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Reviewed by:
  • Television as Digital Media
  • Huub Wijfjes (bio)
Television as Digital Media. Edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011. Pp. viii+389. $25.95.

Is television an old-school medium? It seems to be if you look at what an increasing number of observers call “the digital revolution.” Technological change from an analog to a digital environment during the last twenty years has resulted in convergence of mediated forms of production, distribution, and consumption. Analog television was a mass medium characterized by what Raymond Williams in 1975 called “the flow” of streaming and sequential content, admirably suited to passive watching. Nowadays, however, television is one of the interfaces to which active consumers connect to create their own visual reality. In addition, instead of producers and users being sharply different groups, the new medium involves many “produsers”: those who combine using (existing content) and producing (creating new contexts and meanings). Television is becoming part of “matrix media,” a seemingly chaotic landscape full of different production modes and characterized by both interactive consumption and a combination of broadcasting and narrow casting.

James Bennett and Niki Strange raise important questions about this developing field of interaction of technology, media, and culture. In order to deliver some answers, the two British scholars brought together a broad range of articles from British, American, and Australian scholars. The articles cover four important themes: historicizing the digital revolution, production strategies in the digital landscape, the aesthetics of convergence, and the ways user-generated content creates digital audiences.

A central question is, what is really new about digital television? Has not television always been a hybrid technology in which several traditional cultural forms (opera, theater, journalism, music, games) gradually acquired new meanings? And aren’t social and media history teaching us that publics don’t always want to use all the possibilities and choices that are available? Aren’t we living in what historian John Ellis has poignantly termed “the nexus between time famine and choice fatigue”? What lessons can be drawn from this historical experience, not only for television program makers but also for innovators trying to develop successful strategies and business models in the digital world? And what consequences will these developments have for television studies, the scholarly field that has researched the relation of textual content to sequential production and that has oriented itself around the idea of a passive consumer public?

Not all the contributors deliver an easy and clear answer; some don’t even get close to mapping the problem they want to tackle. But in general this is a great collection of reflections on the relation of social behavior, technology, and cultural form. It is a must-read for all those who are interested [End Page 956] in what digitalization means and who aren’t willing to accept the deterministic views of the technological frontrunners who claim nothing less than a total transformation of traditional social behavior, a complete turnover of standardized configurations of knowledge, and the fall of traditional television production and distribution.

In the deterministic view, all will be swept away, creating a creative culture that is driven by technology and mastered by the individual. Such a world might be the ultimate realization of Jürgen Habermas’s idealized public sphere, achieved through the ultimate extension of the senses that Marshall McLuhan predicted in the same idealistic way in the sixties. An empirical look at the historical and current realities of media production and distribution gives us a more down-to-earth insight into the role of technology in human culture. Graeme Turner, for example, shows that most of human time, next to work and sleep, is still dedicated to using media to create common experience—not in the old fashioned, top-down way from production to consumption, but in multimedia, multiplatform, and interactive ways. Public service broadcasters like the BBC are very active in developing this new content, as Strange demonstrates in her article on BBC’s Bundled Project.

Not all is new in the digital world. Jean Burgess shows us that the totally new digital ventures are building their kingdoms partly on traditional content. About half of the audiovisual content...