graphic representation of media convergence

Media Convergence

Definition

Media convergence initially referred to the combination of telecommunications systems with microcomputers to create a more powerful network. The early 1980s saw massive investment in the development of these information technologies which led to the convergence of corporations in the cultural industries who were eager to take advantage of new markets.

The concept of media convergence can also refer to the blurring of lines between the different forms of media and communication, and the cultural shift in the production and consumption of the media.

A Convergence of Modes

In Technologies of Freedom (1983), Ithiel de Sola Pool argued there was a “convergence of modes”. Media forms which were once separate and distinct, might soon be provided through a “single physical means”, such as cables or wireless technology, and the broadcasts could be consumed in “several different physical ways”. The political scientist claimed the “one-to-one relationship that used to exist between a medium and its use” was “eroding”.

His predictions seem prophetic: audiences no longer need a television to watch television programmes, you can read digital formats of newspapers on your mobile and have a business meeting on your computer rather than a telephone.

David Hesmondhalgh

Hesmondhalgh believed the “the most basic sense of the term convergence” referred to the digital networks developed in the 1980s. In The Cultural Industries (2013), he argued changes in the regulation of the telecommunications industry “reduced the barriers to consolidation, cross-ownership and vertical integration” of media corporations who wanted to profit from the information infrastructures.

Hesmondhalgh also noted the computer and software companies were often “mythologised” as “entrepreneurial and countercultural” because they promised a new era of prosperity and freedom. You can see this defiance and excitement in the following footage of Steve Jobs introducing the advertisement for his Apple Mackintosh computers.

First broadcast during the American football Super Bowl in 1984, the commercial remains one of the most influential and memorable advertisements in history, so it is worth watching a hi-res version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtvjbmoDx-I.

Notice how the entrepreneur criticises IBM for missing opportunities to invest in great technological innovation. He was obviously bitter the computer company was unwilling to work with the “unimportant” Apple. Steve Jobs took lots of risks. If you are reading this guide to media convergence on your iPhone or MacBook, you already know Apple succeeded in delivering some incredible consumer electronics and software products.

Convergence Culture

Henry Jenkins is a communication and journalism scholar. Exploring the different types of media convergence, his book Convergence Culture (2006) defined the concept as “a process or series of intersections between different media systems” rather than “a fixed relationship”. He said convergence “involves both a change in the way media is produced and a change in the way media is consumed”.

media convergence summary

Corporate Convergence

Jenkins drew attention to “the new patterns of cross-media ownership which began in the mid-1980s” when companies were able to “distribute content across… various channels rather than within a single media platform”. These companies understood success in one media sector could be replicated in other formats.

He offered the example of Warner Bros. The old Hollywood studio now controls interests in television, popular music, websites and all types of print media. The multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate has a diverse portfolio, including the CNN news network, the television broadcaster HBO, and DC Comics.

The cooperation between multiple media industries reduced risk and helped finance more complex products. There was also greater collaboration between content providers and sponsors, such as product placement in films.

Jenkins summarised a number of reasons why media industries embrace convergence:

  • There are financial advantages to being part of a media conglomeration.
  • Convergence creates more ways to sell content to consumers.
  • Media convergence increases customer loyalty; this is especially important when the marketplace is fragmented, and the rise of file sharing threatens the traditional imbalance of power between the producer and consumer.
  • Convergence can shape consumer behaviour.

Grassroots Convergence

If corporate convergence is a top-down force, then grassroots convergence follows a bottom-up direction because the concept refers to the informal flow of content between consumers.

Our guide to fandom describes the audience’s movement from being passive spectators to becoming active participants in the media. Importantly, we are now able to store huge amounts of media content on our computers and portable devices. This makes it easier for consumers to recirculate media texts through file sharing, but it also allows textual poachers to appropriate and rework content.

Jenkins thought this process was epitomised by game modders who took the original code of commercial games and developed their own add-ons and even produce total conversions. Clay Shirky defined this creative use of time and energy as cognitive surplus.

Technological Convergence

This concept refers to the combination of functions into one device. Lots of media content used to be only available to consumers in specific formats. Now you can binge television programmes on your games console or read a digital newspaper on your laptop. Your mobile phone probably has an integrated camera and the editing software to make complex changes to the images. You can also download GPS apps to help you navigate around the world, steam films from your subscriptions, and play games which are designed for the small screen.

Jenkins noted technological convergence was driven by a “shift in patterns of media ownership”. He also believed “there will be no single black box that controls the flow of media into our homes”. That will not stop Microsoft, Google and other conglomerates from trying to achieve that goal.

Organic Convergence

Jenkins believed we were experiencing a cultural shift where “consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content”. Organic convergence refers to the way multitask media, such as sharing your thoughts and feelings on social media while watching a live sporting event or listening to music while your read a guide to media convergence.

Cross-media Products

Jenkins suggested “media convergence makes the flow of content across multiple media platforms inevitable”. In a bizarre example of distribution, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was available to play on PC, PlayStation and Xbox, but also on Google’s Alexa.

The trailer for the “very special edition” pokes fun at convergence by suggesting the computer game is playable on both your obsolete pager and your connected refrigerator. This version might appeal to Dungeons and Dragons players, but the role of the Dungeon Master is probably safe for now.

Importantly, this is another example of corporate convergence because Google worked with Bethesda to promote their own Alexa and highlight the smart speaker’s ability to play games. This sort of collaboration is known as media synergy.

Hesmondhalgh, David (2013): “The Cultural Industries”.
Jenkins, Henry (2006): “Cultural Convergence: Where Old and New Media Collide”.
Pool, Ithiel de Sola (1983): “Technologies of Freedom”.

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