Over the last couple of years Bulgaria has established itself as an up-and-coming TV market. Foreign investors have entered the country by the dozen and have sealed off some top-level deals. New local players have emerged, whereas many of the old ones have consolidated their positions. The impending digitalization of TV broadcasting has in its turn given rise to the launching of more TV channels and to an increasing specialization in content. Against this background, the media is enjoying a large share in the structure of leisure time activities of the Bulgarian people. As per a recent large-scale survey, the cultural preferences of Bulgarians have categorically given an absolute priority to it: almost 60 percent of the respondents indicated that watching TV is their primary leisure time activity. Reading books comes second with only 8 percent. The volume of television commercials keeps growing, whereas the audience on the whole stays conservatively attached to the good old media. Even if the absolute number of viewers is slightly dropping, those who keep watching do watch a lot and do it with devotion. The average time spent on watching TV amounts to nearly five hours in 2010 (Prouchvania… 2010).
What is this continued success of the media attributable to? Is it a sign of cultural growth? Or, of decline? On the one hand, TV content still remains widely accessible. It is either free (for national and local broadcasting stations), or it follows the principle of providing a large number of TV channels at a reasonable fee (for cable and satellite TV subscription packages). On the other hand, television is most adaptable to the popular taste. It taps exactly into what people want to watch. Whereas these two factors are well known – and since Horkheimer and Adorno they have been usually interpreted precisely in the vein of cultural decline – there is also something new coming up. It muddles up the old critical approaches and doesn’t allow for the unequivocal stigmatization of television as the usual suspect for the twilight of culture.
It pertains to the changes which seem to have taken place unnoticeably in the space between the media and the audience. Television has succeeded in reestablishing its relations with the viewers and nowadays it offers them the opportunity to be the primary participant in many of its key genres. The doors have been cast open to the viewer and he/she has been invited to take part in the making of the new TV canon: co-authorship between the media and the audience.
What lies at the heart of the change is the boom in the information and communication technologies. Television can no longer be discussed out of this context today. The Internet and the mobile phones have overturned the very notion of the media. Two of the pillars of TV culture – the news broadcasts and the reality show formats – might best illustrate this change.
News broadcasts – opening up for amateurs
Let’s begin with an examination of the TV news broadcasts first. Given their fixed broadcasting times, television is pressured to respond to the competition coming from the promptly updated information sources on the Internet, as well as from the radio which has more frequent news broadcasts. In order to make up for this limitation TV news feature more and more actively live broadcasts and make the most of the live coverage from the scene. The classical advantage of the media as tele-vision is rediscovered – as an opportunity to transfer the audience to the scene of the event. At the same time the viewer is not left in the role of a passive onlooker. More and more often he/she appears on screen as an eyewitness or even as a commentator. The man in the street and his/her point of view are, if not taking the place of the old institutional perspective on the events, at least strongly competing with it. The intention is to make the viewers feel more and more “represented”.
At the same time they are persistently encouraged to produce news content themselves. All leading TV channels in Bulgaria today offer and widely advertise this opportunity. It started with bTV’s program “I, the reporter”. It provided the viewers with the opportunity to upload videos to the website of the media. With its high level of interactivity, it is no accident that it is the most popular site of a traditional media in Bulgaria. Materials sent in by the viewers are shown mainly in the news; furthermore, the morning show regularly examines comments posted on the most prominent forums and blogs. Little by little, the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Nova TV adopted this model too with their programs “Your news” and “Your reportage”. The websites of all three national televisions keep archives with the content sent in by the viewers. A review of highlights from the social networks is included in the morning block of Nova TV, selected videos from Vbox7 and YouTube are aired, and blogs are discussed. The news on BNT also present comments from the blogosphere, especially in the case of emergencies and breaking news of great public importance. For all three televisions their websites and particularly their online forums are a constant way of staying in touch with the audience. Smaller TV channels are oftentimes even more open to their public, making its “inclusion” a key factor in the competition for more popularity.
On the other hand, in an increasing number of cases the Internet itself becomes an important communication channel. Once the online content has gained enough popularity on the net, it may eventually attract the attention of the traditional media too. Such was the case, for instance, with the amateur video which documented the rather infamous statement made by the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), Ahmed Dogan, in the village of Kochan in 2009. After the video appeared on YouTube, it quickly gained net popularity and shortly afterwards was shown on the major TV channels too.  The widespread discussions in the traditional media in turn raised the popularity of the original content on the social video-sharing sites.
Ill. 3. Ahmed Dogan’s speech in the village of Kochan – an amateur video on YouTube.
In other cases the traditional media use amateur content published on the Internet or forwarded to them when carrying out their own investigations. Thus, for example, as early as 2006 Vassil Ivanov, a journalist at Nova TV, made a reportage in which he included an eyewitness video showing acts of brutality in the Sofia’s Central Prison (homosexual scenes and bullying of prisoners). The scenes were captured by an inmate using a mobile phone, smuggled illegally inside the prison. Later, the video was made available to Nova TV and distributed over the Internet at the same time. The reaction to the Vassil Ivanov’s investigation was huge since it revealed shocking relations between prison guards and prisoners, as well as between prisoners. After the reportage was aired, the Ministry of Justice started up an emergency inspection as a result of which the director of the Central Prison was dismissed and other prison officers were imposed administrative sanctions. Here is how – at the level of content – media convergence oftentimes goes along with convergence of the efforts by amateurs and professional journalists.
Even though amateur-generated content still fairly rarely happens to be featured in the broadcasts, this trend is a sign of the growing weight of the technically well-equipped viewers. They are granted an opportunity to leave behind their passive position and become if not journalists, at least eyewitnesses, sharing publicly certain facts; to walk the path from a viewer to a citizen, armed with a video technology already integrated in simple and accessible devices such as digital cameras and mobile phones. With this development television channels are trying to respond to the more and more popular citizen journalism on the Internet, whose most vivid representatives are the powerful blogs. To the phenomenon of social Internet television reacts with a determination for covering more social issues, receiving strong feedback from the audience, and getting closer to the real life.
The development of “citizen journalism” on the Internet itself owes much to the traditional media. The traditional media first have put the principle to the test, by enticing readers to become authors. This practice started with the early experience from columns such as “Letters from The Readers” and gradually evolved in more sophisticated forms. Let us remember for example the appeal made by the newspaper 24 Chasa [24 Hours] to its readers as early as 2001: “If you see something curious, please call in… and ask for the duty editor. Act as a reporter! If your news is found useful, you will be paid 20 to 100 levs. If it hits the headlines – more!” Or, again, in the same paper: “If, you, readers, live next door to a famous politician, take a photo of his house and send it in to us. We are going to publish it, and you are going to be paid a fee.” Only after such initiatives had been tested in the traditional media, they were introduced to the Internet too. The gained experience eventually rebounds – mastered and taken up to new heights – to the traditional media. Here is why, it can’t be argued (as it is often done) that the press, television and the radio follow in the footsteps of the Internet when it comes to discovering the connection to the public; the opposite is true – and logical – seen in the perspective of the continuity of media developments.
The evolution of media technologies, however, has taken its toll. One of the unexpected effects of the compelling convergence of media in the recent years is the proliferation of journalistic dilettantism. With their wide popularity, amateur practices are becoming the new ideal, so to speak, for professional journalists too. Traditional media have gradually started emulating the “citizen-driven” style in the presentation of content: it has become somewhat prestigious to deliver comments, and even news, as if there are amateurs, not professionals, who stand behind them. The intent is to gain more “authenticity” in this way. Consequently, however, tolerance towards the declining quality of the media is making headway quite unnoticed – professional journalists improvise more and more, prepare themselves less and less, and rely more and more on gut reactions, emotional judgments and moral postures. In fact, the differentiation between author and public is deliberately being blurred with the aim of achieving more “realism” by cutting down the distance as much as possible. The fad of pseudo-amateur journalism is taking root in the serious Bulgarian media too. In many of them unverified or incorrectly quoted data, hastily written articles, and even the lack of basic proof-reading are becoming the norm. Such practices are spreading in many television channels too. Against this background, it is no wonder that some of the best written blogs stand out as high quality information environment. “Journalism without journalists” (Lemann 2006) aspires to professional standards at a moment when professional journalism wants to borrow from the freshness – and sometimes irresponsibility too – of amateur writing. Under the weight of these controversial developments the very notion of journalism is becoming more tentative, yet more pluralistic.
Reality TV formats – from entertainment to participation
Let’s take a brief look at the reality TV genre next. It in turn has borrowed some basic techniques from the TV news: live broadcasts, objectivity claims, ongoing commentaries on the turn of the events, use of emotional codes. The primary source of interest and entertainment in popular television is no longer fiction but whatever is credible, made even more credible through the participation of common people. Here too, communication technologies play a key role. It may be argued for certain that the obsession of Bulgarians with mobile phones lies at the root of the blooming interest in reality shows. The Bulgarian mobile phone market is among the most developed ones in Europe, its saturation exceeding 140 percent. Voting by SMS has become a powerful tool for shaping the turn of the events in TV shows.
Let’s consider for a moment “Big Brother” or “Star Academy” where it is precisely the “culture of participation” which defines the twists and turns of the plot. People vote by SMS, thus building the participants’ rating. An analogous approach is brought into play in the “Greatest Bulgarians” show and in a whole range of new TV reality formats. Such shows are often criticized for their populism. Their popularity, however, cannot be fully accounted for neither in terms of mass culture and aesthetic taste only, nor, let’s say, in psychoanalytic terms. It owes a great deal more to the opportunities for voting and building ratings, i.e. – for participation. The viewers are tired of the domination of overly staged shows and want to see plots directed at least to some extent by themselves.
After all, nobody forces people to watch “Big Brother”. Yet they do. Even though they have some 80 or 100 channels more at their disposal. It would be too easy to say that they are misguided, uneducated or simply voyeurs. Apparently, such justifications are of no use. They have become clichés disclosing our own inability to figure out what the interest in such shows is attributable to. The fact that the viewer is assigned an active role in them (voting, participation in the development of the plot, etc.) is an important circumstance. It is where the relation to the social Internet is seen. “Big Brother” was launched and became a popular media phenomenon thanks to the Internet and mobile phones. The first series were aired in the Netherlands in 1999. It has developed into a multimedia spectacle, combining television, the Internet, and other media resorted to by the plot, along with the use of mobile phones for voting. All this makes “Big Brother” a topic to talk about for many people at the same time. What is more important, it bonds these people together through the process of decision making. It thus creates a community which appears “thicker” than the community of the ordinary TV show since it is based on participation.
It is no accident that the first social websites appeared on the net at about the same time. The beginning was laid with SixDegrees in 1997, and the legendary LiveJournal was already online in 1999. These communities of a new type emerged so as to respond more adequately to the need for more shared and group-oriented communication, and were consonant with the “hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world”, diagnosed by Howard Rheingold (Rheingold 1992).
In this broad context “Big Brother” and many other shows from the reality TV family offer the general public a range of opportunities and experiences akin to the social Internet: personalization of participation through a series of choices, introduction of competitive and game-like elements in the content, “authenticity” of the participants and a chance for the ordinary citizens to get access to publicity, a social factor in making the final decision, creating a more bonded community, using the new media for experiments with the democratic procedures of governmentality which have not been put to political use, etc. In this sense, there is no doubt that “Big Brother”, and reality formats in general, enhance interactivity and the plebiscitary character of television accordingly, indicating a hunger for direct intervention in the system for making decisions at any level, including the political one. These are values which cannot be easily dismissed. They are related to the adaptation of traditional media to the competition of the social Internet, as well as to the new dependencies of politics on the citizens. What needs to be subjected to critique, however, is the common overstepping of the boundaries of good taste in the shows, not the technology itself, which allows for the active participation of the public.
An important effect of the wide spreading of the reality TV formats is their “expropriation” by the viewers. There are well-defined communities of viewers and commentators emerging around the reality shows, grouped in numerous websites where the events in the shows are zealously discussed. The energy of the discussions often transcends the particularities of the TV show itself and turns to the social, political and other issues of the hour. Here is yet another reason for the popularity of the reality shows: discussions around them practically always go beyond the narrow frames of what is happening on-screen. The process does not end with the airing of the program: the media content further leads to the production of content by the public, thus little by little drawing it out of its usual state of passivity – a state that television is traditionally associated with.
At the same time, “virtual” reality shows created by the users themselves appear on the Internet. Independent online platforms, the main protagonists in which are ordinary net users, are launched. Any registered member may partake. Some forums have over 10 000 hits. There, people construct their own sets and their own experiences. The basic principles are symmetrical to the screen prototype – normally “Big Brother” – but oftentimes there are innovations too. One can get on a “private” reality show just as on a screen one – but without casting. Everyone is eligible. First, the sets are created: the house, or, for instance, the “confession room”. It is done by posting photos, sometimes videos too, of luxurious villas, elegant interiors, stylish furniture, etc. Everyone adds a detail or two. Afterwards, the participants (mostly women) provide photos illustrating how their characters “look like”. These, of course, are mostly photos of celebrities, or just photos of beautiful men and women, but there are also participants who play themselves – they participate with their personal photo and name. More and more people join in gradually. Sophisticated food and pricey alcohol is “served” – even a flat-screen TV is “installed” in the room so that one can “watch” the real “VIP Brother” while the virtual one is running. Next, scenarios with VIP guests are acted out – for example, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Nikolay Barekov or Azis, would “turn up” in the show. Of course, someone has to play their part. Women often figure as men. Dialogues such as the one that follows are acted out: “Thanks, Azis, but isn’t it time to have your hair cut, just as in your new video”, etc. People feel fine in this environment: “Great idea, (…) I’m privileged to share this day with you”, writes a woman to another participant. The main incentive to participate in a “virtual” reality show is the pleasure of sharing. The “theatrical” setting, where one can easily put on an act, gives maximum freedom to the participants. The rules are not imposed “from above”, they are constantly negotiated in the course of the game. In many cases the conversations depart from the specific theme of the show. Thus it unnoticeably becomes the backdrop for more serious discussions or for an exchange of experience among the participants in various fields of competence.
The effects of the reality show, however, go far beyond the field of entertainment. In fact, the very term “Big Brother” is gradually losing its negative connotation, genealogically associated with George Orwell’s book, and is now being used politically in an entirely positive sense. “Big Brother” is growing into a synonym for honesty and transparency. Here is an example. A headline in the daily newspaper Dnevnik from November 12th, 2009 reads: “Big Brother for the Public Tender for the Thrace Highway”. It has to do with something bad, doesn’t it? Not at all. The article reads: “The public tender for the Thrace Highway is going to take place in a room in the Road Infrastructure Agency, specially equipped with cameras. That was revealed by the Minister of Regional Development, Rossen Plevneliev, at the announcement of the eligibility criteria for the candidates at the ring road of Stara Zagora where the completed section of the highway ends now. The purpose is to achieve maximum openness and transparency…” Here, the classical idea of the Panopticum is reversed. What is paramount in this situation is the idea of transferring the power of control over to the audience. The public is promoted to the rank of a “positive” “Big Brother”, called upon to see to the justice. With the claims for transparency and objectivity such reversals bring the news broadcasts and the reality TV format even closer in terms of philosophy. Although populism does certainly play a part here, the potential of certain television practices to serve as a corrective to politics is also at hand.
The relations between television and the viewers – the cancellation of the unlimited contract
Of course, the overall picture of the changes is far from idyllic. Active viewers are still a minority. The meaning behind their activeness may be questioned too: isn’t it entertainment that takes the upper hand over civic engagement? In addition to the uncertainties, it is obvious that most of the power remains concentrated in the hands of the media industries rather than in the public. What is new is that television is forced to give ear to the audience a lot more than before. Even if it is in the domain of entertainment, conceding the initiative to the viewers forms habits, hence – the potentially growing expectations of the viewers. They might gradually start demanding more in terms of participation and representativeness. Their loyalty to the channels is becoming more and more dependent on the willingness of the media for productive interaction, and this fact has important political implications. Under the pressure of these developments the very notion of institutional journalism is being re-defined. It is hardly an accident that participatory television has turned out to be an important fragment of a larger context, wherein a genuine boom of civic activism has come about in the recent years, including in Bulgaria.
In the battle for positions with the other media television keeps finding new niches. Contrary to expectations, the new information and communication technologies could not strike it down. It’s true that young people today spend more time online at the expense of the time spent watching TV. Television, however, seems to have become ubiquitous. It in turn has been conquering cyberspace steadily. It would suffice to take a look at the most visited Bulgarian websites. With its second place in the ranking, the video sharing web portal Vbox7 is the Bulgarian analogue to YouTube, popular mostly with the Internet generation. For the most part, the video materials, uploaded there by the users, are taken from the TV screen. The most watched videos are taken from popular TV shows. Not just the content of the media, but the end product itself is “expropriated”. Thus television stays important as a media even for those who don’t use it in the conventional way. Furthermore, the shortcomings of the very idea of programming are being overcome – its linearity, hierarchy, conservatism, and endorsement of the TV canon. The Internet furthermore cuts down the costs for accessing TV content. What is more important, however, the net offers a completely different model for consumption of the TV product: it is now the consumer who dictates the rules and even the “program”. Once appropriated by the viewers, the TV text starts a new, and oftentimes unexpected, life cycle. In the end, both the media and the public benefit from it. The relationships between them become at least a bit more balanced as they are based on constant re-negotiation.
Orlin Spassov is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Executive Director of the Media Democracy Foundation, and a former Humboldt fellow in Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and teaches courses on media and communication studies, and Internet culture. His research interests are related to the theory and history of media and popular culture. He has authored the book “Prehodat i mediite: politiki na reprezentatsia [The Transition and Media: Politics of Representation]” (2000), and edited numerous books, among which “Medii i demokratsia: svoboda, pluralizam, pravo [Media and Democracy: Freedom, Pluralism, Law]” (2013), “Novi medii – novi mobilizatsii [New Media – New Mobilizations]” (2011), “Mediite i vlastta [Media and Power]” (2011), “Novite mladi i novite medii [The New Youth and the New Media]” (2009), “bTV: Novata vizia [bTV: The New Outlook]” (2008), “Quality Press in Southeast Europe” (2004), “New Media in Southeast Europe” (2003), “Medii i mitove [Media and Myths]” (2000), “Medii i prehod [Media and the Transition]” (2000), and others.
Lemann, Nicholas. 2006. Amateur Hour. In: The New Yorker, 7 August. [21.03.2010].
Rheingold, Howart. 1992. A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community. <http://www.well.com:70/0/Community/virtual_communities92> [21.12.2009].
Prouchvania i pazarno razvitie na bTV 2010 [Surveys and market development of bTV 2010]. Televiziata stava vse po-populiarno zanimanie [Television is becoming an increasingly popular pastime]. [21.03.2010].
 Nova TV aired the video on June 25th, 2009. The media effect from the amateur video recording was huge, because Dogan’s statement was seen against the backdrop of the upcoming parliamentary elections (which took place on July 5th, 2009). In his speech to the electorate in the village, the MRF leader said: “The power is in my hands”, “I am the instrument of power which apportions the funds in the state.” Taken out of context, this statement later became the subject of numerous media and political speculations.