Jhally and Livant (1986) Watching as Working: The Valorization of Audience Consciousness


Sut Jhally and Bill Levant confirm and extend Smythe’s audience theory of labor.  They explain that working at watching essentially works the same way that all labor functions within capitalist economies.  The media system is designed to squeeze the most profit out of the audience’s watching time using the minimum production costs necessary.  They reaffirm Smythe’s assertion that instead of focusing on the messages the media produces, scholars should focus on the relationship between viewers and capital (how media buy and sell audience watching time as a commodity).


Advertising produces a profit – it speeds up the selling of commodities thereby lessening storage times.  Media networks receive a part of this profit as “rent” for access to audience members.  When the rent paid is higher than the networks’ cost of production, they recognize a profit. What is the rent paid for? The audience is “doing” something – seeing or listening (ME: or playing).  While watching they are also interpreting and forming connections in active ways (work of watching).  Jhally and Livant call the interpretive aspects of watching “watching extra“.  The central focus of the media is to get audiences to expend surplus time watching extra.  This is like a factory that seeks to maximize production at minimum cost.  Media seek to maximize audience surplus watching time to squeeze out the most value.  The accomplish this by adding more advertising time to programs, by targeting more specific audiences (though cable networks such as ESPN) (narrowcasting) and by blurring the boundaries between entertainment and advertising (MTV, PLCs etc.)

The most money is spent on producing the commercial content because this is what produces surplus value.  The programs on the other hand are bland and only produce temporary satisfaction so that viewers seek to purchase more commodities to satisfy their needs:

“Program messages, like consumer goods in general, are designed for instant superficial gratification and long-term disappointment that ensures a return trip to the marketplace” (pg. 142)

Production in the late twentieth century had merely shifted out of the factory and into the home.


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