Media Production, Institutions & Culture Industries

Jane Stokes of London Metropolitan University, and author of How to Do Media & Cultural Studies (Sage 2003) identifies several potential objects of analysis in culture industry research:

  1. The history of a particular channel/newspaper/magazine (We'll address historical research in our next lesson);
  2. The response of a company or industry to changes in market conditions;
  3. The response of a company or industry to new legislation;
  4. The response of a company or industry to new technology;
  5. The reasons behind the introduction of a particular media phenomenon such as cable television or text messaging;
  6. The industrial rationale for an expansion of a new genre or a revival of an old one such as magazines for children or game shows;
  7. Demographics of the media industries; for example, the ethnic composition of the workforce;
  8. The influence of a change of personnel on a company or industry…;
  9. How patterns of work and professional practice influence media output. For example: How do newsrooms work? How do new magazines get launched? How do programmes get commissioned and made? (Stokes, p. 107)

You may have noticed that nearly all of these objects of analysis could be addressed through a political economic framework. Stokes agrees, recommending that, in studying the culture industries, “you must make sure that you understand the economics of the industry and how organizations make their bread and butter” (102). This involves knowing about, among other things, media and cultural policy -- including FCC regulations -- and the industries' sources of funding (commercial or state-sponsored?). This last issue -- commercial vs. public -- is of great contemporary relevance, given the current administration's increasing control of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and challenges to the independence of PBS and NPR.

Ownership and regulation of ownership are important variables in production/culture industry research. Media Channel links to several organizations that investigate media ownership, the Columbia Journalism Review has presented several stories on the topic, and the Center for Digital Democracy has taken up the issue, too. Some of these groups have attempted to graphically represent the concentration of media ownership and vertical and horizontal integration-- but when deals are made everyday, and ownership shifts by the minute, it's nearly impossible to create an up-to-the-minute chart. Click on the image to the left to access the Media Channel's "Media Ownership Chart."

A few years ago, when I was a researcher at NYU's Project on Media Ownership, a colleague and I wrote an article for The New Republic on FCC regulation and ownership; in that article, we used a case study of an Asheville, NC, radio station to make larger claims about policy and democracy. Robert McChesney, a Professor at the University of IL Urbana-Champaign, has written extensively on media ownership, and some of his publications are available online. Nicholas Garnham, James Curran, Colin Sparks, and several others listed on this syllabus also provide excellent examples of political economic culture industries research.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) keeps track of media companies' interlocking directorates. And late artist Mark Lombardi developed a visually arresting method of mapping those interlocking -- and often conflicting -- interests; he created pencil-and-paper maps to illustrate the ties between global finance, media, and terrorism. This might be an interesting parallel to the concept maps we addressed in our previous lesson -- but this time, we could use the graphical representation of data as a data analysis tool. [Image Credit: WNYC]


Stokes' mention of new genres and new technology, changes in personnel, and work patterns and professional practices represents another focus of culture industry research -- one that is not divorced from the political economic approach, but which incorporates attention to the creation of media texts, the people who make them, and their patterns of work. Production research can operate on a variety of scales: it can focus on an entire industry; it can address a particular studio, production company, or network; it can focus on a particular production project (e.g., "the making of..."); or it can home in on a particular agent (e.g., creativity (auteurism) vs. systemic constraints).

RP: Can you think of any other dimensions of the production process that researchers might address?

Newcomb and Lotz identify several key issues that should be investigated in production research -- for instance, network policies (e.g, executives' creative control, networks' input into casting decisions, individual agency vs. institutional goals, etc.), differences in production in different industries (e.g., film production vs. television production), corporate mergers, and new technological developments (e.g., DVRs, streaming video on cellphones, and, generally, the increased differentiation of distribution outlets).

RP: Can you think of any more contemporary issues -- political, economic, cultural, etc. -- that researchers must take into account when conducting research of modern-day production? Issues that are specific to particular production processes, like the making of a video game, or a video piece for exhibition in a commercial art gallery?

Tuchman, in part of her chapter, focuses on the different production practices in various media segments. Newspaper production, for instance, has different "variables" than does television production. Research on newspaper production might attend to such things as article length and format, morning vs. afternoon papers, issues of suburbanism vs. metropolitanism, joint operating agreements, and journalistic "movements," like new journalism and public journalism. Research on television production might address other variables, including network branding, presentation of the anchorperson, "mode of address," "communicative immediacy," etc. (Tuchman 83-5).

Research focusing on the production of news typically represents the news as existing amidst a field of social forces, including economic agents (advertisers, competitors), political agents (government funding, FCC), source agents, and audience agents.

RP: Are there any other ways to "break up" the production processes? Instead of thinking of production as a field populated by various agents, might we focus instead on the relationships, or flows, between those agents? What actions or negotiations might we identify in such a model?

News production research, according to Tuchman, is commonly approached through three primary theoretical frameworks (pp. 81-2):

  1. Political economy: examines news and media's contribution to the production and reproduction of the social status quo; regards media as a hegemonic force; focuses on the economic, legislative, and technological aspects of news
  2. Phenomenology and ethnomethodology: explores how news contribute to "producing and maintaining society as a shared symbolic environment"; concerned with "meaning" and the social construction of reality; often focuses on the practices of daily news work
  3. Textual studies: analyzes the way news texts "produce particular perspectives on social reality, while blurring or obscuring others"

Stay Free! magazine's Illegal Art exhibit is concerned with an issue that lends itself well to political economic analyses: intellectual property. The show addresses "what is rapidly becoming the 'degenerate art' of a corporate age: art and ideas on the legal fringes of intellectual property. Some of the pieces in the show have eluded lawyers; others have had to appear in court. Loaded with gray areas, intellectual property law inevitably has a silencing effect, discouraging the creation of new works." [Image Credit: Illegal Art]

Much production research is focused on the intersection of particular power structures, work routines, and textual forms -- and thus approaches its subject through all three of the abovementioned theoretical frameworks. Several of these researchers, who set out to examine how "social infrastructures, institutions, and their interests are translated into concrete news texts," end up concluding that "news workers do not intend to frame the news so as to support either private economic or state interests, but, because of their institutional positions and organizational practices, they are likely to serve those interests, and to reproduce their structural and power bases" (Tuchman 86, 87). Noam Chomsky's "propaganda model" also presents the production of news as "overdetermined" -- as a product of messily intertwined social forces and ideologies.

Studies of international news recognize news as "both a discursive-symbolic and a social-economic practice" -- and, therefore, approach the research subject through varied theoretical frameworks. Raymond Williams' concept of "flow" has proven particularly useful in the study of international media, since these media simultaneously transgress and reinforce political, economic, and social boundaries. Our department's own Paolo Carpignano provides an excellent discussion of "flow" in his online Televisuality course.

Academics in nearly 50 countries teamed up to participate in the "Cooperative Study of Foreign News Flow in the 1990s" -- but, as you can see from a visit to the website, haven't made much progress. The MediaDay group has attempted a similar comparative quantitative analysis of international news. But as Hjarvard writes in his chapter on "The Study of International News," most international media research has abandoned the search for "grand macro-social relationships," "the simple counting of news items," and the notion that news is either "created" or "selected," in favor of more "middle range" research with a more limited geographical range and delimited focus; it typically works at the regional level, within a specific medium or sector (as opposed to trying to make claims about all media), or at a particular stage in the communication sequence (e.g., at the reception stage or the production stage). Most recently, Sage has released a new journal, Global Media and Communication, which espouses a "transnational and transdisciplinary" approach to the subject.

RP: What new issues and variables does globalization make salient in media research? What must we pay attention to in international media research that may not have been as relevant in domestic media research?

Production research draws on a variety of resources and methodologies:

  • interviews and surveys of media employees -- from the high-level executives to the gaffers and pages, all of whom approach the process from different positions of power, and thus provide disparate accounts (We'll look at these methods in our lesson on qualitative methods);
  • review of corporate records and annual reports, which are often available on the companies' websites; ask a reference librarian for other sources;
  • review of the trade press reportage: Variety, Publishers Weekly, Broadcasting and Cable, Advertising Age, Electronic Media, RES; and more general business news in The New York Times or on PR Newswire
  • textual analysis: interpreting the formats of media, their historical roots, how they convey meaning, etc.; includes critical approaches (which we'll address in our lesson on "critical approaches" and content analysis)
  • field research: involves observation of production practices and interviewing people involved

Field research in particular requires a great deal of planning. Because it is so time-, labor-, and cost-intensive, you need to make sure a field visit is essential for your project. Sometimes, you can get all the information you need through secondary sources: will an on-site visit contribute insight that you can glean from no other source? If the answer is yes, then it's in your best interest to begin planning the visit well in advance. Newcomb and Lotz provide planning tips on pp. 69-72. I cannot stress enough the importance of doing your homework before you head into the field. You'll be much better equipped to make sense of what you're observing, and the people in the field -- people whom you'll likely want to interview -- will regard you with much more respect, and will therefore be more likely to be forthcoming in a discussion, if you have done as much background research as possible.

In Inside Prime Time (Routledge 1983), Todd Gitlin's "ethnography" of American commercial television, the author explains why field research was essential for his research project, and how he went about gaining access to and working in the field:

I looked at a lot of television entertainment in the fall of 1980, trying to think more or less systematically about its treatment of social issues. I started from the premise that in any society images have meaning and are not arbitrary. People do not have to watch a television show; however limited their choices, they still choose -- that is, network entertainment did seem to track some version of social reality. But whose? It began to dawn on me that I could not hope to understand why network television was what it was unless I understood who put the images on the small screen and for what reasons.

So that fall and winter I began interviewing network executives, producers, writers, agents, actors, and anyone else who would talk to me about what shaped TV's images of the wider world. Among other things, I wanted to see whether the industry "knew" what "it" was doing when it came up with these images. Within a few weeks of darting around Los Angeles, I realized that I could not hope to understand the ways producers and networks decided how to treat social issues unless I understood the ways they decided how to treat everything else. For there was no sign of a special decision-making process for "social issues," whatever those were. So, to ask the specific question, I would have to ask the more general one. The book ends up asking both, and it became possible for me to ask both because I also discovered that industry people would talk to me far more freely than I had expected.

I had started cold, with a University of California, Berkeley, letterhead and the names of a few friends of friends and onetime colleagues of colleagues. One name led to another [this is called "snowballing"]. For whatever reasons, people talked almost entirely on the record. I went to an ABC vice-president's office in Century City just after five on a Friday afternoon, and took my leave five hours later. Some producers were good enough to let me hang around on the set for weeks on end; to read successive versions of scripts and watch them change; to keep me apprised of new projects; to let me pester them unmercifully for latest developments. I was also lucky to be in Los Angeles during much of the writers' strike, when writers and producers and some executives had an unaccustomed amount of time on their hands. From January through July 1981, some 200 industry people were decent enough to let me interview them about why they do what they do. Only half a dozen refused outright to speak to me, all of them high-level. At first I relied mostly on written notes, but after my first three weeks, as I became more confident and realized hardly anyone in this high-tech world seemed to feel inhibited by machines, I asked for and received permission to tape-record almost everything. Only one low-level executive ever asked me not to take notes, and that was because she feared for her job" (Gitlin 12-13).

In my own dissertation on the making of the Seattle Public Library -- architecture is another form of "production" -- I conducted field research and discourse analysis to piece together the process through which architectural designs -- in this case, a building made to house media and "communicate" particular cultural values to a public -- came into being. You can access the Introduction to my dissertation here; the methodology section, where I describe my fieldwork process, begins on page 6.

See an excerpt of Laura Grindstaff's The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows [University of Chicago Press].

RP: Of what value is production research to those who work in production? If your answer is none, should it be?


You'll recall from Karen Keifer-Boyd's chart, which we looked at in our "Surveying the Field" lesson, the differences between "basic" and "applied" research. While "basic" research might look at the culture industries, applied research is often done for the culture industries. Columbia University has for decades been well known for its applied communication research. At Columbia, Edwin Howard Armstrong, in collaboration with David Sarnoff, head of RCA, invented FM radio. Arthur Schawlow and Polykarp Kusch, in collaboration with Bell Labs, developed the laser, for which they were awarded a Nobel Prize. Paul Lazarsfeld -- a name that should be familiar to you -- and Frank Stanton of CBS developed a methodology for broadcast audience research. And today the Columbia Journalism School awards the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism and the Alfred I. duPont awards for broadcasting. This academic research can be, and is, "applied" in service of the industry.

Sometimes the industries themselves conduct the research. Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) conducts research in physical, computational and social sciences and works with Xerox and other companies to "commercialize" the technologies its scientists develop. Among its research foci are Mobile & Wireless and Document Content. The PlayOn project focuses on the social dimensions of online games. Follow the links to the individual research groups' pages, where you can see the specific projects they're working on and link to some of their publications. One in particular that might be of interest is P.M. Aoki and A. Woodruff's “Making Space for Stories: Ambiguity in the Design of Personal Communication Systems" from the Proceedings of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '05), Portland, OR, Apr. 2005, 181-190. Skim the report: what research methods have they employed? [Image Credit: PARC]

One of your fellow Media Studies classmates, Johanna Moscoso, works for MTV, and she's written a paper [download Word doc] about the use of qualitative research methods in MTV's audience research. Please download and skim her article -- and ask yourself the question she asks: "whether or not the media-makers' lack of media theory knowledge somehow affects the manner, whether positively or negatively, in which they conduct their research."

Finally, ratings and circulation figures are of course of utmost concern to media industry executives and advertisers. Nielsen Media Research calculates television ratings, Arbitron determines radio ratings, and the Audit Bureau of Circulation audits print circulation, readership, and Web site activity. But flaws in these companies' research methodologies and new technologies -- like DVRs and iPods -- which allow consumers much greater control over their media exposure, and thus limit their exposure to advertising, have necessitated new methods of assessing ratings -- and led many to wonder just what those ratings measure. Jon Gertner wrote in an April 10, 2005, New York Times article about recent developments in ratings methodologies. [Image Credit: Nielsen]

Media Institutions and Politics links from the Media & Communication Studies Site