Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat It?

E. It’s the Content, Stupid

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E. It’s the Content, Stupid

The Master Switch does not attempt to offer a complete history of the American film. As he does throughout the book, Wu focuses on a few important nodal moments in the development of the industry in order to distill key lessons for media industries. But Wu’s account of the film business is very different from his account of other industries. Here, technological change does not loom very large. He does not focus on how the coming of sound, color, home video, or digital cinema challenged the closed order of the industry. There is no Kronos effect in his history of Hollywood, although that might have been a fascinating investigation. Instead, Wu seems to pick moments when consolidation and content clash. The Independents defeated the Trust by introducing stars and feature films. Block booking pushes competitors out of the market. Consolidation also makes it possible for religious groups to impose prior restraints on the industry through the Production Code. And the conglomerates’ takeover of studios leads to safer business practices, like relying on hits that have been proven in other media. If there is a lesson in these chapters, it is, as he tells us in his account of block booking, that content and not just economics must be considered when regulating and evaluating the structure of cultural industries and its impact on diversity. Wu, however, does not give us any clues about how to go about measuring the cultural value of film output.

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