Why are they asking me about War of the Worlds? An AS exemplar essay and some A2 notes. Orson Welles, Hybrid forms, Media Effects theory and Media Institutions.

What I want to do here is try to cover as much note-y ground as possible but I will put an exemplar answer at the end.

As I’m teaching the course it is becoming more and more evident how dense the syllabus is and how there is a real possibility that not all the close study products will come up in the final exam. I will use the AS paper to generate the exemplar question (so this will obviously help those who are doing the AS). The CSP is one which can be used for either AS or A2 (however the question format might be a bit different).

First the notes.

Why would the board have selected this text?

I can see why they have gone down this route. Orson Welles’ radio drama is a seminal moment in the development of both broadcast media and the serious academic study of the media. In learning about it you are therefore covering both the subject area and the academic discourse of Media Studies.

Remember that the two areas that the board can ask you questions about are:

(Drum roll)

Media Industries

or/and

Media Audiences

I’m going to deal with the industries stuff first because the only question we have is based on audiences.

I’ve gone on about it before, and I’m going to go on about it again. Young Orson Welles was a polymath genius. Whenever he got his hands on a medium for communication he couldn’t help but twist it into something amazing; plays, radio and film – all were transformed by Welles. Late Orson Welles, well let’s just say he advertised a lot of booze, A. Lot. Of. Booze.

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Now for a move into the present tense for the purposes of dramatic impact! In 1938 Welles has two strings to his bow. The first is the theatre. He has already directed two innovative productions which, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, appear to be decades ahead of their time. These are a production of Julius Caesar set in contemporary Italy (with a Mussolini-like Caesar and secret police) and an all-black production of Macbeth (performed in Harlem and set in Haiti). He also has regular radio appearances; both as an actor and as an actor/director/producer with the Mercury Theatre on CBS (one of the first national networks).

This is a man who is running across New York; performing in a play and then sonically appearing on the radio in the evening. What he is learning is twofold; how to use new technology to tell a story and how to manipulate an audience’s response.

The exam board wants you to look at the CSP as an early example of a hybrid form, well duh! Of course it is a hybrid form! Welles was a hybrid star!

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This is Welles responding to criticism the day after the show aired. Was this his greatest performance?

Hybrid form is a mixture of pre-existing media forms (in this case radio drama, novel and news bulletin). It is usually precipitated by new technology which allows media convergence. The timeline is usually that a new technology creates a new form but hybridization and convergence take a while as people work out what they can and cannot do within this new media (for example video games have been around for decades but it is only recently that game designers have been able to tell complex stories within their game-worlds). In this case the new technology of the sound-stage allowed Wells to create his radio-play environments.

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For the exam you need to be aware of two contextual factors:

Firstly that radio is a new medium at the time of production. The U.S. radio networks had only been established recently (The NBC networks started in 1927 and the Mutual Broadcasting System for syndicating (sharing) material only began in 1934). Compare that to YouTube, which has been online since 2005. Also you might want to consider that the audience had little multi-platform experience compared to more recent audiences. Newspapers, cinema and radio had not saturated the population in the way that would occur in the late 20th Century. This all means that the audience is less likely to recognise when a product is exploiting the features of a different form (i.e. the form of a news-flash for the retelling of a novel).

Secondly that the historical context (fascist expansion in Europe for example) meant that audiences were well used to radio news-bulletins interrupting their regular media consumption (and especially concerning the subject of invasions).

Welles clearly understood this. He also knew that the majority of his audience were listening to WEAF at 8pm (a comedy show featuring – and I shit you not – ventriloquism on the radio!) not to WABC where the Mercury Theatre were broadcasting. A sizable chunk of the audience would stumble on the show after a little “dial twisting” later on. If we want to use semiotics to describe this then Welles uses all the signifiers of news (interruptions to dance-music, cutting away to eye-witness reporters for example and most notoriously his use of “dead-air” after the Grover’s Mill massacre section) to prompt the audience to construct the sign that this is a real event.

You do need to be careful with this however.

Check out Alfred Bandura’s work on psychology affected by media (look out for the Bobo-doll bit which usually gets really mangled by media commentators. The children watched a real person not cartoons as is often misreported).

This was subverted and simplified by conservative commentators and developed into hypodermic needle theory. Brett Lamb does an excellent job of explaining and taking down this here.

Of course there is an element of truth to media effects theory otherwise advertising and propaganda would not work but later theorists take a much more nuanced approach.

When you construct an answer to a question:

  • Write your own planned answer to the question.
  • Remember to try to use PEATL as your structure in the exam.
  • Point, example, analysis (because), theory, link back to the question.
  • P: One way that Hall’s theory helps to explain the success of the radio broadcast is in the way that some listeners produced a negotiated reading of the show.
  • E: This can be seen in the newspaper reports of panic on the next day, such as the Daily News headline “Fake news stirs terror through U.S.”
  • A: This demonstrates the effect of the broadcast because there is clearly a section of the audience who reacted in a dramatic way.
  • T: Hall makes the point that some of the audience create their own reading of the text and then responds accordingly, in this case one of an invasion.
  • L: This helps to explain the way that only a proportion of the six million audience members took to the hills.

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Remember this is an AS question from the board. As such it may not conform to A2 paper format.

Stuart Hall said that “decodings do not necessarily follow from encodings” suggesting that because a producer encodes a message in a particular way that does not mean it will be decoded in that particular way.

Use Hall’s theory of encoding and decoding to analyse the extent to which this is true of audience response to The War of the Worlds

 [20 marks]

The War of the Worlds is a key early broadcast mass media product in that it is often cited by proponents of both the hypodermic needle and Bandura’s Media Effects models of understanding. Both of these propose that the producer, Welles, in 1938, encoded meaning in such a way as to fool his audience into believing that there was an actual Martian attack in progress. However the fact that only “thousands of people” (New York Times) reacted in panic out of an audience of six million shows that a more nuanced approach is necessary.

Hall’s approach to audience response is to divide the audience into three groups: Those who accept the preferred reading of the producer, those who produce a negotiated reading and those who reject the producer’s encoding completely and produce an oppositional reading.

One way that Hall’s theory helps to explain the success of the radio broadcast is in the way that some listeners produced a negotiated reading of the show. This can be seen in the newspaper reports of panic on the next day, such as the Daily News headline “Fake news stirs terror through U.S.”  This demonstrates the effect of the broadcast because there is clearly a section of the audience who reacted in a dramatic way. Hall makes the point that some of the audience create their own reading of the text and then responds accordingly, in this case one of an invasion. This helps to explain the way that only a proportion of the six million audience members took to the hills.

What makes the CSP more difficult to work with is the way it is hard to ascertain what Welles’ preferred decoding was. There is clear evidence that Wells shifted his broadcast into the news-bulletin form only after the first few minutes. This included the phrase “we interrupt our programme of dance music to bring you a special bulletin”. This semiotically encoded the show as one of a real music show with a real news interruption. Other devices included the use of “dead-air” after the Grovers Mill massacre section. Welles knew that the majority of the radio audience would not have been listening at the start of the show as a more popular, variety show (The Chase and Sandbourne Hour) was on WEAF, and he aimed to fool the “dial-twiddlers”.

It has been claimed that the script of the play was rewritten by Howard E. Koch after Wells heard a radio play by Archibald MacLeish on the Thursday of that week called “Air Raid”. That show used the news bulletin form in a dramatic way but programmed in a way which anchored the signification. By hybridising the form in this way he was either aiming to panic the audience or at least create a frisson of fear for his Halloween show as this was too soon for the mock news report to become a recognisable genre and so follow the recognition pleasures and rules of genre theory. If the preferred reading of the product was one of the suspension of disbelief through the appearance of verisimilitude then that too was encoded successfully by Wells.

The one form of reading proposed by Hall which is harder to consider, as there is little direct evidence, is the oppositional reading. If such a reading is simply a flat rejection of the desired reading then there are a variety of oppositional takes: Those who knew the 1897 novel well may have rejected the Americanization of the novel and its relocation from Victorian England to contemporary New Jersey, others may missed the introduction but have recognised Welles voice from previous shows or as different characters within the same show and a final group might have noticed that events were proceeding at a rate far faster than expected (troops were mobilised in minutes rather than hours). All of these would cause a rejection of either of Wells’ preferred readings.

A final rejection of the original encoding would be made by later audiences. The mass hysteria story has acquired mythic status, as has Welles himself, and so later audiences, especially the hundreds of thousands who have listened to the show online cannot read the show as a simple entertainment (or be fooled by the illusion of reality). In this way, as Dyer shows, Welles’ stardom and his star persona change the future decoding of the product.


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