Watching the Internet: An Interview with Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo (Part One)

This summer, I am embarking on an extraordinary adventure — a 20 city lecture tour of Europe. I have been long overdue paying a visit to the Continent, not having visited there since Convergence Culture has been translated into a host of different languages, and this will be my chance to visit academics, public intellectuals, cultural leaders, and transmedia producers, and learn more about the ways these various nations have responded to the shifts in the media landscape which my works describe. I am excited at the prospect of meeting many new thinkers there. I am still struggling to decide how to deal with this blog while on this exhausting journey but in the long run, it should allow me to bring more perspectives to you.

Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo, a professor of Audiovisual Communications at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, will be one of my many hosts on this trip, and he shared with me the English translation of one of his recent books, Watching the Internet: The Future of TV?, which takes up many of the issues we like to discuss through this blog. I asked him if he would be willing to do an interview and share some of his takes on the intersection between old and new media as seen from his perspective, as a veteran of the old media industries and as someone deeply immersed in a Spanish context.

Early on, you quote Gilles Lipovetsky’s description of “the unstoppable process of individualization.” What factors do you think are leading to the individualization and personalization of our media experiences? How does this personalization impact the existing models shaping the entertainment content industries?

I think there are two distinct, though closely related tendencies. On the one hand there is a tendency towards social individualism which is referred to by Lipovetsky, and on the other hand there is that which refers to the experience of the media. I think the first is indisputable, at least in Europe. “Close relationships” have diminished considerably in recent years (going to church or to the cinema on Sundays, chatting on public transport, talking every day to the person who sells you your newspaper or to the one who serves you coffee in the neighbourhood where you live etc.. There is a great demand to escape from “social control” or anonymity. With regard to television or the cinema I think there is also a trend towards individualism. The concept of the family sitting together in front of the television has disappeared and groups of friends who go to the cinema are doing so less frequently.

However, social networks allow a new social relationship that is replacing the previous ones. I do not agree with Lipovetsky when he argues that virtual communities will eventually destroy the real community, the direct encounter, collective bonds. This is a new form of social relationship that overlaps with the previous ones.

The factors which explain the new socialisation process are very diverse and profound: changes in the family, the design and planning of cities, new forms of social relationship with the arrival of the internet etc. Nobody is denying that the Internet is a powerful tool which allows a new form of socialisation, although it also has the opposite effect: for example, parents have fewer opportunities to have a relationship with their children as they are using social networks or mobiles. The content industries are already taking into account the personalisation and individualism of nomad entertainment. More and more variations of different products are being made to be used on different devices and in different locations: from the cinema to tablets. I think there is still much to be done in this area.

Others, myself among them, argue that television viewing has in fact become more “socialized” as people respond to and debate what they are watching through formal and informal social networks. Would you agree?

Yes, I agree in general terms as people are talking, expressing their opinions, debating and sharing much more than in the past. However, I also believe that television audiences have become much more fragmented in the last few years. The mass audiences of the past are more divided. Broadcasting vs narrowcasting. New digital divides are being created (in their use of the net), economic and social (between the rich and poor), generational (young people, the middle aged and elderly) and cultural (technophobes and technofiles). Inside every group, however, a larger socialisation has appeared. For example, television is more “collectivised” and the dreamed of interactivity of the past is starting to become reality

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You write, “The social functions once fulfilled by TV are in crisis, while new ones have yet to be defined.” Does this imply that television is in crisis? Should a medium survive if it has outlived its social functions?

In Europe, yes. The television of the masses which emerged during the previous century to inform, teach and entertain and was controlled by the State has died. All of the public television stations are in crisis and commercial television, though highly competitive, is losing audiences and advertising. Young people are now deciding how to do these three things. That form of television is changing at the hands of the internet. The logic of demand is changing to the logic of choice. It is the viewer who decides what he wants to see.

Is the “new television” television, and if so, how do we define this medium? Is watching a television series on Hulu television? Is watching a web series? What about playing a game on our television set? What defines the nature of this medium — the content, the delivery technology, our modes of consumption, its social functions?

This new concept will be created by all of us. But for me, what defines television is the content. When we watch an HBO series, we are watching television. It doesn’t matter what screen we are watching it on or the type of telecommunication (cable, satellite, ADSL etc) .The day the internet produces content, things will change. We will then have to invent new concepts. Hulu will always be a joint venture…….

As you note, the rate of change has been uneven across countries and later, you point out that Spain has one of the lowest level of creative participation in net culture in the world. How would you describe the current state of participatory culture in your country and what factors do you think contribute to its relatively slow rate of creative sharing?

This has more to do with what the statistics say than with my opinion. Spain is the leader in pirating and, traditionally, a culture of sharing has not existed, to the point of defrauding the tax office being well looked upon. The Spanish are individualists, in contrast to what is usually supposed. However, I believe that little by little the UGC is catching on among young people, but more slowly than in other countries.

To what degree do you think television will become a global rather than a local, national, or regional medium in an era of networked communications?

Global television for big events (sports, news programmes etc) will continue for a time and will coexist with regional and national television. The Net will complement and start to integrate with television. The internet offers a fascinating complementary opportunity.

Like many others, you speculate that the BRIC countries may become dominant players in the audiovisual culture of the future. Since I have many readers from those countries, I wondered if you might spell out a bit more what you think their impact is going to be and what factors might lead to their increased visibility in the global media market.

I don’t believe so. The global mainstream will be North American. It will be difficult for them to break into China but they will manage it in the end. My position is very similar to that of Frédéric Martel. We are moving towards “standardised diversity”. We are not faced with a value system that wants to impose itself on the world, rather a “hydra” of companies that feed off each other and know how to adapt themselves to circumstances. The power of the USA on the net and in the production of content makes me think this. Without doubt, styles and vanguards from other cultures will be incorporated, just as happened during the 20th Century. The size of the American national market will help to provide high production costs which will make it very difficult for other cultures to compete.

Jose M. Alvarez-Monzoncillo is Professor of Audiovisual Communications at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid. In addition, he currently holds positions as the Vice Rector for European Harmonisation and Convergence and Director of the International Doctorate School of URJC; Course Director for the Master’s in Television Journalism; Coordinator of the Masters in Film, Television, and Interactive Media Studies; and Director of the INFOCENT research group. Professor Alvarez has written and co-written thirty0six books and more than twenty papers for scientific journals on the economy of communications, the cultural industries and new information technologies. Some of his works include The Future of Audiovisual Media in Spain (1992), The Film Industry in Spain (1993), Premium Images (1997), The Present and Future of Digital Television (1999), The Future of Home Entertainment (2004) and Cultural Policy Alternatives (2007).