Going Over the Top: Online Television Distribution as Socio-technological System

With the permission of the editorial staff of Communication, Culture & Critique, I’m pleased to share a pre-print of my forthcoming article, “Going over the top: Online television distribution as socio-technological system.”

As I say in the essay, “many of the most interesting scholars on the subject of the politics of technology focus on its obduracy. In driving home the point that artifacts have politics and design has implications, they look at how artifacts often stick around in such a way that we must live with the consequences of design.” But one of the most interesting things about digital technologies today is their ephemerality. Our digital environment abounds with evanescent hacks, patches, and quick fixes, many of them laboriously assembled and bearing all the hallmarks of complex socio-technological artifacts, but at the same time unabashedly temporary.

As a scholar trained to consider the lasting impacts of design, for some time now I’ve been attempting to come to terms, not with the obduracy of political artifacts—the sociology of the freeway system, the power grid, or the railroad.  Rather, I’ve been looking for a sociology of the kludge: a language to capture the agency, intelligence, and politics behind fleeting, inelegant, and opportunistic solutions that—while they often evolve over time to become infrastructure—are deployed first and foremost with regard to their immediate consequences.

mediaExamples of this sort of ingenuity abound in the case of online television distribution, where large companies, start-ups, and users alike are, as we speak, hammering out evolving solutions to delivering and consuming content in new ways, in new places, and on new terms.  Media distribution is an area that’s arguably understudied in general, and I’ve found online television distribution a wonderful corner of the media landscape through which to explore the sociology of the kludge.  The zeal with which players in this arena exploit market inefficiencies, brief windows of opportunity, and gaps in regulation is instructive and sometimes breathtaking.  It is no coincidence, for example, that a dissenting appeals court judge who ruled recently on legal challenges to the online TV start-up, Aereo’s business model, called the company “a Rube Goldberg-like contrivance, overengineered in an attempt to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law.”

My own attached essay looks at the how new pathways for television distribution were forged in the period between 2007 and 2009, through the lens of two start-up companies with very different objectives: the online television portal Hulu, and the connected television interface company, Boxee, as well as the users who engaged with and modified their offerings.  In these cases you can see, in embryo, many of the industry controversies that have followed in the subsequent half decade, including not just the Aereo case, but also dust-ups over Google TV, the rise of “TV Everywhere,” the near sell-off of Hulu by the networks, and other tumultuous events in online television distribution.

I hope you find the paper valuable and I welcome your comments and insights.  Please feel free to share this work or point people to it.  The citation info is as follows:

Braun, J. A. (2013). Going over the top: Online television distribution as
socio-technological system. Communication, Culture & Critique, 6(3).

At the request of the publishers, I should also mention that Communication, Culture & Critique is a journal of the International Communication Association and is published by Wiley.

Here is a PDF of the full text of the article.

[Citation edited June 6, 2013 to reflect new target publication date. —JB]