TV phenomena like Big
Brother and Who Wants to be a Millionaire prove beyond all
doubt that corporations like Time Warner and Sony are wasting
their money paying unimaginable sums of money for
back-catalogue media assets. (Which means old TV, music and
films to you and I).
Both the above
mentioned TV programmes are undeniably cheap to produce, and
even pay for their own production costs from viewer premium
rate calls. Incredible. They get huge audiences, and
crucially, they have created essential viewing by being real
time events. This is the sort of TV that networks would die
for, since only news and sports otherwise carry the “real
time” requirement that makes programme scheduling relevant
in a world that is racing towards video on demand and time
The popular wisdom is
that all education and entertainment will be required only on
demand henceforth, and there are many new and interesting
technologies dedicated to this notion. Aside from the
selective availability of DSL and cable, there’s even the
prospect of a disk-based home video device that can operated
simply at last.
question seems to be “ what will the new age cybernauts pay
for old media content..?”
In the case of the AOL Time Warner deal, the issues are
quite convoluted: is this a network operator (AOL has the
internet, and Time Warner a lump of US cable) seeking to
corral some unique content to drive consumers to their
networks..? Or is a content rights operator seeking sell
tickets for old shows..?
Do they believe that
consumers will pay to watch back-catalogue product, given that
there is a non-ending flood of new material across all media,
mostly with increasingly sophisticated production quality. Can
you see today’s kids paying to watch classic Dr Who episodes
when they can immerse themselves in the latest Star Trek..?
Those of us of a “certain age” still feel a twinge of
nostalgia when a Dalek bumps into the scenery and it wobbles,
but modern youth has no appreciation of such historical
significance, just laughs and zaps the remote to get to the
Let’s also now
remember what media is all about.
In the US, broadcast
media exists for one thing, and one thing alone: advertising.
In fact, the UK is one a relatively few countries where public
service broadcasting keeps up with the commercial variety, and
generally exceeds it in terms of “quality” content. The
content that is broadcast is the cheapest possible that is
consistent with delivering an audience to create a profitable
advertising platform. That’s it, altruism doesn’t exist;
if a commercial station produces a “quality programme” (ie
one that costs more to produce than it attracts in advertising
it’s for one reason only – to appease the regulatory
authority who might otherwise remove their franchise.
The amount of money
involved in the Time Warner/AOL deal is astonishing. Let’s
see it in full: $147,000,000,000.00.
That’s several times the cost of the entire UK and
German 3G cellular frequency licences. And every day that goes
past, new films and content are being poured out and into the
new channels afforded by the internet.
The tools to create
“media” are getting cheaper and more accessible. The task
of producing a full-length feature cartoon has not yet been
totally deskilled, but it’s really not impossible to
envisage someone developing a program to create perfectly
viable animation software as shareware, capable of being run
on a £1000 PC.
The cost of producing
films using the MiniDV format is probably 1000th of
the cost of a traditional celluloid behemoth. It’s only
Sony’s stubbornness and determination to be awkward that
seems to have prevented a complete Vaio production solution
from being on sale already.
If you want to scare a
media mogul to death, stand behind him and whisper “Blair
Witch” into his/her ear. A $50k home movie that out grossed
many $100m epics.
Given that you and I are going to be able to
push a button and render an episode of Star Wars before long,
the only thing that really remains to be overcome is the
question of promotion. In other words, how do you get the
eyeballs to justify the advertisement rates..? But if your
costs of production are a 1000 times less, you need a lot less
income. You can probably afford to charge less.
The internet is famous for its resilience
through distribution. In other words, lots of little networks
that use “self healing” connections mean that there is no
one single point of failure . So how about a distributed media
industry? Where lots of small but accomplished production
units create all manner of content and entertainment.
I rather like this idea – 100,000
producers directly feeding 100 million consumers feels a lot
more satisfactory than one – the AOL behemoth – feeding
them. But be ready with the smelling salts if you mention this
concept within earshot of the execs from AOL and Time Warner.
I don’t think it’s what they want to hear.