Distribution Matters

One of the many compelling panels I attended was a Sunday afternoon “workshop” panel structured around the question of defining the concept of media industry studies. This question has been one challenging media studies scholars for a few years now and is a guiding question of Media Industries, History, Theory, and Method, an anthology edited by Jennifer Holt and Alisa Perren.  I don’t think I can possibly summarize the wide ranging conversation that took place, but some of the core concerns are worth summarizing. For one, Alisa proposed a call for what she called “distribution studies,” a focus that is central to much of the research I’ve been doing since Reinventing Cinema came out. I think it’s a useful term that allows us to take our critical thinking skills and to direct them toward a whole host of problems that are now confronting the TV and movie industries (among others). It also allows us to acknowledge that the distribution problems affecting one industry might overlap with those in others.

I found myself thinking about that panel–and I believe it is one that I will return to often over the next few months–while skimming a couple of recent blog posts that crossed my radar. First, Amanda Lotz discusses Comcast’s new Streampix service, a VOD platform that allows users to search through and watch a wide range of TV programs and movies. The problem, as Amanda observes, is that the cable interface is difficult to navigate, with episodes of TV shows (i.e., not the shows themselves) listed alphabetically with no date or episode number making it incredibly difficult to watch episodes chronologically. VOD movie distributors have made similar complaints for ages, with many people recommending that users choose a title beginning with a letter early in the alphabet to capture the attention (and digital coins) of bored scrollers. Her more crucial point is that Streampix seems to pay little attention to the cable interface while focusing intensely on making a user-friendly mobile interface, even while only a small percentage of users watch significant amounts of video content on tablets and phones.

On a related note, Cynthia Meyers offers a thoughtful critique of the rumors that Netflix is looking to be carried by cable operators. Like Cynthia, I am a little skeptical about the story, but I think that what is most valuable about her post is the way in which she parses the comparisons that have been made between Netflix and cable television. As she points out, Reed Hastings has frequently drawn a comparison between Netflix and HBO, especially in terms of their efforts to compete for consumers seeking out quality entertainment programming. But that comparison begins to fall apart when we look at how Netflix functions. Its flexible interface is far more useful than the clunky interfaces used by most cable companies. Netflix is already widely available–seeking a tiny slice of cable viewers makes little sense–and being “bundled” with other cable companies seems to offer few benefits (aside from all of the rights complications they’d face). There might be some benefit in creating a Netflix channel as a space for their limited original programming and select “long tail” titles that they want to promote, but I’m not convinced that there is enough value in that, unless, of course, they are becoming more concerned about their operating costs. But in both cases, interfaces, platforms, and other relatively invisible objects have the potential to profoundly shape how we access content, much less what we access. These blog posts clearly point towards some of the questions we ought to be asking about distribution practices.

There are some other issues that were raised in the panel that are well worth addressing, including methodological questions (How do we study it?) and even textual questions (What are we studying? Shouldn’t we still be looking at actual texts?). Those issues are beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think they need to be a part of our ongoing conversations as well.

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