This is going to seem like a bit of a tangent, but during my holiday hiatus I was reading a collection of academic pieces on screenwriting (certainly an understudied aspect of the motion picture industry) titled Analysing the Screenplay. The opening chapter, on the origins of screenwriting in the U.S., actually ended up addressing one of the key themes underlying Audience Evolution.
This chapter documented how, in the early days of the motion picture industry (the 1910s, to be specific), the industry not only accepted — but actually encouraged — participation from the general public. As the chapter’s author, Torey Liepa, states, “Encouraged through promotion in the trade press, screenwriting manuals, and elsewhere, writing for film was initially advertised as a task for which the industry not only desired, but needed input from the public.” Studios literally took out ads in print publications soliciting scripts from the general public.
However, within a decade, the movie industry’s openness to creative participation from the public had already begun to change, with the industry evolving into the largely closed system it has remained ever since. As Liepa states, “By the end of the decade, however, film writing had become a largely regulated and institutionalized function within the industry’s own producton aparatus. As the industry took shape throughout the decade, consolidating into several dominant studios and streamlining and rationalizing production, writing was increasingly assigned to an ascendant class of professionals.”
This little-known aspect of the history of the movie industry highlights something I talk about a fair bit in Audience Evolution — the way in which the media industries’ relationship to their audiences went from being somewhat open, porous, and interactive, to much more segregated and uni-directional.
The pattern Liepa documents in the motion picture industry is the same pattern that we saw in the early history other media such as newspapers and radio. Early radio programmers, for instance, actively sought the input of their listeners in determining the directions their programming would take; though like with motion pictures, the industry fairly quickly closed off such opportunities for broader public participation.
As I discuss in a fair bit of detail in Audience Evolution, the pendulum is now swinging back the other way, with the lines between industry and audience once again blurring, with the public now having the opportunity to play a much more participatory role in the activities of various media industry segments, whether it be in the form of audience-generated product advertisements, online fan discussion forums being increasingly relied upon by TV producers to determine the narrative path for their programs, or, of course, major content distributors such as Amazon and iTunes stocking what we might call user generated content right alongside more traditional institutionally produced content. Additional examples abound. They all, of course, arise from a dramatically reconfigured technological environment that not only allows — but compels — a reconceptualization of the relationship between media institutions and the broader public.
And so, within this process of audience evolution, the nature of the relationship between media institutions and their audiences can change dramatically, and, somewhat surprisingly, many of the changing dynamics of this relationship that we see taking place today are, in fact, in somes ways a return to the early developmental periods of many of our media technologies.