In his 2004 article, “The cultural logic of media convergence,” Henry Jenkins presciently identifies two opposing and simultaneous shifts in media culture of the twenty-first century: the proliferation and diversification of content as a result of new technologies on the one hand, and on the other the increasingly vast control of media industries by a handful of multinational conglomerates. Although Jenkins makes a number of startlingly accurate predictions about the future of television and media – for example, when he discusses the future of subscription-based and streaming services for online television – I wonder whether he remains excessively rooted in a neoliberal ideology, particularly when he writes, “contemporary consumers may gain power through the assertion of new kinds of economic and legal relations and not simply through making meanings” (Jenkins 36). The ‘empowered consumer,’ to me, is on some level reminiscent of the post-feminist ‘empowered woman,’ gaining respect or recognition within the confines of a certain social, political, or economic structure without questioning or destabilizing its fundamentally unequal foundations. Jenkins seems, on some level, to accept the binaries that Caldwell, in “Convergence Television,” is looking to trouble -- describing the new media consumer as radically different from the old, active where the latter was passive, migratory where the latter was stationary (Jenkins 37). Caldwell argues that there has not been a radical break in media and industry practice, but rather, a reconfiguration of old norms to adapt to changing technologies.
One of Jenkins’ most interesting assertions, in my opinion, comes near the end of his piece, when he writes about the shifting role of the public intellectual in this new media age: “Hartley notes that [scholars] have historically been more comfortable collaborating with state institutions than private corporations. But, in an era of privatization, cultural policy is increasingly being set not by governmental bodies, but by media companies; we lose the ability to have any real influence over the directions that our culture takes if we do not find ways to engage in active dialogue with media industries” (Jenkins 42). Once again, Jenkins’ optimism troubles me; he seems to unquestioningly accept that we are in an “era of privatization,” and seems to willfully ignore the ways in which his own position – as a white man already positioned within the intellectual elite – might grant him a power or ‘legitimacy’ in engaging with media corporations while other voices will inevitably be left out.
It might have been impossible for Jenkins to fully foresee the advent of social media (which I do not want to unquestioningly accept as positive or wholly democratic either), but I am curious about the contemporary character of the ‘showrunner’ (Shonda Rhimes, Matthew Weiner, and I. Marlene King come to mind) in contemporary television as a new kind of public intellectual – one whose position within the industry is clearly delineated (rather than some kind of insidious intellectual-on-a-payroll, which is what Jenkins’ scenario would seem to imply), and whose affiliations are entirely outside the academy, but who nevertheless can claim a certain creative autonomy and construct an individuated persona through which s/he can connect directly with fan communities and the public while also directly impacting media output. Perhaps the binaries mentioned above – active vs. passive, migratory vs. stationary – might be better applied to showrunners than consumers themselves. If so, does the showrunner disrupt the producer-consumer binary or reify it?