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Audiovisual geopolitics: cinema, television and digital

Professor Balestrieri traces the history of the audiovisual industry for LUISS University Press

Luca Balestrieri LUISS

The audiovisual industry, told through the history of film and television productions, from the 19th century to modern times. 

Published by LUISS University Press as a part of the Piccole Introduzioni series by Professor Luca Balestrieri, instructor of Economics and Media Management in the Department of Business and Management, analyzing cultural audio-visual products, starting retracing changes in consumptiontechnology and productive mechanisms.

“Cinema, television and the internet are phases of a process that has grown and expanded into a variety of forms of production and consumption of audiovisual images,” explains Professor Balestrieri. “These phases are part of a single process, starting at the end of the 19th century, when more industrialized countries experienced increases in both income and free time, which translated into a constant increase in the demand for entertainment outside of theaters. Thanks to a combination of optical, chemical and mechanical innovation, cinema guaranteed rapid production acceleration.”

The consequential explosion of audiovisual consumption became one of the defining characteristics of the 20th century, giving birth to an image-based society, the culture of mass viewing, and a new regime of cultural products. “The quality-price ratio offered by cinema satisfied the potential demand of a new audience. Yet, just as cinema was an invention in line with the spirit of its age, the arrival of television represented an even more logical innovation: following World War II, the ever-increasing demand for content  went hand-in-hand with the an even lower price for the end user. Television changed the business model and the primary source of funding, from end user spending  and ticket prices, we turned to advertising and commercial investment.”

This lack of symmetry created a divide within audiovisual industry, where low-cost cinematographic production was slowly replaced with television production. “When television found its language, cinemas hemorrhaged spectators, that only high concept cinema and blockbusters, but only partially, are able to compensate. To survive, cinema had to concentrate on investment in production and promotion, theater saturation and concentrated, contemporary release dates. Today, the most important films have theatrical windows of less than a year, with the majority of their box office earnings arriving in the few days after a film’s release.”

L'industria delle immagini LUISS University Press

The most recent phase began in the 1980s, with the introduction of cable TV and the first VHS players to the recent appearance of Netflix. “Internet has brought an end to a decades-long system, guaranteeing consumers the freedom to choose what they want, when they want it, and on which screen they want it. Both the profile of the industry and the product have changed, if we can say that television brought entertainment behind domestic walls, Netflix has changed our concept of experience, that today focuses on instant gratification and highly personalized consumption. The effect of digitalized content not only increased offer, but brought us over-the-top (OTT) production houses, that invest in content while saving on transmission costs, which are covered by the end user and the internet connection provider.”

The new market of the audio-visual industry, responds to what Professor Balestrieri refers to as audiovisual geopolitics. “In this long century of images, American cinema has prevailed in the global market thanks to higher investment and the possibility to create true economies to scale. In recent years, new players are growing in Asia; China is incubating important providers of digital sevices, such as Alibaba and Baidu, while the European industry risks increasing marginalization from countries that have increasingly important productive and distributive capabilities, like South Korea. Hollywood is moving from an Atlantic axis to a Pacific one, marking both attention to the tastes of an increasingly transversal public and growing alliance with a rich industry, still in an embryonic phase. Audio-visual geopolitics is this series of exchanges, from a monopolar world to a potentially multipolar audio-visual scene that is becoming ever more essential to understand and analyze.”