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

How can historical perspectives contribute to our understanding of the current

moment of media change?

AP: As our contributor (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.

Both Jennifer and I have studied and written about media industry history, 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). This has led some, including Christopher Anderson, Michele Hilmes and Tom Schatz, to reassess the relationships between these different media forms (and the companies producing and distributing them). Michele Hilmes, in particular, was one of the first to do this in her book, Hollywood and Broadcasting. Her essay in our collection builds upon many of the ideas she proposed earlier in her career, considering how recent developments might lead to new directions in media industries scholarship.

What role can the study of media industries play in the creation of media policy?

JH: I think one way media industry scholarship can play a significant role in the creation of media policy is in the framing (or reframing) of certain issues. Academics from many disciplines have used their work to affect how issues like competition, diversity, violence and intellectual property can be understood and framed in policy discourse (e.g., Tim Wu, Lawrence Lessig, Mara Einstein, Robert McChesney, Henry Jenkins, and Phil Napoli to name just a few). Scholars like John McMurria and Thomas Streeter have written about the power structures, discourse and ideologies that have guided policy making at the outset, offering additional historical examples of how humanistically-oriented research can contribute to policy analysis. While it has traditionally been social scientists that have been the most visible in policy-making circles, there are a few notable exceptions; I think it is in the best interests of humanities scholars to increase these numbers, make it a priority to network and take a more activist role in affecting the parameters or at least the considerations of policy. Only then will terms like “access” and “competition” have more nuanced definitions that incorporate the critical social, political and cultural issues which can otherwise disappear from the discussion.

What do you see as the most important disagreements that emerge between the contributors to the book?

JH: I wouldn’t necessarily see them as disagreeing with each other per se, but I did note some hostility by many writers towards a certain reductive tradition of political economy that paints the industry in particularly broad strokes. This goes back to a general resistance toward a “monolithic” perspective on the media industries Alisa mentioned above.

The reason we did not see much direct disagreement is in part because each author was given a specific task: to outline one critical modality, methodology or historical trajectory of media industries research. The essays were not written or designed to be in conversation with one another as much as they were intended to help establish the various components and contours of what a field called “media industry studies” might look like.

As part of that collective project, the essays remained somewhat contained and focused instead of debating the relative merits of different approaches to industry study. Some authors wound up putting themselves into dialogue with one another unwittingly, such as those writing the essays on the Global (Michael Curtin), the Regional (Cristina Venegas) and the National (Nitin Govil). However, even in those essays, I found that rather than disagreement, the pieces offered new ways to think about these concepts in relation to one another. Venegas, for example, theorized transnational and local media flows in relation to Latin American cinema. While looking at trade relations, economic alliances, cultural policies and industrial histories, she presented the regional as a valuable theoretical tool but also discussed the region in relation to the global, the national, and the local. Similarly, Govil offered a complex discussion of how “thinking nationally” actually creates avenues for thinking globally and locally as well. While their considerations were different – Govil looked at piracy, diasporic media and cultural citizenship and Venegas looked at government policies, industry initiatives and market behavior across Latin America, for example – they were pursuing similarly expansive conceptual projects that are tremendously useful for scholars of national, regional and global media industries.

Jennifer, you are in the process of finishing a book on regulation and media

ownership issues. What do you think is the most common misunderstanding in

current discussions of media concentration?

JH: I think that the media reform movement has done a great deal to educate the public about this issue, but we have a long way to go. One of the most common misunderstandings might be over the ways in which media concentration is “regulated.” The standards for regulating concentration and vertical integration in the various media industries are widely divergent. Historically, they have been unevenly applied by the FCC, the FTC, the Department of Justice and Congress. When it comes to policing the business of entertainment, there is no one-size-fits-all policy.

Regulation also operates much differently than common sense would dictate. Regulatory policy currently lags far behind reality – something the financial markets have just visibly (and painfully) demonstrated. This also applies to our increasingly converged media landscape. New technologies continue to combine various products and sites of engagement with policy into one very fraught wire; so, as a result of technological advancements, marketplace innovations, industrial consolidation and rapidly blurring boundaries between media and telecommunication, the standards and goals of regulation have become outdated. Old media are being used in new ways, content and carriers no longer conform to their original borders or boundaries – and that has presented us with a regulatory crisis that has yet to be fully addressed by policymakers.

This divide between the present regulatory philosophy and industrial reality is a consequence, indeed a legacy, of how media industries (broadcast and cable, for example) have been unevenly and separately regulated as technology has converged.

As a result, the government is driven more by the concerns of the market as opposed to the public interest or by a philosophy that is relevant to current conditions; the size and scope of mergers has put regulators in the back seat, following the lead of market activity rather than setting the boundaries. Consequently, the reality of regulation is one in which the industrial economy has outgrown the dimensions and arbiters of current policy. So, while most people think that regulators are out in front of the industries, right now they are hopelessly behind, applying outmoded policy to a marketplace that is, in many ways, setting its own rules.

Alisa, you’re finishing up a book on Miramax. What does the rise and decline of

this company tell us about the way Hollywood is responding to a rapidly changing

media environment?

AP: My study of Miramax focuses on how and why this company was both a product of – and took advantage of – tremendous industrial and cultural changes that occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The company was among the first to exploit the major studios’ reorientation toward big budget event fare, effectively branding itself as the premier producer and distributor of niche-targeted “quality” product. The combination of savvy marketing, shrewd production and acquisition choices, and high-profile talent (not to mention lots of Disney money after 1993) all enabled Miramax to quickly rise to prominence.

However, as I explore in my book, to a large extent Miramax became a victim of its own success. By the late 1990s, the company’s accomplishments had been widely emulated by a number of other companies, and, in an effort to remain competitive, Miramax began over-spending, over-diversifying and generally overestimating the market for certain types of niche-targeted material. The situation became further complicated by the tremendous changes taking place throughout the media industries on a much broader scale – changes that included the rapid rise of the Internet, the improving quality of fictional television series (e.g., The Sopranos, The Shield), the speedy diffusion of DVDs, and the growing availability of lower cost, higher quality digital production and postproduction technologies. All of these factors worked in tandem with a heightened emphasis by media conglomerates on developing material that could be easily exploited across as many of their platforms as possible. Cumulatively, by the early 2000s, there emerged a much different – and far less friendly – media landscape than that which was present when Miramax first grew to prominence. This landscape was much more difficult for indie companies to navigate effectively with their existing business models (a fact most recently borne out by the closure or downsizing of several different studio-based specialty divisions).

Studying Miramax (and indie subsidiaries more broadly) suggests the degree to which relatively self contained films – especially those lacking name talent and big budgets – face a challenging terrain in the contemporary industry. It seems quite likely that those types of media that cannot be easily imagined and exploited as multi-platform experiences are likely to face substantial challenges from now on. None of these developments, of course, seem to have had much of an impact on the number of people striving to make low-budget films for the theatrical market, dreaming that they may make the Next Big Thing. Yet the tale of the rise and fall of Miramax as an indie company can ultimately be viewed now as a cautionary one – a tale of the narrowing opportunities and possibilities for those seeking to make and release movies following a traditional theatrical distribution model. It remains to be seen how well low budget films will fare in the contemporary convergent media landscape, and what shape the next generation of independent cinema will take.

You explicitly focus this book around the audio-visual industries, yet as you

note, the concept of media industries is potentially much more expansive. What

would do we miss by focusing only on the audio-visual here? For example, can we

understand contemporary film practices without some grasp of developments in the

comic book industry?

AP: 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.

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.