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Flexibility and media production: a theoretical debate

A Research Paper by Paul Dwyer, published by Media Culture and Society

On 13th October the BBC announced it was spinning-off it’s in-house production department, BBC studios, into a new commercial organisation which would compete with independent producers for commissions, not only from the BBC, but also from commercial broadcasters. The BBC’s rationale for this major change was that this would enable BBC Studios to  “move further towards a flexible model, more in line with the wider industry”.

In a recent article, CAMRI’s Paul Dwyer questioned the historical evidence used to support the claims for this flexible model of media production, and also challenged the broader theories on which such research was based. This has ignited a debate about how academic theory can best explain changes in media production.

The debate began in October 2015, when Paul Dwyer published “Theorizing media production: the poverty of political economy” in Media Culture and Society. The article argued that the Political Economy of Communication (PEC) has generally failed to develop theories of media production. That such theory as exists has been heavily influenced by accounts of mass production and flexible specialization in Hollywood. Paul also stated that Hollywood film production has been viewed as paradigmatic of media production in general, in the same way as Ford was for manufacturing, and these theories continue to influence accounts of production across media and cultural industries. The article tested the mass production/flexible specialization paradigm against both the evidence of the Hollywood case and Ford’s mass production system. An alternative paradigm, the theory of craft media production, is also examined. The article then attempts to show how applying organization theory and media economics can provide a more convincing explanation of media production and of the Hollywood case. Finally, the article briefly attempts to show how we might develop rich theoretical explanations of media production by exploring the relationships between economic, organizational and media-specific cultural elements.

In July of 2016, Graham Murdock and Peter Golding published their reply to Paul’s article under the title “Political economy and media production: a reply to Dwyer“. They put forward their ideas thus; “This is a response to an article by Paul Dwyer in this Journal which makes several claims about the nature and impact of the political economy approach to the analysis of media and communications. We argue that Dwyer’s article misunderstands or is unaware of the history of this approach, and quite fundamentally misconstrues its central tenets. Our response explains how, in capitalist societies, media organisations are integrated into general processes of accumulation, how they exercise power, and how their strategies shape the communications landscape. We explain how the critical political economy approach actually works and illustrate how it has been deployed for concrete analysis in ways that Dwyer seems unaware of. Analysis of shifts in the organisation of capitalism and of their consequences for the structure of cultural production is essential alongside detailed research into how shifting webs of pressure and opportunity impinge on the everyday business of crafting cultural goods in specific cultural industries. We argue that, contra Dwyer, contemporary analysis has a rich legacy of work in both areas on which to build.”

This month the conversation continues, as Paul Dwyer publishes “Understanding media production: a rejoinder to Murdock and Golding“, again in the pages of Media Culture and Society. Here Paul sets the exchange within the context of a broader debate in recent editions of Media, Culture & Society about the value of PEC. Much of the debate stems from Garnham’s critical review of 40 years of PEC research.

This lively, timely and interesting debate can be followed though the pages of Media Culture and Society:


Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Paul Dwyer


I’m Director of Academic Enterprise for the Westminster School of Media Art and Design, responsible for consultancy, contract research, knowledge transfer, executive education and technical short courses. I am a board member of Music Tank and the China Media Centre.

I am Course Leader of the MA International Media Business and I also teach on the MA Media Management course.

My research work is in the analysis of media production, social media, online radio, creativity and digital transformation of creative organisations.

My professional practice interests are in media production and management. I run format development workshops for professionals. I have acted as strategic consultant TV companies and cultural organisations.


19 October 2016
Published By
Media Culture and Society
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