More Work for Less Pay: The Spectator in the Age of New Televisual Media

By Brittany Chozinski

As I was waiting for the elevator in my building the other day, one of the elevator doors opened up to reveal a packed car: a family of four – two boys, a mother and a father – and their luggage cart, loaded to the brim.  The two boys were each playing with their iPods and the father was playing with his cell phone.  As the doors opened, I heard the mother sarcastically remark, “This is just lovely.  All three of you are standing there with your own video device.”  The doors shut and I waited for the next car.

What the mother in the elevator car was remarking on is something that seems to plague parents everywhere these days.  Kids seem no longer “present” to parents because their minds are always elsewhere, slaying demons in some epic video game battle or traveling through the rainforest in a television program.  The actuality of the present is constantly usurped by the virtuality of media entertainment as kids transcend, or rather, redefine the boundaries of time and space through the use of new media apparatuses.  Of course, adults are equally guilty of a lack of “present-ness,” evidenced by the father’s “standing there with [his] own video device.”  The mother’s complaint, however, was not one of distractedness, for the three boys were not merely distracted from their surroundings; they were altogether not present in that elevator car.  The mother’s complaint was one of being alone with three bodies, each occupying a different space and time.

The advent of new personal media technologies in the past decade has drastically changed the ways in which we experience life and the world around us. A new form of media spectatorship has formed around these technologies, altering the ways in which we conceptualize and experience spatial relations.  Particularly affected has been the way we understand the location and space of work.  This new space – defined by new media spectatorship – erodes the boundaries between work and leisure and redefines work as something that can be done in one’s head, as opposed to on the assembly line, hence the proliferation of intellectual work and the increased development of the service sector, or tertiary labor, in modern day society.  This article will explore how new forms of television viewing – prompted by technological advances in customizable, individual and mobile television viewing apparatuses – have altered how we conceptualize the work space, and how this in turn has resulted in the increased labor of the television spectator.

Defining the Space of Television

Guiliana Bruno postulated that film plays an important role in rearranging our sense of space, of the place we inhabit.1 While Bruno admits that film can be a regimentation of life, analogous to the regimentation of life and time on the Fordist production line, her film is also a utility of empowerment; it allows the viewer to travel, to imagine, and to inhabit new spaces other than the one in which they presently find themselves.  This argument could be extended to the televisual medium, as television allows for the same creation and augmentation of space, only now in the viewer’s home rather than a movie theatre.  Television increases the spectator’s proximity to the means of “media travel,” thus increasing the possibilities of space (both the number of available spaces and the speed with which these spaces can be reached) for the spectator.

Michel Foucault wrote that “The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space.  We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.”2  The space of the past was a space of emplacement, a dichotomy of oppositional poles (sacred and profane, urban and rural), with well defined boundaries.  With Galileo’s discovery of the earth’s revolution around the sun, our concept of space became one of extension, of infinitely open space.  The epoch of spatial emplacement came to an end because it was realized that a thing’s place was only one point in the line of its movement.  Thus our conceptualization of space has moved from localization and emplacement to extension and, in the present epoch, to the space of sites.  Space now becomes a matter of relations among sites.  Foucault’s specific interest was in certain sites “that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.”3  These types of sites fell into two main categories: utopias and heterotopias.

“Utopias are sites with no real place.  They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society.  They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.”  Heterotopias, on the other hand, “are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.  Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.”4  A heterotopia, for Foucault, is a place that is many places at the same time; a place that is multiple by definition, “capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible.”5  He uses the example of film and the movie theatre, but television seems an equally apt example.  Through the cinematic and televisual media, the viewer is capable of simultaneously existing in multiple spaces; the space of the theatre or living room, while at the same time, the spaces depicted on the screen: far away lands, imaginary dreamscapes, and ancient times, among others.

Technologies such as computer networking and the internet have also, alongside the televisual medium, advanced this heterotopic multiplicity of spaces, ultimately allowing media to colonize leisure time by casting the user both in their living room and “at work.”  Now work can be done in any number of spaces; not only in the cubicle, but in the café, in one’s living room, on a beach, and so on.  Not only do media technologies allow for this juxtaposition of previously incompatible spaces, but by redefining the spaces in which work can get done, the window is opened for the redefining of spaces that can be colonized in the name of labor.  In the case of television, for example, by simply flipping the switch, the viewer instantly enters into a heterotopia of both their present space and the space of the televisual programming; a space that can be defined as a space of labor.

The Work of the Spectator

Watching TV is not an activity that most would associate with work.  We watch TV for relaxation, pleasure, and as a means to escape the workday.  Television, however, is an industry geared towards profit, and since profit it not to be made by selling programs to viewers (the cost of cable covers the costs incurred by the cable company in providing their services, not the cost of the TV programming itself), profit is made by selling viewers to advertisers.  What the advertisers buy from television producers is the potential watching power of the audience; not the direct labor of the audience, but their power to work, consume, and buy the products advertised.  As Sut Jhally put it, “Media sell potential audience-power, but the only thing they can guarantee is the watching activity of the audience.”6  The television program, then, is the wage given to the viewer in exchange for their labor, their watching power.

Jhally’s analysis of the work of the television spectator uses the Marxian framework of labor power.  “Marx argues that the formal subsumption of labor is based upon increasing the length of the working day: that is, on absolute surplus value.”7  Following this logic, in order to increase profits, television producers must increase the amount of time viewers spend watching commercials.  While cable television, as opposed to broadcast television, increases the overall amount of time people spend watching TV, the easiest way to increase absolute surplus value, in this case, is not to merely increase the amount of time spent watching, but to make audiences watch harder.  This is done in several ways.  Writing techniques such as hooks and cliffhangers keep audiences’ attention focused on the screen and not wandering elsewhere, enticing the viewer to “stay tuned for more,” and thus, more commercials.  Simultaneously, ads themselves even begin to colonize the realm of programming, seeping into programs through product placement; “ad crawlers” shown at the bottom of the screen during programs, and program sponsorship.8  Techniques like time compression are used to decrease the running time of commercials from one minute to thirty seconds to fifteen seconds, allowing for more commercials to be shown in any given period.  When programs go into syndication, parts of the programming are cut out, allowing for more advertising time.  While not necessarily increasing the overall amount of time spent watching TV, all of these techniques are utilized in making the viewer watch more commercials, making them work harder.

The Evolving Televisual Medium

Much has changed in the televisual medium since 1990, when Jhally first wrote about the work of the spectator.  Television spectatorship has become increasingly customizable, individual, and even mobile.  While the VCR hit the market in the 1970’s and the first portable handheld TV, the Sony Watchman, was made available to consumers in 1988, it was the technological advances of the late 90’s to early 2000’s that pushed the medium into a heretofore unimagined reality.  The DVD hit markets in 1995, followed in 1997 by the DVR.  1996 saw the release of the first widely used PDA, the PalmPilot, which paved the way for the incorporation of PDA’s with mobile phones, resulting in today’s “smart-phones.”  The cell phone was given video capability in the late 1990’s and in 2002 Sony developed the first TV-tuner chip for mobile devices, including the aforementioned smart-phones.  In 2003, Nintendo came out with a TV-tuner for their Gameboy Advance SP; the iPod was given video capabilities in 2005.  Presently, there is a move to “webcast” television programs through websites such as Hulu and WebTV, crossbreeding the internet and television, and creating a new formulation of the media that is greater than the sum of its parts.9 The result?  Now we can tune into the news, live from our handheld gaming device, “time-shift”10 through the latest episode of CSI on our DVR, watch the first season of Friends on our iPod, and even catch last night’s episode of The Simpsons on our smart-phone.

The proliferation of televisual media technology has resulted in an absolute saturation of everyday life with the television image.  There is an art gallery in San Antonio, Texas, called Flight Gallery, which plasters the downtown area with their logo stickers:


While the sentiment of this logo is still something we can all see the relative value of (what decent parent doesn’t occasionally tell their kid to stop watching TV and go play outside?), the dictate to simply “turn it off” is less and less a possibility in the modern mediascape.  Even if an individual doesn’t indulge in the iPod/smart-phone/Gameboy craze, television permeates the environment to such an extent that it is inescapable.  If one chooses not to watch TV at home or on a personal viewing apparatus, they’re still forced to watch it in the elevator, in a taxi, in a café, at the airport, in shop windows, on a co-worker’s computer screen, and the list goes on.  Turning it off is no longer an option in the advanced mediascapes of the modern metropolis.

The logic follows, then, that if spectators are watching more TV, they are also watching more commercials, and hence, are “working” more than ever before.  New consumer technologies sought to counter this “over-work” by advertising the time-shifting capabilities of such new media as DVR.  If one wishes not to view commercials, you simply fast-forward through them.  Most DVR’s now have a fast-forward function that allows users to skip ahead in the recording by thirty second increments; the usual time slot of each commercial.11 According to Mark Andrejevic, “The revolutionary promise of the digital future…is to free us from the rigid spatial and temporal boundaries associated with the rationalization of modern society.”12

Of course, no profit-based industry would dare to offer to consumers a product free of charge, and hence it would make no sense for television producers to allow viewers their wage – the programs – without extracting their labor; the watching power sold to advertisers.  While DVR does allow consumers to fast-forward through the commercials, it also allows programmers to know exactly what a viewer watches, when they watch it, and with what frequency.  “The real revolution,” Andrejevic continues, “is not the transfer of control to viewers but a quantum leap in the ability of programmers and marketers to monitor consumers.”13 The DVR has accomplished for programmers what the Nielsen ratings could only dream of doing.  And DVR is not the only televisual technology that allows programmers to monitor the viewing patterns of consumers.  DVD box sets of television shows allow programmers to see which box sets are most frequently purchased, hence which shows are the most popular.  Likewise, downloads of television episodes via programs like iTunes allow programmers to monitor consumers’ purchasing habits.  Websites that post videos of television episodes allow the tracking of which programs are watched and when, by “counters” that track how many hits a certain area of a site gets.  All of this amounts to a greater surveillance of television spectatorship patterns, making it infinitely easier for programmers to answer the eternal question of who watches what and when.

While the use of televisual technologies like DVR forces programmers to forfeit a large portion of the time audiences spend watching commercials, the improved monitoring of spectatorship patterns allows programmers to advertise, not necessarily more, but more intelligently.  Once again, viewers are not made to watch longer, but harder.  Information regarding specific demographic viewing habits allows for a more advanced sort of narrowcasting, bypassing the mass audience and instead aiming product information directly at that demographic most likely to purchase the product.  Programmers and marketers can also use this demographic information to better promote products through product placement and sponsorship.  Of course, some televisual technologies, such as webcasts of television shows, adhere to the “longer and harder” paradigm, temporarily disabling the fast-forward feature during commercials preceding the program.  Through whatever technique they choose to utilize, programmers and marketers make sure that viewers do not receive their program wage without extracting watching power labor.

The New Space of Television

The inescapability of television combined with advances in viewer monitoring has resulted in what Andrejevic calls a “digital dedifferentiation,” the erosion of the boundaries between work and leisure.  Work is now embedded in leisurely activities just as one can leisurely do their work.  Andrejevic writes that “The economic potential of digital dedifferentiation isn’t based solely on allowing employees to continue working outside of the work space proper, but also to render non-work related activities economically productive to the extent that they can be monitored.”14 Saturation of the televisual image and “smarter” advertising “transforms the ‘passive’ viewing experience into an ‘active’ shopping experience and helps to further dedifferentiate the pursuits of leisure, consumption, and production.”15 It also redefines the space of televisual spectatorship, further promoting the inclusion of television under the umbrella of Foucault’s heterotopia.

Perhaps the biggest spatial change brought about by new televisual spectatorship is not necessarily the increased number of Foucauldian “sites” simultaneously presented in the heterotopia (although this is a change worth noting), but the increased ease and speed with which one can navigate from site to site, jumping from one to the next, in an infinite possibility of juxtapositions, just with the touch of a button.

In a recent lecture given at the New School for Social Research on October 2nd, 2007, Daniel Dayan, along with Elihu Katz, authors of Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, outlined the three greatest changes to their analysis of media events brought about by advances in technology since the book’s publication in 1992.  Dayan believes that advances in technology have ended the monopolization of media events.  While we used to be able to assume that everyone was watching the same event at the same time, and that every channel would be broadcasting that same event, the increased customization of television and the proliferation of narrowcasting (improved through better monitoring of viewing habits) has meant that some people will choose to TiVo the event and watch it later, while others will completely bypass the event and instead choose to watch MTV.

More importantly, advances in televisual technology have meant an individualization of viewing and a transformation of temporality.  A community of viewers assembled around the television for the viewing of a media event (Princess Di’s wedding, the O.J. Simpson verdict, etc.) is no longer a given.  Mobile viewing devices now allow people to leave one community of viewers and instantly join another, or as Foucault would have it, jump from site to site instantaneously.  Similarly, these changes at the technological level have meant the disappearance of a shared temporality, an individualization of temporality, as we now share the same event at different times.16 To each his own viewing device, to each his own temporality, and to each his own spatial arrangement, fully customizable and instantaneous.

The individualization of temporality recalls Foucault’s comment that “the heterotopia begins to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time.”17 If the traditional time of the televisual medium is communal time, as it would seem for Dayan and Katz, then the transformation of temporality would speak to a new formulation of space, in the Foucauldian sense.  Foucault spoke of the vacation villages modeled after primitive Polynesian societies that “abolish time” while simultaneously rediscovering time; “it is as if the entire history of humanity reaching back to its origin were accessible in a sort of immediate knowledge.”18 Here, Foucault’s hermeneutics beg the question of whether he was observing a vacation village or flipping to the Discovery Channel.  Not only is the entire history of humanity immediately accessible, but the viewer can fast-forward and rewind at their leisure, jumping from moment to moment on a whim.

The heterotopic space becomes even more variable and simultaneous than in Foucault’s original substantiation.  The new televisual environment creates a plurality of space and a reconfiguration of temporality resulting in an instantaneity of spatial transport.  The heterotopia has become quicker and all-enveloping as the environment has become more televisually saturated.

This change in spatiality means a change in the work of the television spectator.  Just as the television image becomes omnipresent, work through spectatorship becomes more enveloping of everyday life.  The greatest change in the work of the new televisual spectator, however, results from the increased multiplicity and simultaneity of sites within the televisual heterotopia.  Not only is the spectator now required to multitask between multiple juxtapositions of sites simultaneously, but they must be able to jump from one heterotopic juxtaposition to the next and back again, without missing a beat.  This new spectator is required to develop a heterotopic sense of self, capable of existing on multiple planes simultaneously.  The subjectivity of the spectator is at once singular and multiple; one viewer existing in multiple realities.  To cope with the labor demands of modern television viewing, the spectator must become virtual.

The televisual spectator now labors for multiple advertisers at once, and this labor requires a much higher level of skill in order to navigate the complex mediascape.  While the classic argument runs that, because television watching is a habitual activity, “programs do not have to persuade viewers that they should watch television as opposed to doing something else.”19 As the skill required of the spectator has increased, so has the production quality of television programming.  Perhaps in television’s “golden age,” it could be said that “there is no economic need for ‘quality’ programming.  Simple attention-getting, as opposed to communicating interesting and thought-provoking material, is enough.”20 Today’s television programming, however, has gotten away from the accusations of “banality” that have historically been lobbed at programmers.  It can still be said that programming becomes a ploy with which the viewer is attracted to labor for the advertisers, but the increase in the amount of labor demanded has been met with an increased demand for quality television.  Where television was once accused of being a banalization of the cinematic medium, today we see film and television competing for viewers.  Cable channels such as HBO and Showtime have revolutionized the content and quality of television programming, yet the higher “wage” given to the spectator – through better narrative, higher production value, and so forth – has been met with an exponentially higher demand for labor.  Far from being banal, television has become even more exploitative of the spectator by means of its increased production value.

Sut Jhally’s analysis of spectator watching power, based on the Marxist conceptualization of labor power, posits that the labor of the spectator is highly unskilled and performable by anyone.  Due to changes in the way that television organizes labor, this is no longer the case.  The “heterotopia-tization” of the spectator does not de-skill the laborer, but rather, re-skills them, in ways heretofore unseen.  The necessity of being able to jump from site to site – to maintain a virtuality of existence on multiple planes at the same time – requires of the spectator a greatly increased level of skill, so much so that the modern televisual mediascape begs the question of whether the word “spectator” can even be applied to television-watching any longer.  Where a spectator exists in a dichotomy of the viewer and the viewed, modern television, through its heterotopic nature, seeks to mobilize the watcher; to actively engage them in the creative construction of the televisual experience.  The virtuality of the spectator caused by the heterotopia-tization of the televisual mediascape results in a crisis of spectatorship where simple, mindless, and habitual viewing is no longer enough.  Here, however, the necessitation of active participation and the resulting demand for highly skilled labor, contrary to Marxist labor power theory, does not result in more freedom for the laborer, but actually results in a greater level of exploitation, masked by the higher quality of programming available.

Foucault ended his essay “Of Other Spaces” with the claim that the boat is the greatest heterotopia of all:

A floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea and that, from port to port, from tack to tack, from brothel to brothel, it goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens, you will understand why the boat has not only been for our civilization, from the sixteenth century until the present, the great instrument of economic development…but has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination.21

Today, the television has taken over the role of the boat as the defining heterotopia of our epoch, and we, the televisual spectators, are the tireless crew, rowing incessantly in search of treasures for our programmer captains and their advertiser kings.  Through the reorganization of labor in television viewing, our subjectivity has been redefined in terms of virtuality and our conceptualization of time and space has been irrevocably altered.  If through the better quality of programming our “wage” has increased, our labor – now highly skilled and requiring a greater time commitment – has been exploited in amounts exponentially higher than anything previously seen.  The higher wages simply mask the greater exploitation, and while we revel in some of the best television programming ever to grace the screen, it all amounts to more work for less pay.

Works Cited

1. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before advertisers figure out a way to a sort of flipbook of billboard ad messages every 30 seconds, resulting in a zoetrope-like effect.

2. Mark Andrejevic.  Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003), p. 28.

3. Ibid, p. 23.

4. Ibid, p. 35.

5. Ibid, pp. 43-44.

6. According to Dayan and Katz’ analysis, part of the enjoyment, and hence part of the “wage,” that one gets out of watching media events in the sense of shared experience that the viewer gets out of sharing in the event with the entire community of viewers.  With the advent of DVR and the individualization of temporality, the viewer loses out on part of their wage, the collective experience of live TV, while at the same time the customization of TV allows for a better surveillance of viewing patterns and thus more marketing information.  Hence, the viewer is paid a lower wage for more work.

7. Michel Foucault. “Of Other Spaces” in Diacritics, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, 1986, p. 26.

8. Ibid, p. 26.

9. Ibid, p. 105.

10. Ibid, p. 104.

11. Ibid, p. 27.

12. Giuliana Bruno.  Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: Verso, 2002).

13. Foucault, p. 22.

14. Ibid, p. 24.

15. Ibid, p. 24.

16. Ibid, p. 25.

17. Sut Jhally.  The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 73.

18. Ibid, p. 87.

19. One need only think of AT&T’s sponsorship of American Idol, for example.

20. It is important not to view the internet here as being “colonized” by television.  What is at play is an augmentation of the medium, an interarticulation of television and internet, where one medium neither extends nor colonizes the other, but where both media are articulated through technologies borrowed from other media.  There is no “master-medium” through which all others can be read and to essentialize either media is to do a great disservice to the analysis of the ever more complex mediascape.

21. Time-shifting simply means the recording of a television program so that it may be viewed at a time more convenient to the viewer.


Brittany is currently finishing up her MA in the Sociology of Media at the NSSR with hopes to continue on to a Ph.D.  Her academic interests lie in the areas of mediated mimesis, alterity, and the changing subjectivity of the “spectator” in the modern mediascape. A military brat (mostly) from Texas, having lived in NYC for the past five years has greatly affected her views on the role of media in everyday life.  Special thanks to Paolo Carpignano, and, as always, Mom and Dad.