Interactive Audiences in the Digital Age: The Colbert Report
This show is not about me. No, this program is dedicated to you, the heroes. And who are the heroes? The people who watch this show, average hard-working Americans. You’re not the elites, You’re not the country club crowd. I know for a fact my country club would never let you in… You’re the folks who say something has to be done. And you’re doing something. You’re watching TV.
This was the first announcement that Stephen Colbert, host of The Colbert Report, made to the viewers of the show’s first broadcast. Mocking right-wing media pundits who condescendingly celebrate a one-dimensional representation of their “common people” audience while they themselves speak from an elite chair in a place of privilege, Colbert succeeded in naming and creating his audience. He makes this direct appeal to the audience a central mode of address in the show, while at the same time successfully undermining and legitimizing that which he was mocking. Thus was the creation of The Colbert Report, a source of satirical entertainment and political commentary for audiences around the world.
The popularity of political humor in the United States today is unprecedented, and political satirists are being taken more seriously than ever before. Stephen Colbert, who has risen to power as one of the most influential men in television, is a prime example of this. Portraying a politically conservative expert, Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report satirized political pundit-centered commentary programs such as the The O’Reilly Factor. The show became one of Comedy Central’s highest-rated series during its time on the air from 2005 to 2014, earning Colbert nominations for Primetime Emmy Awards, Grammy Awards, and Peabody Awards. Colbert has graced the cover of several national publications, was cited by Time magazine as one of the most influential entertainers in the world in 2006, and again in 2010, was the featured speaker at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006, and was recently chosen to succeed David Letterman as the host of The Late Show after Letterman retires this year. Colbert has also written numerous books.
While the lines separating information-based and entertainment-based television in America today are increasingly blurred, and programs that were once seen as superficial are now taking a much more important role in the political education of viewers, what interests me is how comedy television personas such as Stephen Colbert have become so influential in the digital media age. In this paper, I intend to demonstrate how, through the use of digital media technologies, The Colbert Report was able to greatly influence the American people and politics.
The network has radically changed the way people are able to interact with each other. Consequently, it has also “profoundly challenged the divides that traditional media have established between production and reception” (Marshall (b), n.p). The Internet has become a space where all new media collide and where grassroots forms of expression and corporate power come in direct contact with each other. It is a space where the power of professional, trained media producers come into contact with media consumers, a kind of interaction that had been impossible before. This kind of interaction has allowed for the rise of what is called participatory culture.
According to Henry Jenkins, participatory culture is marked by the idea of participation at a level that was not possible in a traditional media cultural environment. Contrasting with old media spectatorship, the roles that used to be known as producer and consumer have transformed, becoming altogether “participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands” (Jenkins (b), 3). Moreover, he defines participatory culture as one with:
- relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
- strong support for creating and sharing creations with others,
- some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,
- members who believe that their contributions matter, and
- members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think about what they have created) (Jenkins 2006a, 5-6).
Digital technologies and the internet have lead to the appearance of social-networking sites, video and music-sharing sites, blogs and the production of user-generated content, which all center on the potential for and realization of greater degrees of participation and interactivity.
Marshall analyzes the root of the word ‘interactivity’, first noting “to interact simply meant to relate on multiple levels to others” (Marshall (a) n.p). Interacting implied a group dynamic, a more complex interpersonal form of communication. He goes on to note the environmental discourse surrounding the term, “Interaction implied a sensitivity to an ecology of space and place”, concluding that interactivity, as a concept, is connected to something that was an “interplay of many elements in the constitution of any space”. These origins provide a foundation for understanding how interactivity has become an important term in new media studies. Interactivity is something that differentiates old media from new media, allowing “some sort of transformative relationship between the user of the media and the media form itself” (Marshall (a) n.p). Furthering Marshall’s argument, Rob Cover writes that interactivity implies a desire of users to communicate, participate, and engage with media texts. “The concept of interactivity need not be understood as the ‘making available’ of newly-invented technological tool, but the extension to media technologies of a culturally-constituted desire for communication” (Cover, 143).
The Colbert Report is fundamentally modeled on exchange and interplay through digital technologies.When the program aired in October 2005, Comedy Central made the first week of episodes available to watch online and even download. Producers then encouraged the fans to cut-and-paste clips of the show freely and share them on the Internet. This was quite innovative in the time of still-emerging practice of video sharing online, and coincided with the beginnings of YouTube. The editing and sharing of The Colbert Report by fans online could be done easily because each episode was modular; they could pick and choose any bits and reassemble them as they pleased, making any part become the main object of attention. Digital media is defined by its manipulability, and The Colbert Report explicitly celebrated this.
From this first linking of the show with the Internet, the show became an improvisational space that encouraged creativity, a space where the viewers were not just passive spectators but also content creators. Part of Colbert’s text is determined by the audience, which Colbert calls his “Nation”, and very often this Nation is called upon to take part in online activities and various pranks in addition to content creation. Content created by The Colbert Nation’s active audience first appeared on the episode that aired July 31, 2006. Colbert introduced the word of the day: wikiality, after demonstrating how easy it was to change a Wikipedia article’s content. Wikiality describes how reality is created through majority rule textual agreement and creation. Inspired by the “democratic” workings of Wikipedia, Colbert went on to say that by agreeing to collaborate and support each other’s opinions, we bring “democracy to knowledge”.
Colbert then called upon his Nation, “Nation, it’s time we use the power of our numbers for a real Internet revolution”, by changing the Wikipedia entry for African elephants. One month later, Colbert asked his Nation to spring to action again by writing his name in for the Hungarian Mo Danube Bridge naming contest. The bridge name’s voting site was overwhelmed by the Nation’s votes that stuffed the ballot, casting over 17 million in Colbert’s name. Just a few episodes later, Colbert challenged his Nation to create background video for a green screen video in which he is waving a Star Wars’ light saber. Several of the videos produced by the fans were aired on the August 21st episode. Colbert held these green screen video challenges numerous times and always aired the results on the show, allowing this kind of improvisational play between the text, the digital technologies, and the participants — the audience, the producers, and the host.
Colbert himself later suggested that the fans are vital to the program’s success because they “are a character in a scene I’m playing” (Snierson). For example, in 2007 Colbert asked his Nation to help him drop a “Google Bomb” by manipulating search results so that his website would rank first in the search for “big brass balls”. Participants in the prank decided to instead rank Colbert’s website at the top of the Google search results for “Greatest Living American”. These are examples of the kind of real-time interactivity and participation between the show’s host, producers and audience made possible by digital technologies. The inventiveness of the Nation as an active audience is profound as they seek to be both viewer and creator. What is most interesting about the Colbert Nation is that Colbert’s challenges to the audience cannot control or predetermine what they do or create. The audience takes the challenge and interprets them as they see fit, and what makes the show so successful is that the audience not only accepts the challenges but that Colbert is able to incorporate whatever the audience creates into his performance. It is an exchange between participants that not fully determined by one side or the other.
The Nation was not only assigned an active role by the program, but fans also have a very active fandom on their own. While Colbert and the producers invited fans to create videos, change Wikipedia pages, write their own additions to his “Tek Jansen” stories, and fill online ballots, the fans, by themselves, created several blogs and devoted countless threads to online discussion of the show. The high level of audience participation and interactivity, between the outright invitation by the program and the separate thriving fandom, has led many to remark on the program’s innovation. An article from The Huffington Post highly praises The Colbert Report saying, “The people behind “The Colbert Report” may be the smartest minds in television: While everyone else frets about YouTube, web TV, and platform integration Stephen Colbert & Co are already galvanizing the online to action and integrating fan content into the show, to hilarious effect” (Sklar).
The ideas of participatory culture and interactivity are increasingly important in today’s digital media-centered society. At the end of 2006, for example, Time magazine declared “You” the Person of the Year, “for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the prows at their own game” (Grossman). More and more the idea that the audience can become more than just passive consumers is infiltrating the media industry, giving more power to these new participants. While the consolidation of previously separated media industries, the intersection of grassroots and corporate media, and the shift in the roles of producers and consumers have led also to a shift in industry structure, content and production, these changes have further led to shifts in power. Within the television industry, active viewers have become indispensable parts of the programs themselves thanks to the many forms in which audience participation manifests. The Colbert Report especially makes fan participation integral to the program. We must, however, keep in mind that while the participation of the audience and their interaction with the producers comes from both the desire of the user and the invitation from the host, media corporations are always seeking to profit from this exchange. The executive vice president of digital media at Comedy Central, Erik Flannigan, commented on the profitability of audience participation for The Colbert Report, saying, “we want to make sure if people are reacting to what‘s going on on the show, they‘re doing it in our world and on our [Web] pages (Chmielewski). While Colbert’s encouragement to his Nation to cast votes to name the bridge after him seemed like a fun act of participation from devoted and amused fans, it must also be understood that this was a move in creating loyalty to and interest in the program. These acts generate real profit and real promotion for Viacom, the global mass media company that owns Comedy Central, and its advertisers.
Another important characteristic of digital media is its power to mobilize. Hans Magnus Enzensberger foresaw this powerful political possibility, writing that “the media are making possible mass participation in a social and socialized productive process, the practical means of which are in the hands of the masses themselves” (Enzensberger, 2). While The Colbert Report fans were mobilized personally to create user-generated content and re-create elements of the show’s content, fans have also been mobilized in more political ways. During the 2012 presidential election cycle the campaigns were experimenting with Super PACs, independent committees that “may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates” (“PACs”). Throughout multiple episodes, Colbert was able to effectively demonstrate how exactly this campaign finance system worked by explaining the loopholes in the laws that were meant to regulate coordination between the candidates and these “independent” groups. With the help of the former commissioner and chairman of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter, in 2011 Colbert went so far as to create his own Super PAC, “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow”, and establish a “shell corporation” that funneled anonymously donated money into his Super PAC. The experiment was able to raise real money, produce real commercials, and thoroughly explore the implications of the real campaign finance system of American politics. This kind of direct engagement with the show’s audience was something that no other television show, or media source in general, was doing at the time. Colbert walked his audience through the actual process throughout many episodes rather than simply feeding a passive audience ambiguous information and telling them “this is how it is”. Demonstrating how the satirical experiment spilled directly over into the political sphere, Colbert’s Super PAC reported raising $1.02 million, which was eventually divided and donated to various charities.
Another example of The Colbert Report’s mobilization power is when Colbert, along with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, organized rallies on the national mall in Washington D.C. Over 250,000 people showed up to demonstrate their support. While these rallies were part of the parody, they were also based on a serious message that was protesting how political news was covered in “real” news shows. These rallies were an example of how the audience was able to physically and politically participate on a level much deeper than simply sitting at home watching a television program. Many of the activities that fans have been mobilized to take part in are similar to forms of political participation, making use of the same kinds of skills and encouraging individual creativity that are important for democratic participation.
Around the same time as the beginnings of The Colbert Report, former democratic vice president Al Gore helped start a new cable news network called Current TV, which Gore promised would “empower” young people and allow them to “engage in a dialogue of democracy” with the aim of “democratizing television” (Jenkins (b), 240). Debates about the politics of participation asked,
Was Current going to be democratic in its content (focusing on the kinds of information that a democratic society needs to function), its effects (mobilizing young people to participate more fully in the democratic process), its values (fostering rationale discourse and a stronger sense of social contract), or its process (expanding access to the means of media production and distribution)? (Jenkins (b), 241).
The Colbert Report embodies the goals of this “democratic television”. Using comedy, satire, and irony, Colbert’s persona is able to effectively communicate information that a democratic society needs to function. From the The Colbert Report’s Super PAC real-life example, “People who watched The Colbert Report during the  presidential election [were] more informed about campaign financing than people who watched other news channels” (Waxman). The program has also served to mobilize its audience through direct engagement as well as the separate fandom that acts on its own outside of the requests of the producers. Fandom and fan activism are closely linked to political activism. While fandom provides a space to explore and participate in fantasy worlds that exist and function according to different laws and structures than those the people live with in their daily lives, the ability to imagine creative alternatives is also necessary for political activism. Further, fandom is centered around relationships with others, sharing interests and developing networks. This ability to build community is also necessary for political activism. Moreover, The Colbert Report has ‘fostered rationale discourse and a stronger sense of social contract’ by providing information, context and critique of real politics and the legitimacy of state authority over its citizens. The show has ‘expanded access to the means of media production and distribution’ by making use of the fan-generated content and publicly recognizing the active and important role the audience plays.
The idea that Americans are able to learn about the political system through news-comedy television shows rather than traditional journalism is commonplace today. Creating a link between producer and audience, as The Colbert Report did, changed what it means to be a fan of a television show. It encouraged creative expression and fostered real political understanding, interest and participation, but while The Colbert Report may prove to be a model for democratic television, especially compared to other programs from the time, we cannot forget that market pressures and the demand to satisfy advertisers are still forces pushing the content and direction of the program. While we cannot say that The Colbert Report is a truly democratic form of broadcasting and it did not change everything about television, we can conclude that the program has influenced the American people and politics through its innovative uses of digital technologies and encouragement of active audiences.
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