Media Disrupted: Image by Yatheesh Gowda from Pixabay
Image by Yatheesh Gowda from Pixabay

Amanda Lotz Dismantles Mythologies in ‘Media Disrupted’

Did the internet kill the music industry? Is cable television dead? Media scholar Amanda D. Lotz explores these concepts and their misconceptions in Media Disrupted.

Media Disrupted: Surviving Pirates, Cannibals and Streaming Wars
Amanda D. Lotz
MIT Press
October 2021

In Media Disrupted, Amanda D. Lotz takes on four widely-held myths about the transformation of media industries moving into the digital age. The oversimplified assertions that the Internet killed music, newspapers, film, and television are untangled through a longer view that takes into account the specific history of each industry. Despite media conglomerates being multinational companies, these narratives are specific to the United States, addressing the media in both local and national settings. Limiting the scope of the study is imperative as the circumstances of media distribution and the growth of digital technologies differ across nations.

Lotz’s analysis provides readily-available evidence to explain the disruptions in media as technologies shifted, often demonstrating that technology is not an isolated factor that transformed industries. Recorded music offers a strong example: although the production cost of CDs was less than the cost for manufacturing audiocassettes, the recording industry maintained a high price point when the new format was rolled out. As music was transmitted over the internet beginning around 2004, music enthusiasts who sought to buy single tracks instead of albums were finally able to purchase single mp3 files. Clearly, the difference in revenue between CDs and single tracks explains a significant shift in purchasing and a subsequent loss of revenue. The chapters are named for the myths they unpack, and in “Piracy killed the music industry”, Lotz’s straightforward explanation negates the popular assumption that filesharing was the sole source of disruption.

The chapter “Information wants to be free” begins with a brief history intended to explain the unique complexity of newspaper as a bundle: because of its ability to reach different readers with a broad variety of content such as national news, local news, sports, comics, and lifestyle sections, newspapers had a diverse audience and subsequently diverse advertisers with broad appeal. Newspapers traditionally have two budget streams, generating revenue from both readers/subscribers and advertisers. When newspapers were consolidated in the 1980s and then purchased by venture capitalists in the 2000s, the failure of disinterested owners to attend to the established business practices of the newspaper industry led to a significant number of US newspapers going out of business. 

The similarities and differences between newspaper content and online news can be difficult to sort out, yet Lotz navigates this discussion with straightforward examples. She coins the term “daily-words industry” to designate the businesses that rely on the dissemination of daily information for their income. Newspaper and certain internet information sources are part of the daily-words industry, differing from information that can draw reader interest over a longer period of time.  

“Netflix is destroying Hollywood” begins with a question: Is a film a film only when it has a theatrical screening? For the motion picture industry, disruption on the distribution end has a long history, beginning with the move to show films on broadcast television. The move to television, and then to video rental, did not significantly impact Hollywood because film production remained consistent while only distribution changed. Film studios profited regardless of how audiences gained access to films. By the late 1990s, DVDs expanded the market for home viewing, thanks to higher quality recordings and the addition of special features to entice audiences to purchase films on DVD. Box office revenue was not initially significantly impacted, and the studios shifted their profit stream to include both DVDs sales and movie theaters.

Lotz argues that the decline in moviegoing, particularly in the last 15 years, has various sources that are difficult to sort. As new modes for watching movies, like home theaters, became popular, Hollywood responded with blockbuster, big-screen action and fantasy films that are better suited to the cinema. The film production side of the industry once again shifted its distribution models to maximize both viewership and profit.

In analyzing the myth of “the end of television as we know it”, Lotz is on familiar ground, having previously published several books detailing her research of the television industry. Her argument begins with the assertion that among the industries, television has largely been improved by internet distribution. The most significant factor in improvement is time-shifting, which radically transformed audience relationships with television. As Lotz explains in her discussion of exclusive programming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video, the direct competition of what to watch on Thursday at 9PM was one fundamental to the model of television viewership, advertising, and earnings. This is no longer the case. If anything, choosing a subscription service that provides the programming you most want to see may be the new challenge for television viewers. In sum, television is not dead, but its reorganization is still in flux.

The takeaway from Media Disrupted is that there is no magic bullet: singular theories about responding to disruption and preparing for what is still to come will be unhelpful. Understanding the histories of each industry and the disruptions encountered thus far is key to planning for the future. Media Disrupted provides a solid foundation for thinking through each distinct story for music, newspapers, film, and television.

RATING 7 / 10