From the 1980s onward, media technologies have gone through a phase of digitization. CDs and digital music media replaced records and tapes in the 1980s and 1990s, and movies are increasingly being produced and distributed digitally. Newspaper production has become computer based and the news is distributed not only on paper, but also digitally on the web. Satellite television is completely digitized in many countries, cable networks are partly digitized, and in several countries terrestrial networks for television are being digitized. Furthermore, various models for digital radio are being tried out. And new digital media services, based on platforms like the web or the mobile phone, have become important in many parts of the world.
Digitization is the process of coding signals as numbers. When signals are digital, computer technology can be and is involved in all stages of production, as well as in distribution and media use. One single computer can be used to create and consume variants of all media. An important aspect of digitization is that the boundaries between different media have been brought into question and a presupposition has developed that we are in an era of media convergence.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, convergence literally means “the act of . . . moving toward union or uniformity,” and is used to describe a number of phenomena: in physics, math, and geography, as well as in the media. Early concepts about media convergence were presented in the 1970s, but it was in the 1990s that the concept really impacted debates about media developments. From the 1990s onward, media convergence became a key issue in academic texts, policy documents, and industrial papers. The concept has had a strong influence in political and industrial circles. It communicates a media landscape undergoing significant changes and has been instrumental in convincing politicians, regulators, investors, and other market players that they needed to adapt their strategies. The concept is, however, not always clear. There are a multitude of interpretations of what media convergence is, focusing on different entities that converge. Nevertheless, a few dominant interpretations may be singled out, emphasizing both the general arguments about convergence, and some more critical perspectives on the employment of the concept of convergence as a general description of media developments.
The concept of network convergence implies that when digitized, any network can be used to transmit all kinds of digital signals – provided speed and bandwidth are high enough. There is no difference between sound, text, and images in digital networks, as they are all transmitted as bits and bytes, in contrast to analog signals. Consequently, possibilities are opened for integrated networks and seamless communication between networks that had earlier been used for separate purposes (e.g., voice telephony networks, cable, satellite and terrestrial television, and data networks). For consumers, an easier future has been imagined where each household could have one network for all communication purposes.
These predictions were particularly strong in the mid-1990s. A decade later, we find that most networks are digitized, and most are used for multiple purposes. The copper networks formerly used for telephony only have now been digitized, and in many areas enhanced to DSL (digital subscriber line) standards, implying that the same network can be used in communicating sound, text, and images. Similarly, cable television networks are in many areas upgraded to not only transmit television, but also enable telephony and IP (Internet Protocol) access (often called triple play). Most households are, however, connected to even more networks than before with recent additions such as wireless local area networks (WLAN), mobile networks, and DSL and broadband services, as well as broadcasting networks. The main reason for this is partly that people rely on electronic communication for more and more purposes, and partly that even if the networks are digital and potentially can transmit any services, many networks (such as terrestrial television) are still specialized for certain services.
Digitization means that computers could be used in the production and use of all kinds of media services, and several voices have predicted that this would lead to terminal convergence, meaning that different media terminals would be reduced to one – the “überbox.” As stated by George Gilder in the early 1990s: “The new system will be the telecomputer or ‘teleputer’, a personal computer adapted for video processing and connected by fiber-optic threads to other teleputers all around the world. Using a two-way system of signals . . . the teleputer will surpass the television in video communication just as the telephone surpasses the telegraph in verbal communication” (Gilder 1994, 45).
The most radical versions of such scenarios were obviously too extreme. Although personal computers, advanced mobile phones, and other hand-held devices are multi-use terminals, we see the number of terminals created for specific media types or user situations is growing. There are more and more kinds of terminals, not fewer. The mechanisms of capitalism ensure that we are unlikely to see the full convergence into one “übe-box” (if anyone ever truly believed that) – simply because the industry has very high stakes in always selling new and diversified gadgets.
Service And Rhetorical Convergence
Another aspect of media convergence has been the convergence of services. As digitization enabled the transmission of all digital media services over the same networks, and the use of different kinds of services on the same terminals, the services themselves were expected to converge. The services would become increasingly integrated with each other, and new multimedia services would develop. For television, cross-media formats, in which television shows are integrated with emails and/or text messages from mobile phones directly on the screen, are gaining importance. And on the web, audiovisual services are combined with text services that allow for chat, instant messaging, and network building.
The more radical versions of this line of reasoning have suggested that we will see not only the integration of services but also a rhetorical convergence in which expressions and genres would no longer be distinct, but grow into one unified language. This is a much more contested assumption than the integration of formats and services across media. Studies of new media show that what we do see is a growing number, and a differentiation, of genres in digital media. Each of these genres may be seen as a convergence of traits from one or more earlier genres, but the total number is growing (Fagerjord 2003).
A convergence of networks, terminals, and services was further expected to lead to a convergence of markets. It would no longer be self-evident where the telecom markets ended and the media markets started. The distinctions between infrastructures and services, software and media content, would become increasingly blurred. Thus ICT (information and communications technology), telecom, and media companies would merge or form alliances and we would, to an increasing degree, see the development of multimedia companies.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, we have seen large fluctuations in the communications markets, including new alliances across the value chain, the most prominent example being the merger between the Internet service provider AOL and the media house Time Warner Inc. in 2000. There are many similar examples of alliances and mergers between telecom and content companies in both national and regional contexts. Nevertheless, this is only one aspect of the market changes. Parallel to this there are several examples of divestitures, of breakups of alliances, and of companies scaling down to “core business.” Thus, in addition to the tendencies toward vertical integration and blurred boundaries between old sectors, there is also a development toward new and highly specialized submarkets.
The above perceptions of convergence between communication networks, terminals, services, and markets has had a strong impact on political discourse. In the 1990s, several governments, as well as the EU, produced consultation documents about the regulatory impact of convergence. It was argued that many of the old regulatory instruments were outdated, as they were related to specific technologies that were now converging – a development that produced inconsistencies in the regulatory framework.
This is illustrated by the 1997 EU green paper arguing that lack of action would prevent countries from taking full advantage of the possibilities convergence enabled. “If Europe can embrace these changes by creating an environment which supports rather than holds back the process of change we will have created a powerful motor for job creation and growth, increasing consumer choice and promoting cultural diversity. If Europe fails to do so, or fails to do so rapidly enough, there are real risks that our businesses and citizens will be left to travel in the slow lane of an information revolution which is being embraced by businesses, users and by Governments around the world” (EC 1997, 35).
It was argued that a new regulatory regime was necessary in which the regulations were horizontal. This implied that all electronic networks would exist within one framework – and all media services and contents would be in one framework. Such views were also supported by academic writers who pointed at the inconsistencies between the technological and the regulatory levels (e.g., Cuilenburg and Slaa 1993).
Following these debates, in many countries, regulations that used to be separate for different networks (e.g., voice telephony, cable television, and broadband services) have been integrated into common regulatory frameworks for all electronic networks. But, for media services and contents, regulations are usually still separate for different media. Generally, broadcasting, press, telephony, and web services have been and still are subject to different regulations. The reason for this is not only that institutional legacies are slowing regulatory reforms. The convergence processes have also been less pervasive than predicted. Media are much more than technology. Many, maybe even most differences between media are not due to technological factors, but are grounded in social codes, economy, rhetoric, and even our cognitive faculties. Thus, even if digitized, different media still vary in their characteristics, usages, and purposes. Different media play different roles in society, and politicians and regulators still perceive the need for regulation to be different.
Digitization And Differentiation
Digitization has enabled significant changes in the media – such as the blurring of boundaries between media that earlier were more distinctly different. Media convergence may be a description of how networks and terminals are used for multiple purposes, services integrate elements from audiovisual and text media, and media and telecom corporations form vertical alliances. At the same time, a number of closely related, yet quite opposite developments are taking place. There is an increasing diversification of products and terminals; new categories of services and genres develop, and new specialized companies and sub-markets. Thus, digitization contributes to the blurring of boundaries between media, but this does not always imply media convergence. There are also developments toward stronger differentiation of media in which elements from earlier separate media and sectors are combined in new ways.
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- Cuilenburg, J. van, & Slaa, P. (1993). “From media policy towards a national communications policy: Broadening the scope.” European Journal of Communication, 8, 149 –176.
- EC (1997). Green paper on the convergence of the telecommunications, media and information technology sectors, and the implications for regulations. COM(97)623. At http://ec.europa.eu/ comm/avpolicy/docs/library/legal/com/greenpaper_97_623_en.pdf, accessed March 23, 2007.
- Fagerjord, A. (2003). “Four axes of rhetorical convergence.” Dichtung Digital 30(4/2003). At www.dichtung-digital.org/2003/4-fagerjord.htm, accessed February 3, 2005.
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