Studying Media Industries: An Interview with Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren (Part One)

A while back, I gave the regular readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of an essay I was writing with Joshua Green on the “Moral Economy of Web 2.0.” The essay has now appeared in print in an rich and diverse anthology, Media Industries: History, Theory and Methods, which was edited by Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren. It’s contributors represent a who’s who of contemporary research on how media industries operate and its content span the full spectrum of audio-visual media, including a full consideration of cutting-edge topics such as convergence and globalization. Since I thought this book would be of interest to many of you, I asked its editors to share some perspectives with us about the current state of research on Media Industries. For more information on this project, check out Alisa Perren’s blog.

How would you characterize the current state of research on media industries?

JH: I would characterize it as a significant growth area and a landscape of great opportunity and energy at this time. The challenging economic conditions of late have placed the media industries under tremendous financial strain. When you factor in the dramatic technological developments that are impacting production and distribution, a new administration with a lot of policy defining left to do, as well as all of the changes in audience activity and “produsage,” we find ourselves at a moment of transformation. Much of this is not news to many who track the industries regularly. Yet these conditions present new and interesting challenges for researchers and scholars of media industries because there are emerging business models to understand, different aspects of audience address and behavior to analyze, and a need for the perspective and contextualization that media industry historians, critics, and theorists have to offer.

As we hope our anthology demonstrates, there is a great deal of vital research being done on all aspects of the media industries right now – labor, economics, policy, technology, audiences, texts, trade, and more. We look forward to more of this work seeping outside the boundaries of academia (as some of it already has, yours included) and taking a more active role in shaping larger cultural and policy discourses about the media industries. Ideally, this collection will help contribute to the visibility of the important work already being done by our authors. It is worth noting that there is also significant work being done outside of the academy by journalists and activists that has been very influential on media industry research. Some of the most insightful and informative analysis of media industries can be found in the popular press, the blogosphere and trade publishing, where journalists and critics have generated a tremendous amount of momentum for our “field.” I see this leads right to your next question…

So, let me ask the question you pose in the title of your introduction, “Does the world really need one more field of study”?

JH: I would argue (as we did in the intro) that indeed it does. With a more formalized “field of study” comes a more focused attention to the history and development of that field, to the many disciplinary traditions that comprise its foundation, and a more coherent cultivation of scholarly perspective on this type of work. In addition to having more established (and easily accessible) curricular materials and traditions to draw upon, having the benefit of conferences, journals and anthologies devoted to a field are key aspects to creating disciplinary expansion and growth. Most often, communal projects and institutional support only come when a field of study generates enough traction to warrant and inspire them, and so having the academic community (and beyond) thinking about media industry studies as a “field” would be enormously beneficial.

In the book, we don’t suggest that we “invented” this field by any means…we just want to begin the process of identifying, historicizing and theorizing the vast range of industries, analytical tools, critical traditions and potential paths of inquiry that comprise what the field of media industry studies looks like to us, at this point. We hope that others will continue the conversation and expand it beyond what we were able to address in this one volume.

AP: Let me also add that we felt honored to have so many individuals involved with the book who we believed played a vital role in shaping work on the media industries during the last couple of decades – individuals such as John Hartley, Horace Newcomb, David Hesmondhalgh (all three of whom wrote compelling essays offering their perspective on what “media industry studies” should be. Complementing these perspectives are views from many newer scholars of the media industries, including moving image archivist Caroline Frick and media historian Cynthia Meyers. As Jennifer notes, we see this as but the start of a discussion, one that many others will add to in the near future.

What can the study of media industries add to our understanding of media texts?

AP: In many of the more humanistically-oriented areas of study, the text has remained a focal point of analysis. Part of this is a function of the roots of this type of work in film studies. Much of this work developed primarily in English departments that approached cinema primarily as self-contained texts that could be explicated in isolation.

Over the last few decades, work in cultural studies has helped to substantially broaden discussions of texts, demanding that scholars think more in terms of social, cultural, political, economic and industrial contexts. However, though early work by cultural studies figures such as Stuart Hall and Richard Johnson encouraged discussion of both production and consumption processes, the majority of such work over the years has tended to be focused far more heavily on the consumption side. Thus, an immense amount of scholarship has been generated that situates texts culturally, and thinks about what audiences do with media texts. Yet, until recently, far fewer scholars have looked at the cultural processes involved in actually making texts in the first place. That’s one of the goals of our book: to add to the growing literature produced by scholars such as Amanda Lotz, Elana Levine, Serra Tinic, and John Caldwell, the latter of whom is a contributor to our collection. Their work underscores the need to consider the myriad institutional and cultural forces affecting how media are produced.

When we talk about production, we are not simply referring to individual actions taken by key “above-the-line” figures such as directors and writers. Rather, production must be thought of much more broadly. The potential impact of diverse individuals (both above and below-the-line), groups (ranging from labor unions to film commissions), and institutions (not simply production companies and conglomerates but also tech companies and government agencies) must be taken into consideration.

One of the primary goals of our book was to unite many of these diverse perspectives in one place, thereby initiating a more focused and coherent discussion about media industry scholarship. Ideally, by bringing wide-ranging perspectives from media studies, communication, cultural studies, sociology, telecommunication and anthropology together, we can begin to have a better sense of the multitude of ways that media texts are shaped by diverse factors. In addition, we can try to encourage a shift away from a view in which the only potentially politically progressive elements of media texts are those which are brought to them by active fans. A traditional political economic tradition often tends to view commercial media texts as inherently conservative products of a monolithic system. Our authors collectively underscore numerous ways such notions need to be further complicated.

Can we study media production meaningfully without an understanding of media

consumption?

AP: One thing we have learned in this age of convergence, and which you, Henry, have shown so effectively in your own work, is that we always need to keep in mind how cultural products are both produced and consumed. In part, the rise of a more participatory online media culture has helped us rethink older models that only considered production practices or media texts in isolation. In the past, such approaches might have been more viable for both the industry and scholars alike because feedback from audiences wasn’t so immediately available. Thus it might take a weekend or two for word of mouth to circulate widely about a movie and affect it adversely at the box office. However, in an age when people can post responses to a movie or TV show on Facebook or Twitter as they watch it – and such responses, in turn, can lead to relatively direct economic consequences for the companies producing and distributing them – both executives and academics must recognize and explore the interrelated nature of production, text and consumption in more complex and nuanced ways than they have previously.

Jennifer Holt is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She specializes in film and television history, and media

industry studies. Her current research looks at regulatory policy in the age of

convergence. She has published articles in various journals and anthologies including

Film Quarterly, Quality Popular Television, Fifty Contemporary Film Authors and Media Ownership: Research and Regulation. Her forthcoming book Empires of Entertainment examines deregulation and the media industries between 1980-1996 and will be published by Rutgers University Press.

Alisa Perren is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. Research specializations include media industry studies, television studies, and U.S. film and television history. Her forthcoming book, Indie, Inc. (under contract, University of Texas Press), traces the evolution of Miramax in the 1990s as it transitioned from independent company to studio subsidiary. Her work has appeared in a range of print and online publications, including Film Quarterly, Journal of Film and Video, The Sage Handbook of Media Studies, The Television History Book, and Flow.