This month, Yale University Press publishes a new book, This Program is Brought to You By… : Distributing Television News Online, by Josh Braun, a co-founder and regular contributor to Culture Digitally. Included in this post is a link to the introduction. In addition, we asked some Culture Digitally regulars to read it ahead of time and offer their own comments on the work and the directions it pursues.
I’m thrilled to be able to share an excerpt of my new book with this community that has given me so much and has contributed in such extraordinary ways to my sense of identity as a scholar. The book, This Program is Brought to You By… : Distributing Television News Online, has just come out from Yale University Press, and it has the fingerprints of many Culture Digitally folks on it. The project was just taking shape when the original series of workshops ran and over the years I have picked many of your brains in many different ways to bring this manuscript to press. I’m hugely appreciative of all you have done. The positives of this manuscript owe greatly to your insight and generosity, and the faults—well, those are my own. So, again, thank you. It’s such a privilege to share this here and I welcome your comments and feedback.
From the catalog:
Journalism, television, cable, and online media are all evolving rapidly. At the nexus of these volatile industries is a growing group of individuals and firms whose job it is to develop and maintain online distribution channels for television news programming. Their work, and the tensions surrounding it, provide a fulcrum from which to pry analytically at some of the largest shifts within our media landscape. Based on fieldwork and interviews with different teams and organizations within MSNBC, this multi-disciplinary work is unique in its focus on distribution, which is rapidly becoming as central as production, to media work.
For the non-journalism studies people in the room—most of you, in other words—I want to mention that while the book takes news as a case study, it is ultimately about networked distribution systems and how they come into the world. My hope is that, taken this way, this book will serve as a healthy contribution to the emerging field of distribution studies and will contribute to our understanding of how it is that a great diversity of media products make their way to the screens sitting atop our desks, gracing our living rooms, and tucked in our pockets.
This book is about how infrastructures and strategies for distributing television news online are forged. The idea for a book about distribution of TV news emerged a few days before Thanksgiving in 2009, when I paid my first visit as a researcher to 30 Rockefeller Center, Manhattan’s towering General Electric building that is home to the headquarters of NBC News and its cable cousin MSNBC. I was greeted by Will Femia, who had been an online producer there for as long as many people could remember. During our conversation, he reminisced: “One of the things that was most shocking to me getting into the media business was the realization that regular people were making it,” he said. “Television to me—prior to working in television—was just like sunlight. You push the button and it just comes off the TV screen.” Femia’s quote nicely joined two concerns of media sociology, one well rehearsed and another—I soon realized—far less so…
Classical political economists like have long pointed to the importance of distribution in understanding centres of power in media ecosystems (Garnham 2000) and indeed Lacroix and Tremblay have argued that there is a new “hegemony of the distribution function” (Lacroix and Tremblay 1997: 63) in many media industries especially with the rise of cable, satellite and the internet. Yet empirical studies of distirbution seem to be few and far between. We seem to have viewed distribution as a technical rather than a socio-technical function.
Distribution and practices of circulation do not happen by magic. We push a button and the immediacy and reach would have us think that there is nothing to see. While the cultural industries approach provides one set of concepts to understand this function, science and technologies studies, and core theorists like John Law, Madeline Akrich, John Hughes, both conceptually and methodologically provide another path. The black boxes, the unseen, the socio-technical assemblages, provide a rich source of empirical material. However the in depth research required to prize open these black boxes is increasingly rare. We should be thankful that Josh Braun has had the time to do this work.
In the first chapter of his new book he reminds us of the important role of distribution in the television ecosystem and that things unseen can often be important. As I read the chapter I thought of parallels in the global digital games industry; new channels, new occupational roles and new genres. While digital games are sometimes viewed as ‘net native’, the traditional production and distribution logics of ten years ago have undergone significant change. As in the television industry, the digital games industry has seen a profusion of players taking up intermediary roles and the boundaries between production, distribution and consumption becoming increasingly blurred.
Large media organisations are complex organisations with competing branches, teams and projects. Josh Braun points to the complexity of an organisation like MSNBC and their web of subsidiaries and intermediaries that bring content to various screens. He talks of small teams pursuing ‘provincial objectives’ in the US context, but equally, branches of multinational companies often act in ways that challenge top down cultures and priorities, as well as negotiate local contexts and markets.
In television our attention has been drawn to the new brash kids: YouTube, Twitch and Vimeo. But less obvious business to business companies exist who make sure that content is accessible, verified, animated and circulated across multiple screens. Indeed, who has heard of Tremor Video, YuMe, or Nexidia? These companies have important work outsourced to them, and no doubt, as in other industries, will be acquired by larger organisations, when they have proved their worth. A recent example is the purchase by News Corporation of the Irish startup Storyful which has been described as a social media news agency that works to verify social media information for legacy media organisations. The time is ripe now to revisit distribution, and to interrogate new intermediaries who play an important and productive role in the media ecosystem, not just a technical function.
It has become commonplace to separate distribution from other stages in the process of production but I think perhaps this distinction is hard to sustain as we look at practices in the contemporary television industry or indeed the broader network media industries. New logics of production and distribution are evolving alongside older logics, and distribution practices and players are multiplying and exerting both upstream and downstream pressures. Braun provides us with a timely reminder that labels can be misleading, or become outdated. We need to think anew about the role of distribution in media ecosystems and perhaps revisit some classic cultural industries literature in the process.
First of all, a thank you to Josh Braun for allowing us to read and comment on this sample chapter. What his introduction makes clear to me, is that by focusing on the distribution system—the infrastructure of new media— his work has utility far beyond the interests of scholars. In fact, that’s why I find his work so compelling. Policymakers and anyone else who want to understand how content gets from producers to consumers in a digital age would find this work enlightening.
In a sense, Braun is asking us to rethink that classic “who says what to whom through what channel to what effect” adage in a contemporary media distribution context. He writes that the “decision about distribution, whether made by media executives or file sharers, are— in the barest terms— attempts to control who has access to information and culture, and under what conditions” (p.7). This turn towards how content is distributed is insightful because it reminds us that content is not “like sunlight” but rather like food at a cafeteria— sure we can choose what among a myriad of choices to eat, but the larger choice of what’s available has been made for us by more powerful actors. In that sense, Braun is really defining distribution as who has access to what information and culture under what conditions through prior choices made by whom and for what reason.
Perhaps, the one of the most compelling aspect of his turn towards distribution is Braun’s gentle prodding and encouragement to look at the macro level of systems in addition to cultural production at the level of the firm. In my personal research and in my teaching, I am often guilty of this. I tend to be interested in why certain actors (read: content creators) behave in the ways that they do. As a result, I inadvertently teach that there are content creators and content distributors as if they are simply two monoliths working in concert. Of course, what Braun’s work leads us to see is that this is a woefully simplistic view of digital distribution. Yes, there are content creators. And, yes, there are content distribution companies. But, in the “distribution” part of the equation, there are a myriad of other actors, too, that go unnoticed— actors that Braun would remind us not to forget.
I see his work as especially helpful in the video game studies world. For instance, we readily see video game development studios (content creators) and we also recognize the publishers (the “distributors”) when we talk about games. Yet, there are other actors that monetize these works— I’m thinking about Google Adsense in mobile games here. More apropos of Braun’s present work, I can see how a gentle exclusion happens when distributors are not present in (or decline to distribute to) certain places. For instance, if we truly are in a global world, then why is it that people in the West have to try so hard to get content from, say, the global South? The short answer is, of course, the global village metaphor is too simplistic. The more satisfying and nuanced answer is found in this book— the network of content distribution is perceived as valueless (“just like sunlight”), embedded with values like all artefacts, invisible, and extremely powerful.
But, Braun doesn’t leave the consumers off the hook. If media distribution has become seen as “infrastructure,” he reminds us that we— consumers— are part of that infrastructure, too. He cites how online news distribution is in large measure dependent on shares and “likes” by consumers. We, too, are actors in the infrastructure of distribution. Yet, my sense so far from this book is that it isn’t all doom and gloom. Far from it. If we— content consumers— are part of the infrastructure, then maybe we might carve out some, albeit limited, say. Braun’s book just might show us how.
Thanks to Josh, for sharing this opening chapter with us. I had the pleasure of reading an earlier draft of the book and offering a blurb for the publisher, and so I’m excited to see the final version and suggest a few follow-up impressions.
What I love about this book is its front-and-center focus on media distribution, something that has been anything but front-and-center in the six decades of media sociology since the first studies of gatekeeping. This is not to say that media sociologists have gotten it all wrong; the traditional emphasis on the social influences shaping media institutions and the news they produce has been and remains a vital line of research. But, as Josh points out, the introduction of networked media technologies — and the key paradigms of user-directed search and sharing associated with them — has made matters of distribution some of the most sociologically interesting things to study today. And so it’s about time that media scholars take distribution more seriously. (As he puts it, “When we can push a button and watch it come off the screen, it is all too easy to forget that online news is distributed—that systems of labor, infrastructures, institutions, economics, and numerous stakeholders are all involved in the route it takes to that screen” [p. 3].) What I especially like is that he’s not taking up distribution for distribution’s sake, simply because it’s generally unexplored territory for media scholars, but rather because “decisions about distribution, whether made by media executives or file sharers, are—in the barest terms—attempts to control who has access to information and culture, and under what conditions” (emphasis mine, p. 7). Thus, distribution matters because it is increasingly tied up in the social shaping of information ecologies—which, in fact, gets back to the very heart of media sociology.
A second thing I love about this book—and this reflects my reading beyond the first chapter—is that, while drawing upon media sociology to foreground this study of news and work, it smartly moves beyond that starting point, stitching together a diverse assemblage of concepts and theories, such as heterogeneous engineering from systems sociology and heterarchy from organizational studies. These various concepts and perspectives take what might otherwise be a descriptive study of MSNBC and the digital journey of its “video volta” and transform it into a fascinating case with real interdisciplinary importance. (As an aside, what I find really interesting is that the very manner in which Josh assembles these diverse perspectives and gets them to “talk” to one another so productively is a feat of heterogeneous engineering itself!) More than that, the book both unites disparate literatures and also troubles each one of them in turn. It argues that scholars analyzing contemporary media enterprises should “lash together” (to use a favorite Josh phrase) an array of conceptual resources, rather than relying too greatly on any one perspective, to truly understand media production and, especially, media distribution.
Altogether, Josh takes this thing called distribution, something colloquially associated with “logistics” or “support work,” and redirects the way we see it—as both more complicated and contingent than we might have assumed and as more closely interconnected with media production and its more manifest social dynamics. The big challenge moving forward will be: How can we more comprehensively bring matters of production and distribution (and consumption too) into the scholarly frame of reference as we study media institutions? It’s the kind of challenge that Oscar Westlund and I have been wrestling with in suggesting ways of thinking about the “Four A’s”—the sociotechnical interplay of human social actors, nonhuman technological actants, and diverse types and representations of audiences, all interconnected through the activities of cross-media work. But whereas we (and other scholars coming from a media sociology tradition) have perhaps overemphasized production, Josh has provided a fascinating window onto how information moves as much as how it is made.