Multichannel Networks and the New Screen Ecology: An Interview with Stuart Cunningham and David Craig (Part One)

Stuart Cunningham is an Aussie; David Craig hails from the American south. Stuart has been a leading figure in the realm of cultural studies, pushing all of us towards a greater engagement with media policy issues. Craig has been an activist and an industry insider, someone who, as he notes, speaks “Hollywoodish.”

Together, they have set out on the ultimate “odd couple” academic buddy adventure — trying to map an emerging media ecology which is being shaped by new producers and entrepreneurs trying to circulate their content through multichannel networks. They have begun an ambitious project interviewing producers, platform managers, and fans, from around the world, as we understand how the word of DIY video opened up by YouTube more than a decade ago has evolved into a space for professional and semi-professional media production and distribution.

There’s much we do not yet understand about this screen ecology which is evolving hour by hour, but the first step in making sense of the changes which are occurring is to develop a systematic model of the genres being deployed, who is creating this media, what their motives are, what the economic arrangements look like, and what the impact of these evolving cultural practices have been.

There’s been a lot of talk through the years about the value of bringing together political economy work on the creative industries with more cultural studies work on the cultural and political implications of new producers and audiences. Cunningham and Craig are doing that work as we speak.

Often here, I share insights once books have been published, but they wanted to share some of their preliminary findings here in hopes of sparking conversations with others researching and thinking about this space. They are just starting to publish articles based on their initial field work, and you can find an early example here. Over the next three installments, the two authors share with us some key insights and address some fundamental questions about what’s happening with these new formats, new producers, and new audiences.

You’ve described this project as an attempt to map an emerging “screen ecology.” What do you mean by a “screen ecology,” and what are the methods you are using to identify its parameters?

The idea of an ecological approach really refers to the interdependencies amongst the elements in the ‘gene pool’ of the new screen ecology. It means we have been able to develop an account of why, for example, the multichannel networks are as precarious as the creator careers that they are trying to facilitate. This means that we have been able to complement what is the important focus by scholars such as Vicki Mayer on precarious labour below the line, and demonstrate that management in such a volatile environment can be as precarious.

These intermediaries are being squeezed from above and from below. ‘Above’ – more powerful than – them in the ecology is Google/YouTube, which, having invited in, nurtured and licensed MCNs, is now encroaching on their basic business model by developing its own branded content R&D through direct engagement with top brands in its in-house agency The Zoo. ‘Below’ them, successful, MCN-mentored, YouTubers are poached by mainstream talent agencies, move to the numerous other platforms on offer, and/or negotiate much better terms of trade for themselves. To remain viable, MCNs need to innovate even more rapidly than YouTube and the other digital platforms, and certainly faster than established media.

Another example of the ecological approach has allowed us to refine our account of the political economy of the capitalist hegemons at the top of the food chain. Rather than seeing the IT industry/Silicon Valley/NoCal taking on mass media entertainment/SoCal in a battle that only one can win, it is more ecological to look at their evolving interdependency and the way each is forcing change in the other, with potential benefits for the ordinary citizen-consumer.

Ultimately, our notion of ‘ecology’ derives from evolutionary principles that seek to explain the interdependent dynamics of the economic and social worlds we live in. Evolutionary economics –Stuart has written about the implications of this heterodox tradition for media studies in the recent book with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, Media Economics ‑ has taught us that these systems are never in balance or in equilibrium, as the dominant economic neo-classical models seek to model. There is always turbulence, always change, and new green shoots are always emerging from the creative destruction of the old.

 

Your focus in this project are the emerging digital distributors of video content, such as YouTube and Netflix. In what ways do these companies differ from the “media incumbents” they are challenging? What changes do these companies represent for the way media is produced, distributed, and consumed? 

Everyone has heard the old truism ‘content is king’ – this is what comforts Hollywood executives in their darker moments. But the political economy truism is that, if content is king, then distribution is King Kong. Distribution has always been where the money is made in the screen industries. And the two big gorillas in our current distribution mist are Netflix and YouTube. Together, they constitute more than 50% of prime time US online viewing.

Netflix and YouTube are alike in a number of ways. Both are world-spanning platforms. YouTube’s platform is uploaded to and streamed around the world, with the particular exclusion of China – which is platform autarkic, North Korea and at any one time a number of countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. Netflix has expanded to 130 countries after coming to dominate the North American mainstream streaming space.

But there are big differences. Netflix is largely a mainstream video store, just online. Is populated by professionally-generated content (PGC). Yes, it has state-of-the-art recommendation algorithms driving consumer navigation and a great deal of resultant consumer satisfaction. But it is old wine in new bottles. And in most regions outside North America, its back catalogue is dusty and drab. Nevertheless, it has huge brand recognition and attracts a lot of entertainment media attention.

Not so mainstream, and less noticed by main media and people of a certain demographic, YouTube’s social media entertainment, we would argue, is a much more radical, longer term challenge to main media than Netflix. Every YouTube creator, whether they’re earning big bucks or not, started as an amateur, a hobbyist, operate, create content, and represent alternative and participatory value to their audiences. And now these are multiplatform creators, using numerous social media platforms to incubate and monetize their unique form of content as well as engage with, aggregate, and harness global fan communities.

These platforms raise questions about the relationship between commercial and amateur production. Many of the top stars on YouTube, say, have positioned themselves as much closer to the audience than to the commercial entertainment sector. Is this simply a posture or is there something different about these new producers from the kinds of media producers that have shaped previous generation’s entertainment? And in particular, is there something significantly different about the ways they connect with their viewers?

Within this ecology, platforms feature constantly differentiating and iterating content, curation and comment features that inform circulation. However, rather than platform determinism, users have the agency to harness these features and create their own technological and social affordances. Baym (2015) describes this as the social shaping of technology. As informed by our research, these creators have also converted these features into commercial affordances, although not without precarity and frustration.

As Halverson (2013) noted, “curation is the new creation” as platforms have sought out new forms of artificial scarcity to compensate for almost unlimited content abundance. Content players like YouTube and Netflix offer user interfaces (UIs) and content management systems (CMs) that feature a mix of programming categories informed by recommendation algorithms. These programming categories resemble what one might see in a video store, e.g., documentaries, drama, and comedies, TV shows, and talk shows. Beneath these taxonomies, however, are complex, non-transparent, and iterating algorithms based on user interaction, including views, subscription, likes, and shares. In contrast, social network platforms like Facebook avoid categorization and simply feature feeds, yet again, constantly iterating and generating indiscernible algorithms designed to avoid hacking by advertisers and creators. While these curatorial features may promote content the users want to see, their primary function is to better target, aggregate, and engage users for the benefit of platforms and advertisers.

For creators, these iterative shifts in platform features can prove disruptive. An overnight shift in algorithms can result in the loss of audience and missing revenue. Most recently, Instagram announced it will switch from a chronological to algorithmic feed. This has led creators to besiege their followers, pleading with them to turn on “push notifications” to notify fans when content has been posted, effectively working around the algorithm. Other creators are petitioning Instagram to stay chronological, while others are threatening to leave altogether.

Notwithstanding all this platform precarity, creators have proven strategic in understanding and converting these features into commercial affordances as well as adapting to these changes. Based on our research, creators have found ways mitigate this platform precarity through a sophisticated, if laborious, practice of circulating customized content across multiple channels and/or platforms. Some creators feature multiple YouTube channels while others have launched channels on an ever-increasing array of proliferating platforms, e.g., Vine, Instagram, Periscope, Snapchat, and Victorious.

Social media play a crucial role in making the content produced and distributed by these platforms accessible to their desired markets. To quote someone or other, “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” So, what can you tell us about the ways content is curated and circulated through these social media channels?

Content circulation represents more than sharing and reposting. Rather, the content must be customized to the nature of the content players, whether short-form looping video on Vine or a live broadcast channel on Periscope or a filtered photograph on Instagram. Only a few platforms offer partnerships; however, creators may be posting content to engage in influencer marketing, which has been richly funded by brand deals and guaranteed across multiple platforms.

But not all content makes money. Some content is designed to add value. Creators use multiple platforms not simply to spread content but to engage in community building. Our interviews affirm that this practice is high-touch with limited scalability. Creators spend upwards of 50% of their time on multiple platforms for the sole purpose of engaging with fans and building their community. Like their fans, they comment, like, share, retweet, and subscribe.

In addition, most creators manage this work themselves, in part to maintain discourses of authenticity with their community that few can emulate. However, in our interview, we learned that the SMOSH duo initially refused to work on Facebook, forcing their managers at Defy Media to pose as one of the creators and respond to the Smosh fans.

Comedians Rhett and Link hired their own social media manager, because “there is no way we can personally manage it”, although they pointed out that “Jenn” is well known to their fans.

 

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology. His most recent books are Digital Disruption: Cinema Moves Online (edited with Dina Iordanova, 2012), Key Concepts in Creative Industries (with John Hartley, Jason Potts, Terry Flew, John Banks and Michael Keane, 2013), Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector (2014), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (with Jon Silver, 2013), The Media and Communications in Australia(edited with Sue Turnbull) and Media Economics (with Terry Flew and Adam Swift, 2015).
 
David Craig, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, where he teaches multiple courses regarding media and entertainment industries, management, culture, and practice.  He is also veteran film, television, web, publishing, and stage producer and former television programming executive at A&E and Lifetime.  He has produced more than thirty projects that have garnered over 70 Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe, GLAAD, and other awards and nominations including two personal Emmy nominations.  In addition, he is an LGBT media producer, activist, and scholar and has his doctorate from UCLA and masters from NYU.