The “Television of Attractions:” Digital Video Broadcasting, Science Fiction and Uncanny Audiences

Curator's Note

In Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” the spectacle is the driving force and stories are shaped by the medium’s power to produce illusion and fascination. This notion sheds light on our present, the “Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) era” and its inextricably uncanny audiences. Thinking through streaming and on-demand television practices via “the cinema of attractions” allows us to consider three interrelated processes: the application of the notion to another popular medium, television; the changing relationships between diegetic and spectatorial spaces; and, uncanny audiences’ increasing predilection for science fiction content. 

SF and the uncanny have a long history together; whether in literature or visual media, SF narratives have always been predicated on articulations between the strange and the familiar. Freud’s seminal piece on the uncanny points to this as an essentially ambiguous category, denoting unfamiliarity and fright, a primitive feeling resurfacing in the shape of an uncanny effect. The discussion of the uncanny--and of the uncanny in SF--seems especially apropos in today’s context, even more so during the current pandemic. Quarantining and shelter-in place orders have accelerated two robust trends taking place in the last two decades: the cinema space being substituted by the home space, and the increasing production and availability of science fiction and fantasy film and television that concern apocalyptic narratives and dystopian futures, pointing to an increased appetite for these themes, worldwide. Exploring the uncanniness of new audiences and spectatorial practices raises questions about industry practices and expectations, and about how streaming services have drastically changed how television is produced and consumed today. 

The streaming audience is familiar and uncanny; while certain services have a national reach, others are available worldwide, so there is the potential for attracting global audiences, often unfamiliar to (American) content creators. While the development of algorithms and the collection of user information allow platforms to “get to know” them, this process differs greatly from modes of measuring viewership from previous generations (e.g. telephone-conducted polls and statistical sampling). At the same time, audience information is kept from the public. Media scholars have bumped up against platforms’ practices of keeping this information at an uncanny arm’s length from wider society. But most importantly, streaming produces its own temporality, it allows audiences to control the pace in which content is watched, both at the level of individual episodes/movies (pausing, fast-forwarding, splitting into different occasions of viewing), as well as in terms of “binge-watching” or watching movies/episodes out of order, or while multitasking, all of which greatly alter the dialectic between spectatorial and diegetic spaces. Now audiences have control over the temporal flow of their watching, and on many types of devices. The increasingly complex relationships between producers and consumers in the era of DVB suggest that spectatorial and diegetic spaces are mutually constitutive, as on-demand services compete for viewers’ tastes and watching experience. With its focus on visual effects and exploration of time and space travel, science and fantasy fiction narratives seem like fitting candidates to win over uncanny audiences.

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