Digital Labor in Participatory Television

Curator's Note

From 2006-2009, while a graduate student in Cinema and Media Studies and later Anthropology at UCLA, I worked as a freelance, or what Current TV called a “VC2” or viewer-created content producer, making 16 documentaries for cable broadcast. It was pretty cool, I could put together 3-4 short documentary projects at $2000 a piece and travel the world. I worked with Iraqi refugees, religious fundamentalists in Kentucky, revolutionaries in Kyrgyzstan, and indigenous people of India, as well as in the divided cities in Belfast and Jerusalem and revolutions in central Asia. This opportunity didn’t last very long.

Current TV is one of the first cable networks to come to air in the Web 2.0 era marked by the capacity to broadcast user-submitted internet video and news content. As such, Current TV is situated historically, technologically, and practically between two forms of mass communication, the internet and television, embodying the contradictory values of a two-way and open internet and the one-way and closed cable television system. The discourse on values and the governance of user-participants are examples of how an older industry (television and its audience) reacts to new technologies and audiences (the internet and user-producers). Current TV’s perpetuation of the logic and practices of television with the incorporation of values and governance strategies from the internet, illustrate the tense relationship between the internet and television.

During my fieldwork and freelance work for Current TV, I observed several changes in its practice and discourse with regards to social justice. During the period of time from 2005-2008, Current TV explicitly focused on “democratizing media” and “opening” their cable network to citizen user producers. They also won an Emmy as the video shows. In 2009, however, Current TV began working exclusively with Hollywood producers rather than user producers. This is an example of the closed, non-democratic cable television strategy. In its transition from amateur to professional content acquisition, Current TV transitioned from a more unstable media platform towards marketable and conservative programming.

Wu (2010) calls this the Cycle, the historical transition of every information industry from open, amateur, and participatory to closed, professional, and proprietary. Is the Cycle accurate for internet video and television and if so what does it mean to be an individual working in an information industry in the midst of such chaotic change? I think the gallows humor and anguish expressed by the producer of this video shows us.


Thank you, Adam, for continuing our theme week with such an interesting post.  A couple questions arose as I was reading your post, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on a couple of matters.

How much influence do you think technological formats and industrial structures have on the "Cycle?"  As the history of broadcasting shows us, broadcasting technologies weren't necessarily conceived of in terms of one-way communications.  Especially in regards to "amateur" experimenters, radio broadcasting was very much utilized as a two-way technology.  However, in the example of TV, the technology was quickly absorbed by professional, corporate interests, and the one-way broadcasting model became the standard.  My question is this: does the fact that Current TV is trying to keep its feet in two worlds - cable TV and internet - have something to do with its move towards professional content?  Are the industrial pressures of cable TV pushing Current TV in a particular direction?

Great video, Adam--your experience at CurrentTV sounds fascinating.  I think about these issues quite a bit because of how the discourse usually positions particular people as adversaries.  For example, your post led me to wonder if amateurs trying to get their foot in the door need to consider the larger stakes (how they upset the hierarchies and procedures already in place within TV's industrial structure)--and that is perhaps exactly the wrong question to be asking.   In particular, I am troubled by how often the amateur gets labeled as a trouble maker--both by industry heads (annoyed by amateurs in their way) and by below-the-line workers (annoyed that their professional standards are slipping away).  

What are the responsibilities of both the workers currently employed within the TV industry and those at the edges trying to enter TV through web-based cultures of production?  Is there potential for greater positive change should these forces find a way to work against the (seemingly)  inevitable incorporation of independent forces within corporate structures?

Thanks for this really thought-provoking post! Your post makes me wonder if a channel aspiring to inclusion on satellite and cable TV lineups that wants to earn per subscriber fees and increase ad revenue (I’m assuming Current TV is an ad-based channel) can be truly innovative or whether the most these channels can do is to provide windows of innovation.  This pattern of stressing the new and then ditching the new at the moment of profitability or mainstream attention can be seen in Fox and Logo.  Your post nicely addresses the politics of “post-network” television production. 

One of my capstone students this semester is reading Tim Wu’s book, and your post makes me interested in reading it this summer to see how we might extend Wu’s observations beyond the borders of media policy into discussions of labor that, perhaps at first glance, don’t fall squarely within the borders of “official” policy.


 Adam, just a quick inquiry: I'm wondering your opinions of last year's Interactive Media Emmy winner, Star Wars Uncut (disclaimer: I'm a friend of Jamie Wilkinson, one of the creators). The video you linked to, for the CurrentTV example, complains about low pay and not getting an Emmy for user labor. Star Wars Uncut, though, paid no participants, and yet there's still an issue of user labor. Hoping you can use a parallel example to tease out the issues you're thinking about.

Loved your post! not least because it featured my former co-worker and all around genius Mary Matthews!  There is a huge elephant in the room when we talk about new media/social media/web that users are generating content for which they are not paid.  Witness the lawsuit against the Huff Post

One of the former Huff Post workers reacted to the lawsuit, saying, ‎"Huffington bloggers have essentially been turned into modern day slaves on Arianna Huffington's plantation...people who create content ... have to be compensated."

So the question is are we all being turned into modern day slaves on the Web plantation?

BTW, Current TV is actually modeled -- unconsciously or not -- on public access TV, which is where a lot of its producers started out.  Unfortunately, the P in PEGTV or Public Access is dying out thanks to cable and telecom companies shirking their public responsibilities and the rise of the Youtube generation.

Thanks for posting my video, Adam. And great piece on the issue at large. I too participated in Star Wars Uncut, and quite happily in the name of crowd sourcing participation. Their Emmy was well deserved, for editing alone!

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