Why is it so hard to get interviews with representatives from global media platforms, and what does the lack of access do to our research and scholarly debate?
During the past five years, I have been lucky enough to participate in three large-scale research projects on media industry change. Critical questions have been how streaming is changing the cultural industries, how a disrupted media industry calls for new policy solutions and how television makers produce and distribute drama in an increasingly globalised television market. Interviews with industry élites and so-called exclusive informants (Bruun 2016) have been a critical method in all three projects. The aim has been to investigate industry strategies and ‘industry lore’ (Havens and Lotz 2012), that is, how industry decision-makers think and talk about the changes taking place. In total, the three projects include interviews with more than one hundred and fifty managers, industry executives, decision-makers, and producers from the Norwegian film, television, news, music and book industry, in addition to several media policymakers and regulators. The television industry list includes broadcasting directors and CEOs from major television companies, award-winning showrunners and producers, strategic leaders of drama, children and youth divisions, national online platform representatives, below-the-line workers, and more. Access to informants has been critical, and, with some glaring exceptions that I will return to, I have been fortunate to have informants willing to participate and share their opinions on trends, opportunities, challenges, and strategies.
In one of the projects, studies also included lengthy periods of ethnographic research during which an even more profound level of access was granted: in 2015, I followed the production of an online youth series for close to a year, analysing how a newspaper-turning-online-television-provider translated ‘television’ in their new production and publishing routines (Sundet 2016). Relatedly, two years later, I followed the production of a public service online drama for a year, investigating the production logic behind this format as well as the close industry-audience relationship it invited (Sundet 2021). In each of the cases, I had to negotiate access; however, both production teams had an open and welcoming attitude towards me as an outside researcher. In the latter case, I was even granted an admission card, given access to internal working documents and analytical tools, and invited to decide for myself which meetings or parts of the production I was interested in observing. All this is to say that I find the Norwegian media industry remarkably willing to take part in media industry studies and provide researchers with perspectives on how to understand the current changes taking place, how these changes impact them, and how they navigate this landscape.
Naturally, the level of openness varies, and informants will frequently avoid questions, withhold information and turn to ‘corporate talk’ when asked about strategies and business models. While some interviews are formal and corporate from start to end, others include gossip and off-the-record stories, knowing our research ethic prohibits us from quoting them without their consent. Their statements are valuable anyway. And even strategic communication and ‘corporate talk’ is significant, precisely because it uncovers strategies at work. Furthermore, tapping into industry workers’ ‘world views’ through interviews contextualise their strategic thinking and provide researchers with a better grasp of the many ‘why’s’ and ‘how’s’. I have always treasured interviews as a golden ticket for knowledge and information. And it is the perfect method for getting quotes to spice up academic texts.
Strikingly, but not surprisingly, one group of people has been hard to reach: informants representing global media platforms—Netflix, HBO, YouTube, and Google. In one of the projects, we managed to get an interview with a Facebook representative and in another, we got an informant from Spotify. Besides these two, however, representatives from global platforms kept turning our interview requests down, even when we proposed long time horizons (interviews within the next one to three months) and informed them of their right to approve any quotes and withdraw at any time. We were repeatedly told by global platform representatives that they “did not have time” or “did not have anything to say”, if they even answered at all (and yes, we tried using industry contacts to set us up, but taking part was nevertheless opt-out). We may have been incredibly unlucky but discussing this issue with other scholars led me to think it is a more frequent problem for researchers approaching global platform representatives. And it is problematic.
I understand the difficulties of finding time in a busy schedule. I also understand the challenges of discussing strategy work in national markets when you represent a global brand, most of them with headquarters in the US. I also accept that national media companies have tighter relationships to national researchers. A fair share of the industry workers and decision-makers we interviewed had their background and training from the universities now approaching them for research purposes. For instance, in the projects mentioned above, I have interviewed both old classmates and master students, now holding key positions in the industry. Trust is also an issue here as industry workers and individual researchers often negotiate access over time after partaking in the same industry events and sharing analyses and data with each other.
The lack of access to information on and informants with representatives from global platforms is nevertheless troublesome, for three reasons.
First, global platforms are increasingly taking key positions in national markets, highlighting the need to study them. Research on platform power shows how global platforms radically change institutional dynamics, and that national media institutions increasingly need to cope with an uneven playing field (Evens and Donders 2018). Even though national streaming services still hold relevance in the Norwegian market, global streaming platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and Disney+ have gained central positions (Futsæther 2020). The use of global platforms is exceptionally high in younger audience groups (12-19 years), who tend to consume global rather than a national media (Strømmen 2020). Relatedly, several industry leaders we interviewed talked about a shift from a ‘national competition to a world championship’, with real consequences for both the industry, the audience and society (Sundet 2021). The Covid-19 pandemic, with its quest for social distancing and lockdown, has increased the use of streaming platforms (national and global) even more (Futsæther 2020), echoing findings from studies in other national markets (Johnsen and Dempsey 2020). Researching global platforms is, therefore, essential.
Second, secondary sources on global platforms and their strategies and actions are valuable but cannot replace industry interviews as a critical method to investigate scholarly defined research questions. Media industry studies have often relied on multiple sources and paratexts—including institutional documents, annual reports and leadership talks on YouTube, press coverage, biographies, fan texts and branding material. Indeed, excellent studies apply these sources when investigating industry-audience relations (Gray 2010, Hills 2015), global streaming services (Jenner 2018, Johnsen 2019, Lobato 2019) and television marketing strategies (Burroughs 2019, Grainge and Johnson 2015, Troy 2015). I have also enjoyed the books on former Apple-boss Steve Jobs, former Disney-boss Robert Iger and current Netflix-boss Reed Hastings, precisely because they give a peek into these leaders’ perceptions on leadership and technology shifts. Yet, the use of such industry texts presents these companies and leaders in the way they want to be presented and they seldom answer all the research questions one would have. Besides, the lack of transparency on audience numbers, business strategies and internal guidelines (and more!) mean these platforms give details on some aspects of their activities while withholding information on others, making a real investigation hard. Relying on secondary sources also makes it more challenging to compare industry strategies and perceptions across companies and industries, a key aim of the projects mentioned above. Of course, secondary sources also request scholars to accept the original context in which these sources were produced, making it harder to validate their truthfulness.
Third, and more fundamentally, I want to talk about television with global platform representatives because I want to understand their worldview, way of thinking and rationale. And I fear that the unusually welcoming approach from national legacy media in combination with the extraordinarily non-welcoming approach by global media platforms may bias my way of thinking about television. How do global platforms talk about television and to what extent do they differ from legacy television institutions? What do they see as the main opportunities and challenges at hand? How do they define the relationship with national producers, broadcasters, and regulators? And how do their definitions and perceptions of television, success and audiences impact and nuance our research and scholarly debate? I am not asking for a long ethnographic study within a global platform (but hell, yes, I would do it!). But I find it only fair to ask that global platforms gaining key positions in national markets display a mininmum level of openness towards researchers (and others). It benefits everyone.
Vilde Schanke Sundet (PhD) is a researcher in media and communication at the University of Oslo. She has published extensively on television production, media industries, media policy and audiences/fans, and is an online drama expert. Sundet has a forthcoming book entitled Television Drama in the Age of Streaming (Palgrave, 2021). See more www.vildessundet.org/
Bruun, Hanne (2016) “The Qualitative Interview in Media Production Studies”, pp. 131-146 in Chris Paterson, David Lee, Anamik Saha and Anna Zoellner (eds.) Advancing Media Production Research. Global Transformations in Media and Communication Research. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.
Burroughs, Benjamin (2018) “House of Netflix: Streaming media and digital lore”, Popular Communication, 17:1; 1-17.
Evens, Tom and Karen Donders (2018) Platform Power and Policy in Transforming Television Markets. London: Palgrave.
Futsæther, Knut-Arne (2020) Aldri har mediebruken endret seg så dramatisk. Oslo: Kantar.
Grainge, Paul and Catherine Johnson (2015) Promotional Screen Industries. London: Routledge.
Gray, Jonathan (2010) Show Sold Separately. Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts. New York and London: New York University Press.
Hastings, Reed and Erin Meyer (2020) No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. Penguin Press.
Havens, Timothy and Amanda D. Lotz (2012) Understanding Media Industries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hills, Matt (2015) Doctor Who: The Unfolding Event. Marketing, Merchandising and Mediatizing a Brand Anniversary. London: Palgrave.
Iger, Robert (2019) The Ride of a Lifetime. Lessons in Creative Leadership. Transworld.
Isacson, Walter (2011) Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Jenner, Mareike (2018) Netflix and the Re-Invention of Television. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Johnsen, Catherine and Lauren Dempsey (2020) “How coronavirus might have changed TV viewing habits for good – new research”, The Conversation. Available: https://theconversation.com/how-coronavirus-might-have-changed-tv-viewing-habits-for-good-new-research-146040
Johnson, Catherine (2019) Online TV. New York: Routledge.
Lobato, Ramon (2019) Netflix Nations. The Geography of Digital Distribution. New York: New York University Press.
Strømmen, Nils Petter (2020) Medietrender Ung 12-19. Oslo: Kantar.
Sundet, Vilde Schanke (2016) “VGTV-serien Oljebarna. Produksjon og publisering av TV for nett”, pp. 121-141 in Eva Bakøy, Tore Helseth and Roel Puijk (eds.) Bak kamera. Nordisk film og Tv i et produksjonsperspektiv. Vallset: Oplandske Bokforlag.
Sundet, Vilde Schanke (2021) Television Drama in the Age of Streaming. Transnational Strategies and Digital Production Cultures at the NRK. London: Palgrave.
Tryon, Chuck (2015) “TV Got Better: Netflix Original Programming Strategies and Binge Viewing”, Media Industries Journal 2:2; 104-116.
 These projects are my postdoctoral project on digital production cultures in the television industry, part of the ‘Success in the film and television’ project (SIFTI, hosted by the Lillehammer University College from 2013-2016); the ‘Disruptive change and new media policies: a field approach’ project (DISC, hosted by the Norwegian Institute for Social Research from 2016-2020); and the ‘Streaming the culture industries’ project (STREAM, hosted by University of Oslo from 2017-2020). The Research Council of Norway funded all three projects. The interview studies of all three projects were registered and approved by the Norwegian Centre of Research Data.