Tuesday, January 19, 2016

CORE 1: Media Systems History As Told By Raymond Williams

In our current muddled multimedia digital landscape, it can be difficult to parse the difference between Television, Film, and Web Media, when all are accessed on (supposedly) equal digital platforms. The beginning chapters of Raymond Williams's “Television: Technology + Cultural Form,” provide a framework for media specificity by differentiating communications media through intertwined social and technological factors. Though written before the digital era, Williams gives us a basis to understand television and film’s competing systems of distribution and production, from which we can discuss how the Internet fits into these systems.

The key difference to which Williams devotes the second chapter is the institutions surrounding these media; specifically how these institutions generated profit and product. He calls cinema “distributive” (21). To elaborate by borrowing from Douglas Gomery, the American studio system was controlled by distributor who owned theaters across the country. Profit was generated by theaters, so production was controlled by distributors.

The American broadcast system described by Williams was similarly driven by a force other than content. Williams states, “The early broadcasting networks were federations of prime manufacturers, who then acquired facilities as an essentially secondary operation...” (27). The true product was not the content but rather the means of accessing it. Running parallel to the ascendancy of broadcast networks is the fall of the studio system: unused to content as anything other than a mass medium (where revenue is generated by real estate), studios couldn't adapt to a new media landscape wherein the product was private and material.

While it would be reductive to ignore the changes in television due to cable, the politics of access, copyright, and other factors, a few broad strokes observations can be gleaned by applying Williams’s theories. As Williams states, technology is both a product of and a reaction to a stated or unstated need (6). In contrast to mass entertainment (fulfilled by cinema) and fast, centralized broadcast (fulfilled by television), the Internet could be seen to have grown around a need for equally fast person-to-person and person-to-mass communication.

At the beginning of the internet, the existing private media institutions fell prey to the same assumptions that the studios had decades before. The belief held that hardware (the material) would be the primary product to be controlled and profited from. As we have seen with the rise of Facebook, Google, and Netflix, the opposite has proven true: software - the platform by which media is accessed, distributed, and sometimes created - is the master of profit. (Unsurprisingly, content remains secondary.) While the Internet has radically reshaped media in the 21st century, Raymond Williams’s theories help us tease out patterns in how this system fits into our media history.

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