“Level Who?” Digital Distribution’s Mysterious Middlemen

The following is a short piece I wrote up about Net Worth: Media Distribution in the Digital Era, a one-day conference sponsored by the Carsey-Wolf Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The event brought together media industry workers and scholars from a variety of disciplines for a series of 90-minute panels on the challenges and opportunities posed by digital distribution. Having attended a number of less than successful industry/academia conferences in the past, I was really impressed by the quality of the discussions that took place at Net Worth. I credit that to the organizers (UCSB’s Joshua Green, Jen Holt, and Michael Curtin), who did a fantastic job of composing the panel topics and lineups.

At Net Worth I participated on a panel titled Technologies of Digital Distribution. I was joined on the stage of the Pollack Theater that day by moderator Anna Everett (UCSB) and panelists Horst Stipp (The Advertising Research Foundation), Kelly Summers (Walt Disney Studios), Randy Shaffer (Microsoft Corp.), Joseph Turow (University of Pennsylvania), and Phillip Napoli (Fordham University). Our panel was very lively, and gave me a lot to think about. This piece represents a preliminary attempt to organize some of those thoughts.

For many people, myself included, Comcast’s 2010 clash with the Internet backbone operator Level 3 Communications was a real eye-opener. In the fall of that year, Netflix contracted Level 3 to establish a content delivery network (CDN) that would provide the video rental company’s subscribers with faster access to its growing library of streaming films and television series. Having done business with one another for years, Comcast and Level 3 already had arrangements in place to govern the exchange of traffic between their networks. But according to Comcast, these arrangements didn’t extend to Level 3’s Netflix traffic. When Level 3 requested that Comcast allocate 300 Gigabits/second of bandwidth to handle Netflix video streams, Comcast balked, and informed Level 3 that it would treat the request the same way it would one from any of other CDN. Level 3 could deliver Netflix traffic to the doorstep of Comcast’s last-mile Internet Service Provider (ISP) network, but it would pay would handsomely for the privilege.[i]

Feeling confused yet? I know I am. As a television scholar with an interest in digital video distribution technologies, I’d come across terms like peering, transit, CDNs, and Tier 1 Internet backbone operators prior to the outbreak of the Comcast-Level 3 dispute. Still, as coverage of the disagreement peeled back layer after befuddling layer of contradictory statements about the two companies’ confidential financial and technical arrangements, I came to recognize just how superficial my own understanding of the political economy of digital distribution was. I knew that Netflix’s streaming service was growing rapidly (and perhaps too rapidly from the standpoint of Comcast and other ISPs).[ii] But having never before heard of Level 3 Communications, I was unaware of the vast networks of CDNs, transit providers, and backbone operators that Netflix relied on to deliver videos to its subscribers’ iPads and Xbox 360s. And though I had been following the debates over net neutrality with great interest, my understanding was that these debates were primarily about traffic throttling – that is, would Comcast be allowed to expedite the delivery of bits from its Xfinity or Hulu services and slow those from Apple or YouTube? In reality, like most Americans I knew next to nothing about how an episode of Party Down got from Netflix to my laptop. In fact, even after immersing myself in coverage of the Comcast-Level 3 dispute for the last few months, I still frequently find myself baffled by the practicalities and politics of digital distribution.

Net Worth confirmed for me that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many of the scholars and practitioners who participated in the event expressed similar bewilderment about the Comcast-Level 3 dispute, and about Internet traffic exchange more generally. While it was productive (and, for me, somewhat reassuring) to take part in a discussion about the limits of our knowledge about this very important topic, I came away from the conference wondering how these limits might have impacted the subject and tone of our conversations. For my own field – the academic discipline of television studies – distribution continues to be a major blind spot. To be sure, in recent years television studies scholars have shown tremendous interest in emerging methods and technologies of video distribution, especially those that, like YouTube and BitTorrent, cut television’s conventional middlemen (the networks) out of the picture. By contrast, we’ve been far less conscientious about tracking the rise of the new media middlemen who build, maintain, and manage the networks that deliver streaming and downloadable digital video content to our laptops or set top boxes.[iii] In essence, we have allowed CDNs like Level 3 Communications, Akamai, LimeLight, Contendo, and Internap to maintain the obscurity they cultivate via their nondisclosure agreements, secretive compacts, and nondescript websites.

These middlemen produce no content of their own. They are distributors that render distribution invisible, for instance by caching their clients’ media on file servers at locations close to or within ISPs’ networks so as to minimize buffering. Nevertheless, over the last decade they have quietly become important players in the global media industry. It is the silent, unobtrusive, and reliable operation of the networks they maintain that makes possible both the on-demand, searchable, and customizable video culture of Netflix and the “democratic” anarchy of YouTube. It is the secretive, nondisclosure agreement-protected treaties they negotiate with content license holders and last-mile ISPs that are responsible for producing the Internet’s illusion of openness.[iv] And yet they continue to evade our attention, even as we have begun to generate insightful scholarship on TiVo, YouTube, Hulu, and other high-profile avatars of the “new” television.

Digital distribution is decidedly and, I would argue, deliberately opaque. Fortunately, incidents that lay bare its practicalities and politics will only become more common as the digital video marketplace continues to mature and consolidate. In the near future, these incidents will likely involve consumer electronics manufacturers, computer companies, software developers, Hollywood studios, television networks, and guilds in addition to CDNs, backbone operators, and retail ISPs. But regardless of where the battle lines are drawn, the conflicts that unfold around them will have important consequences for the texts and practices and communities that television scholars study. Our scholarship on online communities, participatory culture, remix aesthetics, and peer-to-peer file sharing will need to take these conflicts into consideration if it is to remain relevant to conversations such as the ones fostered by Net Worth. For media industry practitioners, the stakes will be no less high. New media middlemen like Level 3 Communications occupy a position within the contemporary media marketplace that is not unlike the one Comcast itself occupied in 1970s, when it was still a regional cable service. As writers, producers, directors, performers, and below-the-line workers contemplate the challenges and opportunities posed by technologies of digital distribution, it will be in their interests as well to keep an eye on these middlemen as well. Forty years ago, few would have been so bold as to imagine that one day Comcast would own NBC. Forty years from now, perhaps we will be saying the same thing about another distributor that had previously flown beneath our radars.

[i] Nate Anderson, “Peering Problems: Digging into the Comcast/Level 3 Grudgematch,” accessed March 14, 2011.

[ii] Already by late 2010 Netflix was responsible for up to twenty per cent of U.S. Internet traffic between 8 and 10 pm. Sandvine Intelligent Broadband Networks, “Fall 2010 Global Internet Phenomenon Report,” accessed March 15, 2011.

[iii] Working against this general tendency of the field of television studies, a number of scholars have applied its qualitative, humanistic research methodologies to the material and political economic dimensions of television’s distribution. See, for instance, Jonathan Sterne, “Television Under Construction: American Television and the Problem of Distribution, 1926-62” Media, Culture, & Society 21 (1999): 503-30; Lisa Parks, Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Nicole Starosielski, “Surfacing: Cultural Dimensions of Undersea Cables” (unpublished manuscript); and Daniel Chamberlain, “Putting the TV Back in Television Studies,” accessed March 15, 2011.

[iv] Anderson, “Peering Problems.”


About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

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