New Bottles for New Wine: Sociology and Technology of Today's Television Industry

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New Bottles for New Wine Sociology and Technology of Today's Television Industry

Vicki Mayer, Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2011 ISBN 9780822350071 RRP US$22.95

James Bennett and Niki Strange (eds), Television as Digital Media Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2011 ISBN 9780822349105 RRP US$25.95

These two books from that notable publisher of academic texts, Duke University Press, are like twinned crystals of calcite. Each is drawn from the same feedstock, but they are utterly different in alignment.

Television as Digital Media is a collection of thirteen scholarly essays by academics from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Of the editors, James Bennett is senior lecturer in television studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, while Niki Strange is founder of Strange Digital, a digital business consultancy. She is also a research fellow at the University of Sussex.

The list of authors allows a moment of parochial pride. Four contributors, Graeme Turner, Julian Thomas, Jean Burgess and Jason Jacobs teach at Australian universities. Given that, the lack of any reference in the book's introduction to the Australian experience of the introduction of digital television, alongside that of the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe, is surprising.

There are times when one feels the word 'digital' has become an all too convenient and all embracing talisman for technology change, irrespective of instrumental impact. Certainly, 'digital television' encompasses some examples of radical change like the expansion in the variety of platforms and devices that now may be used to transmit, to receive and to store programs. But not all is revolution. Much digital technology changes little. The digital watch didn't change time; it just made accurate timekeeping cheaper.

Scholars and authors need to be alert to distinguish between digital technology that replicates what analogue technology does, only more cheaply or efficiently, and what digital technology does that cannot be done by analogue technology at all. It is only the latter application of digital technology that modifies production or consumption practices in creative, economic or utilitarian terms, and has consequential outcomes.

For example, digital broadcasting is more economical with spectrum space because of coding and compressions techniques, allowing multi-channelling within the same bandwidth. But, in essence, analogue transmission and digital transmission are no more than different means of achieving the same purpose, the delivery of content without the physical connection of conductive metals or glass fibre cables.

The spectral efficiency of digital broadcasting brought one significant change in Australia: the birth of the digital siblings, the new digital channels. They have multiplied program offerings but that diversity frequently remains illusory. The same program often appears on several channels especially outside prime time. Contrary to FreeView's advertising mantra, new programming is often 'more repeats more often'.

However, multiple program offerings means the fragmentation of the audience of the traditional parent channel and while parent channels have been losing viewers, total audiences for television seem to be increasing, at least for the present. Fragmentation of audiences as a consequence of digital transmission, and the effect of fragmentation in this, the most networked television nation in the English-speaking world, will take time to discover.

These changes and the diversifying uses content is put to are issues discussed at length in social and cultural terms by the various authors in Digital Television. The essays are grouped under four themes: Switchover: Historicizing the Digital Revolution; Production Strategies in the Digital Landscape; The Aesthetics of Convergence; and User Generated Content: Producing Digital Audiences. …