In Below the Line, Vicki Mayer presents a fresh approach to media production, looking into invisible television workers under neoliberal capitalism in order to assess how media work constructs subjectivities in and through labor. Based on her “ethnographically-inspired” (26) research on contemporary television production, she moves away from the conventional focus on the “above the line” workers, presenting four case studies of usually disregarded “communities of producers” (23) to illustrate the way in which their work has value both to the television industries and to the production of their own subjectivities.
The book is framed in a sound neo-Marxist perspective, drawing on diverse conceptual tools from critical theory in order to analyze the relationship between television labor, social hierarchies, and work identities. It explores the way in which their dialectical relations capture “the dynamic process by which political economies frame subjectivities, producing capital for industries and contradictions for workers identifying with profitable identities” (19). Mayer offers a lucid critique of the late-capitalist political economy, attempting to reveal the invisible labors of those deemed to be unskilled by the industry they help sustain. Aiming to broaden the scope of television producers, Mayer further expands the work of researchers who have recently turned their attention to producers “below the line” (Caldwell 2008), including in her project the work of Brazilian television set assemblers, American soft-core cameramen, reality-program “casters”, and public access and cable commissioners.
In the introductory chapter, the author establishes a critical analysis of the concept of “producer” that media production researchers have used in relation to “above the line” professionals. Mayer challenges the usual research assumption that the television industry is exclusively driven by a talented few, meaning a “creative class” of individual auteurs and executives understood as “the” producers. She addresses the ideological hierarchies embedded in the same distinctions that differentiate these “creative producers” from the rest of the workers, which have had an impact not only in the scholarly research but also on the labor conditions of the producers. According to Mayer, even as the new television economy has increasingly incorporated other workers who do not fit those conspicuous categories, “under the line” producers continue to add surplus value to the television industry under rather precarious conditions. The next part of the book presents two empirical cases that show how the latter are engaged in professional and creative work, deconstructing the discourses of “creative industries” based on exclusive concepts of “creativity” and “professionalism.”
Chapter 1 is grounded in the experiences of television set assemblers in an electronics factory located in Manaus, Brazil. Emphasizing the agency of the operators, Mayer argues that at this site of what might be considered the most uncreative labor, assemblers negotiate new identities and find diverse creative solutions to problems of material production, which help them reduce stress on the line and at the same time would increase factory profit margins. The chapter offers compelling insights into the workers' perspectives, though regrettably the ethnographic account does not include the direct observation of their work practices. Similarly, the reader has very limited access to their life experiences, as happens also with the other cases in the book. In chapter 2, Mayer follows a group of male soft-core videographers, who shoot during the 10-day Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans, in order to sell cheap content for television series such as “Girls Gone Wild.” She analyses here how they take pride in their part-time freelance job, and how they develop their own modes of professionalism, despite their marginal status in relation to Hollywood television hierarchies.
In the second part of the book, Mayer examines the cases of both sponsors and regulators whose work involves commodifying and disciplining other members of the industry. Here, the author observes the liminal subjectivities of those who must negotiate their role in the reproduction of marketable television characters and the application of liberal identity policies. She addresses the tensions that appear when they supplant creative professionals by both identifying and embodying television audiences and publics. In chapter 3, Mayer effectively conveys the work of people who casting agents, who manage their social networks and expertise to find, prepare, and promote participants for their clients, the program producers. Their work not only builds the basis for a successful program but also markets it, creating expectations that attract viewers to the show. Finally, in chapter 4, the author examines local regulators, that is to say, U.S. citizen volunteers who represent television viewing publics and administer local cable television policies. This chapter is based on an auto-ethnographic perspective, drawing on Mayer's own experiences as a middle-class expert regulator in Texas and California. Mayer uses a highly self-reflective approach to analyze how the regulators, themselves members of identity communities, articulate demands on behalf of cities stratified by race and class, and at the same time contribute to expand the desire for a multicultural consumer citizenry.
Below the Line is undoubtedly an original and intriguing contribution to media production studies, which would capture the attention of anthropologists working on media as well as other forms of late-capitalist, postindustrial work. The author offers an uncommon comparative approach to her research, examining a wide scope of fascinating production sites. Nevertheless, this same perspective probably turns into the main weakness of the book, which tends to provide only ethnographic glimpses of the “communities of producers” that it portrays in an amalgamation that may not fully blend. In these fragmented images of the new television production modes, probably reflecting the same conditions found elsewhere in the neoliberal political economy, the reader will possibly miss a more thorough exploration of the lived experiences of these working conditions, which might have elucidated the specificities of media work in that context. Notwithstanding the latter, Below the Line still provides a provocative conceptual framework that gives an insightful account of the multiple conflictive discourses and practices embedded in television production. Doing so, the book also reflects the value, challenges, and possibilities of the expanding field of ethnographic-based studies of media production.