August 18, 2011 5:45 AM
Mary Ann Travis
Television is the most powerful cultural medium in the world today, says Vicki Mayer, associate professor of communication. Some observers may say that television is over; it’s all about the Internet. But Mayer argues otherwise. “The symbolic power of being involved with television is still huge cultural capital for everyone in our society,” she says.
Unlike many media scholars, Mayer is not focused on what’s on the television screen — the content — but instead she’s interested in the “processes of production behind those contents,” she says. “I’m interested in culturally, what’s in it for people who work for the television industry?”
In her book Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy (Duke University Press, 2011), Mayer presents case studies on people involved in television production — television set factory assemblers, soft-core pornography camera operators, reality-show casters, and volunteer cable television advocates.
“Each group of people, each community, has their own particular association with television,” says Mayer. And in these communities, “television occupies a certain place of symbolic status that other media don’t,” she says.
“We live in a society where far more people are involved in the production of television than we currently associate with the industry,” says Mayer. “The numbers of people who are involved in television production have expanded dramatically.”
The “siren song” of television lures people to work for low pay, long hours and precarious job security, says Mayer.
The term “below the line” originated in the early days of film when budget sheets categorized “above the line” costs for creative expenses, including scriptwriters and directors. “Below-the-line people are the people who actually make it happen in production,” says Mayer, including lighting technicians and stagehand personnel.
Below-the-line workers add value to the new television economy but they are often unrecognized or even completely invisible.
Mayer says, “Television continues to exert its power in our society in a way that we are willing to submit or exploit ourselves for the industry’s benefit.”
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