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    Conclusion: Looking Outside Television

    Ironically, the quintessential analog era publishing industry—the book publishing industry—offers provocative guidance at this moment of reimagining television through internet distribution. In addition to examining strategies emerging in the television industry, it can also be helpful to look at the strategies that developed in other industries that have seemed far removed from television, but now have surprising commonality due to shifts in the models of cultural production that explain television. Such consideration notably moves away from portals, subscriber models, and vertical integration and focuses on how people watch television.

    In terms of time of engagement required and the expenditure of leisure, a season of television is most comparable to the time required to read a novel. The book publishing industry is accustomed to the “unscheduled” distribution environment television now faces, as every new book has always competed for the time and attention of readers against other new books, as well as every book ever written. Publishers develop books without the thought of time constraints or strategies related to constructing a linear schedule. They have built their businesses on understanding the rhythms of consumers’ leisure needs, independent of underperforming time slots or coordinating the right “lead in.”

    Far more books are published each year than critics or readers can read so that a “surplus” of books has existed for decades, if not centuries. Concern about “peak TV” or “too much TV” that emerged in 2015 derived from linear distribution norms of synchronous viewing. Indeed, for many viewers, there may have been more hours of compelling television available than most had leisure to view on a week-to-week basis. But the real determinant of “too much” is whether business models and revenue streams can afford this scale of production. Nonlinear distribution does not reveal “success” with the immediacy of media distributed through structures that demand timeliness. Although networks knew the success of their Thursday night schedule by Friday morning, the success of a series for a subscriber-funded portal may require months, and even years, to become clear.

    As an illustration of the workings of media industries not beholden to timeliness, consider that at any given time a commuter train will be full of riders reading a current release, last year’s best sellers, and decades-old classic titles, just as the television viewing in a post-network neighborhood might be similarly dispersed. Book publishers consequently have business models based on creating and circulating content that balances revenue from new titles (new series), new content from known authors (new seasons of established series), and revenue from a backlist (library rights) that account for the asynchronous consumption surplus and nonlinear distribution encourage.

    As unlikely as it may seem, the book industry, with its publishing model logics, can offer considerable insight at this moment of profound transition in the business of television—particularly for scripted television series. The most useful offering of the book industry may not be in precise practices but in suggesting an alternative paradigm. One of the greatest challenges to rethinking television at this moment of great disruption is being able to imagine television businesses in ways untethered to the logics of television’s past. To paraphrase digital scholar Nicholas Negroponte, perhaps the future of television is thinking about television series as we have novels.[1]

    The book industry offers a long history of its medium’s adaptation to shifting distribution forms (hardback, paperback, e-book) through corresponding adjustments in business models (subscription and circulating libraries, direct sale) and the establishment of sectors with distinct logics (mass market, award contender, specialized topics, academic) that aid thinking about the business of television in the different ways required in an era in which television is free from linear schedules.

    The book industry has endured considerable disruption of its own in the last few decades although curiously less instigated by digitization of media and internet distribution than other media industries. The economics of book publishing shifted as the value of the paperback market waned after retail superstores emerged and heavily discounted hardbacks; conglomeration swept through the industry leaving a handful of global giants; and the rise and fall of bricks and mortar retail giants altered distribution just before online retailers and e-books disrupted norms yet again.[2]

    And this provocation can be turned back on itself. Internet-distributed television has been most successful when offering viewers access to a library of content for a fee, what I have argued as characteristic of a subscriber model—a model very different than used by the contemporary book industry. This may be the logic of a preliminary era of internet distribution—just as circulating libraries developed in the eighteenth century before public libraries and affordable book pricing—but its deviation from strategies common in internet-distributed sectors of print and audio industries is notable. Likewise, although the print industries of magazines and newspapers and the recording industry preceded the television industry in adapting practices for the affordances of internet distribution, these industries have most minimally used vertical integration as a strategy for these revised conditions. Of course, there are peculiar characteristics of the production and consumption of different media that may explain the discrepant strategies, or there may be valuable lessons at hand.

    Internet distribution and its affordances that allow for some sectors of television to operate consistently with the publishing model—or require a subscriber model—remain too nascent to derive certain implications for creativity or social and political impact. As adjustments introduced by nonlinear access continue to emerge in coming years, critics can expect to revisit or relinquish many theories about television and its operation in society. More precisely, much reassessment will be needed: established theories may continue to hold for sectors that remain governed by flow logics, but new theories will be needed for those sectors of television more consistent with publishing and subscriber models. Just as the advertising industry struggles to determine new metrics and practices, so too must critical analysis refocus and re-theorize. Importantly, internet-distributed television is not fundamentally unlike everything that has come before.

    The profound change that has only just begun requires considerable creation of new understandings before returning to the evaluations at the heart of efforts to understand the role of media in society. The logics of the television industries continue to shift. Strategies of the moment can be discerned, but remain fleeting. In time, new norms will emerge. As these industries evolve, we can continue to identify practices and strategies, consider their consequences, and begin to collect evidence that enables theorization of implications. Rather than also remaining blinded to new possibilities by expectations of the continuation of a broadcast paradigm, we can begin applying what we have known of other media industries as we make sense of television’s continued evolution.