Convergence revisited

If you have read anything within the past 5-6 years on new media, Web 2.0, user-generated content, YouTube, any recently released movies, aired television shows, and games then you have probably heard it. It is that magical word, “convergence” that everyone likes to toss around. You’ve also probably heard “transmedial” and “cross-media” as well. Marketing agencies try to implement it at every turn, entertainment companies swear by it, media scholars write about it. With the recent releases of smart phones, Blackberries, new HDTV’s that offer numerous services through the same device the word became extremely popular. Henry Jenkins’ book, Convergence Culture, is exemplary in discussing the cultural ramifications of this concept.

But what is most interesting to me is that the strategies that are being employed these days within the entertainment industry, were also employed in the 40’s and 50’s when television was first introduced as the “new” technology. Chris Anderson, in Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties, discusses how the cross-media tendencies that fostered a type of convergence culture existed even when radio and television were becoming viable marketing media. Unlike the master narrative that has been adopted by historians that depicts motion picture industry at odds with the broadcasting industries, Anderson explains that the boundaries that separate the two media is not as evident as some claim it to be. The differences between film and television is not based on the nature of media technology, the structure of media industries, or the attributes of media texts. When examined closely, these distinctions between media blur and become meaningless. Instead, Anderson argues, that the boundaries that separate the media in our culture are the products of discourse, including discourses generated by the media industries and that produced by scholars and critics. Here, Anderson quotes historian Carolyn Marvin in giving one of the most meaningful definition of what media are: “Media are not fixed natural objects; they have no natural edges. They are constructed complexes of habits, beliefs, and procedures embedded in elaborate cultural codes of communication” (qtd. in Hollywood TV 14).

The economic interests of the industries, especially that of motion pictures, mandated that a false separation between film and television be reinforced. Unlike the radio and television industries that relied on advertising and commercial sponsorship and thus were able to offer seemingly “free” entertainment, film industry had to justify its policy of paid admission and it did so by branding television as entertainment for the masses. Despite the convergence of the movie and television industries, a number of movies presented television as providing lower quality entertainment. Television, as depicted in these films, was a “false consciousness, a medium irredeemably comprised by its devotion to advertising” (17). But, according to Anderson, so did American cinema. In fact, American cinema has never strayed away from advertising as it integrated brands/shops/products within the narrative structure of movies that were being produced at the time.

But in reality, as Anderson notes, the general public was hard pressed to see the difference between the motion picture and broadcasting industries because of the many alliances between the two. For one thing, recognizing the promotional nature of radio and television, studios adapted successful radio shows to silver screen and promoted their shows in radio and television shows by having their celebrities appear in them. The interdependence of the media was quite apparent as the popular success of movies and radio in the 30s and 40s “depended at least partially on the fact that media were not isolated from one another but were perceived to be complementary as experiences in which stars and stories passed easily from one medium to another” (16). But more importantly, independent film producers who were locked out of the distribution outlets by the major film studios entered the television industry as an alternative way of conducting business. Disney, Warner Bros., David Selznik produced programming for television, and as they did so, consolidated the main framework of television programs by implementing Hollywood narratives and structures and which are called telefilms.

In addition, studios capitalized the promotional value of radio by allowing performers, songs, and story properties air on radio shows. As Anderson notes, while radio looked at Hollywood for programming, the movie studios began to cultivate stars and story ideas from radio. One of the first generation of telefilm producers, William Boyd, to tap into the growing postwar youth market, took advantage of television’s emergent position at the center of popular culture market and founded Hopalong Cassidy Industry that included a radio series, a comic strip, comic books, a popular fan club, and an array of licensed merchandise (51). We’re talking early ’50s here.With programs that exhibited cross media promotions, the distinction between advertising and entertainment was effectively erased… which brings us back to the beginning of this blog. How is this any different than the convergence culture that is said to be going on right now, you know, the one everybody is swooning over? In that respect, I appreciate the voices of scholars who insist on making connections with the past instead of heralding some kind of an absolute novelty.

David Thorburn’s and Henry Jenkins’ state in their introduction to Rethinking Media Change that: “the emergence of new media sets in motion a complicated, unpredictable process in which established and infant systems may co-exist for an extended period or in which older media may develop new functions and find new audiences” (2). The anxiety that was being exhibited then, is being exhibited now. It was feared that television would kill Hollywood studios. Instead, television appropriated the already dying studios and created different uses for them, such as producing television programming instead. These days, it is feared that emerging electronic technologies are going to phase out the book industry, newspaper industry, film and television industries. But instead of outright killing traditional media, Internet and electronic media are forcing them to change their functionality. Our anxiety comes from not knowing what it will change to. Of course, there will be collateral damage along the way. Same scenario, different actors… So we are frantically embracing new gimmicky terminology, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, viral marketing, interactive narrative, social media, without knowing what they really mean or even if they have a meaning. This terminology alleviates our anxiety of the unknown. We can continue to use these terms to market, distribute, and encourage consumption, just as television had done some decades ago, giving us a false sense of control over the uses of emerging technology which are unpredictable at best. In other words, as long as we can continue to do what we have been doing, albeit with new technology, we feel that we have some control of its unknown outcomes. The industry needs the term “convergence” to be this new way of marketing/branding products/stories/campaigns… even though it existed all along, just to conduct business as usual. But of course, people are going to use it the way they want to use it. Look at Twitter, who knew??? Not its creators, that’s for sure.

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