This mode of address is only one part of the picture, and the benefits of audience studies allow researchers to look through the construction of place to explore how audiences actually engage with this issue. The constitution of television and the international format trade ensure there is another notion of place as the actual placement of a format on public service, commercial, subscription channels, and online distribution platforms, and its performance in ratings and social media. Thus, in this article a sense of place is analysed from three perspectives, the producers’ construction of locality and storytelling, audience engagement, and the constitution of television. Such an approach helps us to understand the interrelations between modes of address and modes of engagement within production and audience research (see Hill 2007).

The overall aim of this article is to understand a sense of place as a complex, and at times contradictory, issue within research on global formats, production cultures, and cultures of viewing. We can describe producer and audience practices as entangled relations. There is no clear cut path to the ways producers of The Bridge construct a sense of place as a mode of address and the various ways audiences engage with this drama format. A problem that arises from the empirical research is the ambiguity of contemporary drama formats. Is The Bridge a drama format, an adaptation, or an original production? It is all of these things, and yet runs the risk of being neither one thing nor the other with audiences. This ambiguity creates problems for a format with a go anywhere quality. Although the specificity of place is one way for the format trade to overcome a geo-cultural paradox it can backfire with audiences. For example the international success of the original version of the drama format Bron//Broen as part of the contemporary wave of Nordic Noir (see Waade and Jensen 2013) was not replicated in the American-Mexican adaptation. The Bridge (FX 2013-2014) had a schizophrenic identity as a drama that was trying to be both a format with global appeal and a local adaptation with regional appeal, and was cancelled after its second season. The reasons for the success and failure of original drama and adaptations highlight the entangled relations between the production and reception of The Bridge and the complex notion of place within our understanding of global formats.


The Bridge and Push-Pull Dynamics

Annette Hill – July 2016, Lund, Sweden

More research just published on The Bridge. This journal article ‘Push-Pull Dynamics: Producers and Audiences for Television Drama The Bridge’, appears in a special issue on Media Producers and Audiences in Television and New Media, Volume 17 (8). Annette Hill was a guest editor with Vicki Mayer. This special issue arose from an international conference we ran at Lund University, with selected research published from the event. You can find the full article here.

And here is the abstract that outlines the main argument in the research:

This article explores push–pull dynamics in television drama production and reception. Push–pull dynamics are understood as complicated power relations in the transactions between television industries and audiences. The research is underpinned by qualitative data, drawing on more than 170 participants in interviews, focus groups, and participant observations, with producers and audiences from Northern Europe and North and South America. A case study of The Bridge (FX, 2013–2014) crime drama and its adaptations is used to think through the idea of push–pull dynamics. A key question concerns how power is performed in television itself, referring to work in cultural studies and Williams’s notion of the television experience. The Bridge crime drama and its adaptations underscore the particularities of power for television industries and audiences: this is not a tale of surrender to global industrial forces; rather, this is a story of the reality of power and the struggle over how producers and audiences make sense of global television.

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