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TELEVISION AS DIGITAL MEDIA
Duke University Press Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
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Chapter One GRAEME TURNER
CONVERGENCE AND DIVERGENCE
The International Experience of Digital Television
At the end of her account of American television, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, Amanda D. Lotz provides a telling demonstration of the cultures of use that have developed around the new technologies of production, delivery, and consumption that constitute television in the so-called digital age. Once, Lotz reminds us, the use of television "typically involved walking into a room, turning on the set, and either tuning in to specific content or commencing the process of channel surfing." Now, however, it is not so simple: "My DVR is set to automatically record The Daily Show Monday through Thursday and keeps two episodes. Typically, I automatically record only one cable series (set a Season Pass in TIVO vernacular), because I often forget when they are on and I usually take advantage of a late night replay of episodes so that I can record something on a broadcast network during the prime-time airing." And so on. It takes Lotz several pages to detail the practices that have become necessary as a means of appropriately dealing with the range of choices available to her.
I live in Australia, where there has been a reasonable degree of media convergence: broadcast, cable, satellite, and online forms of video are available in most locations, and the U.S. market is routinely regarded as the model for the media market's development and thus for the regime of policy settings required. However, many of the options available to Amanda Lotz remain unavailable to me. At the time of writing, TIVO has only just arrived in Australia, although there has been an analogous device, IQ, marketed by the cable company Foxtel to its subscribers for some time. I know very few people who have a DVR; DVRS are in the early stages of their take-up in Australia and are still relatively expensive: AUS$700 for the base model, AUS$1,500 for one that can record onto a DVD. Currently, these work only with free-to-air television, not pay TV. The wider industry context is different as well. Network television still dominates, with cable capturing up to 30 percent of the sets in use, but the television audience is declining under competition from other forms of entertainment. Pay TV has been in place for a decade and a half, but the selection of channels is more limited than that available in the United States, and thus we don't yet have the range of choices Lotz must navigate in constructing her personalized menu of television.
The point I am making here is that although most of us talk about "television" without any qualifying prefix such as "Australian" or "American," the fact is that, especially since the digital revolution and notwithstanding the processes of globalization, "television" involves such varying forms, platforms, and content in its different national and regional locations that it is increasingly implausible for one set of experiences to be regarded as representative. As part of a wider research project with Anna Pertierra and Jinna Tay, this chapter examines and attempts to capture some of those differences in the international context of post-broadcast television. Within Anglo-American media and cultural studies, it has become something of an orthodoxy to see the current formations of television as enmeshed within a process that has the medium moving from regulation to deregulation, from a mix of public and private ownership to overwhelming commercialization, and from broadcast and cable into broadband. This chapter questions how comprehensively such an account covers the various formations of television today, while also considering what kinds of social and cultural roles television now plays within the nation-state, the local community, or the transnational geo-linguistic region.
While there is certainly a dominant view that foregrounds the "death of broadcasting," on the one hand, and the rise of user-generated "alternative" content online, on the other, it would be wrong to say that there is anything like a consensus within the international fields of media, television, and cultural studies about the possible futures of post-broadcast television. Indeed, there are some extremely stark contrasts among the opposing points of view in the international literature.
In a recent article, for instance, Axel Bruns presents an account of the growth of online video and, in particular, forms of "produsage" (do-it-yourself [DIY] or user-generated content [UGC]) that proposes them as the core, rather than the periphery, of the development of the future of television—or what he calls "audiovisual distribution." Bruns argues that "conventional television technology constitutes only a second-rate, impoverished version of (live) streaming media, providing only the 'creaky and unreliable technology of audiovisual distribution' of the analogue, mass media age." The range of options now available on digital platforms—to "request, play on demand, pause, restart, rewind, save, share, or retransmit content"—leaves television behind. "What becomes obvious here," says Bruns, "is that the technologies and processes of television—once constituting an effective and powerful network for widespread content distribution—have now been outclassed by the Internet."
In what is admittedly a polemical and speculative piece, Bruns doesn't say how he has come to the conclusion that television has been "outclassed," but he is far from alone in making such claims—both about the death of broadcast television and about the potential of online platforms for DIY content distribution. These claims need, however, to be tested against others. Joseph Straubhaar, for instance, in his account of "world" television, insists that it is still true—and will be true for many years to come—that most of the people in the world who watch television do so via broadcasting networks. Some have a choice but others do not: "Many of those concerned about impacts of satellite and cable television technology fail to recognize that most people in the world do not have access to them either because they cannot afford them, because governments like China restrict access to them, or because they are sufficiently satisfied with broadcast television that they choose not to pay for access to them." Straubhaar is clearly concerned to hose down some of the rhetoric used to boost the significance of the multiplication of digital platforms of delivery by reminding us how uneven their distribution and take-up have been.
It is little wonder that those within the television industries required to deal with the pace and effects of these changes should have difficulty in sorting out how they might influence the future shape of a post-broadcast global television industry. In 2008, the conference of the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE)—the primary industry marketplace for television in the United States—was thoroughly focused on digital technologies but undecided about their significance for the future. On the one hand, the conference heard Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney and now an independent producer of for-mobile TV soap operas, claiming categorically that the future of television lay in online and mobile services rather than in cable or broadcast. On the other hand, Bruce Leichtman of the Leichtman Research Group provided a reality check on such claims in his presentation. Leichtman reported that while it was certainly increasing steadily, online video usage remained a relatively minor component of the U.S. media landscape. According to his research, among respondents who watched any online video in the month surveyed, the average time per day spent doing so was only six minutes. While constituting a significant increase from the previous year, this is still pretty inconsequential when compared to the 3.5 hours per day that consumers spend, on average, watching cable or broadcast television in the U.S. market. The comparison is even more pronounced when Leichtman includes the whole survey sample: the mean time spent watching online video for the sample population as a whole is 3.5 minutes per day. The implications of these figures contrasted dramatically with the conference presentations from the online entrepreneurs such as YouTube, Yahoo, and Joost.
We don't stop at online video, of course, when we talk about the likely uses of post-broadcast television. There are also those who would argue that television's future lies in the social networking capacities exploited by Facebook, MySpace, and, to a lesser extent, YouTube. Media and cultural studies academics such as John Hartley have long explored this potential through their focus on user-generated content. The role television plays in constructing a community is a topic to which I want to return in the final section of this chapter, but it does seem as if there is a prima facie case for investigating whether this capacity—something television always claimed it possessed—is in the process of migrating from television's traditional platforms into the online environment.
That said, it is also important to acknowledge the presence of what I might call "convergence skeptics" within media and cultural studies, who respond to the projections about shifts in the current mediascape by pointing to the lessons to be learned—from the histories of technological change, to the fallacies of technological determinism, and finally to the undeniable fact that it will be the currently existing commercial and regulatory structures that will exercise the most influence on how all of these developments play out. Although there may be some reason to hope that the potential capacities of digital technologies will open the media up to new players, there are many commentators who point out that, notwithstanding the proliferation of choices available to consumers today, the major media corporations have retained their dominance. Furthermore, projections of technological change are often—indeed notoriously—short of substantial evidence. Milly Buonanno warns of the "imprudence" of regarding the behavior of the "early adopters" as "representative of possible mainstream trends," a tendency that has always plagued projections about the media industries. Others simply query the empirical basis for the excitement about convergence. Des Freedman quotes evidence that reveals how few sites are actually consulted by Internet browsers and how infrequently (one survey to which he refers reports that 42 percent of users pass through five or fewer sites per week). From Freedman's point of view, the possibility that convergence will drive significant change is limited by factors such as "control of distribution networks by familiar multinational companies," "relatively narrow media consumption patterns of the majority of the online population," and the fact that new technological possibilities of the Internet are, in the end, still "constrained" by the same old "economic imperatives of the media business." Rather than accepting the claims made for the interactive and DIY potential of media convergence, David Morley describes its celebration as "born-again techno-determinism" and quotes Freedman's description of the global history of the Internet as a process through which the platform has been transformed "from being a mainly non-commercial instrument of information exchange into a highly commercialized tool of mainly private and business transactions."
In the following section, I want to explore these issues a little further by looking at examples of some of the divergent ways in which the future of digital TV is unfolding, before using the final section to discuss how what many would describe as an increasingly individualized mode of consumption manages to construct its communities.
Over the years, both the academy and the entertainment industry have acquired the habit of seeing the development of television as an evolutionary process that more or less assumes there is a trajectory that all systems in all locations are bound to follow—or if there are aberrations, that it is not hard to spot them and therefore discount their broad significance or applicability. As Jinna Tay and I have discussed elsewhere, the dominant evolutionary model for most Western regulatory jurisdictions is the American experience of television. It seems to be taking quite a while, even in the current circumstances where there are so many provocations, for industry insiders and observers alike to accept what the evidence should be telling them: there are no longer grounds for thinking about television like that. With the multiplication of platforms, formats, production centers, and distribution systems, it is abundantly clear that the precise configuration of any nation's or region's experience of television is going to be the product of the complex interplay among a number of specific conjunctural factors—and only one of these will be technological.
The historical specificity of such factors, as well as the motivated contingency of their interplay in any one location, is a dimension that television studies methodologically has tended to overlook. This is especially true of Western analyses of the rise of digital media. Even as the digitization of television platforms and systems of delivery unfolds across much of the world, there is no guarantee (or even much likelihood) that the technology will produce the same effects in every case. Even in the United States, where so many have argued that digital convergence will see the end of broadcasting and maybe even of cable, there remains a strong possibility that digitization will actually have rescued some local broadcasters after the analog signal was switched off in 2009. The added spectrum will enable the local stations to broadcast more than one channel, thus providing many local markets with a significant number of additional free-to-air channels—thereby reducing the demand for subscription services in those markets.
One area where there are quite dramatic contrasts in the take-up and application of digital television platforms around the world is in the production and consumption of television content distributed via mobile phones—what Michael Eisner insisted at NATPE was the real future of the medium. The mobile or cell phone has itself quite a complicated history of adoption with short message service (SMS), for instance, a widely used capability in Asia but notoriously slow to attract users in the United States. Mobile television, at the time of writing, remains relatively unimportant in Europe and relatively undeveloped in the United States—although it is certainly a prime target for future projections there. The use of mobiles for Internet access, video distribution, music downloads, news services, and so on is certainly growing in the United States, but to nothing like the extent that it has, for instance, in parts of Asia. Cheng Liu and Axel Bruns report that the growth of mobile newspapers has been a significant feature of the digital revolution in China. They also report that the growth in the numbers of Chinese consumers who use their mobiles to connect to the Web is faster than the growth in the numbers connecting via personal computers. These seem to be quite distinctive aspects of the Chinese adoption of digital technologies, and Liu and Bruns argue that mobiles are at the leading edge of convergence there in much the way that Internet-enabled computers and broadband have been in the West. They speculate that the situation in China may mirror that in Japan, where the national enthusiasm for mobile communication has led to mobile-based Internet access outstripping Internet access through other means.
Some researchers have been brave enough to attempt to relate such variations to their cultural origins. Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, for instance, connects shifts in the take-up and deployment of mobile phone technology in East Asia to social, contextual, and even teleological determinants. While it is now commonplace for media analysts to relate the Japanese affective investment in the mobile phone to the indigenous ke-tai culture, which fetishizes cute shiny objects, Choi's article suggests that particular aspects of the functionality of the mobile phone intersect with cultural aspects of what it means to be a subject in South Korea, China, and Japan. By using James Carey's distinction between transmission and ritual models of communication, Choi situates much East Asian use in the ritual mode because of its emphasis on sharing, participation, association, fellowship, and the like: "Korea, China, and Japan share a traditionally collective, interdependent and high-contextual culture, as opposed to individual, independent, and low-contextual cultures, which are predominantly evident in the West. As East Asian nations, they are heavily influenced by Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideologies and therefore often embrace rigid social hierarchy or class distinction, conformity and dedication to one's duties within one's position."
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