Media convergence is a term that can refer to either: 1) the merging of previously distinct media technologies and media forms due to digitization and computer networking; or 2) an economic strategy in which the media properties owned by communications companies employ digitization and computer networking to work together (see Media Ownership).
Media Convergence as Technological Convergence
For much of media history, it made sense to talk about various analog media forms — books, newspapers, radio, television, cinema — as distinct technologies belonging to separate industries. However, the combination of digitization and computer networking has resulted in the breaking down of these traditional media silos and the integration of all media, enabling the immediate and global exchange of every kind of content.
This technological convergence simplifies the production of media content while also greatly expanding, accelerating and facilitating its distribution, often with associated cost savings. A digital photograph, for example, can be shot and circulated globally within seconds via the Internet, eliminating the need for film processing, printing and physical distribution. Similarly, consumers can access multiple forms of media content — books, radio and television programs, music, movies, newspapers — on their computers, smart phones or other devices at a time and place of their choosing, often for free. With technological convergence, the electronic transmission of data, which can be exponential, replaces the more singular, physical transportation of material goods.
Technological convergence has also lowered the barriers to entry for media production. Digitization allows consumers of media content to become producers and distributors of media content as well, whether they are hobbyists frequenting social media sites or professionals (e.g., designers, filmmakers, musicians, writers, etc.) seeking to establish themselves. Some analysts see this as a democratization of media; anyone with access to digital media and a computer network can produce, consume and circulate media content.
Our experience with convergence to date, however, has also revealed some drawbacks. Not everyone has ready and affordable access to digital media, or the skills to employ them, creating a digital divide between information haves and have-nots in a society where connectivity to computer networks (and the literacy required to navigate them) is increasingly important. Also, the ubiquity of digital media and the tracking capacity of computer programs have resulted in increased surveillance, prompting concerns about personal privacy.
Furthermore, the rapid change of digital formats, the dynamism of digital content and the massive quantity of data lead to concerns about the storage, preservation and protection of communications and cultural materials deemed important to the public record. The ease with which digital content can be copied, manipulated and redistributed presents a challenge to existing copyright law and complicates any attempts to prevent the pirating of intellectual content, as the music, film and television industries have discovered. The free circulation of media content has also posed a serious threat to the economic viability of traditional media industries, such as book and newspaper publishing.
Media Convergence as Corporate Convergence
This strategy is a product of three elements: 1) digitization; 2) corporate concentration, whereby fewer large companies own more media properties (see also Royal Commission on Corporate Concentration); and 3) government deregulation, which has increasingly allowed media conglomerates to own different kinds of media (e.g., television and radio stations, and newspapers) in the same markets, and which has permitted content carriage companies (e.g., cable and satellite TV distributors) to own content producers (e.g., specialty TV channels).
Corporate convergence allows companies to reduce labour, administrative and material costs, to use the same media content across several media outlets, to provide advertisers with package deals for a number of media platforms, and to increase brand recognition and brand loyalty among audiences through cross-promotion and cross-selling. At the same time, it raises significantly the economic barriers to newcomers seeking to enter media markets, thus limiting competition for converged companies. Historically, communications companies have formed newspaper chains and networks of radio and TV stations to realize many of these same advantages, and convergence can be seen as the expansion and intensification of this same logic.
In Canada, Quebecor has become the champion of media convergence, hoping to benefit from the cross-purposing and cross-promotion of the content it produces and distributes. Quebecor is active in newspaper, magazine and book publishing, television production and cable distribution, cable and wireless telephony, internet services, music and video distribution and retailing, and video game development. Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), through its media subsidiaries Bell and Bell Media, is involved in conventional and mobile telephony, television production and distribution, internet services, radio and outdoor advertising. Rogers is Canada's largest wireless telephone carrier, and has interests in internet service provision, television production and distribution, radio and magazine publishing. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has also changed its profile from a radio and television broadcaster to a converged, multi-platform media organization with web services, and mobile news and music applications. The CBC radio program Q, for example, is televised on CBC television and has its own web site and YouTube channel.
While corporate convergence can be beneficial to companies, there are potential undesirable consequences, including: a reduction in competition; increased barriers to entry for new companies; the further commercialization of the media; and the treatment of audiences as consumers rather than citizens. The substantial costs of corporate mergers have also led converged companies to seek profits through cost-cutting rather than increased investment in communication services.
Corporate convergence also prompts concerns about the quality of corporate journalism, such as: the role of the media in democratic societies to provide objective information and analysis to an informed citizenry; the independence of journalists; the range of voices and diversity of viewpoints on current events; coverage of local issues; and conflicts of interest between properties owned by the same company.
Mike Gasher, “From the Business of Journalism to Journalism as Business: 1990 to the Present,” in The New Journalist: Rules, Skills, and Critical Thinking, ed. Paul Benedetti, Tim Currie, and Kim Kierans (Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications, 2010), 63–76.
August E. Grant, and Jeffrey S. Wilkinson, eds., Understanding Media Convergence: The State of the Field (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
David Skinner, James R. Compton, and Mike Gasher, eds., Converging Media, Diverging Politics: A Political Economy of News Media in the United States and Canada (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005).
G. Pitts, Kings of Convergence: The Fight for Control of Canada's Media (2002); C. McKercher, Newsworkers Unite: Labor, Convergence, and North American Newspapers (2002).
Dillan Theckedath and Terrence J. Thomas, “Media Ownership and Convergence in Canada,” Library of Parliament Research Publications, Industry, Infrastructure and Resources Division (10 April 2012).
Walter C. Soderlund, Colette Brin, Lydia Miljan, and Kai Hildebrandt, Cross-Media Ownership and Democratic Practice in Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012).
Mike Gasher, David Skinner, and Rowland Lorimer, Mass Communication in Canada, 7th ed. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2012).