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Having already done my fair share of internet surfing, I was excited to finally have the opportunity to do a research paper that involved this vast and seemingly boundless electronic world. It is easy to passively interact with the rest of the world and scan effortlessly through millions of pages of information, some of which is useful, some of which simply takes up space; the problem that many researchers and interest groups face is making sense of the whole thing. What effects does the internet have on people? This question is no doubt an immense one. In this paper I will attempt to explore the effects the internet has on one major aspect of our everyday lives: television. The internet is not only linked to television in the sense that they both convey vast amounts of information, but they both seem to complement each other. The internet is presenting vast amounts of information about our favorite television shows as well as providing an arena for discussion about the programs. I will present to you what is available out there and hypothesize how this can enhance or alter one’s experience with television. Included in this paper will be actual responses from individuals around the world who responded to a survey I posted on various internet newsgroups devoted to specific television shows. The most relevant responses are attached as an appendix at the end of this paper.
I will first briefly define the terms that I will use to avoid any ambiguities. When I refer to the internet, I refer to the vast encyclopedia of information presented through a graphical interface as pages, or web sites. Newsgroups refer to a different aspect of the world-wide web. They consist of over ten thousand separate and specific forums or centers where people post comments or remarks and read other’s replies or comments. Each newsgroup is devoted to a different theme. For example, there are over two hundred devoted to television; one or two for Friends, one for Party of Five, one for the CBC, etc. Chat groups are an interactive aspect of the world-wide web in which people can talk in real time. There is an unlimited number of channels one can speak on, although there are more popular ones with specific themes; for example, the channel alt.tv.simpsons is a popular channel for Simpsons fans to discuss the show. These are the main aspects of the world-wide web which can handle affairs dealing with television. The broadest, of course, is the internet. I will refer to those who browse the internet as “surfers.” (Please note that most of the information I am presenting refers to The Simpsons since it is by far the most popular television show portrayed on the internet, having what appears to be the most web sites, by far the most newsgroup postings, and the most chat lines)
The amount and variety of information available on the internet is beyond comprehension. Television guides from around the world (including TVGuide) are all on the internet in their entirety, in a searchable form including descriptions of the episodes, reviews etc. Features include the ability to search TVGuide for all shows in the next two weeks that have the any given word in it, “shark” for example. This not only increases the amount of television one watches (i.e. they don’t miss interesting shows they would otherwise not know about), but most likely enhances the experience of watching the show since they can learn much about the episode beforehand. For example, in the description of the show they might link you to a site that gives you extra background information on sharks. All major networks have their own sites with complete time grids for the week, descriptions of shows and actors and various additional information, such as David Letterman’s Top Ten Lists. Countless web sites are also devoted to specific television shows. For example, while performing a search for the show X-Files (a unique name), I came up with over 20,000 direct references to the show. The sites essentially expand on the experience of television for the viewer. Any individual can find any information they require about a series, specific episode, or character. The information on characters can include both their fictional roles and their real-life situation. (Sites devoted to some of the better looking actors and actresses seem to be a very popular attraction). Therefore, if someone wanted to inquire about an aspect of a series, which will most likely enhance his or her experience for the show, the information is available in minutes. For example, I was curious as to who wrote one of my favorite Simpsons episodes, The Monorail. Within one minute, I had discovered that Conan O’Brien had written it, enhancing my appreciation for both The Simpsons and his talk show.
Most “official” sites, either sponsored by the show or the network, provide scripts to past episodes and details on, or clues to, future episodes; often explaining the motivations and/or hidden agendas behind many of the episodes. People from around the world can either follow a show that they don’t have access to (see responses 5, 15), perhaps in a different country, or read the summaries of episodes that they have missed. Included in these sites are popular images and sounds of the characters, trivia based on the episode, internet “treasure hunts,” as well as other interactive elements; all promoting increased interest in the show as well as rampant discussions on the chat lines and newsgroups. One of the most popular interactive events on the internet was a “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” contest. In the season finale of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns was shot and a long series of deliberately intricate and ambiguous clues were presented in the episode. Throughout the summer, the “official” web site held a contest. Each week new clues were presented and a new suspect analysed while surfers were allowed to cast their votes. The contest ended when the season premiere revealed the shooter. This method for enhancing viewers’ interests in a series has grown in popularity, with similar contests appearing at other programs’ web sites. Another interesting interactive aspect of the internet has been a “cyber-series” of Homicide, the series. An entire season of the show, which is actually a pseudo-spin-off of the series, was presented on the internet. Each week a new episode added to the series, with short movies, pictures, and text, all in an interactive context. As you can see, the internet has provided not only the viewer with all the information he needs to enhance his experience and interests in the series, it has provided the networks and/or producers a medium to advertise the program and stimulate interest in the show in a unique, engaging, and seemingly effective manner.
The newsgroups and chat lines provide the most interactive and by far the most absorbing facet of the internet which is having an effect on our experience with television. This is where the fans (or non-fans?) can express themselves and learn about the interests of others. The newsgroups are filled with questions, comments, remarks, and replies every day pertaining to an array of issues surrounding their series of choice. Typically each television-related newsgroup gets between 100 to over a thousand posts a day from fans around the world. Some sample numbers of posts per day include: 155 for Friends, 324 for Party of Five, 310 for Seinfeld, 800 for X-Files, and 1106 for The Simpsons (data collected once a day for three days). The newsgroups and chat lines are where the true uses and gratifications of television are enhanced. The diversion that television provides is augmented, while the maintenance of personal relations and social interactions are no doubt the main feature of these services. They allow viewers with common interests who live down the street, or on the other side of the planet, to bond with each other and reinforce or reconsider each others opinions. Para-social interactions no doubt arise as well. In response number 3, the fan believes he has established a relationship with one of the Beverly Hills 90210 characters. Assuming this person is serious (which can never be safely assumed), we quite noticeably see the extent to which the internet has elevated viewers’ experiences with television.
The topics presented in newsgroups and chat lines are tremendously diverse and at the same time quite interesting. Common themes that come up include: favorite episode, favorite line (from any character or one in particular), who dresses the best, ideas for future shows, and hidden messages or meanings in any given episode, or in the series in general. The endless search for hidden messages or alternative interpretations is the most intriguing aspect of the internet that has shaped or enhanced our experience with television. Producers typically convey a dominant ideology in mind when creating a series or episode; a meaning or message that they want to communicate to the audience. The true message transmitted by any given episode or series is determined by the way we decode the semiotics or messages that are portrayed to us either through text, sound, or image. What happens in newsgroups and on chat lines is that hundreds or thousands of individuals come together to discuss the series or episode, typically soon after it airs. The result of this negotiated-reading is the unveiling of new meanings, some intended by the producers, some unintended. This type of analysis is of great interest to most, as it allows for a deeper involvement into the series that you love. Other chat lines and newsgroups are more simplistic. The newsgroup for Beverly Hills 90210, for example, usually consists of fans’ remarks about how good Valerie looked or how upset they are that Steve said what he said about Brandon. Either way, these facets of the world-wide web allow for people who truly love the show to get together and discuss it, in whatever fashion they choose. The end result is the same: interest in the show is augmented and the uses and gratifications derived from the show are enhanced. The viewers, however, are not the only ones to benefit from the opportunities the internet provides.
Networks and producers have gained an immediate link to the audiences that they are seeking to interpret and satisfy. Producers, writers, executives, and presidents are uninhibited from anonymously going onto these chat lines or newsgroups and asking questions and reading comments or feedback. (To prove this fact, when I posted my question on the internet for this essay, I received two replies from executives from Due South (Story Department Coordinator) and an unspecified show who both wanted a copy of this paper or some sort of showing as to how people responded.) All major networks and television shows provide special nights on selected chat lines in which a writer, producer, or actor will appear on the line to answer questions in real-time. Networks and most “official” television series sites also have e-mail addresses which are directly linked to the head offices. Viewers can therefore send comments or suggestions, or questions (direct answers are rare however), to the executives. This also increases viewers’ interest in a program since he or she might feel that they have had a say in what is happening in future episodes.
With all the benefits that the internet provides, surfers must be aware that the internet has its drawbacks. The most obvious problem that has recently become a reality is the fact that there is simply too much out there. When you want to access specific information it is often difficult to find it very efficiently. There are many official sites, yet there many out there who are simply fanatics of the program and post personal information about themselves and what they like about the show. The potential problems with this are twofold. Firstly, copyright laws are virtually ignored on the on-line world. This may not concern us, but for the networks and producers this is of primary importance. Countless images and sounds are distributed at will by die-hard fans. This may promote the television series to a certain extent, but copyright laws are no doubt being infringed upon. Secondly, there is no limit to the amount of false and misleading information that can circulate on the internet, newsgroups, or chat lines. For whatever reason imaginable, some people get a kick out of starting rumors or misleading people with respect to an aspect of a program. Therefore, with all its benefits and enhancements, one must always be cautious as to how they interpret the information they are being doused with.
I hope that I have provided a broad enough scope of the internet in this short space to allow you to realize the powerful impact that it has had on our experience with television. I did not directly include all the responses to my question in this paper, as it would have taken up too much space. Rather, I attempted to use their opinions as support for my hypothesis, and instead included a selection of the responses in an appendix for you to read. The world-wide web and its many facets have no doubt been exploited by television viewers to enhance the uses and gratifications that television provides them with. The reason the world-wide web has become so popular is not simply because there is so much information out there, but because it appeals to the individual. Whatever you personal interests may be, however strange or uncommon, chances are that you can seek refuge in this vast electronic universe. Whether you are looking for simple textual facts, a picture of Courtney Cox, what Homer said to Bart right after he stole his wallet on last night’s episode, or simply looking for someone to share your interests with, the internet provides it for you in the comfort of your own home. In conclusion, the internet a complex and interactive medium that, as I have shown, greatly enhances one’s personal experience with television.
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