Photo by REMOTIVI/Roy Thaniago (CC-BY)
Photo by REMOTIVI/Roy Thaniago (CC-BY)
Annette Hill: Sometimes, We Like to Just Be Entertained (Part I)
The professor of Media and Communication studies at Lund University talks about the relation of media studies to media industry and politics.
Annette Hill: Sometimes, We Like to Just Be Entertained (Part I)
The professor of Media and Communication studies at Lund University talks about the relation of media studies to media industry and politics.

The omnipresence of media in the modern life seems inevitable. Hyperbolically speaking, there isn’t any single minute when we do not interact with media--even when we sleep. The experience of people using sleep monitoring apps or prayer reminder apps in their smartphone blatantly exemplifies the strong foothold of media in our everyday life. In the political arena, news media have become a highly important feature of how ideologies and political agendas are negotiated, produced, and circulated. We don’t need to add some other examples to recognize this social, cultural, and political role of media. Mark Deuze might be right writing in Media Life (2011) that “our life is lived in, rather than with, media”.

In this context, it is obvious that the discipline of media and communication studies is expected to cope with the questions deriving from the consequences of media practices, encompassing its production and consumption aspect. To discuss the realm of media studies, in the early July Roy Thaniago from Remotivi interviewed Annette Hill, a Professor of Media and Communication at Lund University, Sweden. Hill, who is widely known for her expertise particularly on audience and popular culture, has published several books including Shocking Entertainment (1997), Reality TV (2004), Restyling Factual TV (2007), Paranormal Media (2010), The Television Studies Reader (with Robert C Allen, 2003), and TV Living (with David Gauntlett, 1999).

The first part the interview will discuss about media studies in general and its relation to industry and politics as well as her recent work developed from the notion of engagement. Being responsible for research education and direction in the university as well as conducting research and mentoring young scholars, she describes her activity as “a privilege to work in an area that you’re passionate about. What a great job!”

How was your first encounter with media research and why does it interest you?

There are two answers to that. My very first experience as an ordinary person seeing the power of culture was when I was 16 years old working at a local cinema in my hometown in Britain. I worked in the cinema where we were called "usherette", and this is an English term which means that you take the ticket of somebody coming to the cinema and you sit with everybody in the cinema, you make sure the people aren't talking or smoking. It's a job that is no longer there anymore. The job of usherette is history now.

At the time this was a common job that you could get as a teenager. It didn't pay very well but you got to see all the films for free. So I spent about a year doing this work where I just sit with audiences watching movies and occasionally telling them to be quiet or not to smoke (laughing). Making sure that they all left the venue in the evening and everything was saved. So I think I started an interest in people’s experiences with the culture there, and it was endlessly fascinating to see the way that people would react to horror films or romance or action movies.

But professionally, I became interested in it when I started doing my doctorate. Originally, I was going to do my doctorate on people reading fiction novels. I just became interested in some films in the 1990s [featuring] about ultra violence. There was a film like Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dog. There was a bunch of films that came out, and I stumbled this just as kind of side track from my main thesis topic in the first year to say "I wonder how people were reacting to these kinds of films” and started going to the cinema to look at people in the cinema. And then I changed my topic. My topic then became about audiences of media violence and researching the people watching these films, and that's the beginning of my career because I started to realize that I was more interested in people rather than cultural artifact itself.

What is your current project of research?

I am working on a new book for Routledge called Media Experiences and it will be out next year. That is effectively my development of a concept called a spectrum of engagement, and what I want to do is to add to the current theory of engagement primarily [studied] by people like Peter Dahlgren or John Corner who had written a lot of about political aspect of engagement. My take on this is to look at the cultural entertainment and engagement, and to develop this notion of a spectrum of engagement, to wide out the variety of different engagement strategies that can happen.

The spectrum of engagement, for me, means looking at both positive and negative engagement, and also disengagement with any kind of so-called cultural artifact. So really looking at all the different stages of the way that we would engage with something or disengage with something else, or the way that we may fall in love with something and then pull out of love with it. So I'm interested in that kind of spectrum of a different motive of engagement.

Secondly, with that concept, I want to develop the fact that, for me, cultural engagement is the primary objective for audiences who are engaging with drama or sports or reality television or entertainment and to pack why engagement is a very significant experience for audiences. And this is different from, for example, the political theory of engagement wherein engagement is a stepping stone to political participation, and I think, within the role of politics, of course, engagement is the stepping stone of participation. So it's one step along the journey to participate in democratic processes.

But for cultural engagement, for me, there isn't a beyond point when you reach a position. When you fully engaged with the drama that is the experience. There isn't something that has to come beyond engagement to make it more important. The most significant is that they need to feel engaged, to fully engage with something. So I want to kind of shine a light on what happens in those motive engagement and really unpack that as the journey itself. The journey is an engagement to reach participatory level. So I wanna motivate that with some case studies of drama and reality television and life style and life event.

Finally I want to look at all the different kind of contexts doing engagements, of how important it is if we engage with culture that's live in big venue compare to what it likes to engage with something like watching on Netflix, or engage with something that's aired live on public service television, or what it likes to engage with social media. So I wanna look at all these different elements of engagement as well unpack with different contexts, with different timelines, because I think that gives a widening at the spectrum of the engagement.

Of course, what I want to do with cultural engagement is to make a contribution to the industrial notion of engagement. Because the industry tends to see engagement as a quantitative measurement which is related to rating or social media statistics. I'd like to get beyond the numbers to this more qualitative, more emotional psychological notion of engagement and lately kind of unpack that. To dialogue with industry about opening up their understanding of engagement, to go beyond numbers, to go to the human side, sort of human voices and faces and the experience of engagement. So there is a sort of pragmatic industry focus to the book.

In general, how do you see the practice of the discipline of media studies in the past decade? What trends and challenges does it have?

I think there is a discussion around the discipline: is it media studies or is it media and cultural studies? Sometimes, traditionally, there are two different strands: media studies has tended to come from social sciences more, and cultural studies has tended to come from the humanities, and for me, these two areas are intertwined. I think it's quite difficult now [to distinguish them], with the way that media is everywhere and integrated into our everyday life.

I think it's hard then to talk only about media as an object, the technological notion of media, without thinking about its cultural impact. The interesting and exciting area to cross over is putting media studies and cultural studies together. So that we're more interested in media, society, culture, and that's a really exciting challenge because you’re sometimes dealing with two different methodologies; methodologies from the social sciences and methodologies from the humanities. So, you know, methodologies from the social sciences might be more about studying mass public or doing large scale surveys or being interested in the social questions around media.

In cultural studies, the methodological issues might be more about interpretation and meaning and it might be more semiotic; the richness of photograph or a kind of more philosophical cultural thinking around something. There is a great richness from putting these two areas together, to not be afraid of doing multimethod research, to not be afraid of doing multidisciplinary research, to put two different methodologies together in the study of something. So for me, the discipline where we cross over between media and cultural studies is where I see the future development.

Talking about the social and political context of media studies, how do you see the relationship between academics, industry, and politics?

Well, it's two different questions: How do we as academics work with the industry, and then how do we as academics get involved in policy discussion and activism. Two different questions and I think there are two different ways of doing it.

Just now, last week, I published a special section in the journal called Media Industries, and I published my own research in there but I also edited several other scholars where we are all dealing with how do you work with the industry, why would academics work with media industry, what's the benefit of doing it. In that special issue, we discuss, first of all, the value of the way in which access to the industry can be crucial for us as academics. Getting inside access to production culture, inside access to strategy documents, inside access to a lot of statistics that are generated by rating or social media analytics, is immensely valuable.

So, for academic perspective, getting in within the industry and developing the relationship with key people there, and being able to use these materials, is very important for us. We're always looking outside how do we understand, what's going on within the industry, and how can we see the sort of production, labor issue, or strategic thinking around a particular area of fandom, of public service media, or dealing with an issue of ethnicity, or diversity. How do we understand them without dialogue within the industry? So it's incumbent of academics to take up the challenge and develop a relationship.

What we can offer the industry is the much more difficult question. Because they are often suspicious of academics getting inside their organizations, [or] they want to have a pragmatic value to that work. So, it's about realizing. Maybe we have different methods and different conceptual tools. We can offer producers and executives to understand about a very particular strategic area that they're working on, and I think that's about developing a very fast communication flow between academics and industry people where you are making the knowledge that you're gathering as an academic, and turning it around quite fast into a pragmatic document. That's what industry people can use immediately.

The different track now is for the academics to make an intervention into a policy, having some sort of a public impact in a particular activism. I think it's a different way of doing that. Often when we do an academic research, we might write a short form of a report that summarizes the findings into 2 pages that can be picked up by certain NGOs, certain government organizations, and could be asked to give an evidence policy, meeting, and discussion, and I think that's a great value.

We need to get involved in some of the decisions being made about the value of public service media, for example, or transparency issues. When you get involved on how we can help with media regulations and that can be a really fruitful exchange, definitely. Given the issue of power, as we know, the corruption of that power with the media industry and political figures, I think it's even more important that academics take a stand and use critical thinking tools that we got to challenge corruption, to ask more transparency, to get involved in policy debates.

If we agree with the view arguing that social life nowadays is almost always mediated, or as you said media is everywhere, do you think media studies will be more important in the future? What kind of contribution could media studies do for social science in general?

Media studies is a historical development. It's always been led by key thinkers coming from other disciplines: from literature, from film, from philosophy, from anthropology. So the area of media studies historically has always been very eclectic. One of its strength now, and the way it becomes a value to other disciplines, is precisely because we often think in interdisciplinary ways. Many scholars working in literature or political communication are dealing with media quite often. It's important for our discipline to reimprint ourselves to say we're expert in this area. So come and talk to us about how you might study a particular type of media.

For example, I wrote something very recently about crime reality television for a big collection by Oxford University Press. In the area of crime and surveillance, many-many scholars are looking at media but they are doing it from their discipline; from the discipline of criminology, for example, or law, and quite often have, for me, a very simple way of thinking about media. They might suggest that a particular, let's say, crime reality TV series is making audiences who watch it have a certain way of seeing the police; it has a direct effect on them.

To me, that seems like a very crude way of understanding the impact of crime reality television on the public. If they come over to our discipline, what we've studied, they would realise that it's never as simple as that. Thirty-forty years we've been researching the various ways people might disagree with a particular message in the crime reality TV series. So there is something incredibly important about what media and cultural studies can do to these other areas. []

Read the second part of the interview


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