Jhally and Livant’s path-breaking article “Watching as Working” has become a classic of media studies literature since its publication in 1986. The authors attempted to reorient the study of media, particularly television, from a focus on the production and distribution of messages to the public toward a concern with the actual role of the viewers, listeners, and readers in the process of communication. Steps had been taken in this direction before; while early studies of the mass media, by scholars like Paul Lazarsfeld and others, were preoccupied with the “effects” that powerful media had on an impressionable audience, later figures like Elihu Katz and Stuart Hall complicated the picture by considering how audiences interact with the messages of mass media. As Katz showed in his famous 1993 study, with Tamar Liebes, of the American program “Dallas,” people’s interpretations of a seemingly straightforward soap opera about rich and powerful Texans varied based on the culture, gender, class, and race of the viewer.
In contrast, Jhally and Livant believed that the focus on the content of broadcasting was misplaced. Indeed, TV programs were hardly the most important component of commercial media in their view. Rather, what TV networks sold was the watching-time of the audience, which they sold to advertisers. The authors see the process of broadcasting and watching as analogous to any other kind of labor, including factory work. The TV show is the wage that is paid to the viewer, in exchange for their watching of the commercial, which generates value for the network and, by extension, the advertiser. Like any other industry, broadcasters tried to squeeze more labor and more time out of the laborer who produced value – in this case, viewers – by adding more commercials, targeting ads to specific (and highly valued) demographics, and ultimately blurring the line between ad and program (which encompasses product placement, sponsorship of sporting events, and the 100% advertising format of MTV or QVC).
The authors see the history of broadcasting as one of rationalization in fits and starts. Radio programming was first developed to encourage the sale of radio receivers; only later did the sale of time (the listeners’ time) become customary. Similarly, television was only turned toward the greatest efficiency for broadcasters when they developed new ways to maximize the use of their means of production. In the 1950s, companies like Dupont or GE would buy whole blocks of time and each program would have its own sponsor. This created an outer limit for how much profit could be wrung from a given unit of time. The development of “spot selling,” i.e. commercials, in the 1960s was resisted by advertisers, but the owners of media capital, the networks, prevailed in their attempt to enhance the productivity of their viewers, packing in ads for many products in a half-hour program.
Using the terminology of Marxism, the article frames the production of value as a collaboration between viewers and capital. Viewers don’t have to watch, although Jhally and Livant suggest that many are compelled to, when people watch something they don’t like and they don’t know why. At the same time, if broadcasters aired programs that no one watched, no time could be sold and no value would be produced. In classic Marxist fashion, the laborers are the most important factor. If viewers only watched enough commercials to pay for the cost of programming, they would be giving only the necessary watching-time; networks can only achieve profit by getting viewers to watch “extra,” which is the surplus value that capitalists must appropriate. As Jhally and Livant say, the workday of viewers is the length of the commercials. The absolute surplus value depends on lengthening this period in real terms, while the relative surplus value involves making viewers produce greater value for advertiser within a given amount of time – which is crucial, since time is always a finite resource, especially given the fact that viewers watch when they are not literally at work, and because there are social and practical limits to how much the amount of advertising relative to programming can be increased.
Intriguingly, Jhally and Livant point out that commercials are highly creative and more expensive than TV shows to produce because they are capital goods – like the machines in a factory, they have to be the best quality to achieve capital’s aim of reproducing and enlarging itself through the exploitation of surplus value. The products themselves might be shoddy and, in fact, have to be disposable, in order to keep consumers coming back for more. The same logic applies to TV shows. As musician and theorist Ian Svenonius has argued:
“TV shows have been stunted purposefully, so as to favorably highlight the commercials they're designed to showcase. While these commercials have developed into a meta art-form, surreal and even funny, sitcoms have barely wavered from the anemic model drawn up by The Honeymooners: witless plots, stupid jokes, and preposterous canned laughter.”
In this light, “Watching as Working” is more relevant than ever, as viewers abandon their role as captive producers of value for TV networks and media companies find new ways to exploit the audience’s “free” labor. The work of Tiziana Terranova, in particular, has shown how business has discovered methods to exploit listeners, readers, and viewers in the age of YouTube and “user-generated content.”