Q&A: Damien Stankiewicz on ARTE and off-screen viewer engagement

Following his recent article in Television & New Media entitled ‘Regathering the Imagined Audience: Shifting Strategies at a Trans-European Public Television Channel’, I got in touch with Damien Stankiewicz to ask him a few questions about his research.

I found your paper really interesting, particularly in regards to how ARTE engages with audiences off-screen through cultural events. How did you come about choosing this as an area of research?

I actually encountered ARTE as an undergraduate while studying abroad in France and found the project fascinating. I ended up writing my undergrad thesis on its transnational mission and then continued on to a doctoral program, at New York University, in an anthropology department where several anthropologists were doing pioneering work studying media producers. At first, I was very interested in the “European” mission of ARTE—how it sought to cultivate “European” belonging and loyalties in its transnational audiences. But during fieldwork in 2007-2009 (and this past summer), I began to also pay close attention to the issue of the “digital transformation” of television and the implications of this for ARTE. One thing I found, which the article reflects, is that this transformation isn’t always happening in predictable ways—it isn’t just about web streaming, etc., but about multiple strategies (some off-screen) to remain visible and relevant.

Beyond programme strategies and branding, while undertaking your research did you gain a sense of how ARTE saw its role in fostering off-screen engagement with the arts through the sponsorship of cultural events?

Yes, well this is why I wrote the article—to draw attention to an oft ignored aspect of media industries: their “off-screen” presence, marketing, sponsorship, etc. During fieldwork I noticed that ARTE was particularly interested in drawing connections between its on-screen programming and actual places and people, many of which were part of its on-screen programming. So for example, they might broadcast a documentary about the European elections and have some kind of debate event at the Maison de l’Europe in Paris the same week. I saw this happening often enough, and amidst ongoing anxieties about connecting with audiences, that it seemed to me an interesting parallel and strategy. People at ARTE were having trouble locating people as audiences and so I argue that these events, engagements, sponsorships, performances, etc., allowed them to reconnect with their viewers. As I state in the article, much of ARTE’s programming is explicitly about performance or arts, so this wasn’t much of a leap for them to make—and in France especially there is a long tradition of “actions culturelles.”

As you discuss in your research, television professionals are now able to interact with viewers on social media, as well as face-to-face through various events. In light of this, do you think the concept of the ‘imagined audience’ will become obsolete for broadcasters like ARTE?

A good question! and one that Graeme Turner has addressed in his excellent work on national broadcasting. I think the answer is complicated. On the one hand, the idea that by watching and encountering media together (whether on-screen or off-screen) people come to share understandings of themselves as belonging to communities of various kinds—I don’t think this is a model (or ideology) that is going away any time soon. On the other hand, I think the actual mechanics of this—the multiple and parallel and messy ways that people actually encounter media as knowledge about the world(s) “out there”—I think we’re needing to rethink Anderson’s model, which, to be fair, describes an 18th and 19th century (mostly Euro-American) media world. “Old” media, new media, and face-to-face interactions operate in ways that much of our theory—the “imagined community” included—cannot quite capture or explain. Part of the work I was trying to do in this article was to interfere with overly simplistic ideas of the “television audience” in a 21st century context in which the “audience” holds very little referential or explanatory power—not least because, as I hoped to suggest, they are often off-screen, on-screen, and encountering media in newly complex modalities.



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