Sunday 28th May 2017,
Televisual

An Analog Reading List for the Digital Practitioner

As you may know, I’m doing some heavy reading over the next few weeks, and they more I read, the more I realize there’s a lot of academic books on media history and theory that could benefit practitioners in the digital economy; books a lot people might pass over on Amazon for not directly addressing digital culture.

I’ve decided to try to make a list of a few of these books, a reference for anyone looking for some fall and winter reading. I’ll try to update it over the next few months.

These books, most of them highly-cited classics, are taken off my previous reading list, but I wanted to set them off and explain why someone working in or thinking about contemporary media might take their eyes off their Twitter lists — I’m bound to mine! — and take a look. For some scholars, these might be obvious choices, but it’s not entirely obvious why these books are still relevant, except inasmuch as history is always relevant.

I tried to keep this short. I know most people lack the time to sit and read a dozen books on media history. I hope I can eventually blog relevant reviews of these and other books.

In general all these works offer interesting and digestible insights into how other “new media” have matured and gained structure. Among the big questions with our current new media are: where will it go and how will it scale? Given my interest in online video, still an unstable marketplace, these questions are especially pressing. The books below provide some models, some of them promising and instructive, others pessimistic and cautionary.

Radio

William Boddy, New media and popular imagination: launching radio, television, and digital media in the United States.

Susan Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922.

There are a lot of histories of radio now, Susan Douglas and William Boddy’s books are just two addressing on the medium’s early history (pre-1920). Why read about radio? The beginning of radio, starting from the late 19th century, is actually a very relevant case study in new media, how control of distribution (then: the airwaves, now: uploading to the web) provides opportunities for independents and amateurs. The story of how radio came to be controlled by a handful of powerful interests, rather than the woolly cacophony of the web is a both a cautionary tale and lesson in how to do things differently — if, of course, we want a different result. Douglas’ industrial and historical account is complete and readable; Boddy’s is more concise, more about cultural, not industrial, implications, but is also more explicitly connected to contemporary debates.

Television

Todd Gitlin, Inside prime time.

Erik Barnouw, The sponsor: notes on modern potentates.

Chris Anderson, HollywoodTV: the studio system in the fifties.

William Boddy, Fifties television: the industry and its critics.

Television, like radio, is similarly instructive. More expensive and borne out of the radio system, its story is less harrowing, but still very illustrative. There is a lot of scholarship on fifties television, perhaps its most pivotal decade, when the networks went from a single-sponsor model to a 30-second-spot model; from live to telefilm; from New York to Hollywood, etc. Anderson and Boddy’s accounts are pleasurable reads with a lot of relevant information on how industries mature. For new media producers trying to understand sponsorship, Barnouw’s short history is instructive. (In general, if you want to learn all about TV history, Barnouw has a classic series of books: a lengthy three-volume set, and a condensed book, Tube of Plenty.). Gitlin’s book is a great inside look of network TV right before cable started to pose a serious threat.

Film

Michele Hilmes, Hollywood & Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable

Denise Mann, Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover.

Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.

Film is a bit of a different animal from radio and television, given it’s not conventionally supported by ads and has a different relationship to media policy (licensing, antitrust, etc.). Nonetheless, it’s still relevant to debates about new media and video, especially concerning different ways of doing production. Hilmes offers a great early history of “convergence,” how Hollywood interacted with radio and television, and might be of interest to anyone looking at how competing media industries form symbiotic relationships. Mann’s history takes seriously the role of the industry’s early independents, primarily in cinema but also how they helped shape television, and what industrial and cultural factors allowed them to flourish. Schatz’s book is a classic study in how, despite cinema’s well-earned claims to artistry and creativity, the organized production model for Hollywood helped form and sustain the industry.

Policy

Mara Einstein, Media Diversity: Economics, Ownership and the FCC.

Thomas Streeter, Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States.

I’ll be expanding this quite a bit, but I’ve only recently become interested in policy, for obvious reasons. There are countless histories of American media policy and the FCC, these are just the most recent two I happened to pick up. Streeter’s book has some good overviews of radio and TV and offers an interesting theoretical solution to the dilemma of commercial broadcasting. Einstein’s book has been controversial, and while I don’t completely agree with her overall argument, she has a great case study and history of TV ownership and syndication rules.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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