Presentation at Media Industries Studies Conference, Kings College London

I mostly study “television.” While digital technologies have had wide ranging affects on the television industry, in the brief time available today, I’m going to focus on distribution. I’ve argued that services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video—services offering industrially produced content that matches familiar expectations of television—be understood as “internet-distributed television” (or “portals” if you’ve been reading along). (Notably this is a sector I’d separate from most content prepared for distribution by YouTube or Facebook Live, which is just as important, but industrially different enough to warrant its own consideration). My focus has been exploring the different affordances of internet distribution and how it requires new conceptualization of television distribution from that originated for broadcast, cable, and satellite distribution. The key technological affordance is the nonlinear capacity of internet distribution, which eliminates much of the scarcity of signal capacity and schedule that developed as protocols of earlier television distribution technologies. Thus, portals construct libraries rather than schedules, which enables different business and programming strategies.

But rather than technology specifically, what I’d mainly like to talk about is shifts in prevalent revenue models, a trend evident across multiple media industries, and particularly the expanded use of subscriber funding. Of course, this does not derive precisely from digital technologies—as everyone in this room surely knows—a service such as the US HBO was purely subscriber funded as early as 1972. Yet pure subscriber funding exists as a minimal subsector of television until the arrival of portals. While it is difficult to access definitive metrics, it is arguably the dominant revenue model for US internet-distributed television and many other countries. (And my focus on subscriber-funded services is not meant to imply a lack of importance for advertising/mixed services. Rather, there is an abundant scholarship about these revenue models that is not radically challenged by a shift in distribution technology). Revenue model is so important as someone interested in the intersection of industry and culture because of its implications for textual production and resource allocation.

While HBO provides a long history, media industries’ scholarship has rarely investigated the particularities of this revenue model and the business strategies it encourages. In fact, tying this discussion to HBO rather than beginning with Netflix is strategic and meant to mitigate technological determinism. Perhaps a reason few television scholars attended to HBO is because it actively sought to position itself as separate from television for most of its history, but instead as a source of theatrical films and special event programming (See Chapter 8 We Now Disrupt This Broadcast). Although it began experimenting with series in the early 1980s, it doesn’t embrace the regularized schedule protocol of television as a deliberate strategy until the mid 1990s. Of course the programs that emerged The SopranosSex and the CityThe Wire, Six Feet Under did fascinate media scholars, but little scholarship interrogated the significant industrial distinction of subscriber funding that created very different metrics of success than characteristic of the dominant ad-supported model. Where advertiser-supported television found success in collecting the attention of the most individuals that could be sold to advertisers, subscriber-funded services measure success in number of subscribers (a number related to, but not directly tied to viewership of any particular content). These different metrics of success encourage different programming strategies: ad-supported channels seek programming likely to attract the most desired eyeballs; HBO and other subscriber services seek programming viewers are willing to pay for.   

In my opinion, it is an outstanding and empirically untested question whether the programming of Netflix and Amazon is distinctive because they are portals or because they are subscriber funded (Hulu needs excepted because of the prevalence of programming made for its parents).

But before my time is up, what of subscriber funding in other media. In journalism, we see a similar shift toward increasing reliance on subscriber funding and decreasing reliance on advertising—at least in notable cases such as that of The New York Times. Not all print outlets (and by print, I mean outlets that traffic in words and images regardless of whether they are distributed on paper or via internet connection) have the same opportunity of the NYT, but the connection to draw here is how subscriber-funded print outlets must provide something readers value enough to pay for if they are shore up balance sheets from advertising declines and classified losses. How are HBO, Netflix, and The New York Times similarly incentivized to produce content distinctive from their advertising reliant competitors? What are the industrial and cultural consequences of decreased dominance of advertising? (Sorry for the US centric conversation, I’m out of my industry so my expertise doesn’t extend far from home, but I know this conversation takes on a different form in contexts with traditions of public service media lacking in the U.S.)

Finally, music—this industry too has seen subscriber-funded services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Deezer become more central, although in this case, it is subscriber-funded services taking market share from transaction spending rather than advertising. As Lee can speak to with far more expertise, we can imagine the increased reliance on streaming service revenue to have implications on music as well. As playlists emerge as an important (the most important?) unit of music consumption, how will this change artists’ enterprise? Could this diminish the role radio still plays in discovery to the benefit of musical forms and styles that have been marginalized by radio requirements?

Obviously, there is more to be said—I’ll leave film to Dan, and note the relative failure of subscriber funding in books, perhaps owing to the lack of a need for commercial libraries where publicly subsidized sources exist. Perhaps someone can speak to video games in a few minutes. The key takeaways are 1) the need to extricate multiple simultaneous shifts in industrial conditions—in this case, distribution technology and revenue model—in understanding new industrial conditions, formations, and their implications; and 2) of the value of asking and exploring questions and findings about digital transformations across industries—both to reveal new insights about a particular industry and in case it is possible to theorize more broadly than of particular media industries or of particular industrial logics.