Summary of Ph.D. project as of 10 January 2010

Title

A digital and transnational vehicle: the DVD and emerging practices in home audiovisual entertainment. The reception of Japanese animated TV series in Switzerland.

Postulates:

My dissertation concerns the multiplication of merchandising around fictional narrations, which characterizes the present audiovisual entertainment industry. I’m addressing this issue from the angle of the role played by the DVD in the reception of TV series circulating around the world, as it appears that this video digital delivery technology embodies particularly well the convergence of several industrial sectors (cinema, television, computing and telecommunication), which have been encouraged by three major social changes:

  • Audience fragmentation, due to a trend towards greater autonomy. People want to watch their content at their convenience;
  • Transnationalism, which, according to Koichi Iwabuchi (2002), represents the most recent phase in industrial geographical expansionism, inherent in modern capitalism, and stems from the necessity to adapt worldwide strategies to local contingencies;
  • Digitization, which results from a combined logic of customization and transnationalism, as it dematerializes all the communication codes (images, writing, sound, video) into packages of 1 and 0, thus making it possible to adapt standardized products to very specific tastes and to make them travel through national, physical and technological barriers.

To be more accurate, I’m assuming that the DVD constitutes a sort of audiovisual entertainment bridgehead into an era of all-digital entertainment, involving the leveling down of national, technological and material borders. The digitization issue thus makes up the backdrop against which my research is set, as it is progressively becoming the main code for all communication and mediations. Indeed, it seems that digitization of video delivery technologies stems from and encourages always more autonomous sociotechnical contexts of reception and practices, that hybridize the expectations of both cinephiles and videophiles. My hypothesis states that the DVD is located at an intermediary stage in the recent evolution of the way people relate with media systems and their contents. In the all-digital era, contents are dematerialized and become independent from each others, while remaining easily connectible to each others. Digitization is therefore blurring the barriers between various types of media reception and technological uses, as illustrated by the development of the home cinema apparatus.

I have decided to use the particular case of Japanese animation, because DVD are its main legal vehicle of exportation. Of course, pirate downloads sites and video on demand services are proliferating, as well as illegal copies on VCD (the video digital disc that is the ancestor to DVD and still widely used in Asia). However, in general, it illustrates well the de-mediation process at work within the audiovisual entertainment industry. On top of it, it also highlights the role played by Japan, as a champion of electronic miniaturization and transmedia production, in the present evolution of audiovisual entertainments.

Audience fragmentation

The path taken by television these last 20 years reflect a long-term and overall social evolution: a tendency towards greater personal autonomy. This trend manifests itself in the proliferation of targeted audience profiles, acquired through the combination of always more refined demographic and socio-economic criteria. In other words, while remaining a mass media system, that is a channel broadcasting to a scattered and indistinct crowd, television marketer have had to multiply the spectator profiles that make it up. As a result, the marketing approaches have progressively generated a fragmented representation of niche audiences, which put end to end, still make up a mass, but a mass scattered into small bits for which TV channels are fighting.

The diversification of TV channels and programs has reinforced this phenomenon of fragmentation by multiplying targeted offers and therefore encouraging viewers’ infidelity. In order to retain their loyalty, the channels have developed a whole arsenal of devices concerning programs (shortening of speech times and shows, recurrence of programs, organization of schedule that fits daily live activities, etc.), narration (series, soap operas, sagas, etc.) and technical (tone rise, constant noise, lively colors, etc.). TV series are one of the most important of these strategies. Initially considered a healthy and logic consequence of competition in a free market, this constant race after the audiences also contains the seed of self-destruction. Indeed, with the industrial convergence at work in the audiovisual entertainment industry, television, as a media system based on mass-broadcasting, is being progressively engulfed by telecommunication operators (Internet and mobile telephony) and reduced to a mere element among others in a package, made available on various electronic platforms, which have nothing to do anymore with the technical devices usually associated with television. Indeed, it is now possible to access to audiovisual contents stored on servers, from any digital device with a connection and a display screen, anywhere in the world.

Transnationalism

This leads me to the second determining element of my dissertation: transnationalism. If cinema was conceived from the start as an international industry, made of studios and distribution companies with branches all over the world, television on the contrary initially developed as media system of national broadcast. Certainly, already in the 1950’s-1960’s, the Americans succeeded pretty quickly in exporting a part of their TV programs, especially series and TV games (quizzes of all kinds), but it’s not until the 1980’s and the arrival of cable distribution as well as satellite broadcasting that TV networks began to enter directly homes in other countries. This ambition to broadcast programs worldwide fueled the convergence of TV channels, production companies and the telecommunication industry. Progressively multinational giants were built up, integrating all the services of communication, information and mediation. What appears a bit paradoxical at first sight, is that, as a result, this new industrial configuration has contributed significantly to accelerate the fragmentation, not only of audiences, but also of NICT’s users. Since then, everyone has been frenetically trying to figure out THE magical combination of functions, shapes and contents that will again bring together all these niches into one big mass, while continuing to satisfy the specific needs of its various segments.

Digitization

The integration of digital technologies into the whole spectrum of economic activities within these huge companies is at the core of the logic behind the multiplication of merchandising, as content is henceforth being dissociated from its material basis and its media systems, in order to merge into one language made of 1 and 0. As a result, images, texts, videos are all transformed into electronic files of the same nature, which can travel from one digital platform to the other. If the logic of merchandising, that of creating products inspired by fictions, goes all the way back to the 1940’s, computing has brought new forms of narrative embodiment, especially video games, but also new material device such as optical discs (like the DVD). In this view, it is possible to consider, along the same line as Louise Merzeau (2007), that the audiovisual entertainment industry is entering the hypersphere. In the neologism hypersphere, the prefix -hyper indicates the infinite number of combined utterances made possible by their de-materialization into digital packages, and that of access modes, thanks to the digitization process that flattens down all technological barriers.

Set of problems

The DVD: a platform embodying the convergence of these 3 trends

This multiplication of narrative forms, platforms and therefore access point to an increasingly globalized imagination, both stems from and contributes to the changes in the was people relate to media contents. As some authors have noted (Alexis Blanchet, 2004), the modes of audienciation (that is, of regrouping into audiences) have led to more and more autonomous as entertainment moved from public collective places (cinema, theaters, fairs) into the home and personal spaces, before jumping into people’s pockets. While in the 19th and early 20th century, people still mostly entertained themselves in public collective spaces, the arrival of radio and television (as well as other domestic electrical appliances) has stimulated the emergence of scattered but simultaneous audiences, sitting at the same time in front of their radio or TV receiver. Car and miniaturized transistors, as well as multiple personal supplies (one TV per room, to each his radio or Hifi and telephone) have planted the habit of personalized entertainment. Finally, computer, video games and the various video recording devices have accelerated what some call the scattering of audiences, since each person sits, often alone, in front of screen at his/her convenience. Consumers and users henceforth look more and more like free electrons, which regroup and break up according to their varying practices.

The DVD results from the joint evolution of TV home practices and the development of a transnational audiovisual entertainment industry. It therefore sits:

  • at the crossroad between content dematerialization into digital packages and their re-materialization into a specific object: The DVD embodies one of the latest physical avatar of video delivery technology, with the blu-ray, its high definition format. But on top of making film home collection and consumption possible, in the same way VHS tapes and laser discs used to, it also allows for the gathering of TV programs edited by professionals, while occupying a minimum of physical spaces on shelves. Not only that, but it also offers an extension to the strict experience of the main content through additional contents. Those include a variety of different programs, however, all in all, they serve an encyclopaedic aim. The object DVD contains more than just a TV or cinematographic product. It has also become a source of audiovisual references.
  • at the junction between standardization needed to make it travel beyond national frontiers and customization to make it match the demand associated with specific market segments: It also comes as a very flexible delivery technology, allowing for various forms of publishing and authoring (layout of the DVD interface). Indeed, its digital interface, looking like a Website, makes it possible to integrate various linguistic and audiovisual versions, of the same content. This facilitates the circulation of a TV series or films through the linguistic, political and sociocultural barriers that divide the planet. Thus, one standard object can be customized following specific criteria of aesthetic and narratology taste as well as technical skills attributed to the target public.
  • at the center of the home theater apparatus, towards which TV and cinema devices are converging: Finally, DVDs were one of the main vector in the popularization of the home cinema apparatus, made of a large wide screen and a sound system of higher quality, promising an audiovisual experience of immersion similar to that offered by movie theaters. In this view, TV series benefit of the same quality editing as films. One can assume that this new technological context of reception responds to a change in the way people experience cinematographic and TV contents. The TV screen being progressively reduced to a mere display device, series are therefore disconnected from the original reception frame for which they were made. And this is particularly true of animes, which almost never get broadcasted on TV channels but are often (though not exclusively) nonetheless watched on a TV screen.

The choice to address this set of problems under the angle of practices linked to the DVD stems from the postulate that it constitutes a sort of intermediary phase, for the audiovisual entertainment industry, between what Régis Debray calls the videosphere (1991) and the hypersphere, a neologism created by Louise Merzeau (2007) in the continuation of his thoughts. This optical video disc lies indeed at the crossroad between content dematerialization into digital utterances and their re-embodiement into specific objects, which can potentially be connected to an almost infinite electronic network.

Moreover, the case of Japanese animated TV series circulating outside their country of origine illustrates particularly well the phenomenon of what Jean-Louis Missika (2006) calls de-mediation, at work within the audiovisual entertainment industry, and which results from a change in the relationship between audiovisual contents and the targeted audiences. While the usual journey of an exported TV series abroad goes begins with its broadcasting on national, private or public, channels in the importing countries, most animes have been landing straight onto the video shelves (VHS, laser disc, DVD, blu-ray). Only animes targeting young children and teenages have been tolerated on TV, in accordance with the Western idea that TV animation is cheap and only good for the youngest audiences.

Research questions

The main questions resulting from my set of problems concern the constitution of animes publics in Swizterland. This makes it necessary to describe the ways these publics conceive of anime. In order to better understand what leads these people to turn to the animated versions of the fictions created by the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry, instead of or along with other versions such as the films, the video games, the mangas (comics), etc., I’ll have to analyse the role these people attribute to these multiple products in their overall experience of these stories.

I’ll have to describe the role played by the DVD itself in the audiovisual experience of animes amateurs. To do so, I’ll particularly investigate the way the DVD, as a digital delivery technology, encourages understanding, interpretation of and projection into a serialized fiction. Indeed, it is at this level that the editing work by DVD publishers and their conception of their publics are revealed.

This approach should make it possible to show how technology and content combine to build a product received as whole by publics, who think of themselves as both users and spectators.

Hypothesis

In my view, DVD represents a sort of hybrid phase in the evolution of audiovisual content reception,which I have labelled “videocinephilia”. It can be understood as a convergence between cinephiles’ expectations in terms of audiovisual rendering and the desire for interaction with the platform, which characterizes videophiles. The DVD can feed the need for double-awareness (C. Grant, in : J. Bennett & T. Brown, 2008), that is, the knowledge of the production conditions and the author’s intentions, which make up a key-element of cinephilia, while allowing the constitution of personal collections of films (cinephilia) and TV flux (videophilia), in the aim of accumulating an encyclopaedic fictional memory.

Theoretical approache

The theoretical approaches is made up of two panels:

  • A general explanatory frame, which anchors the set of problems to a backdrop of social trends and is inspired by Régis Debray’s mediology (1991, 2000) and Louise Merzeau’s work (2007), in the same vein;
  • Conceptual tools, which serves to articulate elements of the problem to each others and to connect them to the general frame. They are taken from reception studies and sociology of technology, and combined through the use of some specific perspectives offered by Cultural Studies.

In this project, the set of problems and the hypothesis necessitate a general theoretical framework acknowledging the tight relationships between the physical medium and the content. Régis Debray’s mediology focuses on the consideration of what he calls the technical conditions of symbols (1991), that is the adequacy between the message and the physical vehicle or the objects by which one attempts to circulate it geographically (communication) and temporally (transmission). He also calls mediasphere the whole range of technocultural communication devices which define a particular period of time. In this view, Louise Merzeau (2007) proposes to use the neologism hypersphere to designate the present technological and cultural manifestations, especially the trend towards an all-digital era. She argues that this notion takes into account the various processes of sociotechnical integration, through digital standards, and the combination of multiple utterances, as embodied by such multi-contents objects as the DVD, or by the tendency to pile up references which characterizes the audiovisual productions of the last 20-30 years. This approach also allows for the highlighting of the re-negotiation between mind and matter, involved in the de-materialization of digitized contents.

The combined logics of audience fragmentation, transnationalism and digitization have rendered the approaches of the study of reception more complexe. Traditional socio-demographic categories used to define audiences have led to a multiplication of market niches and the whole stake for the new actors of the audiovisual entertainment industry is to reconstitute the former mass audiences from all these niches. These attempts illustrate the basic assumption of reception studies, that is that audiences and publics don’t exist a-priori, but are being progressively built up as people are exposed to media contents. Daniel Dayan (1992) and Cultural Studies researchers directly oppose the marketing approaches, by focusing on the the self-reflexivity exerted by people who form the publics, a process he labels by the neologism audienciation.

Audiencing doesn’t only take place in relationships to a content, but also to the material means used to access it. As stated by Régis Debray (2000), listening a piece from Bach on a CD is a completely different experience from attending a concert of Bach music in a church. In the same way, watching a TV series broadcasted by a TV channel at specific time is different from watching it as a DVD edition on a computer screen. The hypothesis of videocinephilia doesn’t only involve an aesthetic sense or an extensive audiovisual culture, but also a form of technophilia, especially digital. In this view, the approach recommended by Dominique Boullier (1994), which considers the spectator as a receptor, a consumer, and an end-user at the same time, makes it possible to analyse the way various forms of practices linked to the present development of audiovisual entertainment are constructed. Indeed, the articulation between these various roles, often taken on simultaneously, should result in a rough outline of videocinephilia as “practice communities”, an expression derived from that of interpretation community, coined by Mauro Wolf (1992). In the framework of an approach based on the assumption of self-reflexivity among these communities, fictions of publics (Daniel Dayan, 1992) and users should emerge from this research. As they don’t evolve in a vacuum, but in a context of prescription uttered by a variety of institutional and social actors, especially the producers themselves, it would be interesting to interview the anime DVD publishers on their representation of their publics.

Methods

The theoretical approaches used in this work is based on the assumption that people can produce their own representations about their practices, and it follows that the fieldwork will have to give a large space to discourses by the amateurs of animes. I’d like to collect these discourses in two phases: first an analysis of comments posted on the Web, and then, through interactions with people, in the form of observation-participation in various types of events and occasions bringing animes publics together in Switzerland, and interviews with some of these persons.

The first problem encountered by most researchers involved in that kind of work lies in the temptation to impose a-priori categories on their interlocutors, which can manifest itself more or les consciously, in the way questions are asked (questionnaires or interviews) and in the choice of people making up the corpus. To avoid this trap, one has to collect discourses that haven’t been influenced by the researcher, while keeping in mind that no expression is totally free from social constraints and that it can’t reflect absolutely accurately the thoughts of its author. Alexis Blanchet, who worked on DVDphilia in France (2004), proposes to overcome this obstacle by analyzing comments left by customers on Websites selling DVD, such as Amazon or Fnac, and by internet users on specialized fora. Such a method should be transposable almost as such in the case of my dissertation, while keeping in mind the specificity of the concerned subject: Japanese animated TV series. I’ll have to bring out discourse categories concerning key elements 0f this research (text, media, technology) to have a first classification of the various types of practices and receptions. I should be able to find out more about the following elements:

Comparison between the various versions of the same fiction:

  • Discourses on animes and mangas as texts produced by a specific industry, the Japanese audiovisual entertainment industry
  • Discourses on the ways to approache these texts
  • Discourses on the conception of the various platforms on which animes are made available and more specifically on the DVD.

Comparison between the various channels of distribution and broadcasting of animes

  • Discourses on the ways to follow animes and their worldwide circulation
  • Discourses on the audiovisual quality of the various platforms of circulation
  • Discourses on the quality of translation (including fansubbing)

Comparison between the various DVD editions for the same anime series

  • Discourses on the expectations towards an anime DVD as an object of collection
  • Discourses on the audiovisual quality of each edition
  • Discourses on the user-friendliness of the DVD interface and on the authoring work.

The main problem with this approach comes from the almost complete anonymity of the authors of the posted comments and the impossibility to track them geographically with certainty. Another problem lies in the choice of the anime series for which to analyse the comments left on the Web. Although I do have a collection of anime DVDs, I can’t extend my criteria of selection to everyone. Actually, I’m not even sure where to situate my own taste on the spectrum of the various anime publics. I think that the best way for me to go about this would be to ask directly members of forums of Swiss associations specialized in Japanese audiovisual entertainment to recommand series to select for my first fieldwork corpus. This will allow me then to ask some of these people if they agree to meet me during conventions, club reunions, public projections or even simply in the specialized stores that exist in the large towns in Switzerland. This should make it possible first to collect some basic discourses, relatively little influenced by my own conceptions of animes, on the way animes are conceived of among these groups of Swizterland, and to connect them with the statements made by anonymous visitors on the online shops and specialized forums, and then, to facilitate the transition from the social reality of the “Web” and that of face-to-face interactions, which will take place in the second phase of my fieldwork.

To conceptualize this transition between two social environments often considered as totally distinct, if not opposed in terms of “real” and “virtual”, the notions of territory and social space seem particularly appropriate. The territory is here a metaphore for circumscribed site of actions, with borders that can take both a physical, institutional or social forms. It is divided into social spaces, defined as bits of territory, themselves delineated by interpersonal relationships, belonging to groups and the practices that characterize them. In the framework of my dissertation, the territory considered is the reception of animes in Switzerland, and the social spaces, the various sociotechnical contexts of reception.

In this view, the concept of neighborhood by Arjun Appadurai (1996) allows for the linking between the “Web” world and the “tangible” reality in which we find ourselves as physical beings. The neighborhood offers a convenient concrete metaphore for the constitution of publics in scattered social spaces, where people are often alone in front of their TV or computer screen, while still displaying ‘neighboring’ practices, that is similar but not identical nor simultaneous. Indeed, this notion refers to the various ways of belonging to ‘virtual’ groups (that is, composed of scattered entities, without direct interpersonal relationships), characterized by references and specific values, upheld by those who identify with it more or less openly. The concept of mediated sodalities, also coined by Appadurai (1996), can facilitate the description of the way these ‘virtual’ groups can materialize when they interconnect, either for long or for brief relationships. Strictly speaking, this means that the Web, as much as conventions, stores, etc., offers a place of mediation between publics which form in social spaces scattered geographically, but characterized by similar practices (neighborhood). Because Appadurai’s neighborhood isn’t only limited by physical or geographical barriers, one can consider that the Web represents mostly a platform for multiple mediation between various social spaces and as such, a prolungation of sodalities which have materialized in other places like conventions or stores.

On this basis, I’m intending on conducting discussions with people encountered on these various occasions as a continuation of my interactions with them on the Web. As I probably don’t own all the titles of animes that will be suggested to me in the first part of my fieldwork, I’d like to exploit this obstacle by offering them to discuss these animes in face-to-face, even to watch some episodes with them, in the context that suits them best. I have already come forwards for working on the Tanigami stand at the coming Polymanga convention (April 2010) in Lausanne and I’ll probably go with a group from the association Yume to Japan Impact, organized by PolyJapan (a student club from the Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne). Moreover, as a member of the committee of Yume, I’ll be attending most of the activities it organizes, especially a day devoted to Street Fighters. In May 2010, I’ll probably go to JapAniManga Night, in Winterthur, where I’ll try to meet members from Mangaforum.ch, the forum of the Swiss German association Rising Sun Production. I also have some good contacts in Zürich and other Swiss German cities with people who might be willing to participate in interviews.

I’ll also get back in touch with companies specializing in the publishing of anime DVD in French- and German-speaking countries, especially Kaze and Anime Virtual. I have already visited them at the begining of my research and had the feeling that they were interested in my work. The fact that the founders of these companies have roughly the same age as I and that we share a similar audiovisual background going back to the 1980’s has also helped a lot in our first encounter. I also hope to be able to reach two other companies based in France, Dybex and Beez Entertainment. As mentioned earlier, the idea is to conduct interviews with the people responsible for marketing, authoring and translation. I’m intending on using semi-opened questionnaires, in order to keep the discussions focused so as to avoid any waste of their time.

The idea is to put face-to-face both types of discourses collected among Swiss amateurs of animes and during the interviews with the people working for DVD publishing companies specilazing in animes. It will make it possible to evaluate how much they converge towards or diverge from each other. This way, I hope to put into light some of their representations about audiovisual entertainment in the context of demediation and transnationalism.

***

For more details about the references cited in this text, you can visit my selection of bibliographic resources, or go to my Mendeley or my Zotero pages, for my full bibliography.

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