The Essential “Meme-ability” of Modern Television
Think about the television shows that are still on air that you watch. What keeps you watching? The acting? Your attachment to the characters? The music? While some of these things contribute to your love of a show, it is instead that if you stopped watching, you would miss out on the inevitable cacophony following every new episode. We are entering the era of must-watch television, where we are not only watching each episode with our friends or family, but connecting with millions of people across the world. Therefore, the more subtle character-development based era of Six Feet Under or Dawson’s Creek could never cut it among shows like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and so on. Therefore, a show is dependent on its “meme-ability”. Television and its reception is made and broken by the masses rather than those of the individual. With the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, as well as other sites like 4chan and Reddit, television is being constantly criticised and evaluated by a new audience.
“Meme-ability” is essentially the ability, or rather the instant acceptance as a meme (albeit within a small group or cult) of a television show. According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, a meme is any “unit of cultural transmission”. In other words, a meme can be anything which is passed from one person to another, whether it be an idea, a behaviour, a quote or so on. The common misnomer is that memes are just pictures passed around and replicated via the internet like the one below. While this is definitely essential to what such a concept means today, the first definition still holds weight. However, internet memes (which have been around since 1996 with a .gif of a computer animated baby dancing cited as the first one to become popular) is broadly anything that goes viral and consequently slowly becomes forgotten. The majority of these, however, or at least those taken to be called “memes” are simply a still picture (or sometimes .gif) with two blocks of text on the top of the bottom of the picture. Well-known memes are LOLcats, FAIL, “One Does Not Simply…” and “Not Sure If…”, and while they display an innate disrespect for spelling and grammar, they display the way that memes are changing the way we speak to each other, as well as how we may sell these shows. For example, the Facebook page for Showcase almost exclusively markets Game of Thrones with memes, attracting thousands of likes and shares. However, hearing people use the word “Hashtag…” or “Doh” is not going to become a part of the accepted formal language (or at least, I sincerely hope not). Memes such as this only add to the slang we put on around people we are comfortable with. The days where speaking only in television quotes are a long way off yet, but memes are a part of our culture. They are a new language, to be used within a new interpretative community of the television to come.
Amongst today’s era of video-on-demand consumption within the online-centric, lazy culture, television shows or networks are in a constant contest to be noticed and watched. This means that it is often hard to know what to watch next. Consequently, the instinctive thing to do is to look at what is most popular and follow the “hype” surrounding a new series. In terms of a television show, its “meme-ability” can mean it is either a defining shocking moment of an episode or to make something funny. The former is more what is meant by the term “meme-ability”, wherein a show’s power is to be found within its ability to shock its audiences. Therefore, the fact that something “cool” or controversial is more important than the actual event or happening. While it is important to keep viewers watching, in a world where there is instant conversation during an episode, the paramount aim of the creators and writers is to keep everyone talking.
The saying “No publicity is bad publicity” is truer now more than ever when applied to television. For example, looking at the recent How I Met Your Mother finale backlash from the majority of people on Twitter, for those already committed to the series, they are spurned on to see how bad or disappointing it is, as are those new or interested in the series. Therefore, social networking sites offer a two-pronged approach, to reflect responses back to the creators to refine the show, but more importantly to create a “buzz” or “hype”. This is the age where reviews do not necessarily matter, as long as there is extreme love or hate for a television show, it will be watched. To view a television show is not an insular experience any more, there is not only an expectation, but a need for comments to continue to keep a show afloat. What were once novelties where you can post or “tweet” about your eating habits are now legitimate ways to market a show, as well as forums for responses. However, not everything that is posted or “tweeted” should be taken at “face value”, as it is often exaggerated to be read. Similarly, every program must be seen as having been gone through a filter of hyperbole or forced “meme-ability”.
The majority of what is known as “event television” has an element (or several elements) which are exaggerated to the point where the audiences are left incredulous. This could be the amount of violence, sex or profanity, pushing the character traits to the edge of their humanity. While the physical actions of the characters are still important to a program, there are lines which have become indelible in our minds. A perfect example is the “I am the Danger!/I am the one who knocks!” meme of Season 4 of Breaking Bad, which perfectly expresses that characters are exaggerated almost to the point of ridiculousness. Therefore, melodrama is not only part of the soap-opera genre, but emerging into prime-time television. This is not a criticism or a step backwards for the medium, but an opening of a world without constrictions on where expectations can be met. Television is the medium where expectations can be broken and constantly heightened. It is not a privileged experience anymore, with the use of torrents or other routes of access, anyone can watch any program.
The recent Season 4 premiere of Game of Thrones broke the record for the most pirated episode ever, with Australia leading the way. Despite the subscription service Foxtel showing the episode only hours after HBO, 11.6 per cent of all illegal downloads came from Australia. This only further highlights that television is not about the inherent pleasure you get from the show, but about being part of the discussion during the airing of a television show. With the emergence of actors or writers “live tweeting”, as well as using hashtags, there is no end to the possibility of a program’s popularity. Yet, the question to ask is: Why are people downloading television shows? Would they pay for it if it were more readily available? The answer would probably be no. If there is always a easy way to access something for free, the majority of people will use that way.
In addition, if we are unsure whether our money is going straight to the creative team or actors (which it, for the most part, is not), we are not going to pay for it. Unlike paying for something like an album, we are paying for a service when subscribing to a cable station or pay-tv broadcaster. Rather than paying for individual episodes or seasons, the fees go towards other programs which we may not even watch. The growing need for selection between the multitude of programs out there is hindered by the growing unavailability of instantaneous access. Therefore, there should be a revision of the on-demand landscape, wherein services such as Netflix or Hulu are made more readily available, as well as making cable stations releasing episodes individually for a small cost everywhere, rather than locking up shows in exclusive contracts. Just because something is the “best” show now does not make it the only show worth watching for the foreseeable future.
Superlatives (phrases like “best show ever”) are the bread and butter of criticism. Just looking at the IMDb comments and other reviews for Game of Thrones, there are a majority of people giving it 10 stars and calling it the best show ever. This signifies that the extreme measures which are necessary for a show to become a meme aim intrinsically to “blow the audience away” by completely distinguishing it from other shows. In order for a comment to be listened to, there needs to be a certain hyperbole added. People do not want to hear how some parts are good and other parts have flaws. They want to hear how utterly awesome and “unlike anything else on T.V.” it is. In a market where thousands of television shows are available at once, the best need to stand out. Therefore, a certain meme veil is placed over it, wherein the viewers only focus on the shocking or “awesome” parts of the show while subconsciously ignoring the clichéd or boring parts. This, however, can only last so long.
There is ultimately a cyclical nature to the popularity of a show, a point where the surprise of a show’s shock value wears off and you see how similar it is to everything else (at least in terms of using clichés and typical plotlines). For example, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4’s Utopia (which is soon to be remade by David Fincher for HBO) shrouds itself in mystery from the get-go. The repeated line “Where is Jessica Hyde?” is written to become a hashtag. The appeal of the show is dependent on not knowing what is going on or what motivations people have. Once the mystery is revealed, you realise that it is just another conspiracy theory (albeit extremely well-made) thriller. Therefore, the meme-ability of a show is about getting their foot in the door and instantly connecting to its easily persuadable audience.
The world of modern television is all about talk and a show’s continuance is based on the sustenance of a “buzz”. This means that the creative teams behind shows force controversial or extreme violence, sex or profanity. Consequently, character traits of “event television” are often exaggerated to the edge of unbelievable lines or actions. The increasing use of torrents and other services to illegally download or watch new television denotes that the immediacy of response from viewers is paramount. The use of mystery is used to create a meme, so that people can call the next show the “best ever”. Ultimately, every decision concerning a television show is made to incite a “hype”. However, this is not to say that every show is engendering hyperbole. There is an exception to every rule. While the rush of “event television” has moved television from an activity taken for boredom-satisfying to a socially accepted and entertaining art form, it still restricts characters and plotlines to obvious routes. It is us, the audience, who hold the real power over where television will go from here. The recent shows of the past decade or so have widened the boundaries about what can be shown and accepted. Now we can apply these innovations to different situations. As more people are entering the world of social networking, the power is moving from the creators to those who are watching.
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