The Changing Definition of Overflow in the Age of Broadband Internet: How Lost Changed the Way We Look at Media and Cultural Convergence
by Salvatore Pane
LOST is coming to an end in less than a month. And despite the fact that this final season has left much to be desired (oh, wow, Alternative Dimension Sayid’s a killer?! Holy shit! Because I didn’t figure that out in the first five seasons. And wow, you’re telling me Jack has to fix problems? CRAZY!), I thought I would still honor the end of the show with a repost of a paper I wrote on LOST a few years back. This might be of interest to one or two of you. And please forgive the academic language. I too find it oppressive and narrowing but was forced into writing this way. It’s certainly not my natural method of writing.
The Changing Definition of Overflow in the Age of Broadband Internet: How Lost Changed the Way We Look at Media and Cultural Convergence
Will Brooker’s essay “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence, and Television Overflow” takes a critical look at the concepts of overflow, media convergence, and cultural convergence in television studies. Primarily concerned with the way viewers interact with “texts across various media platforms” (Brooker 570) and how certain programs have “deliberately ‘overflowed’ the bounds of television” (Brooker 569), Brooker conducts a study chronicling the youth market’s usage of Dawson’s Creek fanzines and producer sanctioned online content geared towards fans of the late 90s teen soap. Unfortunately, these results are incredibly misleading as only “5 out of 40” (Brooker 573) users in group one of Brooker’s study interacted with these websites while a mere “one-third of these respondents” (Brooker 574) from group two responded positively to interfacing with the official Dawson’s Creek website. These results may lead one to believe that overflow is simply a fringe novelty. However, I will argue that the reason for the reported low turnout of the Dawson’s Creek website is actually due to the fact that teen soaps do not directly lend themselves to the concept of overflow when compared with programs that match Matt Hills’ definition of cult television in his essay “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-Texts and Fan Audiences.” More importantly, I will show how the very definition of overflow needs to be upgraded thanks to the rise of broadband internet technologies and the increasing willingness of producer/creators to embrace these technologies for creating primary texts. To prove this I will be using ABC’s Lost, a cult television program about a passenger jet that crashes on a mysterious island, as a test case.
First we must examine what exactly is meant by the terms overflow and media and cultural convergence. According to Will Brooker, overflow occurs when “the text of the TV show is no longer limited to the television medium” (Brooker 569). Basically, this accounts for any number of interactions with television programs, including everything from fanzines to visiting official websites where viewers are allowed to participate in their favorite programs. For example, in 2005 dedicated followers of the cult TV/medical dramadey program Nip/Tuck were able to track down the series’ longtime villain, the mysterious murderer known only as the Carver, through the fictional character’s producer sponsored MySpace profile, viewable at http://www.myspace.com/thecarver. According to Anthony Crupi of MediaWeek, “The Carver’s friends list has ballooned to 60,496 MySpace members, all registered users who have seen the site and elected to link to it on their own home pages” (Crupi). The users were then allowed to comment on the Carver’s profile page and receive messages from the character himself. In this way these viewers, which now total 69,445 unique users, were able to experience the program Nip/Tuck without ever using their televisions. This is overflow. Will Brooker further defines overflow by breaking the concept down into two groups: cultural convergence and media convergence. Cultural convergence involves “a participatory community” (Brooker 570) which can be exemplified best through fanzines or fanfiction rings, such as http://fluky.gossamer.org/ which specializes in fan generated X-Files fanfiction. Media convergence on the other hand is defined by Brooker as “structured interactivity” (Brooker 570). This means that media convergence is when the consumption of a television program does not directly involve a television but is still controlled by the show’s producers or some other corporate entity. The Nip/Tuck MySpace profile is an example of media convergence.
The reach of overflow has been dramatically impacted by the proliferation of the internet, especially broadband technology which allows website programmers to outfit their sites with features that users could only dream about as little as a few short years ago. In 1999 the largest share of internet users were signing on through 56k, a speed incapable of handling advanced multimedia exchanges (Connection Speed Survey). By 2005, the 19% of internet users that chose broadband over 56k to access the internet in ’99 had ballooned to an overwhelming 68%, and producer sponsored websites promoting television programs reacted accordingly by giving their fans a broader sense of interactivity (Internet World Stats). For example, take a look at the official Buffy the Vampire Slayer website for season one, which launched in 1997 during the zenith of 56k usage, and the website for the final season which launched in 2004, just a few short years before the widespread shift to broadband. The season one website is crude at best with limited interactivity or media overflow. Users could interact with one another on a message board and chat room, but beyond that there was little reason to navigate the 1997 version of the website except to peruse a small photo gallery or send electronic post cards featuring the show’s various stars (Internet Archive: Buffy Slayer). However, by the time the final season website was functioning in 2004, users could not only use all of the features established in 1997 website but also compete against one another in Buffy trivia contests, download “exclusive wallpapers,” vote on whether the final episode was a satisfying conclusion to the Buffy saga, play Buffy flash games, read bios and back stories on the various characters, or even access “making of” video files (Internet Archive: Buffy). Since Will Brooker’s examination of internet overflow was conducted before the explosion of broadband internet users it inherently arrives at faulty conclusions that do not reflect the internet tendencies of television fans today.
As mentioned earlier, Will Brooker’s essay “Living on Dawson’s Creek,” arrives at the conclusion that “fans, we have to remember, are an active minority. The response of keen but uncommitted viewers is less dramatic than we might have expected or hoped” (Brooker 579). Although it is surely true that hardcore fans that write fanfiction and attend conventions are surely not representative of any program’s viewer ship as a whole, it seems apparent that a teen soap does not lend itself to the type of fan culture that would generate very much cultural or media convergence. As a genre, the appeal of a teen soap is usually limited to the length of time it runs on television and then is promptly forgotten about by an overwhelming number of viewers. For example, look at programs such as 90210 or The Facts of Life. Despite being rating draws during their respective runs, neither show has managed to produce a long term cultural community in its fans. On the other hand, a dedicated fan base is one of the very defining characteristics of a cult television program such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, or most famously, the various incarnations of the Star Trek franchise. An examination of cultural convergence and overflow produced by fans of a cult television show such as Star Trek would obviously make for a better critical study simply due to the fact that so much content has been generated by fans. Compare that content with viewer created content from a program such as The Facts of Life and surely the discrepancy between volume of content will be massive and relatively problematic when conducting a study that is more than simply hearsay.
In arguing that a cult television program would make for a better test case in a study of television overflow, I must first prove that the aforementioned test case, in this instance ABC’s Lost, is in fact an undeniable example of cult television programming. In Matt Hills’ essay, “Defining Cult TV: Texts, Inter-Texts and Fan Audiences,” Hills provides readers with three definitions of what makes a cult program. Despite admitting that television shows only need to meet one of the definitions to qualify as a cult program, for clarity’s sake I will prove that Lost does in fact fit all three of Hills’ definitions. The first definition relies on the text as the defining characteristic of whether or not a television program qualifies as a cult program. Hills writes that “this argument implies that cult TV is best thought of as a group of… genres [such as] science fiction, fantasy, and horror” (Hills 509). He expands on this definition by listing three major criteria that goes beyond simple genre labeling. Hills writes “cult TV is identifiable as a set of texts which share qualities of fantastic hyperdiegesis, representations of close but non-sexualised character relationships and communities, and a form of endlessly deferred narrative based on narrative enigmas” (Hills 513). Lost employs fantastic hyperdiegesis “by virtue of defining and developing fantastic beings and worlds over a lengthy period of time and in great amounts of detail” (Hills 511). For example, in the very first episode of Lost we are introduced to “the monster,” a being which has the capacity to kill and even destroy the landscape of the island in one fell swoop. However, we don’t actually see the monster until the final episode of season one, 1.22 Exodus, in which the monster materializes as a black smoke cloud that travels beneath the island through an intricate series of underground tunnels. During seasons two and three, the monster is briefly shown in only three episodes, 2.10 The 23rd Psalm, 3.05 The Cost of Living, and 3.15 Left Behind, despite being one of the central mysteries of the show. However, each time the monster is shown it displays new powers which further develops its fantastic nature. For example, in 2.10 The 23rd Psalm” we as viewers realize that the monster has the ability to download island inhabitants’ memories and in 3.15 Left Behind we are shown that the monster cannot pass through an electro magnetic security fence. However, like Hills says, answers concerning the monster are “endlessly deferred” (Hills 513). The “non-sexualized character relationships” (Hills 513) come in the form of the interactions between Lost main characters Jack and Kate. Their relationship is very reminiscent of the one between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, and like in that show, Jack and Kate repeatedly hint at their love for each other without acting on it in any meaningful way that would impact future episodes.
The second definition of cult television provided by Matt Hills is as follows: “Cult TV can be defined through an analysis of secondary texts” (Hills 509). Hills goes onto say that television programs that generate a great deal of producer sanctioned overflow and fan created content should be labeled as cult television programs. As I explore Lost overflow at great length later in the paper, I will limit my examples here. On the producer side of things, Lost has generated a weekly podcast in which the executives producers take fan questions and hint at the plotlines of future episodes, two viral marketing campaigns which reward diligent players with exclusive clips promising to reveal the true nature of the show’s mysteries, a video game, Lost: Via Domus, which supposedly provides insight into the nature of the show’s usage of time travel, and its own monthly magazine appropriately titled “Lost Magazine.” On the fan end, viewers have spawned numerous online clubs, the most prominent being the fan sites promoting the skaters or the jaters. These groups have been formed in support of Kate, one of the show’s heroines, falling in love with either one of the two major male characters of the program, Sawyer and Jack. This love triangle has been one of the many dangling plot threads of the show, and people rooting for Sawyer and Kate to get together have dubbed themselves skaters while fans of Jack and Kate are the jaters (Buddy TV). These groups of fans have formed their own communities which constantly take swipes at each other. The sheer amount of secondary texts that are produced by the fans and producers of a program like Lost easily sync up with Hills’ second definition of cult television show.
Matt Hills’ third definition is that “Cult TV can be defined through an analysis of fan practices, and depends on fan activities” (Hills 510). This element of Lost fandom has been briefly touched on in the previous paragraph, however, I will discuss what Hills calls “fans… [producing] commentaries, fan fiction, episode guides and production histories that all work to sustain the distinctiveness of fandom as a community that reads the ‘intertextual network’ of cult TV” (Hills 519). Fan commentaries have become increasingly popular since Lost’s debut in the form of fan produced podcasts. Effectively labeled as downloadable internet radio broadcasts, podcasts allows any viewers with a broadband internet connection and microphone to host their own radio show at length. “The Transmission,” one of the most popular Lost podcasts, holds an hour long podcast after each new episode of Lost is aired. Recently, they even had a 25-hour marathon session in which they did nothing but discuss the mythology of Lost (The Transmission). Fan fiction has always been a marker of cult television status, specifically slash fan fiction in which fans compose stories of television characters partaking in homosexual pairings. Lost has a thriving slash fan community. On “The Lost Fan Fiction Archive,” the most prominent of the sites that attempt to catalog the wealth of Lost fan stories, the tally of slash Lost stories currently stands at 161 (The Lost Fan Fiction Archive). As for episode guides and production histories, one needs to look no further than “Lost-TV,” a website that has meticulously provided transcripts for all three seasons of Lost along with detailed examinations of the fundamental nuts and bolts necessary to producing the show week in and week out (Lost-TV).
If it is readily apparent that Lost does in fact serve as an example of a cult television program that gained in popularity following the widespread proliferation of broadband internet connections in America, then the next topic that must be explored in order to show that cult television programs work as better examples in a study of overflow is the media and cultural convergence produced by that show. First, I will examine the producer sponsored media convergence before discussing the fan generated cultural convergence. One of the most obvious examples of producer sponsored overflow occurred towards the end of Lost’s second season in May 2006. During the airing of the penultimate episode of season two, 2.22 Three Minutes, a commercial aired promoting a fictional company that exists within the Lost mythos: the Hanso Foundation. At the end of the commercial a phone number was given. Adamant viewers who called the number were eventually given access to a website, http://www.thehansofoundation.org/. Over the course of the ensuing summer hiatus, fans hunted down advertisements with clues to find the next website littered with background information pertaining to the show, culminating with a real world directive: to travel to the 2006 ComiCon, a massive convention promoting comic books and other cult interests, and attend the Lost panel conveniently moderated by the executive producers/writers of the show. When fans arrived they were treated to exclusive clips of the upcoming third season. However, what truly broke the fourth wall was that during a question and answer segment at the end of the panel, an actress who portrayed one of the characters in the viral marketing videos appeared in character and verbally accosted the producers for their supposed real life involvement with the fictional Hanso Foundation. Estimates put the number of players participating in the Lost viral marketing campaign at 50,000 people (Alternative Reality Game Stats).
An even more blatant attempt at cross media marketing occurred during episode 2.13 The Long Con. During the episode, Hurley, the program’s everyman character, finds a manuscript for a mystery novel, Bad Twin, in one of the wrecked plane’s unclaimed pieces of luggage. He begins reading it and claims how interesting it is before handing it off to the aforementioned Sawyer to read. In episode 2.20 Two For the Road, Sawyer is enraptured by the manuscript and can’t wait to find out the ending when Jack burns the manuscript, apparently erasing all hopes of Sawyer and the viewers learning the identity of the story within the story’s killer. However, on May 2, 2006, exactly one day before the airing of 2.20 Two For the Road, Hyperion Publishers released the novel, Bad Twin, as a fictional mystery written by Gary Troup, a man who apparently died on flight Oceanic 815, the same flight the Lost characters were on when they crashed onto their mysterious island. Despite being a fictional novel set outside of the Lost universe, Bad Twin included several direct references to various mysteries from the show including the previously referenced Hanso Foundation. In a bit of cross marketing with the Lost Experience viral marketing game, a fictional character introduced through the game took out a real life ad in various American newspapers on May 5th, 2006 claiming that the information in the book regarding the Hanso Foundation was fraudulent at best (Lostpedia).
During the nine month hiatus in 2007/2008 between the close of season three of Lost and the opening of season four, the executive producers and writers of the series teamed up to write a twelve part Lost miniseries, “Missing Pieces,” that would air only on Verizon cell phones enabled with broadband wireless support. Dubbed “mobisodes,” these two-minute episodes were not only written by the regular show writers and scored by the series composer, Michael Giacchio, but they also starred the show’s regular cast of actors. This is also one of the major examples of problems occurring with Will Brooker’s definition of overflow as being whenever “the text of the TV show is no longer limited to the television medium” (Brooker 569). Overflow is relegated to serving as a secondary text, however, shouldn’t the “Missing Pieces” miniseries actually serve as a primary text considering that it was created by all of the people responsible for the television show right down to the producers and actors? To answer that completely we must look at the next example and Lost’s producers’ reactions to it.
Another piece of producer sponsored overflow that questions the very definition of the term overflow can be seen in the 2008 video game, “Lost: Via Domus.” Players control a character that has never before been seen on the television program Lost, but according to the game, was on the flight that crashed onto the island. The viewer, while using this character as an avatar, interacts with the show’s characters and events from seasons one and two (Lostpedia). A small percentage of the game’s video segments and dialogue were written by the show’s executive producers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, and since this game is experienced through a television, some would say that it falls into the category of a primary text according to Brooker’s definition of overflow. However, I would call this a secondary text, thus making it overflow and not a part of the actual show, due to two reasons. First off, even though the producers control the environments and situations of the video game to a certain extent, viewer/player interaction is tenfold to that of watching the regular show. Secondly, there is the question of canonicity, meaning whether or not events that take place in products tangential from the show, i.e. the mobisodes, video game and viral marketing games, actually factor into the timeline of the Lost television show. In the March 10th, 2008 episode of “The Official Lost Podcast,” a weekly internet program in which Cuse and Lindelof take fan questions, Cuse announced that “It’s only canon if it’s in the show. We try hard to make the other things very much a real part of the world of the show and frankly it just depends on how much time and influence we have as to whether we can officially designate other things as canon… We wrote the mobisodes, our writers wrote them, we put a lot of time into them. We produced them. Our directors directed them. We feel that those are canon… The video game does not count.” Even if the video game is experienced through a television, which is one of Brooker’s primary definitions for a piece of producer sponsored programming becoming a primary text instead of a piece of overflow, because of the fact that the executive producers do not view the video game as canon makes “Via Domus” a secondary text and an example of overflow. On the flip side, the “Missing Pieces” mobisodes which are clearly consumed through cell phones and not televisions, do have canonicity, which transforms them from pieces of overflow into primary texts. This causes a huge, nearly irrevocable, problem for Brooker’s definition of overflow.
Considering the time that it was written and the fact that executive producers of television programs and their parent companies were still unsure of how to utilize the internet as an effective tool in promoting their shows, Will Brooker’s essay “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence, and Television Overflow” predicts many developments correctly. As he predicted, viral marketing and cultural convergence did not sweep the globe or ever truly reach a mass audience, however, this calculation was founded on faulty logic that used a test case, Dawson’s Creek, which was predisposed to reveal this type of answer. A teen soap does not generate the amount of cultural convergence or media convergence that a cult television program such as Lost does, and if a similar study is conducted in the future, its writer should choose a post-broadband subject that is more appropriate such as Lost or Jericho or Heroes for examples. However, what Brooker gets completely wrong is his limiting definition of overflow which pigeonholes all overflow as secondary texts that do not operate within the realm of the television. As Lost’s “Missing Pieces” has shown, a primary text can exist outside the boundaries of television. On the other hand, the video game adaptation, “Lost: Via Domus,” has proved that a secondary text can exist within the boundaries of television. Due to the inconsistencies of Brooker’s definition of overflow and the ever evolving nature of technology and its effects on what producer/writers can employ in their creation of overflow, a new definition is needed which can define overflow by plainly saying what it is instead of relying on a definition that says what it isn’t, i.e. experiencing a television program outside of the sphere of television.
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