It seems like media industries are being redefined on a fairly frequent basis these days. So when I found out about the new textbook, Media Industries: History, Theory and Method, I was curious to see what ground the textbook covered. Fortunately, the editors of the textbook, Jennifer Holt (Assistant Professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara) and Alisa Perren (Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University) were quite willing to answer my questions. In the spirit of the collaborative way that they edited the textbook, Holt and Perren collaborated on the answers. Once you’ve read the interview, be sure to also visit Professor Perren’s media industries blog. My thanks to both Holt and Perren for the interview. And if that’s not enough for you, be sure to visit Wiley’s (the publisher’s) site to download a PDF excerpt of the textbook.
Tim O’Shea: How did the idea for the textbook first come about?
Jennifer Holt/Alisa Perren: We both teach classes about the media industries and were frustrated with the lack of course materials devoted to this subject – especially materials approaching the topic from a humanistic perspective. We also saw that the study of media industries had been growing and expanding but it had not yet been mapped as a field in an academic text. So we enlisted some of the people who have done formative work in this area as well as those doing new scholarship to help us put what we saw as the emerging field of media industries into context for our readers. (To view the book’s table of contents, click here.)
O’Shea: How did you divvy up the editorial duties on the textbook?
Holt/Perren: This was truly a collaborative effort. We worked together in recruiting contributors, editing all of the essays, and writing the introduction. And amazingly, we remained friends through it all.
O’Shea: How did you determine the topics covered and how many abstracts were submitted for you to consider?
Holt/Perren: We had to pare down to what was a reasonable and manageable table of contents for one book. That was one of the most difficult parts of this project. We wanted to provide readers with an understanding of the historical foundation of various media industries, and also look to the future. We also sought to look at the many ways these industries have been theorized, and consider the various methodologies that have been employed in their study.
After much discussion, we finally settled on four main sections. We decided to keep our focus mainly on visual media (with the exception of radio which is fundamental to television’s history and industrial traditions).
Choosing the proper scope proved to be one of the more challenging tasks in developing the book. There is no question that the media industries expand far beyond film, television and new media (the focal points of our collection). We chose the scope we did for a few key reasons: first, we thought that looking primarily at audio-visual media would offer a greater degree of coherence and specificity across the essays. Readers would not only be able to learn about concepts, but also about the operations of these industries in greater detail, from a variety of perspectives.
Second, we felt this approach would make the material more accessible for those undergraduate and graduate programs oriented toward film and television studies – programs that are often less likely to have extensive course offerings on the media industries than those based in communication departments, for instance.
Third, this focus offered a means of differentiating our book from others already in print. The emphasis on audio-visual media enabled us to address a key tension in studying the media industries: namely, that these industries are at once distinct (in many respects, the film industry differs from the cable television industry, for example), and yet they also are and always have been deeply interdependent and interactive.
Thus, while focusing primarily on the audio-visual risks overlooking the important relationships and contributions of other industries such as comics, music and publishing to film, television and new media, were we also to examine all of those other industries as well, we would likely have a book both too general and unwieldy (not to mention several hundred pages longer!). We believe that the case studies offered by our contributors explore concepts that, though most directly applicable to audio-visual media, can also be extrapolated to other media as well.
It is worth adding that, on several occasions, our contributors do weave in examples from other media forms to make their points. Should we pursue a second edition of this book, one of our goals would be to further expand our discussion to other media. We see the current book as but an early step in what we hope to be a much more extensive conversation about what theories and methods are most productive when studying and writing about the media industries.
After deciding on the chapters we wanted, we commissioned various authors to write them. We were fortunate enough to have most of our writers sign on pretty quickly. Their enthusiasm for the project reinforced the demand and desire for this kind of book.
O’Shea: I was struck by the scope of the textbook, given that you cover historical data like Depression-era advertising to advertising trends in You Tube. Are there topics you wished you were able to address, but were unable to, due to time and/or space constraints?
Holt/Perren: Oh yes! We have enough left for three more volumes! Figuring out what to leave out was probably more painful than deciding what to include. As noted in our answer to your last question, we could easily have entire chapters (or sections) devoted to video games, comics, the music industry, and publishing, just to name a few that we had to leave behind. We would have loved to have issues such as intellectual property rights, labor and emerging marketing practices discussed at greater length, too. We are well aware that there is much more that can be discussed…but we are also proud of how much we – and our contributors – managed to explore. From our perspective, this is but an early step in what we hope to be a longer conversation about how and why the media industries need to be studied.
O’Shea: In teaching students, how hard is it to get them to fully grasp that in order to properly construct theory, they must fully grasp history? This question came to me in looking at Prof. Perren’s dissertation topic (“Deregulation, Integration and a New Era of Media Conglomerates: The Case of Fox, 1985-1995.”) and finding out Prof. Holt is “currently finishing a manuscript entitled Empires of Entertainment, which examines deregulation and media conglomeration from 1980-1996″.
Holt/Perren: As our contributor (current CEO of Generate and former WB network executive) Jordan Levin notes in his essay, executives immersed in the media industries often face strong institutional and economic pressure to “think in the now.” Similarly, at times it can be easy for scholars to get caught up in the proclamations by the press and industry that what is happening in the present is unlike anything that has ever taken place before.
But we have both been trained as historians, and thus recognize that the more you know about these histories, the more similarities and parallels you can find between past practices, behaviors and assumptions and present-day activities. From our view, an historical perspective is crucial because it forces you to more profoundly consider what is in fact new, or the specific ways in which something is new. Certainly policy shifts, the rise of new technologies, media consolidation, and the growth of niche markets have dramatically altered how media are produced, distributed and consumed. Yet we think it is important to move past the broad generalizations that are often made in top down approaches to consider more precisely how and why these changes have taken place.
On the one hand, looking closely at media industry history can lead one to look at the present more closely, forcing one to question the latest marketing or journalistic claims about how “this new technology will change the way media is produced” or how “this new corporate strategy will reshape how media is consumed.” We can see that, in fact, much of what we take to be so novel has been around for years (if not decades). On the other hand, contemporary developments can also lead us to reexamine and rethink historical processes in a new light. In recent years, talk of the rise of “convergence” has led many media historians to look back at what were previously conceptualized as “distinct” media forms (not just film and television, but also comics, music, radio, magazines and newspapers).
O’Shea: I find it interesting that in a book about Media Industries, newspapers get mentioned on one page out of 280+ pages. How much of newspapers’ current struggle stems from the fact the industry did not effectively embrace new technologies?
Holt/Perren: Yes, newspapers were certainly neglected in our desire to focus on the television, film and new media industries. Perhaps if they had adapted better, they would have made it into the book! On a more serious note, the problems facing newspapers are certainly also being faced by all other sectors of the media industries to varying degrees. Every industry – film, TV, newspapers, etc. – is scrambling to find a workable business model. So far, there are many compelling ideas, but few solutions. Right now the situation facing the newspaper industry is especially dire, but other sectors of the media industries – including broadcast affiliates and indie film distributors – are also struggling as their long-standing ways of doing business are faltering.
Having said that, we both agree that much of the current crisis that the newspaper industry is facing is a result of their inability to compete with and adapt to new digital technologies. Primarily, it is their failure to come up with a workable business model that can be reconciled with the very expensive business of reporting news and with the dwindling supply of advertising dollars for publishing, along with the new habits and expectations of so-called digital natives. Add in the fact that traditional media outlets have used up their supply of investor goodwill in this economy, and there are major problems. New media ventures seem to have more latitude for failure at the present moment. Consider this: Google is on schedule to lose $470 million this year on YouTube alone, which is almost five times more than the Boston Globe’s anticipated losses. You don’t hear people talking about the disappearance of Google, though.
O’Shea: How much do you expect the future of the media will be shaped by scholar-activists?
Holt/Perren: One of the unfortunate consequences of the free fall going on in both the newspaper and magazine industries is that there is less money to support more in-depth research and reporting. However, on the flip side, something interesting has begun to occur within the academy: a wider range of media scholars are indicating a desire to communicate with the broader public. The ease of communicating through the Internet has enabled and encouraged some scholars to disseminate their work in a wider range of platforms and venues. The types of activism take a variety of forms depending on the scholars and organizations. Many of the most prominent scholar-activists are interested in addressing systemic policy issues (such as Lawrence Lessig, Patricia Aufderheide and Robert McChesney).
It is worth adding that, along with these scholar-activists, there are many others who are increasingly acting as public intellectuals. These people are communicating with a wider audience about current topics in accessible and engaging prose. Among those who are doing so on a regular basis (through blogs as well as other venues) are Henry Jenkins, Jason Mittell and Chuck Tryon. In addition, a number of sites have launched in recent years that serve as places where diverse conversations take place between scholars, journalists, and the wider public. For examples, see Flow and In Media Res.
O’Shea: Every month seemingly brings the premiere of some form of new media. Are there certain types of new media that you have been surprised to find have gained in popularity or potentially did not click with consumers as much as you initially expected?
Holt/Perren: Generally we both try to avoid playing the prediction game for, as you note, these days one technology or platform is quickly being replaced by another. Twitter, of course, is all the rage these days, and after spending some time on it, one of us (Alisa) can see its value. However, we both remain skeptical as to whether it will take off in the same way that Facebook did, or whether either one of these platforms will be around in a few years.
One problem right now is the sheer bounty of both technologies and content. Many people working in the industry and studying these developments agree that there will soon come a time when the computer and television will “marry.” They are most definitely already in a serious, committed relationship. Companies have tried to push this relationship forward for years now (remember WebTV?). And there is no shortage of technologies available now (see Slingbox, Roku, AppleTV, Microsoft Xbox, etc.). Yet we wouldn’t be willing to make a bet as to how they will take the final plunge. Till death do they part? …Not yet.