Cultural diversity, digital technologies and innovation: A viewpoint by Heritiana Ranaivoson

Blog: Voices and Viewpoints
Autore: Lidia Varbanova - Data: 22 Set 2011, 13:40

Heritiana Ranaivoson is a Senior Researcher at IBBT-SMIT, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). He studied Economics and Management at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan (France) and obtained his PhD in Economics (Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne). He was a member of the Unesco Expert Group on the Statistical measurement of the diversity of cultural expressions (2007-2011) and since 2008 he is part of the U40-Capacity Building Programme „Cultural Diversity 2030“. Heritiana has been a visiting lecturer in the universities of Paris 1, Lyon 3, Senghor (Egypt), Paris 8 and at Ina SUP. His research and teaching fields include: media innovation, cultural diversity, copyright and the impact of digital technologies on the media and cultural industries.

1. Heritiana, you are a Senior Researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel Could you share with us the current projects on which you are working at the moment? What are your future research plans?

I am currently working on projects that address the impact of digital technologies on media industries, notably the threats and opportunities related to the development of the Internet and the new Internet uses. One of these projects deals with the transaction costs that the European online music services (e.g. web radios, digital store) have to consider in order to get an access to music content. Actually these services have to find, and negotiate with, the owner(s) of the contents and it has to be done at every national level. It is one of the main obstacles to the development of online music services, in particular for cross-border exchanges.

Another, more long-term, project deals with the impact of innovation on the diversity of cultural expressions. For example, how does a new technology modify cultural consumption patterns? What are the consequences of various media policy options on media diversity?

One of our aims at IBBT-SMIT (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) is to pursue further the economic analysis of the media industries on more qualitative issues such as diversity or innovation. There is now a well-established literature on topics related to business model and market issues. In contrast, there is nothing comprehensive on qualitative dimensions. We want to explore the link between such dimensions and the content’s economic value, e.g. the role of content innovation in the short- and long-term success of broadcasters.  

2. What was your main motivation to chose a career in the field of cultural and media policy and management, especially related to media industries and innovation, cultural diversity and copyright?

When I was young I wanted to work as a musician. Then I realized that I also liked studying and researching. The focus of my research naturally became the music sector and gradually encompassed cultural industries in general. Beyond my personal taste for cultural products (from theatre plays to video games), I do think that scholars can play a role to improve the knowledge of both cultural policy and management.

Thus, technological innovation is promising for the media industries but could be better fostered in the sense of promoting cultural diversity. The current set-up of copyright is also certainly far from perfect as it currently first favours the concentration of the cultural and media industries.

3. One of your areas of academic interest and teaching is the crossings between cultural economics and the digital world. What on your view are the main challenges and problems when discussing the impact of digitalization on cultural and media industries?  What are the main economic consequences?

Digital technologies provide the opportunity for cultural and media industries to become much more diverse. First, it is far easier and cheaper to become a content producer. In addition consumers have access to a much more diverse set of contents than ever. I do not think however that technology alone can lead to such a result. Policies and most of all the organization of cultural industries are crucial in the way digital technologies impact these industries.

As a result the current picture is more mixed. Some smaller and more marginal players have achieved getting an access to a broader market (e.g. the record company PIAS) but it has only rarely modified the structure of cultural and media industries. The major companies’ domination is more threatened by the entrance of new players who are major players in other industries (e.g. Google with GoogleTV, Apple with iTunes).

Such a competition is one of the causes for the crisis currently experienced by most cultural and media industries. The crisis is the most acute in the recording industry not so much because of piracy but because record companies need to reinvent their business model on Internet. Other cultural industries are experiencing the development of new ways of distributing their content. Such new ways could become economically crucial and are currently controlled by other actors (e.g. Amazon or Apple for the e-book). The traditional actors of the media industries need to find a way to survive. More generally the current regulation of these industries is at stake – the result however could be better than the current outcome, e.g in terms of diversity.

4. Your PhD Thesis in Economics (2008, Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne, Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) is on “Market structure and diversity of production. The case of the recording industry”. Could you outline the main research outcomes and findings in your thesis? Is the case of recording industry different than other cultural industries when considering market conditions?

I started my PhD two years before the Unesco Convention on Cultural Diversity was adopted and it was a moment when the notion of “cultural diversity” was really fashionable. I realized however that the notion missed a clear definition – certainly one reason why it is so consensual. Therefore I devoted most of my efforts to the providing of a definition of cultural diversity. I tried to provide a definition that could be used to analyze the impact of various policies or market configurations on diversity.

As a result, I also discussed and provided indexes for assessing diversity. It is not “quantification for quantification’s sake”. My aim is to allow for comparing diversity over time, across various markets, or between different policy options. In my thesis I applied it to the international assessment of diversity in recording markets, based on my own compilation of data on the recording industries of more than 70 countries.

My main result is that there is no such thing as a policy (or a market configuration) that favours cultural diversity. The reason is that diversity is a multi-dimensional concept and its dimensions tend to conflict with one another. I think it is true not only for the recording industry but for all cultural sectors. Thus my colleague Sophie de Vinck showed in her PhD thesis the existence of such contradictions in the film sector

The case of the quotas for French-speaking music on the French radio illustrates this result. Actually the law helped the French music sector and notably promoted the use of French in songs (against the use of English). But I found that the law also led to a further concentration of broadcastings: the same few songs got played again and again in order for the radios to respect the quotas. Not to mention the fact that the law certainly did not help any music sung in a language other than French or English.

5. My impression is that the topic of “cultural diversity” even if popular among academia, is still not well understood and applied in the management practice in the arts, culture and media sectors. Could you give few examples on how diversity issues are effectively implemented in the management aspects of media or cultural projects and organizations?

Your impression is quite right! “Cultural diversity” to some extent is used to speak of very different things. For some it will mean having people from all origins working together, for others having access to a large set of cultural products, it can also mean protecting minorities’ peculiarities, etc. I do not mean that any of these ways of comprehending diversity is necessarily wrong but it is crucial for people working in the arts, culture and media sectors to realize that there are different, sometimes contradictory ways of promoting diversity.

Nowadays, from a pragmatic viewpoint, cultural diversity is a topic of particular relevance in the TV industry, again with different views according to the actors. One issue is the representation of minorities in the TV programs. It is notably a major preoccupation for the French authority in charge of the media. Another is the diversity of TV content (e.g. in terms of genre) provided to the viewers. Possibly, the strong concentration of the TV sector in most European markets constitutes another important threat to diversity.

6. Could you comment and give an example on how an innovative element of a cultural or media project could increase the entrepreneurial aspects and make the project financially sustainable?

It is important for entrepreneurs in the cultural and media sectors to keep on innovating. However, the specificity of innovation in these sectors is that it is rarely a technological innovation. It has always taken time for the players in these sectors to adapt to technological breakthroughs, which explains why firms from other sectors regularly enter the media and cultural industries, from Radio Corporation of America (an electronics company) entering the phonograph industry in the 20’s to Apple entering the recording and audiovisual sectors in the beginning of our century.

I think the entrepreneurs in the cultural and media sectors are much more innovative when it deals with content and services. Innovation or originality is generally perceived as a crucial element of the value of most content being produced, e.g. The Lord of the Ring’s universe or Lady Gaga’s eccentric video clips and costumes. On the other hand, the most innovative works of art are rarely mainstream and therefore are not going to be hits in the short run.

Therefore financial sustainability will generally result from an innovation related to the way the consumers access the cultural product. An example I love to use with my students is the one of the British band Radiohead. In 2007, they released the album In Rainbows as a “pay what you want” formula, on their own website. Thus they more directly involved their fans and by-passed the usual distributors. In addition they created a huge buzz around their release.

7. How do you use online tools and new technologies both in your professional practice and in your leisure time?

Since I started working I have used the digital technologies as professional tools. First, I use the Internet to get an access to research papers and databases. Then, I am constantly using my laptop to take notes, write my papers, create my tables, etc. Also I am using it more and more to communicate with, and stay connected to, my professional network (mails, social networks, videoconferences, etc.). I know there is nothing really original in all these uses; in fact it is a bit hard to simply imagine working without all the new tools.

I use them a lot also for most of my leisure time: Internet provides such nice ways to get information about all kinds of cultural events and allows to discovering new contents. On the other hand I try to keep moments away from my laptop and the Internet, e.g. I do not use any e-book reader.

8. What would be your advice to the emerging researchers who start now their career in the field of cultural policy?

Well, I consider myself also as emerging so I may not be in the best position to give this kind of advice! Anyway, more seriously, most people I met who work in the cultural field (scholars, executives, policy makers) have a passion for culture. I hardly see people working in the field to make money or to gain power. I mean: if this was their intent they should have tried another sector. In addition working in the cultural field requires much efforts, and the outcome is always uncertain. So, I would advice above all to be passionate. And then you will meet other passionate people, and never regret it.




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