Institute for Screen Industries Research

The Value of Historicising Media Industry Practices

In Captain America: The Winter Solider, the latest in a string of superhero Hollywood blockbusters, the titular character – a World War II super-soldier from the 1940s who is frozen in the past – awakens in the modern world and must adapt to the twenty-first century.

Actively looking for historical media precedents can force us to be even more nuanced in describing what is specific to our present media moment.

Matthew Freeman

Matthew Freeman is a PhD Candidate in Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham and Visiting Lecturer in Media and Communication at Birmingham City University.


Captain America is simultaneously old and young, both a relic of the past and a dominant symbol of the present. Captain America and the media industries thus have something in common: both have long, complicated histories that stretch across many decades and yet both operate very differently depending on the context in which they work.

Understanding Captain America – fully gauging how he does what he does, and why he does what he does – means understanding the character as part of a much longer historical development. The same is true for the study of media industries.This idea is one of historicisation, and it raises important methodological challenges for what we can understand as media industry studies. Understanding and grappling with the many methodological issues encountered when attempting to engage with media industries as the basis of our academic work as researchers is central to such work, yet it also often seems to lurk in the background of such work. Rather than acknowledging the difficulties that manifest when trying to produce academic research that is somehow not only about industry but simultaneously beneficial for industry, more often than not it seems more ‘academic’ of us – particularly as emerging scholars in this field of media industry studies – to simply pretend those difficulties do not exist. We are often trained to look past the limitations of our methodologies, to disguise the potential shortcomings of our media industry research with clever signposting and contextualisation strategies.

If anything, the problem only escalates further when history comes into the equation. Precisely which histories are we talking about exactly? How do we decide to piece together fragments of a historical moment, and why should certain fragments be understood as integral to certain seemingly unrelated media industry practices? Broadly speaking, does the cultural moment inform the media, or does the media inform the cultural moment? Indeed, what is ‘context’ in the context of media industry history? And, perhaps most significantly of all, how can we even begin to conduct useful and relevant research about media industries when those industries in question exist in the past, out of date and out of reach from conventional research strategies such as interviewing?

These questions have come up in my own research, which has sought, primarily, to historicise transmedia – to understand how the cultural moments of the past century have informed the (trans)media practices of the present. I have attempted to demonstrate that historicising an ostensibly contemporary media phenomenon such as transmedia can allow us to more fully understand what this media practice really is, how it first emerged and developed as a defining industry activity, how it has changed and evolved over time, and accordingly what it might one day become. But from a methodological standpoint, one question still remains: Why bother historicising? What can the past activities of media industries teach those working in the same industries today? I am currently working on a new book that must deal with this very issue, and as stated in the proposal to that book: ‘To reconstruct the origins of transmedia practices and to understand the evolution of these ‘new’ narratives formats is one of the challenges for media researchers.’ But, again, why is this even important?

It certainly does not have to be transmedia that we are talking about. But as media researchers interested in historicisation as a specific sub-methodology there has to be some kind of value in tracing the history of what seems at face value to be more ostensibly contemporary-bound (or at least more contemporarily dominant) media phenomena; transmedia is only one example of this. My own work serves to dig much deeper and elaborate much more fully on the ways in which early twentieth-century creators told stories across media, engaging with the industrial-cultural affordances behind the production of such stories. I flag this up as an example since it usefully demonstrates the idea that contemporary media industry developments can actually help us to see the past through new eyes; actively looking for historical media precedents can force us to be even more nuanced in describing what is specific to our present media moment. In much the same way as we must continuously comprehend his history in the 1940s in order to understand the Captain America of today, it is only through such re-interrogations of past media industry practices that we can begin to more accurately comprehend that which has provoked the industrial developments of the present.

Yet from a methodological standpoint, part of the problem in doing such research is openly acknowledging – and, quite often, battling – with the incongruent, incoherent, and typically indecisive pull of history itself. David Hesmondhalgh (2007) identifies that media industries operate in a highly complex struggle between continuity and change. Some practices remain the same, some are new; many others are a fraught combination of the old and the new. As media researchers, therefore, we must often theorise entirely different conceptual models for examining what it is to be a historical form or precedent of industry activity during the contexts and structures of the past, rather than simply trying to apply its present incarnations to the contexts and structures of the past.

A logical line of questioning might be to ask: What does it mean to understand an industrial media practice as a historical media practice? What did this practice look like as part of a historical setting – and what role(s) did it have in that historical setting? And yet part of the real value of historicising the practices of media industries is to (re)understand these practices as simultaneously being born from very different cultural moments and industrial forces whilst also operating as the blueprints or prototypes that would later inform the decisive components of our present media landscape.  

When engaging with the possible history – or histories – of media industries we must therefore work harder than ever to identify the connections between industry and culture. Understanding the activities of the media industries of the past means comprehending these industries not simply through the study of their media outputs but more so through the broader activities of surrounding industrial-cultural developments. 

Consider one example from my own research. Advertising at the turn of the twentieth century, a fast-developing industry and system of cultural and commercial communication, can provide us with a source of early transmedia. Of course, this implies that transmedia, as a specifically historical practice of the emerging media industries, was constantly changing forms and was, essentially, everywhere – from the giant billboards on the side of buildings to the artistic arrangements in shop windows, from the media forms of newspaper comic strips to, eventually, the cinema and the radio. Each, after all, served to attract the audience’s attention with content before steering them elsewhere, across platforms to other related content in texts and products in a very transmedial fashion (Freeman 2014). Only via the methodological process of historicisation – broadening our reach as media-industry researchers to other disciplinary concerns such as marketing and communication – can we more fully understand something like transmedia as itself the industrialised slippage of commercial logos, fictional characters, and brands across platforms well over a hundred years ago.

Many of the practices and activities dominating the work of the media industries today are built from much older processes of industrialisation and consumer culture. Our present media practices are embedded as part of a tangled web that includes the economic and cultural fabric of the past. We might say that our job as media-industry researchers is therefore to try and untangle that economic fabric, and as media-industry historians to trace how media practices have evolved across the face of history. Doing so will enable us to understand ever-changing media-industry developments as more of a traceable dialogue, thus more specifically revealing how the past can influence the present – and in turn carve the path for the future of media industry developments.


Matthew Freeman, ‘Advertising the Yellow Brick Road: Historicising the Industrial Emergence of Transmedia Storytelling,’ International Journal of Communication (SI: Transmedia Critical: Empirical Investigations into Multiplatform and Collaborative Storytelling) (9) May 2014.

David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries (London: SAGE, 2007)

Present media practices are embedded in a web that includes the economic and cultural fabric of the past.


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Institute for Screen Industries Research

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