The media industry soup party of the future

I’ve been saddened and amused this morning by the daily round of intellectual-property dispute and media-industry litigation, particularly in the broadcast sector. The thing that saddens me when broadcast ownership issues come up is that the airwaves and the data transmitted over them are in this country supposed to be free. It says so in some hundred-year-old legal document somewhere, I’m reasonably sure. Of course, at this point, that’s a laughable and archaic altruism, so rather than dwell on it, on to the jokes. The thing that amuses me is that the blame for piracy always falls to the viewer, when in fact there’s nothing for the viewer to actually steal.

Networks don’t sell TV content to viewers. Networks sell viewers to advertisers. So who’s stealing what?

You, the viewer, are the network’s product. Networks take money from advertisers for your eyeballs. The transaction is closed, and viewers are not a part of it. Viewers are categorized and inventoried like so much tomato soup.

So what are you stealing when you download a show? Yourself! You’re taking for yourself the little bribe the network hopes will keep you on its shelves. But you’re not sitting on a shelf, so the network doesn’t have you to sell. You absconded with the cheese samples from the lady at the end-cap, sure, but labeling you a ‘pirate’ is like blaming the can of soup for stealing itself off the loading dock. It makes no sense.

Of course, when there’s no soup on the shelf, the store (the network) is right to be mad, and the customers (the advertisers) are right to be mad. You’ve messed up their inventory, and the advertisers are losing interest. But the products are not to blame. Soup just doesn’t like sitting all day on a shelf waiting for an advertiser to come by and throw it in a cart. It’s not the soup’s problem.

The problem is systemic. The grocery store model of mass media is simply dying. One-stop shopping is increasingly unwieldy as the product diversity (viewer demographics) becomes increasingly fragmented. Advertisers, meanwhile, are always looking for the cheapest way to get as much soup as possible, but they’re not pushing around huge carts they as they have in the past. Nobody really likes shopping in ugly, dingy stores anymore anyway. Look what happened to K-Mart. The solution will ultimately be to give up on this model entirely.

What’s next is the farmer’s market and the independent grocers, the likes of iTunes and YouTube, where soup can be free. It’s like a haven of soup. Soup making more soup. And fresh soup! Good soup! A soup party, where good soup goes around and comes around.

Soon, TV networks will be no more than abandoned shells, huge vacant monstrosities languishing empty at the edge of town until Hobby Lobby (public access) or Big Lots (the old crap nobody watches but video artists and people without the Internet) come in and subdivide it. The networks will become little more than shillers for material available for sale on DVD or iTMS. 24-hour news will give way to 24-hour advertising for shows like ’24.’ What infinitesimal original content remains will scream out in desperation for a fraction of a second of your attention, reducing one-hour slots to 15 minutes, then five, then one, then 30 seconds or less. Public service announcements will run muted and in a corner at the bottom of your screen until the FCC finally drops the last shred of its pretentious notions of public service. By the end of it, the networks will host bake sales and the Salvation Army in their oversized and overgrown parking lots, while the kids with the disposable income go hang out someplace cooler.

Hanging out, in other words, is the forthcoming model for media distribution. The products themselves will become their own system of exchange. In the future, it won’t be illegal to swap files, because it will be essential. Advertisers will have to produce content of their own to get into the mix, and it will have to be compelling enough to spread through the viewer-network autonomously.

The bottom-line advantages are clear. Instead of spending millions to produce an ad and millions to air it, an advertiser can spend a little more on the ad itself and skip paying the networks entirely. The process of viewer absorption will move more slowly, but once it reaches saturation, it will remain in the system longer and have greater long-term impact.

Meanwhile, advertisers begin to support independent content producers not with huge outlays of cash, but by maintaining the network. While advertisers seed the viewer-network with well-funded material and thereby support the underlying distribution technologies (p2p, mobile, blogs), independent producers can ride along essentially for free. Again, it’s compelling content, not brute-force distribution, that will prevail. As technology continues to enable independent producers to generate high-quality content at little expense, the need for huge outlays of cash will slowly evaporate anyway.

It’s for this reason that the media industry needs to stop trying to kill production technology with their ridiculous DRM initiatives. The more they hinder the free exchange of material, the less likely people will be to participate in the viewer network. DRM will only stunt the growth of the very network the industry will need in the future, as it irritates users and drives them even further away from the content material.

When the content is open and freely-exchangeable, the network will take on new growth and resilience. Viewers will commit to the network software, hardware, and intellectual resources simply unavailable to the industry. As they do so, they will strengthen and extend the mechanisms of distribution until the network is capable of delivering the kind of material the industry needs to provide. Ultimately, distribution will no longer be the industry’s concern, and they can focus on the content.

Which means, of course, the bulk of the industry will be dissolved, which is terrible news for the existing operations of Viacom, Universal, News Corp, and Disney, who already commit most of their resources and collect most of their revenue from simple distribution and licensing. This fluffy money they’ve been rolling in will vanish, and they’ll be forced to contend on the merits of product alone, in the brutal marketplace of the actual viewer. They’ll fight it to the death, and they’ll lose when they die.

When we’re old-timers looking back, we’ll talk about the various economic bubbles in our history. We’ll laugh at how quickly the Dot-Com Bubble came and went while the Big Media Bubble was still approaching its maximum girth. We’ll shake our heads at the foolhardy industry that thought it could make money forever just by selling permissions. Then we’ll go inside and watch a streaming movie on demand for free, just like it was radio in the 1930′s. Yarr.

One Response to “The media industry soup party of the future”

  1. Macaulay Prendergrast Says:

    I engaged in a bit of unseemly ribaldry with a a can of soup that someone had haphazardly tossed into my trolley.