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There is no doubt that the last two decades have produced unfathomable changes in US television. Although a death knell predicting the demise of television has rung loudly for both “television” and more recently for “cable,” both persist, arguably both transformed, maybe even revolutionized. It is always difficult, even impossible, to make sense of profound industrial change as it transpires. Yet if we delay too long, some of the richness of insight most evident in the throes of transition will be lost. During the last twenty years, the US television industries negotiated epic shifts in distribution and screen technologies that have had implications for all aspects of making and viewing television. We are not without tools to understand this change, but we must first establish what has transpired.
Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, the general presumption was that “new media” was arriving to kill off “old media” such as television, and this perspective was so pervasive that it obscured what has really transpired. Media cannot be killed. The written word, sound, still pictures or moving images and the complex of industrial formations, audience practices, and textual attributes that come to define them as particular media persist. The distribution systems used to circulate media, however, evolve with considerable regularity, and different distribution systems possess different affordances that can introduce wide-ranging change to the production and consumption of media. Only recently have “new media,” as they relate to television, been increasingly recognized not as “media” at all, but as many different platforms, technologies, messaging systems, and practices of data gathering. Many of these distribution technologies and platforms have been most widely adopted for sharing personal communication, as opposed to the intellectual property at the core of legacy media content industries. The revolutionary impact of new media upon television has not been as a replacement medium, but as a new mechanism of distribution that allows evolution of legacy companies and the creation of a sector—maybe sectors—of internet-distributed television.
Those born before 2000 were acculturated with an experience of US television that originates from the structuring requirement of a schedule. Multiple technologies and distribution mechanisms developed in the early 2000s, so it is not internet distribution alone that changes the use of television. Digital video recorders (DVRs) enabled viewers to record programming and view it on self-determined schedules beginning in the late 1990s, while cable service providers introduced video on-demand (VOD) services in the early 2000s. But adoption of both were slow despite their expansion of the capability to self-schedule and time shift—capabilities notably earlier introduced by pre-digital technologies such as VCRs and video rental. Though DVRs and VOD services are a relevant antecedent to internet-distributed television, use of these devices was too limited to meaningfully disrupt dominant industrial practices. A schedule remained necessary and central because broadcast signals could only transmit one message at a time and cable maintained the norms of the broadcast paradigm despite technological advancement. Internet-distributed television does not have this limitation. Internet distribution enables personalized delivery of content independent of a schedule, which is described here as “nonlinear.”
This technological capability, or affordance, and others that likewise derive from the difference in the technological mechanisms of internet distribution upend many previous television norms that were based on a single entity sending out one show to a mass audience. These capabilities alone do not require the assessment of internet-distributed audiovisual messages as distinct from the medium of television. In many cases, these messages are still produced within industrial logics consistent with broadcast- and cable-distributed television. A “medium” derives not only from technological capabilities, but also from textual characteristics, industrial practices, audience behaviors, and cultural understanding. The matrix of these factors encourages the consideration of many types of internet-distributed video to be understood as characteristic of “television.”
Such an argument relies on a definition of television that derives from approaches to studying media characteristic of what was first cultural studies, and more recently considered as media studies. In one of the earliest efforts to deal with uncertainty about television in its most recent period of reconfiguration, Lynn Spigel delimited television as characterized by “technologies, industrial formations, government policies, and practices of looking.” Spigel precisely encapsulated comprehensive understandings of television offered earlier by scholars such as Raymond Williams, Roger Silverstone, and John Corner. The recognition that all these components constituted “television”—not just a particular technological form (box, screen) or way of watching (linear schedule, on demand) was a critical intervention for identifying the consistencies that remained despite the considerable changes also occurring during what has been described as a “post-network” or “neo-network” era, or as characteristic of “TV III.”
The other essential contribution to a definition of television capable of incorporating its internet distribution comes from Henry Jenkins. Jenkins, drawing from Lisa Gitelman, notes media are defined on two levels, as the technology that enables communication, as well as culturally, as a set of practices—or what Gitelman terms “protocols”—that develop around the technology such as the industrial practices of making television and audiences’ practices of viewing.
Jenkins importantly distinguishes between media and delivery systems, or what I describe as distribution technologies here. To my thinking, television is a medium, whereas broadcast signals, cable wires, and internet protocols are all delivery systems or distribution technologies. This approach diverges from Jenkins’ who reserves the distinction of “media” for forms of human communication such as the written word, visual images, and audiovisual messages, rather than categorizing television as a medium. Merging Jenkins and the cultural studies tradition voiced by Spigel allows distinction among different audiovisual message systems according to their variant industrial formations and practices of looking. For example, both film and television are audiovisual messaging systems, but they are distinct media because of their discrepant industrial formations, government policies, and practices of looking.
Nearly all the “protocols” of television—per Gitelman’s distinction of the term as the “huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships” connected to using technologies—are tied to television’s preliminary distribution technology of broadcasting and its particular affordances and limitations. Broadcast’s technological ability to send just one signal led to the protocol of organizing content into a linear schedule. The schedule necessitated entities such as networks and channels as gatekeepers to organize viewing. Many norms of viewing and industrial practices that have long been believed inherent to the medium of television are, rather, protocols particular to broadcasting and cable as distribution technologies.
The affordance of internet protocol technologies to deliver personally-selected content from an industrially curated library is the central difference introduced by this new distribution mechanism. The technological affordances of internet-distributed television and the varied protocols they allow encourage an industrial operation and viewer experience that is quite different from norms developed for previous mechanisms of television distribution and extend beyond nonlinearity. For example, the final two chapters of this treatise focus on the strategies of subscriber funding and the increased ability of producers to distribute content directly to consumers as strategies enabled by internet distribution that substantially change industrial norms and audience experience.
The endeavor of developing theories suited to understanding internet-distributed television requires identifying emerging protocols, investigating their similarities and differences from those of other forms of distribution, and assessing their consequences for creative practices, texts, and audiences. To that end, this treatise begins the task of theorizing internet-distributed television by establishing its distinctions, identifying its emerging associated behaviors and related logics, and beginning to create theory that addresses its particularities. The focus here examines the context of the US industry and the case of internet distribution as it exists in the United States from 2010 to 2017. There are unquestionably aspects relevant in other national contexts and careful parsing is needed to understand a distribution technology that can be global in a way previous distribution technologies were not, but this brief, preliminary assessment does not attend to these important matters.
The different affordances of internet-distributed television that enable protocols related to its nonlinearity and user specificity introduce strategies for distribution unavailable to previous mechanisms of television distribution. Sociologist John B. Thompson describes “logics” in the context of his study of the book publishing industry as “the set of factors that determine the conditions under which individual agents and organizations (that compose media industries) participate in the field,” or, more colloquially, the “conditions under which they can play the game.” The possibility of nonlinear access characteristic of internet-distributed television allows different logics from those available to broadcast and cable television despite similar industrial formations, and to a large degree, practices of looking. Sorting out the intertwined consistency and change of internet-distributed television is crucial to developing a sophisticated understanding of television in the twenty-first century.
What Is Internet-Distributed Television?
To be clear on terms, I take television distributed using internet protocol—a method of signal distribution that disassembles messages in packets and reassembles them—as my focus. In the early years of internet-distributed video, there was a tendency to think of only video on computers as “internet television” in a manner that may confuse this distinction. Viewing device is irrelevant to this discussion. Internet protocol distribution now commonly delivers television to living room sets, mobile devices, as well as computers. The affordances of internet distribution allow strategies and practices unavailable to broadcast and cable distribution that require reconceptualization of industrial and audience practices although important similarities persist as well.
Though still a fairly recent phenomenon, internet-distributed television has had many names. To be clear, when talking about internet-distributed television, I mean the video accessed via Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, HBO Now and many others I’ll detail momentarily. Not all the video these services offer are television; many also offer feature films, which, per the difference in film’s industrial formations and practices of looking, make them “film,” not “television,” or some other medium because they are internet distributed. The video on demand access offered by cable services is difficult to categorize. It too relies on internet protocol technology although it is bound up in industrial practices and conventions characteristic of cable. Some of the following discussion holds true for video on demand, but as of 2017, it is mostly distinct from internet-distributed television because the practices that lead to its availability derive from arrangements based on cable’s linear delivery of channels.
Internet-distributed television was first called “web TV,” a moniker given to experiments with internet-distributed content between 2004 and 2008 that rarely included full-length, professionally produced episodes and generally predated YouTube. Notably, predictions of web TV began in 1995, which was well before most homes even had internet access. Web TV was also the brand name of a service that enabled owners to use televisions as displays for internet access from 1996 to 2013. Nearly all the endeavors of internet-distributed television in this era (2004–08) failed commercially—both a result of developing before an audience for internet-distributed content existed and not offering content or a content experience deemed valuable.
Another term for internet-distributed television developed within the television industry. The term OTT, an acronym of “over the top” emerged in 2005, but was uncommon until 2010. Etymologically, OTT emerged to distinguish communication that traveled—or went “over” networks built and managed by cable and telecommunications providers that was distinct from traditional cable video service. OTT particularly became common in discussions about viewers choosing to end cable subscriptions (cord cutting) to instead service their video needs via providers such as Netflix and Hulu. Synonymous with internet distributed, the jargon of OTT obscures what was simply an expansion in distribution technologies.
Another common industrial acronym, SVOD (subscription video on demand), was also common in industry discourse. Juxtaposed with AVOD (advertising-supported video on demand) and TVOD (transaction video on demand, more commonly known as pay per view), SVOD foregrounds the revenue model of Netflix and several other internet-distributed services. Not only do such services rely on a different distribution technology, but they also deviate from the advertiser-supported revenue model long dominant in the United States. Both SVOD and AVOD fail to distinguish between internet-distributed services such as Netflix and the video on demand services increasingly offered as part of cable video subscriptions that become robust by 2013 and have much different industrial practices. Viewers also casually used “on demand” and “streaming” as ways to describe nonlinear viewing, although often without regard for the industrial practices that distinguish the different technologies and business practices that allow this behavior.
The transition from web TV to arcane acronyms such as OTT and SVOD illustrates early thinking about the relationship of then-coming new media and television and why conceptualization of internet-distributed television remains poorly refined. All these terms obscure the consistency of television’s defining attributes regardless of the development of a new mechanism of distribution with some new capabilities. Early belief of the “internet” as a form of “new media” and narratives of technological replacement concealed the reality of what has transpired—that the most desired application for distributing video via internet protocol has been accessing legacy television content outside its linear delivery.
Building an understanding of internet-distributed television based on the definitions and characterization set forth here requires acknowledging the points of commonality and distinction among television as distributed by broadcast or cable and by internet. Like earlier technologies, internet distribution requires an entity to organize and deliver programming. I use “portal” to distinguish the crucial intermediary services that collect, curate, and distribute television programming via internet distribution. Portals, such as Netflix, SeeSo, CBS All Access, and HBO Now, are the internet equivalent of channels.
Although selecting content is a key task of both channels and portals, nonlinear access distinguishes portals from their channel brethren by freeing them from the task of scheduling. Portals’ primary task might be better regarded as that of curation—of curating a library of content based on the identity, vision, and strategy that drive its business model. Many different curation tactics are evident among portals—tactics derived from the revenue model, the target market, and intellectual property owned by the portal, among other factors. Curation—although largely untheorized—differs considerably from scheduling, and parallels to the rich insight available about scheduling strategies must now be created for commercial library curation.
Another notable difference between portals and channels is that portals are characterized by more than just their program content, but also by the features of their interface and the capabilities they offer their viewers. There is limited differentiation in the experience of linear channels: When you turn to a channel, there is content coming through. Changing the channel yields different content, but still the same experience—perhaps only the commercial load really distinguishes the experience. In contrast, portals have features that lead to differentiation in use, and the use experience of a single portal varies among viewers. The experience of logging in to Netflix differs from what a viewer encounters entering HBO Now so that not just the programming, but also viewers’ experience distinguishes portals to make portal features part of product differentiation. Some other features distinguishing portals as products include the strategy used to organize content, whether the last viewed content automatically plays, and the particular sophistication of the search and recommendation functions. Optimizing experience replaces linear scheduling strategies such as lead-ins, hammocking, etc. as mechanisms for manipulating viewer behavior. Moreover, portals offer mass customization that leads different viewers to have different experiences of a single portal. Portals are able to tailor promotional messaging and recommendations to particular subscribers rather than the mass messaging characteristic of linear distribution.
Other Types of Internet-Distributed Television
Significant variation exists among internet-distributed television endeavors. So much so that some skirt the edges of categorization as television in terms of their industrial formations and practices of looking. Although it remains early days for internet-distributed television, mounting evidence exists to support an argument that multiple video-based industries have emerged. This treatise—following the designations of television set forth—focuses on the distribution of long-form content most similar to that recognizable as “television.” It consequently largely leaves unconsidered the parallel industry developing around what began as user- and amateur-generated content that has evolved into a separate industry. The emerging internet-distributed television industry that utilizes the dynamics of social media and is based on personalities that cultivate a community of followers—described by Cunningham and Craig as “commutainment” is equally fascinating and important, but distinct enough to require its own focus. Clearly an emergent industry, it is defined by industrial formations (advertiser support), government policies, and practices of looking (short-form, integration of viewing into daily life) distinct enough from those characteristic of what has been “television” to be better understood as its own industry if not medium.
To be very clear, this is not an evaluative assessment suggesting any less importance of YouTube and other similar aggregators, but emerges from recognition that the particular industrial and viewer protocols of this internet-distributed video are so divergent and significant as to require their own theorization. Some aspects of the treatise’s discussion of nonlinear television may apply to this sector of internet-distributed video industries as well, but for the most part, the discussion here instead recognizes the high costs of long-form, scripted production and the strategies of businesses built on circulating intellectual property as characteristic of the industrial practices of television as it has been institutionally and culturally understood. It should not be difficult to conceive of parallel television industries defined by variant logics. To a large degree, US broadcast and cable television were rightfully understood this way for most of cable’s early existence.
The treatise also considers only minimally transaction-funded, internet-distributed television such as offered by iTunes or television sold on DVD. To date, such large-scale retail operations exist only as secondary markets—they are not creating original content. Much of the treatise argues for models to explain emergent industrial practices for which existing theoretical frameworks are ill-suited. The “publishing model” of media production adequately explains the transaction of individual series or episodes.
Understanding Internet-Distributed Television
Although internet distribution, or more generally “the Internet” was predicted to bring seismic change to the US television industry for well over a decade before its implications became evident, what had not been predicted—really, could not have been predicted—was how other logics of the industry’s operation would be affected. When the preliminary contours of a competitive space that included internet distribution began to emerge, there was a tendency to assume that the technology used in distribution could alone explain the disruption. But internet distribution has affordances unlike previous mechanisms of distribution. Indeed, technological affordances such as nonlinearity enable—and often require—substantial adjustments in the protocols of making and viewing television. These shifts are better explored in relation to their specific dimensions and the protocols they replace, rather than simply attributing them to technology. The protocols enabled by nonlinear distribution produced extensive and wide-ranging disruption of the norms that had developed for broadcast and cable distribution. It is difficult to extricate changing distribution mechanisms, preliminary revenue models, and the shifting strategies evident in US television beginning in 2010—although it is important to try; otherwise much more disruption is accorded directly to technological change than due.
Of course, internet-distributed television existed before 2010, but this year marks a significant turning point because of developments that year that made internet distribution technology more usable. The intermediary of the portal for long-form, industry-produced content emerged—in the United States—in 2010 with the surge in attention to Netflix streaming, launch of HBO Go, and expansion in robustness of Hulu. The nonlinear convenience of these services made clear how television distributed by internet protocol could rival and surpass the experience of broadcast- or cable-distributed television, and countered the experience of internet-distributed video to that point as slow loading and pixelated. Moreover, the portals offered full-length, professionally produced content that was highly desired. The introduction of tablet technology in 2010 also helped bring into view what was still a coming norm of the fluid movement of “television” among an array of screens, including those previously conceived as foremost for “computing.” Although the smartphone became the most important mobile screen in time, the emergence of the tablet helped shift paradigms of screen use that imagined television as bound to a television or computer. Significant attention focused on distinguishing television based on what screen was used in these early years. But internet-distributed television was soon available on the full array of screens—including the traditional living room screen—so that screen became far less important for most analyses than distribution technology.
Uncertainty about the boundaries of television that derived from its appearance on new screens occurred alongside other profound shifts in its industrial practices. A widely perceived “crisis” in the television industry and sense of demise in the early 2000s developed because the logics that had governed television and the strategies commonly used proved decreasingly effective and led to a sense of failure according to traditional benchmarks. For example, casual evaluations of the industry emphasized the severe declines in the size of the audience viewing programs live, decreased viewing of returning series, or forecast demise based on stagnant commitments in the upfront advertising market in 2014 and 2015.
Although these were crucial metrics of the industry in an era in which broadcast networks relied entirely on advertising, they revealed only part of the story for businesses decreasingly dependent upon advertising revenue and increasingly organized by different revenue models. Metrics designed to evaluate the linear schedule, assessments of success based on live viewing, and strategies built upon the constant flow from one program to the next were so entrenched in the lived experience of television that they came to seem inherent to the medium rather than as protocols of broadcasting as a distribution system.
In setting forth this preliminary understanding of internet-distributed television from the vantage point of 2017, it is clear that the matrix of industrial change includes a new distribution technology, new screen technologies, and a previously uncommon revenue model. These alterations intersect to reveal an array of industrial strategies and audience experiences with television.
Internet-distributed television’s affordance of nonlinearity enabled two key transformations in television protocols. First, it allowed the adoption of a subscriber-funded revenue model that amply adjusts many industrial practices: foremost, the aim of creating content that attracts subscribers leads to programming very different than the aim of creating content that will gather a mass of advertiser-desired eyeballs. Of course, HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, and some other linear, cable-distributed services were fully subscriber supported well before the emergence of internet-distributed television, but this revenue model was such a small component of the television economy as to attract minimal attention or theorization of these cases. Certainly, not all portals utilize subscriber funding, but the extent of the adoption of this revenue model—seventy-six of the nearly one hundred portals available in the United States by the end of 2015—requires extensive rethinking of established theory about television and its industrial operations in relation to subscriber funding.
The second transformative practice to derive from the nonlinearity of internet distribution is the extent to which it enables the creators of television content to more directly connect with audiences. Although layers of middlemen such as internet service providers and the portals remain, television business practices are changing to allow studios greater control of production and distribution of their programming (vertical integration), than even the establishment of deeply conglomerated media companies allowed. Vertical integration among studios and networks/channels developed throughout the 1990s and altered the business of US television in ways not widely understood before the advent of internet distribution. But portals—with their central task of curation rather than scheduling—further reconfigure the strategy of vertical integration. Distinctions between producers and distributors blur in an environment of internet-distributed television in ways that produce notable consequences for the creative goods these industries develop.
Before exploring these transformations and their consequences in greater detail, this book begins by placing internet-distributed television within existing literature about media industries and establishes the conversation into which Chapters Two and Three intervene. Chapter One examines the implications of the affordance of nonlinearity. It illustrates the limitations of existing theoretical categorizations in accounting for the peculiarities of internet-distributed television and makes the case for a new model of media production, which is delineated in Chapter Two.
Chapter Two focuses on how a subscriber-funded revenue model transforms many television protocols and goes so far as describing the characteristics of a “subscriber model” of media production. The transaction of viewers paying directly for access to a bundle of content deviates significantly from models of direct payment for a single good or the advertiser-support characteristic of most existing media industries. Although subscriber funding is not particular to internet-distributed television, it is currently its predominant revenue model and has been so under considered as to require extensive analysis.
Chapter Three explores the expansion in the strategy of vertical integration evident in many recent portals. It first establishes the increased reliance on vertical integration in the US television industry in the years just before the arrival of internet-distributed television. The chapter then explores the expansion of this strategy in the emergent internet-distributed television sector through the creation of what I term “studio portals” to consider the consequences of this strategy in comparison with the norms of broadcast and cable distribution.