Tina Fey is no stranger to the world of live television, consequently, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise when she and NBC decided to air live versions of an episode of “30 Rock” last month. This choice did several things for the already popular series; first off, it made an attempt at reasserting the power of television scheduling – asking viewers who normally stream online content at their leisure to revert back to the days of traditional network determined time slots. Did it work? No way. At least not for anyone under 30. Every person I spoke to about the episode streamed it off Hulu a day or two after it aired, partially, I’m sure because our school doesn’t offer us basic cable, but even more so because at Middlebury, Thursday nights are religiously dedicated to drinking too much and making a fool out of oneself.
Even now, I had to look up what day of the week and time “30 Rock” airs because I have grown dependent on constructing my televisual life around my own convenience and rapidly evolving schedule.
Yet, “30 Rock’s” rebooting of live viewing was not meant in any way to inspire us backward towards old audience habits – instead it was a call to the acknowledgment of the nature of the medium itself. It was a call to “meta.”
But what exactly is this META thing? Hell, I had no idea until the beginning of this semester, when Mr. Toren Hardee, the media savvy king of all things current and hip, explained it to me (with just a hint of filmic pretension): Meta is self-reference for the sake of self-reference. It knowingly creates an extra dimension of audience interaction that blurs the lines between the medium and reality thusly altering audience relationship to the content.
This however, is not a new concept; the idea of purposefully self-referential media has been around for quite some time, take for example some of the early “cinema verites” where intrigue into the medium produced the filming of filming. Or the evolution of an interest in the lexicon of the “Stars” as seen in Keaton’s knowing nod to the audience when trying on hats in Steamboat Bill Jr. “Meta” filmmaking can take on several different forms, though each involves some sort of acknowledgment of film as film. This breaking down of the fourth wall can exist in an addressing of the medium itself (the camera, the audience) or in the admission of an outside context, unmasking characters as actors. In many cases, such meta exposition overlaps medium and context, creating a separate space for extended audience connection or advanced understanding of the medium, shifting viewership from passive to personal and active.
The live episode of “30 Rock” is a perfect example of multi-dimensional meta; the cast frequently acknowledges the fact that things look different, and that there is something off about the episode, the title of the show itself references the change in film style (live episode), and the narrative follows the concept of breaking character on live television – it’s meta upon meta upon meta.
What “30 Rock” succeeds in doing in it’s live episode is providing the audience with the true benefits of self-referential cinema, it strengthens audience connection with the characters and the narrative, and allows us a feeling of commitment to the both the source text, and the outside world it exists in.
Another blazing example of this appears in season 2 episode 8 of the series Supernatural, “Hollywood Babylon.” It is here that the two protagonists visit the very studio lot where the series does their post production work within the context of their narrative, and then, when taking a tour of the lot, pass the set of “Gilmore Girls,” one of the former stars first shows, causing the actor to make a knowing face and hop off the tour tram.
Meta is an inside joke between the audience and the actors, a secret between a director and fans, a shared moment or glance or scene that breaks the wall between viewer and creator. It doesn’t have to be funny, or overtly obvious, but it blurs the lines between the consumer and the consumed, allowing for a renewed sense of free viewership.