A New Vision of Television

Critical theorist Sharon Ross talks about 'tele-participation' and the joys of tough women on TV

Sharon Ross
Sharon Ross

When Sharon Ross was a graduate student in the Radio-Television-Film program at the University of Texas at Austin in 1997, it took her awhile to convince some of her professors that there was more to TV than police dramas or BBC fare. Not only did she watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, but she decided to write her dissertation on these supernatural women and the fans who loved them, explaining along the way why the series were worthy of critical study. She is now an assistant professor of television studies at Columbia College in Chicago, but the effect of those viewing experiences and, more importantly, her observation of the "tele-participation" of audiences then and now continues to fuel her work. She has meshed her past study of fandom with more recent observations on audience behavior in her new book, Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet, released earlier this month. Her book specifically examines how the Internet has enabled viewers to become active viewers, while speculating how tele-participation may redefine the future of television overall. Ross describes tele-participation as "symbolic or literal interactivity separate from viewing" and can include everything from fandom and fan fiction to online voting, text messaging, "save our show" efforts, and perhaps other things not yet imagined. Ross and her husband, Tom Skapes, recently became parents of Thomas James Ross Skapes, who exhibited his first tele-participatory experience by kicking his mom during last season's American Idol performances. Ross spoke with The Austin Chronicle by phone from her home in Chicago.

Austin Chronicle: Considering how this TV-Internet connection is evolving as we speak, I wonder if there's an addendum you wish to offer now that the book has been published.

Sharon Ross: That was the hardest part about writing the book. Everything was constantly changing as I was writing. It's the same with all TV writing. As soon as you write something, it changes. But I also lucked out because of the timing – it was something everyone wanted to talk about.

AC: The point of your book is that there is a shift happening in what TV viewers are coming to expect from the industry. But I'm wondering, shouldn't that be happening in both directions?

SR: The problem with the industry is that it's entrenched in an old model of making TV. There's been a big shift in the last two years of viewers in certain sectors who are active, demanding more of the programs they watch. Audiences are much quicker to embrace this change, as are individual or "cult" producers. I also think it's generational – as those younger people move into positions of power, I think change will come faster.

AC: You use the fantasy or teen drama as the foundation of your discussion throughout the book – The OC, Degrassi High, American Idol. How do shows like the critically acclaimed Mad Men or franchises like Law & Order fit into the discussion?

SR: I don't know that they do. What I am talking about are younger, more active viewers. In the past, watching TV used to be all about unwinding. I think there will always be room for both forms of TV. There will always be room for "veg-out" television. The trick of the industry is to try handle both successfully.

AC: Three interesting things happened as you were assembling this book: lonelygirl15, the failure of quarterlife when it moved from the Internet to TV, and most recently, Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Can you comment on one or all of those TV-related events?

SR: Those are the three things I would have liked to have written more about. There is a certain kind of crafted TV that just doesn't work on the Internet. Comedy seems to translate better across both mediums.

AC: And the Internet has its own aesthetic.

SR: Right! Joss Whedon has always understood the Internet – he's a pop-culture baby – but [quarterlife creator Marshall] Herskovitz didn't. quarterlife just wasn't very interesting when it appeared on TV. Some things are just better online.

AC: Okay, so here are your "James Lipton" questions: Lost or Heroes?

SR: Lost!

AC: What do you absolutely have to watch in real time?

SR: The American Idol results show – but I tape it to watch later the same night.

AC: What shows do you return to again and again?

SR: Buffy, Melrose Place, One Tree Hill, The OC.

AC: What would you call your "guilty pleasure"?

SR: There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure!  

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