Media Institutions Part 1

First of all I have to say that the media world is in a constant state of change, so the content of this article may well not be accurate by the time you read it. Bear that in mind and I will try to confine what I say here to a general overview of the topic.

When we use the term institutions in Media Studies, we usually mean the people who have a role in the production of media texts. That covers a huge amount of ground, as you can imagine. A brief list might include:
So we're talking editors, directors, producers, scriptwriters, screenwriters and so on and so on.

Inevitably we need also to consider who OWNS these companies and precisely what is it that they produce? How are the products made? How far are they distributed (what is the 'distribution breadth) and how are the products marketed?

There is more that you need to ask, namely how are texts affected by the institutional, economic, and industrial processes involved in their production? For example, how does the rapid development of media technologies affect the processes of production (think about the latest blockbuster movies like 'Lord of the Rings') and how, in turn, does that affect the consumption of such texts?

Too many questions? Sorry. Let's go on to some more straightforward stuff.

All texts are produced within an institutional context. For example a TV drama will begin either as a commissioned (asked for) work or as an non-commissioned work (just written by a hopeful would-be TV scriptwriter). Once it is written a Production Company who will in turn offer it out to a TV Company for broadcast will then produce it. This sounds quite straightforward, but it isn't. The product, like all products has to be SOLD at ALL LEVELS of the process. The product (whatever it is) has also got to be economically viable (that means it has to be able to make money). If the production costs are bigger than the returns, that is if it costs more to make than the profit it will generate, then the product might never get to the production stage. That is why 'pilots' (test broadcasts) are used on TV, to test 'returns' (viewing figures) to see if the show has 'potential'. If the returns are promising, then it has a chance of being profitable and the series might be given the go-ahead.

Everything in the Media world of institutions depends on money. Financial backing is very difficult to generate, especially for high-cost products, because it is always uncertain as to how the audience will consume the product. If the bums aren't on the seats, then the returns will not be high and the backers may not make a profit, or worse, they might end up with huge box-office losses. Next time the hopeful writers/producers come along with a great idea for a TV series or a movie, you can guess what the response will be. Remind yourselves of the audience theory stuff and you'll get the general idea. If the audience doesn't get pleasure of the text they won't come back for more. Doom and gloom for Miramax, one less Mercedes for the DG and the writer starves in the snow……

On the other hand, Peter Jackson creates a ground-breaking trilogy using the latest hi-tech imaging and the queues stretch round the block for years. Next time he goes to ask for backing, he could name his figure. You get the general idea? Sell it successfully and everybody gets what they want.

Now we're going to think a little bit about industrial processes and it's important that you can recognise the importance of this side of the institution topic.

The technology that is used to create a text will influence the 'look' of the final product. You need to think here about, for example, editing techniques and camera work as well as the new and fast developing field of digital imaging, using computers. Some texts will use a combination of technology and people, for example a newspaper has a human editor who liases with art directors, publishers and advertising managers to create the final product (same with magazines). The music industry also uses the same combinations although there is some doubt as to whether or not several of the Brit. Pop stars are indeed human at all. I name no names.

Let's think about movies.
For profitable consumption a text must be 'pitched' to the audience, so research must be done as to what audience it is aimed at. It also needs to be exhibited, so not only how it is shown, but where and when, needs to be considered. Distribution is also important, as the product must be marketed effectively. A film may be 'premiered' (first showing, usually to an invited audience) before general release or it might be shown on a smaller scale to a target audience. If the makers are confident it might go straight to cinema release. If it is felt that the film might not be attractive or big enough to generate huge audiences in the multiplexes, it may go straight to video release.
The marketing process might involve posters, 'teaser' campaigns', trailers played in the cinemas before the general release date (usually at showings of similar types of film) and internet sites, which have pictures, clips, music and other features to 'tease' the potential audience. The bigger the film, the more elaborate the marketing process becomes.

Skipping lightly on, we now turn to Media Technology (pause for the sound of gongs).

This field has advanced very quickly and is still doing so. Digital technology has saturated the market and affected every aspect of text production and consumption. Make a list of all the types of digital technology you have in your house and you'll see how insidious it all is. Here's your starter for ten:

CD, DVD, mini-disc, DAT, Mp3, mobile phones, computers, the internet, digital radio, digital TV, VHS video (yes I know it's on the way out, but they still rent them out at Blockbuster).
What's the effect on the consumer?
Which affects
Here are some examples.
CNN news offers news in 'bite-size' chunks for the viewer
MTV offers lots of little 'bites' of music
Your SKY TV box lets you flick through all kinds of channels, hopping round, watching little bits of programmes here and there 24 hours a day if you want to stay awake that long.

Result? Your consumption is not CONSISTENT or CONTINUOUS it has become FRAGMENTED.

And the BIG QUESTION - does more information give us a greater understanding of the world?

Let's have a little look at the New Technologies
(and we might be able to work out an answer or two.)

DVD - stands for digital versatile disc. It records information as compressed digital data on one or more layers of optical medium and is read by a laser beam in the DVD device. Small, easily packaged & transported. Can store enormous amounts of data and costs pennies to manufacture. Data can be ANYTHING - music, moving image, still image, text, animation, you name it and all on the same little disc. The costs of creating the data, though, can be huge. Advantages are obvious. These things can store all the films that would rot in the cans in Hollywood, once they're remastered and transferred. Have a look in HMV and see all the old black & white stuff available, for example.
Another great advantage of DVD is the quality of image and sound. Anything not digitally copied loses a little quality every time a copy is made. Because digital technology works on numbers, the numbers are always constant, so any copy is exactly the same as any other. Two million copies of a DVD of 'Return of the King' will all be exactly the same in terms of quality of image and sound. Same with video games, same with any type of DVD.

CD - stands for compact disc. Also stores data and is read by a laser in the CD device. See above but don't ask me how they're different because I don't know. No doubt some kind technology person will tell me in due course.

DAT files - digital audiotape files that record music digitally on to tape.

Digital TV - fast, high quality TV pictures processed through computerised images. They need to be received by aerial/satellite dishes, or via cable and have a 'de-coding' box to unscramble the signals & put them on your nice flat screen TV set. The one with the five speakers that annoy the neighbours and wake the baby up at two in the morning when you're watching 'Return of the King'. Add to this 'interactive TV', where the consumer can view and choose things like camera angles and replay the goals on live sport transmissions or vote Jordan off 'Im a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here'. Such fun for the bored couch-potato.
Digital TV was launched around 1996 and now has three 'platforms' for reception - SKY digital (via satellite), Ondigital (BBC) via aerial and NTL (via a cable network). No doubt there will be more soon.
Many options are available, like business video-conferencing and 'pay-per-view' for important live events (mainly sport).
In development are 3D holographic TV and also plasma screens (worked by gas, not tubes). Video recorders were challenged by DVD technology, but also in development is a neat idea called the PVR or personal video recorder which will use a hard drive to store programmes recorded from TV for later playback. It will be able to 'profile' your consumption by tracking your preferences, so if you always watch East Enders, it will record it for you because it 'knows' you like the programme. By keeping a record of the channels you watch, it can also provide data back to market researchers, so you can be targeted for products and services.

Digital radio - Until digital technology was developed all radio programmes were either AM or FM, processes which present the actual sounds generated, complete with crackles, hisses and atmospheric interference. Digital radio signals are translated into computerised digits so there is no distortion or interference, which means better sound quality.

You're confused, aren't you?

Here's the guide to the old fashioned type of TV and Radio:

Terrestrial (ordinary non-digital) TV works like this: the TV signal is sent as what's called an 'analogue' signal, by radio waves from transmitter to your TV aerial, then the TV set processes the signal into sound and picture.
Terrestrial (ordinary non-digital) radio does the same but only with sounds, not pictures, called ANALOGUE sound.
Digital radio & TV sends binary data (computer signals) either by radio, cable or satellite to a decoding box which changes the signals back into pictures and/or sound.

Have you noticed that all of this lovely new technology stems from the computer? Computers use digits (it's all done with numbers, folks) hence DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY.

And here's a new term - MULTI MEDIA, which only means you ca use computers to get access to lots of different mediums, like images, films, music, text and so on all at the same time on the same machine, or a network of different machines, using the same digital information. Computers enable us to access a bigger choice of texts by way of a large number of reception types. A movie for example, can be 'consumed' as video, DVD, IMAX (gigantic screen), digital projection, or internet 'clips'. Music can be via CD, mini disc, DAT file, MP3, tape, vinyl (old fashioned, but included here for sentimental reasons), pop video on TV, or via naughty websites like Kazaa.

Because of this technological explosion, consumers and media industries are experiencing something called CONVERGENCE. Technologies are converging both within the industries responsible for producing media texts and the hardware to go with them and also with regard to consumers. A mobile phone can access the internet, take pictures, send text messages and make and receive voice calls. The consumer has more choice from a product (more to do with it as well) and so institutions are beginning to create multi-aspect products to feed the market.
Standard computer memory is now so huge and the hardware is so cheap that consumers can afford and access a much bigger choice of media reception types. Take a walk round Dixon's or Comet or PC World and you can see a huge range of relatively cheap ways of accessing digital products. They tend to be called 'home entertainment systems' and the convergence idea means that TV, radio, music, computer and telephone manufacturers have had to begin to work together to produce them.

Now we have to look at the dreaded INTERNET

We all know about the 'net. An international computer network which provides access to the world wide web (www) a billion or so 'pages' of information, some very useful and some quite hideously obscene. Your PC accesses this web of information so the Internet is more properly an ACCESS TOOL. The user (or consumer) can search, send messages by email (electronic mail), download or post information (get it off the web or put it on the web). E-commerce allows you to make transactions via computer, so you can buy houses, goods, rocket launchers (yes, indeed) or just about anything you can find without using 'real' money. All you do is enter your credit card details and off you go. You can even bank on the net, if you're really brave.

Nobody 'owns' it, though. The internet is actually something called a CONSTRUCT, made up of 'service providers' who provide the access to users. 'Host' computers (Internet service providers) have risen from 130,000 to 20 million since the mid 1990's and web sites (pages posted on the net that are accessed by users) have gone from 100 to 18 million in the same time. So where does the money come in? The service providers charge for providing 'site space'; the phone companies charge for the access phone lines from your computer to the providers; web designers charge for making a site if you can't do it yourself; banks charge you for the service they provide and so it goes on. No single 'owner' but lots of opportunities to have a piece of the internet action.

Internet technologies are probably the fastest growing and in constant development, especially with regard to the speed of information transfer. Most computers use telephones and modems, which are slow, but they are fast being replaced by 'broadband' access, which speeds up the amount of data that can be received/transmitted in one second and also provides 24 hour access to the 'net.

How is the Internet useful?
It is a tool for both media industries and consumers, providing information and media related products. For industry, email can be used to send images and messages; video links enable trans-global conferencing; advertisers can do market research via 'net sites; TV production companies can use webcams (web cameras that send live pictures) to 'link' programmes broadcast at prime time (e.g 'Big Brother) and film makers can put trailers or 'teasers' out on websites before general release dates.

One of the big debates concerning internet access to texts centres round the availability of MP3 music files. Free internet accessed software programs convert songs from CD to computer files which can then be posted on to the internet (called MP3's - don't ask me to explain, because the person who will tell me all about CD's will also reveal the secrets of MP3 files). Once posted, they can then be downloaded by anybody with the right software and stored on a home computer as 'free' music files, all for the cost of the phone call. Some musicians oppose this, while others support the idea, believing that these sites provide good publicity and encourage CD sales.. The 'Napster' software, created in 1999, allowed free downloads of its program so that any user had free access any other user's catalogue of songs as MP3's. The group 'Metallica' brought a successful court action against Napster for loss of revenue (no royalties are generated by sites like Napster) and the site and software disappeared. The jury is out as to whether or not Kazaa is Napster in another form.

So have we learned anything here? It's obvious that we are talking about really big money when we start to consider what is really involved in media institutions. If, for example, ONE company makes movies, CD's, TV programmes and also owns a chain of movie theatres, nineteen TV stations, a major music network and is in the process of buying out a huge organisation like CBS, we are talking huge power in terms of profit and in terms of flooding the media market. Unlikely, you say? Have a look at an institution called Viacom Inc., based in New York. That's convergence and it's not the biggest institution, either. Do some research on Time Warner, Sony, Rank Group plc and see what you can find. Then ask yourself some serious questions about who controls what and where that puts the consumer (you) in terms of choice and position in the modern multi-media, mass-marketing world.