Following Television to the Internet: Lotz Research Agenda, 2014-2017

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve published work that is interconnected and occasionally traverses similar terrain but aims to speak to different audiences. I’ve been writing about a moving object, and my perspectives have evolved over the course of writing and thinking. This is the story behind the work I’ve been up to.

I started planning the new project in the fall of 2013 after finishing the second edition of The Television Will Be Revolutionized. Although that edition was a significant overhaul in terms of updating, I stayed true to the structure of the book despite the fact I had new questions and was feeling something more needed done. I had stayed somewhat on the sidelines during the early years of what I’ve come to call internet-distributed television. I’m not an early adopter by nature (I didn’t get Netflix until 2014). Though obviously much was “happening,” I didn’t want to simply catalog and describe, but was waiting to have a sense of what was going on. Having seen what needed cut from the first edition of The Television Will Be Revolutionized fueled this patience.

I had in the back of my mind that the next project would be what I called “the cable book” (now known as We Now Disrupt This Broadcast). Cable—both as programming (channels) and distribution service (MVPDs) had changed profoundly in the early 2000s, but there weren’t good accounts of what had happened and why. I had watched nearly every scripted cable original as it debuted in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Though particular series had captured the interest of television journalists (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men), few had considered cable series as a phenomenon and the business behind this development. By 2014, it was also clear that cable service providers had quietly evolved into internet service providers. The whole OTT panic was all over the trade press, but these discussions of “cable” dying rarely attended to the very different businesses “cable” includes.

So I started with the basic question of “what happened to cable” (in both its uses—channels and distribution service). I didn’t plan to start with 1996—that only became the clear starting point once I created timelines of original series and saw when they started to gain attention. I then started looking for reasons for the change—after all, cable had been in more than 50% of US homes since the late 1980s—why the pivot to original scripted in the late 1990s. Between the Telecom Act and DirecTV in 1996 and the push to rebuild analog cable, I had an answer. I originally promised myself I’d spend until 2020 on the book. But after 1996 became the starting point, a twenty-year horizon became a nice frame. I knew that wouldn’t be the end of the internet-distributed television story, but I also knew I wouldn’t have the patience to hold it until 2020.

The book became less about cable/internet service providers than I expected. Certainly, by the time I was writing all eyes were on Netflix. I was frustrated by the loose use of “digital” to refer to very different internet-distributed video companies and dove in to sort out how the changing ecosystem might be considered more intelligently. I quickly found I needed to step back from the book, which I had already decided to write for an audience broader than media studies scholars (more on that below), to do conceptualization work that reconciled internet-distributed media with a framework such as Miége’s Capitalization of Cultural Production. The dominant conceptualization understood “digital” as the key difference of Netflix and “over the top” services, but digital doesn’t tell us a lot, and what both “digital” and over the top really mean is internet-distributed. Recognizing that reveals this isn’t about different industries (television v. digital) but different distribution technologies within a single industry.

But understanding what Netflix was doing wasn’t just about technology, and it wasn’t just about data, it was about revenue model. Netflix isn’t ad-supported, nor is it paid by transaction. It offers access to a library of titles for a monthly fee. Even though HBO had existed for more than a quarter century, very little media or media economics research (or business literature from what I can tell) had explored this revenue model and its related strategies.

This is why there is a book called Portals: A Treatise on Internet-Distributed Television. A lot of what needed said to figure out the second half of We Now Disrupt This Broadcast was too intricate (and by many measures, nerdy) to fit with what I desired for and had developed into an early draft.

There is also a chunk of collateral research (like collateral damage) that is a deeper dive into production studies than was appropriate for We Now Disrupt This Broadcast. That work is written up in the article published in the TV Now special issue of Media International Australia. I also was invited to publish an article in Icono 14 Journal of Communication and Emergent Technologies. I wrote that article very quickly in May 2016. It is the first published work from the project and I continued working the ideas out (and continue to) so there are subtle conceptual inconsistencies with the later publications. I have published several short pieces of public scholarship related to the questions explored in this scholarship. This work is simply different in the audience to which it speaks.

I briefly address the question of why We Now Disrupt This Broadcast is written as a trade book in its preface, but will say a bit more here. On some level, this was simply a matter of seeking to try something new and feeling like I had a topic that could crossover. I noted Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised had done well enough to move from a self-published edition to a release by Simon & Schuster. Sepinwall’s book tells the stories of many of the shows that animate the first half of We Now Disrupt This Broadcast, so I thought a book that told the story of the business behind these shows might also be viable. It also seemed that there was more being written about television than at any time I could remember—from coverage of the “golden age” series to trend pieces about bingeing and other new ways of viewing. If there was an audience for those stories, than maybe my book too.

Publishing a trade book normally starts with finding an agent. I tried and tried and could not convince an agent of the book’s promise. In truth, I don’t know how many agents actually even read the proposal. One for sure. Lots of unreturned email. This too was an interesting lesson about gatekeeping in media industries. I could turn to self-publishing for Portals because it is an academic book and my reputation is as a television scholar. I could have self-published We Now Disrupt This Broadcast, but it would unlikely reach an audience any wider than those scholars who already know me.

After hunting an agent for at least a year, I looked for academic presses with trade lines, and MIT quickly appeared a good fit. I’m writing prepublication, so I don’t know how it will all turn out, but the main thing I wanted was more marketing muscle and a promotion staff able to reach out beyond academics for endorsements, and MIT promised this. If this all turns out well, I owe a lot to my editor, Gita Devi Manaktala. Even books designed for trade release have to go through a conventional scholarly review. Gita sent out a first draft that was a bit schizophrenic. My optimism that I’d be able to publish a trade book faded as I drafted the chapters. Covering my bases, the book increasingly became more like an academic monograph because I had a lot evidence/data and, let’s be honest, I had no idea how to write a trade book. Thankfully, despite this, four academic reviews suggested the book had enough potential to go forward. All offered good suggestions on improving it, but in all cases, they were suggestions that would have only made it appeal more to academics (more policy nuance and literature!). Gita found enough proof of concept to contract the book and agreed that the final draft would not have to be re-reviewed. She also allowed my unconventional solution to my schizophrenic manuscript—moving everything that sounded too scholarly to the notes and editing so the book flowed for those who never read a note and made sense to those who tended to the detail they included. Gita also allowed and waited patiently for my pursuit of a Landgraf-authored foreword. The story of how that came to be is persistence, persistence, persistence, and the mercy of John Solberg.

I should also acknowledge that during the period I worked on this project (May 2014-December 2017), I had three semesters without teaching and only taught one course in another semester (banked releases from large course teaching, administrative work—thanks Robin!, and a sabbatical). It takes bandwidth to write books/construct multifaceted research agendas, and I’m thankful I had it for this project.

These are the major publications and what I think their contributions are:

Lotz, A. D. (2016). “The Paradigmatic Evolution of U.S. Television and the Emergence of Internet-Distributed Television” Icono 14 (Journal of Communication and Emergent Technologies), 14 (2), pp. 122-142. doi: 10.7195/ri14.v14i1.993

-The first publication of thinking on internet-distributed television
-Claims internet-distributed television as television; notes particular affordances
-Places this in conversation with distinction of “post-network era,” proposing broadcast, then   broadcast/cable paradigm instead (this is still in the notes of We Now Disrupt)
-Argues sizable changes took place in television before arrival of internet-distributed television (due to digital cable changing strategy and scripted originals as that strategy)
-Proposes “portal” as term for services that coordinate access to internet-distributed television

Lotz, A. D. (2017). “Linking Industrial and Creative Change in 21st Century U.S. Television.” In Special Edition: TV Now, edited by Sue Turnbull, Marion McCutcheon, and Amanda D. Lotz, Media International Australia 161(1): 10-20. DOI: 10.1177/1329878X17707066

 -Draws from interviews and production research on La Femme Nikita, OZ, The Shield, and Monk to explore how the changed competitive conditions of the early 2000s led cable channels to prioritize original series that expanded the boundaries of US television storytelling
 -Explores features that allowed for creative change in these cases: creative champion; systems in crisis that allowed for entrepreneurial creatives; shifts in industrial practices; new goals (trying to not make television); serendipity
-Much more about more micro production/industrial practice change that can be linked to textual changes than found in other publications

Lotz, A. D. (2017). Portals: A Treatise on Internet-Distributed Television. Ann Arbor: Maize Publishing

-Expands on conceptualization of internet-distributed television for an academic readership
-Explores nonlinearity as a key differentiation provided by internet-distributed television
-Identifies library, as opposed to schedule, as the primary product of portals
-Proposes “conglomerated niche” as the term for the strategy services such as Netflix use to achieve scale without mass product; separate niche sector also exists
-Proposes a “subscriber model” of media parallel to those in the Capitalization of Cultural Production of written press, flow, and publishing
-Identifies expanded uses of vertical integration made possible with internet distribution and coins “studio portal” to distinguish those portals built to leverage self-owned content           

Lotz, A. D. (2018). We Now Disrupt This Broadcast: How Cable Transformed Television and the Internet Revolutionized It All. Cambridge: MIT Press

-Provides a 20 year chronology of shifting business practices in US prime time television
-Organized around two key shifts: the creation of original scripted cable series; the emergence of internet-distributed television services
-Sets up 1996 as a key industrial turning point that leads cable providers to pursue digital architecture that changes the competitive dynamics of cable television programming (and builds internet distribution infrastructure, but no one is looking at that yet)
-Explores how environment of hundreds of channels requires new competitive strategy of original (when possible, scripted) series development to attract higher ad rates and to increase leverage in negotiating subscriber fees
-Charts how original scripted series emerged after success with original films; the evolution from low-budget originals, to co-productions, to distinction as programming strategy (or straight to distinction for subscriber-funded cable)
-Presents cases of the evolution of this strategy through examinations of La Femme Nikita, OZ, The Shield, and Monk 
-Examines the challenges of this strategy related to the affordances of cable distribution
-Acknowledges the role original unscripted series played in cable competition, even if these series did not have as significant an influence on other sectors of television
-Uses Mad Men to illustrate the complexity of cable economics and measures of success
-Identifies The Walking Dead as emblematic of a changed competitive terrain in which cable series can attract “mass” audiences and the business has shifted to prioritize owning intellectual property
-Addresses further shift in cable content businesses in seeking global scale though buying and establishing channels outside the US
-Establishes the competitive history of internet-distributed television in the US by highlighting Netflix’ evolution, emergence of perceived “over the top” threat, changing cable service strategies and offerings (VOD, TV Everywhere)
-Considers early implications of internet-distributed television on texts through exceptional cases of Game of Thrones (global blockbuster) and Horace and Pete (indie)
-Distinguishes YouTube and open access internet-distribution as a separate sector of competition
-Identifies shift from symbiosis to competition in 2015 as new and legacy television begin more direct competition
-Explains phenomenon of “skinny bundles” and implications for competition
-Proposes that understanding the future of scripted series television involves forgetting most everything we know about television

Lotz, A. D. (2018). “Television in the Contemporary Media Environment.” In Television: Visual Storytelling and Screen Culture, 5th edition, Jeremy G. Butler (New York: Routledge)

-Jeremy invited this new introduction to the 21st century industry. I try to condense major themes into a brief chapter that addresses the topic for a lower-level undergraduate audience.

Lotz, A. D.  (201?) “Evolution or Revolution? Television in Transformation.” Special Issue: Critical Studies in Television

-This is drawn from a keynote talk I gave in September 2017 at the Trans TV Conference at the University of Westminster. It is a brief version of ideas developed in detail in Portals and We Now Disrupt This Broadcast. Notably, in the longer remarks, I discussed how my outlook had shifted between a talk in January 2017 in which I had pushed back on Jenkins’ flattening of the distinction between television and film to simply audiovisual media. Given developments over the course of 2017, it seemed increasingly productive (and appropriate) to not silo television and film despite the field norms of distinctive approaches to their study.


Where am I headed next?

-Policy principles for niche media, internet-distributed television, and television ecosystems that coexist with internet-distribution; comparative analysis of the implications of internet distribution across media industries; deeper look at changing financing terms (between distributors and studios) and their implications