Random Thoughts: Does Content Shape the Medium or Vice Versa?

The structure of a medium shapes the content it conveys, sometimes unintentionally. Take the advent and success of Netflix, for example. The company began as a DVD-by-mail service, saving film aficionados a trip to the local video store (and ultimately killing off that business model completely). Then, as the age of immediacy progressed, Netflix began […]

The structure of a medium shapes the content it conveys, sometimes unintentionally. Take the advent and success of Netflix, for example. The company began as a DVD-by-mail service, saving film aficionados a trip to the local video store (and ultimately killing off that business model completely). Then, as the age of immediacy progressed, Netflix began offering its movies on demand service, giving audiences instant access to wide variety of movies and television shows.

As “on-demand” services grew more popular, traditional television and movie release schedules began to change. For movies, the time between theatrical and television release shortened. As for television, the traditional “once a week” format fell by the wayside as people resorted to binge watching episodes on a streaming service. Now, the streaming services are producing their own movies and television shows, bypassing both the traditional network and studio systems. As a result, filmmakers are changing the narrative structures of their movies to fit audience expectations and needs. For example, “straight-to-DVD” movies now have “stopping points” built into the stories, so viewers can watch them as they would a television show – a massive paradigm shift in the way movies are both constructed and subsequently moved.

Interestingly enough, when surveying the history of streaming video, it’s hard to tell which came first: viewers’ needs changing the media, or the existence of the media shaping the viewers’ needs. If the latter were true, this would insinuate that the very medium of does NOT necessarily determine its content – at least not at first. In actuality, the medium is introduced to the public, who then shapes the content of the medium through engagement or lack thereof. This isn’t a new phenomenon. The talkies of the early 1930s demonstrate this idea by increasing the sophistication of both the technological and narrative aspects of cinema. Not only did performers have to entertain audiences with their acting prowess, they now had to learn and utilize voice techniques suitable for film. On stage, performers tend to use exaggerated body motions and speak loudly to ensure that everyone in the audience – including those in the back – could hear. Film, however, requires much more of a nuanced, subtle performance.

In another case of “the audience influencing the art,” once talkies grew popular, audiences demanded silence from other patrons. This was a massive shift from the earlier film era, where talking was allowed (and sometimes encouraged) to create a feeling of camaraderie. According to Robert Sklar in Movie Made America, television comedies use a laugh track to recreate a feeling of community. Cinema isn’t awarded such a luxury, however, and Sklar later notes, “… The talking audience for silent pictures became a silent audience for talking pictures.”

In the end, it seems like art and its intended audience maintains a synergistic relationship with one another, eternally influencing the other via a “call and response” relationship that transcends structure or control.

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