A Post against “post-“

February 7, 2010
By | 26 Comments

I apologize if this post for Antenna is a bit more “inside baseball” for academics than most posts here, but this seems like a fine venue to air my gripes to an engaged audience of media scholars. I firmly believe that what we call things matters quite a bit, as labeling and categorizing helps forge the way we think about the world. So when I write to argue against the use of a term, I don’t see it as a petty quibble, but rather as a significant discussion.

In that spirit, I would like to propose that we banish the term “post-network” from the academic conversation about contemporary television (in a voluntary, non-censorious way, of course).

There’s no doubt that television has transitioned into an industrial and technological system distinct from the classic network era that typified the medium’s first few decades. And much of the scholarship using the term “post-network” does a great job characterizing these transitions and transformations. But the term itself obscures more than it reveals, and we should search for another label that avoids these pitfalls:

  • Post-network suggests that networks no longer matter. The recent NBC late night kerfuffle highlights that networks are still central to American television, with the affiliate relationship often ignored but still essential to the industry’s operations and profit centers. Can you imagine similar drama and investment in shuffling hosts on a cable channel? National networks still speak to the broadest range of viewers, and still are dominant in our conception of what television is. Thus the underlying assumption with the term post-network is that we’ve moved beyond networks to a degree that I don’t think is warranted.
  • Post-network doesn’t say what it is, but asserts what it is not. Even if you disagree with the previous point and contend that networks don’t really much matter any more, what has replaced them? As with other “post-” labels in academia, you need to drape any definition in enough caveats and qualifications as to make it essentially non-descriptive. How much ink has been spilled debating what postmodern means, not as a cultural phenomenon but as a term? We don’t need to add to the confusion by using a term that ultimately lacks explanatory power.
  • Post-network is mired in the past. Rather than talking about the present, the term keeps us focused on the way things used to be. If the point is to highlight how much has changed, we need a term to call attention to those new developments, not the (partially) eclipsed past.
  • Post-network suggests the end of the line. What comes after the post-network era? If things will change again – and they will – we will need to back-fill terminologically to distinguish between post-network and post-post-network. (And don’t get me started on neo- …) Let’s avoid this madness while we still have a chance!

As a fairly small academic community, television scholars should be able to come together to devise a better vocabulary that is not mired in the past, that doesn’t require redefining years later, and that actually tells us something about how television and media operate today. In my writing, I’ve used “digital convergence era” to describe the mode of 21st century television – I’m not married to that term, and recognize that convergence as a term has some quibbles and baggage as well. But whatever we use in place of post-network, let’s stop planting posts while we can!

So what do you think? Any defenders of the post out there? Or suggestions for what might replace it?


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26 Responses to “ A Post against “post-“ ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on February 7, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    I had previously agreed with Jason to debate this topic. So here goes:

    First, “post-network era” should not suggest that networks no longer matter. We are not post-network, we are post- the network era. Networks still hold power, but it is vastly diminished, as Comcast’s willingness to buy NBC-U when NBC is imploding (because its cable holdings aren’t) tells us, and as pop culture should remind us. ESPN, Project Runway, The Daily Show, Fox News, Jersey Shore, Mad Men – all of these are just as likely to be topics of discussion as are anything the networks show. The Leno affair and interest sounds to me more like the drowning yell of a bygone era, infused with nostalgia, not a sign of the time.

    So where are we? We don’t precisely know, and thus the term’s lack of specificity may be seen as humble. We talk of post-colonialism and post-feminism without suggesting colonialism or feminism are over, yet with acknowledgment that they continue in forms that are sometimes hard to put a finger on. I have no doubt the term will change one day, but that’s how history works: nobody called it World War I in 1917. The line isn’t over – it will just need renaming, and I readily invite the historians of 2025 to do so with the benefit of hindsight. Granted, it’s awkward for the term to be more about what we’re not than what we are. But perhaps this addresses Jason’s first bullet point, just as post-colonialism as a term does: we’re still stuck under the shadow and the pull of the network era, and until we’re decisively free, perhaps the term should continually gesture to the imposing central force that refuses to surrender?

    As for “digital convergence era,” with respect, I say “meh.” 🙂 Convergence, as media historians will tell us, is nothing new. Digital convergence may be, and I’d agree that this ups the ante considerably. But not everything that’s important about our shifting landscape can be explained by either of these terms. Take the rise of satire on television, for instance, cable channels do not need to be as “safe” as networks used to, and this allows satire some oxygen when before it was often considered too volatile. Its edge also became helpful as a branding strategy for an era of niche/“narrowcasted” media in which a brand is vital. Neither of these things can be explained by digitality or by convergence, whereas the end of the network era explains them quite precisely. Thus, while there are other developments that digital convergence explains beautifully, it’s not helpful here, thereby failing my test of use-ability.

    Perhaps, if I could rush off an alternative, how about “the era of branded narrowcasting”?

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 7, 2010 at 11:35 AM


    • Brett Boessen on February 8, 2010 at 8:56 AM

      And it just rolls off the tongue.

    • Jason Mittell on February 8, 2010 at 9:32 AM

      Here’s my objection to “branded narrowcasting” – it’s less “new” than digital convergence, as arguably the innovations of MTV and ESPN in the 1980s, and even some network scheduling blocks like late-night and Saturday morning in the 1960s, really set the norms in place. And no term will explain everything that’s important about the era, so that’s an unrealistic yardstick. Just as digital convergence might not explain Comedy Central’s role today, branded narrowcasting doesn’t explain Hulu.

      I refer to the ’80s and ’90s as the “multi-channel era,” and that seems more apt for the time in which branded narrowcasting emerged as a major force (if not yet dominant). Today the digital does change the terms of narrowcasting in significant (if not revolutionary) ways, and thus should play a role in any term.

  2. Stephan Packard on February 7, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    I agree that it matters a lot what labels we use, and I think this post does an excellent job at making explicit the main implications of the ‘post-‘ label in ‘post-network’. And yet, after reading this, I am left with the feeling that ‘post-network’ is a more or less adequate term for the current situation of TV precisely because of these connotations.

    I would argue that we might at least consider whether current TV perhaps negotiates precisely those questions: It topicalizes uneasiness about the persisting role of networks; it is more aware of a past form that it uses as a point of reference to describe itself by distinction than of any specific new form; it is thus very much mired in the past, which might be why it is so keen on celebrating innovation as a topic, which always recurs to a discussion of relationships to the past; and as long as that situation remains, it does imply kind of an end of a history, expressed in part by doubts whether post-network TV is still (or will still be) TV at all.

    For instance, “convergence” is an attempt to conceptualize, probably adequately and certainly persuasively, one aspect of innovative forms. But it still describes a process, a change from something that came before, as convergence rather than something ‘converged’ (something consolidated? a monolith? a kind of media monism?). In fact, in most cases it refers to new forms being a bit more convergent than old ones, rather than introducing convergence as a completely new quality; but to experience such a gradual difference requires a past foil. And it isn’t clear to me that the one aspect of convergence pinpoints the one major characteristic of a new era. Aren’t that era’s actual characteristics still in development, and indeed felt and expressed to be so in current TV? And if so, isn’t a term that expresses that mixture of uncertainty, hope and uneasiness a good choice?

  3. Bärbel Göbel on February 7, 2010 at 12:42 PM

    I agree that the ‘post’s mostly create headaches. Amanda D. Lotz in her book ‘Television will be Revolutionized’ deals with the post-post and it is, at that point, clear to me that we obviously all lack the definition Mr. Mittel is asking for. I agree with Mr. Gray, especially after his work on ‘Television Entertainment’ that post-network-era has validity, yet we need a word that addresses what it is we are dealing with right now.
    Yes, Networks are important players in the field still. After all they contribute/d to the ever changing television environment by every now and then bringing the new to the old, as with Lost. Which I find the more helpful defense in Network power. But the relative scarcity with which these programs attract scholars, just look at the conference listings, tells you enough.

    I also think that, though helpful in removing ourselves from old baggage, the proposed TV I, II, and III are non-descriptive also. The problem we truly face here is, that we all have been talking about the massive shifts, the new technology, the changes in program viewing, branding, the niche marketing for so long that we maybe miss the defining character. I believe that the ‘era of branded narrowcasting’ is as good a term as ‘digital convergence era’ in talking about ONE aspect of today’s TV landscape, but since the immense instability is, I feel, at the heart of most of our discussions, it may be important to highlight ‘convergence’ over ‘branding’…

  4. Sheila Seles on February 7, 2010 at 2:04 PM

    I agree with all of you on this. I’m currently writing a Master’s thesis about the challenges facing industrial television audience research today (in whatever “era” this is) and it’s hard not to have a term. Post-network is much too problematic, especially since (as everyone has alluded to) networks aren’t going away, but are rather adding to and changing what they do. NBC, FOX, CBS, and ABC are still networks in the traditional “broadcast” sense and they all have stakes in cable, syndication, DVD distribution, online offerings, etc. NBC, for instance, makes way more money from USA, SyFy, and Bravo than it does from over-the-air NBC. It isn’t that networks have gone away, but that networks have changed their business models to account for more than just broadcasting.

    Sometimes I am tempted to call it the “networked” era because of the profound shift from the dominance of “television network” to the dominance of networked audiences. This is kind of what convergence gets at: people can interact with content and interact with each other across a variety of platforms. And we are struggling to figure out the cultural and economic value of those interactions. Still, I think it would be really confusing to refer to the “networked era” alongside the “network era.”

    Stephan’s last sentence made me think that television is in its adolescence. As a medium, television is young compared to publishing, film, and radio. TV is rebelling against the previous generation. It’s awkward and gangly and it’s getting in trouble a lot. We all know it’s going to mature out of this phase eventually, but all we can do is wait and guess what it’s going to grow into. I’m not seriously suggesting anyone calls this television’s teen years, but it’s the best I can come up with…

  5. Tim Anderson on February 7, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    My biggest problem with Post-Network is that it points to a a set of historical conditions where only a few networks dominated and, well, our television is becoming more and more networked. While my family has two old CRT RCA cable driven machines in our house, we look forward to the day when we can buy an LCD big screen 1080pi screen with wifi, an ethernet port and a hard drive. That said, my Wii is a YouTube machine that is about to become my Netflix port once I receive the Wii Netflix software. If anything, The television is part of larger more profound and more complex networks, to be sure. Nothing “Post” about that.

    By the way, convergence is also a historical marker, which I have both publicly and privately inveighed against. When everything has “converged” explaining convergence culture to someone who has grown up in that media ecosystem will be useless unless that person is studying media history. As someone who is interested in history, I am not willing to give up the marker. However, the limits of these neologisms not only limit our understanding but our ability to engage others.

    Now, what to call it s something else, isn’t it?

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 8, 2010 at 9:56 AM

      Everything “Post” about it, because you really are describing a different network. If anything, we are in the Digitally Renetworked Era.

      • Tim Anderson on February 8, 2010 at 1:17 PM

        The problem is that the description of difference only makes sense if you understand the difference. My students and a growing portion of the US do not. I honestly think most think a network is a network is a network. I don’t believe that, but it’s a problem because the term network is where the slippage occurs. In broadcasting we understand it as a centralized O&O + affiliate structure. Just about everyone else doesn’t. That’s my issue with the term.

  6. Jason Mittell on February 7, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    All of this reminds us that academics are usually much better at tearing down terms & concepts than proposing new ones. Hence “post-network” does the former while punting on the latter. Keep brainstorming!

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 8, 2010 at 9:53 AM

      Perhaps, but I think Jonathan is correct in noting the difficulty of naming something that truly is in the process of being turned upside down (I like the World War I analogy). Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but it does suggest that our inability to describe what is going on in simple terms reflects the difficulty of the moment, not some inate flaw in the critical mind.

      I do find it interesting how we (given the comments above) still gravitate toward the structural or technological for a term to capture the zeitgeist, as opposed to feeling comfortable with one of the two primary components of the change–the end-user (digital being the other). I appreciate the political economy of production and the continued defining role of “the industry” (whatever that is in this day and age) in providing the major components of what we call “television.” With that said, we are in a period in which user-choice really has fucked it all up (so to speak).

  7. Jeffrey Jones on February 8, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    So, how about that? If we have to stay with the focus on technology and structures–the Digitally Renetworked Era?

  8. Sheila Seles on February 8, 2010 at 10:11 AM

    I’m ok with “digitally renetworked” because it describes what will probably be one of the most important characteristics of this period from both the industry and end-user perspective. As Jon and others have mentioned it’s hard to know how to characterize this era until we know what’s going to happen next. There are a bunch of possibilities and it’s hard to know what’s going to emerge as the next dominant form of television. We can call the 80s and 90s the multi-channel because in hindsight, narrowcasting, audience fragmentation, and cable deregulation were the biggest game-changers in that period. Perhaps this will be the time right before subscription models take off, or the pre-authentication period. Until we know, I suppose “Digitally Renetworked” is as good a term as any.

  9. Derek Kompare on February 8, 2010 at 2:29 PM

    Everyone is right. There’s way too many things that accurately describe media today to boil down to any one phrase (and please, no “digital”; that’s a whole other can o’ worms…).

    I vote for simplicity: the 21st century. 🙂

  10. Liz Ellcessor on February 8, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    If you’re liking “digitally renetworked era,” you might also want to check out David Parry’s reflections on the terrible term “new media” at Flow – http://flowtv.org/?p=4771.

    • Jeffrey Jones on February 8, 2010 at 8:21 PM

      There is something “disturbing” about academics discussing terminology and calling it “dangerous.” Dick Cheney is dangerous. Calling major cultural and economic shifts associated with the mass appropriation of different technologies “new”–despite the fact that we used to be able to print out our name in pixels across these long sheets of paper for birthday parties back in the 60s and 70s, or some PhDs at UCLA and Stanford could send some work to someone else at Illinois–is anything but “dangerous.”

      But I guess this relates. I have used the word “new” before in naming (“New Political Television”), but as with what Jonathan writes above, it is a bit difficult to offer a name for something as it is newly emergent or rapidly developing (for me, in the late-1990s/early 2000s, though we still don’t have an adequate name to describe the intersections of entertainment and politics–at least a term that would take those interactions seriously). But maybe as Jonathan correctly suggests in a similar post (http://www.extratextual.tv/2009/06/isnt-new-getting-a-bit-old/), we are rapidly coming up on 20 years of “new media” language–perhaps time for some precision. But in many ways, isn’t that difficulty what this whole post and discussion points to?

      • Jeffrey Jones on February 8, 2010 at 8:26 PM

        Or to add one point–I guess “new” is like “post” in that its value is in what it is not, its negation (but again, that is what started this post (pun intended). As noted above, I don’t have a problem with that.

  11. Amanda "Post-Network" Lotz on February 9, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    I guess as perhaps an obvious proponent (or at least open user) of post-network, I should offer a few comments.
    Jason Mittell is not dead to me. I see a number of his points. In fact, I’ve adopted his chosen distinction of networks (broadcast) v. channels (cable), despite the fact that this too has troublesome aspects.

    Words matter, but they have their limits and at some point I’ve found as an author, you need to accept some baggage and just pick a word. I spent the better part of the last decade arguing the merits of a particular definition of postfeminism—and that was a theoretically-based distinction. I don’t relish a repeat with post-network. Jason offered this critique when I was drafting The Television Will Be Revolutionized and I gave it a lot of thought and responded to his key concerns in presenting it in the book—so I’ll not rehash that here.

    I think the tail of this discussion that gets to the socio-historical context of naming is particularly helpful. I don’t think I could have identified the multi-channel transition as such in the late 1980s or even early 1990s. It is only with the passage of time that it becomes clear that of all of the changes television experienced in that timeframe, it was the development of a more multi-channel environment that truly defines that period’s shift.

    Maybe a decade or 15 years from now, we’ll be able to say that the shift that begins in the early 2000s is one of digital convergence. As of today though, I don’t buy it. Sure the technical capability is there, but we need time to see what really happens with the way most people really use television, how industrial practices adapt, etc. I suspect digital will be key, but maybe not in the ways that currently seem most obvious.

    Sure, post-network has its limits, but I remain in the camp comfortable with it as the best of current options (thanks to others who have articulated them here).

    • Jason Mittell on February 9, 2010 at 4:06 PM

      Damn – this whole post was just a ruse to start a public blood feud with Amanda!

      I concur that what we call it in 20 years should be more accurate than today, and hindsight matters. But I’m pretty sure that post-network will not be the best term, while digital convergence or digital renetworked/-ing might be. I’d rather risk being wrong than knowingly use a term that’s bound to cause problems in hindsight.

      And I look forward to the next generation of media scholars mocking us for talking about the “digital” when quantum computing becomes commonplace!

      • Amanda "Post-Network" Lotz on February 10, 2010 at 1:39 PM

        Let’s mark our calendars now–we’ll propose a workshop for SCMS 2030 on the Future and/or Death of Television. We can offer our preferred categorization, poll those who show up, and the winner buys dinner.

        • Tim Anderson on February 10, 2010 at 6:51 PM

          This conversation goes straight into the time capsule

        • Jonathan Gray on February 10, 2010 at 9:46 PM

          Or perhaps it will already be called the Society for Digital Convergence Studies by then? 😉

          • Jason Mittell on February 11, 2010 at 8:15 AM

            No – it will be Society for Cinema and Digital Convergence Studies…

  12. Jeffrey Jones on February 12, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    Maybe the problem is we have this backwards, and need to turn it on its head. In 2010, we NOW understand what a real “network” truly is (despite the fact we’ve lived with phone networks for a long time), not the oligopoly of program distribution that transformed local broadcasting and licensure into three national behemoths. We have willfully adopted the language they used–networks–when, in fact, what a weak-ass conception of a “network” it truly was. In short, the “wealth of networks” available to us today that Benkler describes looks nothing like what we call the “network era” of mass communication. What we live in TODAY is the Networked Era (Digitally Networked/ing Era). What happened from 1946-1985 was instead the Oligop Era.