The Media Business: A Reading List
I’m often asked to recommend books and other resources about the media and entertainment industries — so often, that I thought it might be worth putting my thoughts together in written form. So, here it is. I’ll update this periodically as new resources become available.
The most comprehensive yet easy to understand discussion of the audiovisual industry that I’ve ever seen is Jeff Ulin’s The Business of Media Distribution: Monetizing Film, TV, and Video Content in an Online World (Focal Press 2013). For a more technical look at the industry’s economic features, check out the aptly titled Entertainment Industry Economics by Howard Vogel. Currently in its ninth edition, Entertainment Industry Economics has become a stalwart for any media industry strategist or analyst. It’s a bit difficult to read “cover to cover” but then again, it isn’t intended to be — it’s perfect for reading a chapter or two when you need a quick, comprehensive primer on a particular aspect of the industry.
With respect to television specifically, there are three books that, although now dated, are well worth reading to understand the dynamics of the business and, if nothing else, to understand how the business was once structured which informs how far it has come today. The first, and most detailed, is the venerable Ken Auletta’s treatise, Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost their Way (Vintage 1992), chronicles the dramatic fall of the network television business that took place in the mid 1980s, leading it to lose about a third of its audience and half its profits. For a similar treatment of a later time period (featuring some strikingly similar themes), try Bill Carter’s Desperate Networks (Doubleday 2006), which picks up the story several years later — beginning in 2004. Filling in the time between Blind Mice and Desperate Networks, is Suzanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton’s Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise & Fall of the WB and UPN, which as the title implies, trace the history of two “netlets” founded in January of 1995, along with a healthy dose of industry background and scene setting for the relevant time period.
Those who remember what radio is might be interested in two competing narratives of the modern radio business (that is, the industry following the 1996 Telecom Act), each focusing primarily on the largest player in the business: Clear Channel. For the “unauthorized” side of the story, check out Alec Foege’s Right of the Dial (Faber & Faber 2008). For Clear Channel’s thinly veiled corporate-sponsored response, see Clear Vision: The Story of Clear Chanel Communications (Bright Sky 2008). The latter reads a bit like an extended corporate recruiting brochure, but taken together, the books offer a nice overview of the radio climate in the late 1990s and 2000s.
For more general background on the intellectual property aspects of our business, including threats from piracy and the so-called “tech” industry, I offer three suggestions: The first is Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back (Anchor 2013). Written by the former executive editor of Billboard, Levine skillfully navigates the tech sector has built business models on the backs of artists, essentially rendering the business of content production unprofitable, or at least unsustainable as a full-time vocation. On a similar note, the more recent Move Fast and Break Things by University of Southern California professor Jonathan Taplin (Little, Brown and Co. 2017) takes a broader view of the tech sector and looks at how the sheer size and domination of several major internet firms — namely, Amazon, Facebook, and Google — threatens the future of our culture.
For a slightly more academic, though still accessible, treatment of our industry’s issues, see Michael Smith and Rahul Telang’s 2016 book, Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment (MIT Press 2016). Smith and Telang are professors at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University and co-directors of the Digital Media Research Center which produces research on a variety of topics, including the impact of piracy on particular business models and practices. Their book comprises, essentially, a summary of their research to date, juxtaposed with anecdotes and stories from industry executives.
Those in search of more business or strategy-focused literature would be well advised to read Jonathan A. Knee, Bruce C. Greenwald, and Ava Seave’s 2011 book The Curse of the Mogul: What’s Wrong with the World’s Leading Media Companies (Portfolio 2011). The thoroughly researched volume discusses the economic features of the media and entertainment industries alongside the human aspects of media management — the glitz and glamour that often drive decisions more than the data. In the words of blurber James B. Stewart, the book offers “an insider’s view of how big egos often trump rational decision making, which is invaluable and hugely entertaining for anyone interested in the high-profile world of media.”
Anita Elberse’s Blockbusters: Hit Making, Risk Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment (Holt 2013) is another must-read for anyone interested in the basic economic structure of media. Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, takes the position that the only way those in the entertainment industry can achieve success is by betting big on tentpole films and superstar talent, to the detriment of smaller, less popular (but arguably more artistic) fare. While her views have generated some debate among insiders, Elberse has emerged as one of the leading voices on entertainment industry strategy.
For a quick summary of Elberse’s position and the leading competing viewpoint , take a look at her 2008 Harvard Business Review article “Should You Invest in the Long Tail,” Chris Anderson’s response, “Debating the Long Tail” (a summarized version of principles upon which he expands in his own book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More), and Elberse’s reply, aptly titled “The Long Tail Debate: A Response to Chris Anderson.”
Another scholarly voice in the field is Bharat Anand, whose book, The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change (Random House 2016) explores a number of case studies involving companies who have had to navigate the digital landscape to develop and offer new digital products, or to transition old ones to the digital environment. Interestingly, Anand’s take is that while content itself is important (indeed, it’s “king,” if one were to believe the old adage), those who achieve digital success are especially adept at identifying connections among content, and more critically, its users, audiences, or other constituencies.
Beyond “traditional” sources, I get a lot of my news and information about the media industry from podcasts. Here are a few that I listen to religiously:
On the Media from WNYC Studios — a weekly look at the media and its impact on society and culture, including periodic discussions about the business aspects of the industry.
The Pub from Current — a niche program intended for public radio professionals, but also featuring occasional discussions about the evolution of the media industry generally, and the new ways audiences consume news, information, and entertainment.
Remote Controlled from Variety — a fairly run-of-the-mill interview-style program hosted by Variety’s executive editor for television, Debra Birnbaum, featuring discussions with a mix of business executives and creative talent.
Scriptnotes — a podcast about screenwriting (and, as the show intro goes, “things that are interesting to screenwriters”). Although focused primarily on the craft of writing, veteran screenwriter hosts John August and Craig Mazin often include discussions of the business and legal aspects of the film and television industry.
The Business from KCRW — hosted by veteran reporter Kim Masters, this podcast features interviews with a mix of business executives and creative talent from throughout the entertainment industry. Typically my favorite part of the show is the first five minutes or so — the weekly “news banter” where Kim, typically joined by Matt Belloni, executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter, discuss the top stories in the entertainment industry over the past week and their implications for our business.
The Spin Off from KCRW — an aptly named adjunct to The Business, this show ceased production at the end of March 2017, but promises to return at some point in the future. In its prior incarnation, it focused on television-centric stories and discussion that didn’t make it into The Business.
One other resource I have found to be very useful when trying to learn about a new industry or business model are case studies published by business schools. These cases are intended to facilitate classroom discussion about a particular issue or challenge facing a business executive, but often contain useful background information on the structure and market dynamics of a particular company and the industry in which it operates. Be warned, though: Since these case studies are intended to stimulate discussion, they typically don’t contain any guidance as to what the “right” answer is or might be (indeed, they expressly disclaim that they shouldn’t be taken as management advice).
Still, for general background, and a sense of the type of decisions that media and entertainment industry executive have to pursue, cases can be invaluable. Here are a few I have found useful (some of which I have taught in my classes at Claremont Graduate University):
- David J. Collins, Peter W. Olson, and Mary Furey, The Newspaper Industry in Crisis (2010)
- Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano, Primer on the U.S. Television Industry (2008)
- Anita Elberse and S. Mark Young, CW: Launching a Television Network(2011)
- Anita Elberse & Sunil Gupta, Hulu: An Evil Plot to Destroy the World?(2009)
- Joelle Bissonnette & Eric Brunelle, Legal and Profitable? Spotify: The Challenges of an Online Music Service (2015)
- Anita Elberse & Alexandre de Pfyffer, Spotify (2016)
- Anita Elberse, NBCUniversal (2016)
- Anita Elberse, The Walt Disney Studios (2016)
- Steven Callander and David Hoyt, SOPA: The Media Industry Fights Online Copyright Infringement (2013)
There are, of course, dozens of other resources available to better understand the media and entertainment industries, but these are some of my favorites. Is your favorite missing? Let me know what I should add to the list by commenting below.
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