Digital Labor in Participatory Television
by Adam Fish — Anthropology Department, UCLA
May 05, 2011 – 00:00
From 2006-2009, while a graduate student in Cinema and Media Studies and later Anthropology at UCLA, I worked as a freelance, or what Current TV called a “VC2” or viewer-created content producer, making 16 documentaries for cable broadcast. It was pretty cool, I could put together 3-4 short documentary projects at $2000 a piece and travel the world. I worked with Iraqi refugees, religious fundamentalists in Kentucky, revolutionaries in Kyrgyzstan, and indigenous people of India, as well as in the divided cities in Belfast and Jerusalem and revolutions in central Asia. This opportunity didn’t last very long.
Current TV is one of the first cable networks to come to air in the Web 2.0 era marked by the capacity to broadcast user-submitted internet video and news content. As such, Current TV is situated historically, technologically, and practically between two forms of mass communication, the internet and television, embodying the contradictory values of a two-way and open internet and the one-way and closed cable television system. The discourse on values and the governance of user-participants are examples of how an older industry (television and its audience) reacts to new technologies and audiences (the internet and user-producers). Current TV’s perpetuation of the logic and practices of television with the incorporation of values and governance strategies from the internet, illustrate the tense relationship between the internet and television.
During my fieldwork and freelance work for Current TV, I observed several changes in its practice and discourse with regards to social justice. During the period of time from 2005-2008, Current TV explicitly focused on “democratizing media” and “opening” their cable network to citizen user producers. They also won an Emmy as the video shows. In 2009, however, Current TV began working exclusively with Hollywood producers rather than user producers. This is an example of the closed, non-democratic cable television strategy. In its transition from amateur to professional content acquisition, Current TV transitioned from a more unstable media platform towards marketable and conservative programming.
Wu (2010) calls this the Cycle, the historical transition of every information industry from open, amateur, and participatory to closed, professional, and proprietary. Is the Cycle accurate for internet video and television and if so what does it mean to be an individual working in an information industry in the midst of such chaotic change? I think the gallows humor and anguish expressed by the producer of this video shows us.
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