New & Old Media, and How We Use It

This week’s readings, in a nutshell, examine the way that we consume media, so I am going to discuss them through the lens of one of my favorite pieces of media: Parks & Recreation, the comedy series that ran on NBC between April 2009 and February 20015.

First off, why do I like this show so much? It is decidedly upbeat but identifiable. The leading characters are often impossibly ideal, but they are still animated by realistic insecurities and even overwhelmed by daunting situations. Still, the protagonists find constructive ways to resolve conflict between one another and they surmount seemingly unscaleable obstacles via inspiration and teamwork. The world of Parks & Recreation is just and ultimately benign, and I solemnly believe it is an instruction manual for being a decent human being.

This personal view conforms with Elihu Katz’s Uses & Gratification theory of media. As Sarder and Van Loon summarize, “certain items are selected from the media, either because they provide gratification for entertainment, or for utility needs.” (Sarder & Van Loon, p. 30) In other words, I select this show not just for enjoyment but because it meets specific needs and expectations. For me, it meets three of the four needs Dennis McQuail used to elaborate Katz’s theory: diversion, personal relationships, and personal identity. (Sarder & Van Loon, p. 31) I enjoy watching the show because it gives me something to share with other people, and shows me things I wish to see in the world and other people.  

It is no surprise that upbeat wish fulfillment makes for profitable entertainment, but the most ironic aspect of Parks & Recreation can be unpacked by Bolter & Brusin’s concepts of immediacy & remediation. Television is not unlike computer software in that its producers “seek to remove the traces of their presence in order to give their program the greatest possible autonomy.” (Bolter & Brusin, p. 27). This is the immediacy of television; it is a moving trompe l’oeil.

Yet the it is the show’s self-conscious use of a faux-documentary style– a remediation of other media– that makes it even more intimate. Much like its predecessor, The Office, Parks & Recreation makes ample use of the “talking head” technique, where a character separates her/himself from the action to disclose their own personal thoughts. The “talking head” derives from documentary film, and was refashioned by so-called “reality TV.”

However, unlike The Office, which remediated the style of “reality TV” to revitalize the sitcom, Parks & Recreation drops the documentary pretense while maintaining its style. Unlike The Office, there is no finale that treats the characters as if they had always been subjects of a documentary. Both use the “talking head” to reveal different characters’ supposedly spontaneous thoughts, with similar effect, but for Parks & Recreation it is a dedicated technique, simulating intimacy with the viewer by apparently bypassing not only the producers of the show (immediacy) but also the fictitious mediator of its predecessors (a documentary crew).  In this sense, the use of the “talking head” in Parks & Recreation can fall into what Bolter & Brusin describe as “a spectrum of different ways in which digital media remediate their predecessors, a spectrum depending on the degree of perceived competition or rivalry between the new media and the old.” (Bolter & Brusin, p. 45)

Equally important, however, is that I consume this form of media through Netfilx. Netflix fits very neatly into Bolter & Brusin’s position that “creators of other electronic remediations want to emphasize the difference rather than erase it.” “In these cases,” they continue, “the electronic the electronic version is offered as an improvement, although the new is still justified in terms of the old and seeks to remain faithful to the older medium’s character.” (Bolter & Brusin, p. 46)

Granted, movies, television, and Netflix are all electronic media, but the building off of, and expanding upon, older forms of media still occurs. The interface for selection is somewhat different from cable menus, and definitely different from movie theaters, but Netflix allows viewers to pick from a vast array of familiar and new shows and movies, and consume them via laptops, television sets, tablets, and cell phones. What is more, viewers can watch as much, or little, as desired at a time of his or her choosing. In other words, Netflix is not exactly television, but it is an augmented way to watch TV.

Now, for hypermediacy’s sake, please watch this clip: Parks & Recreation: Ann is beautiful.

–Will Greer



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