Thursday, February 26, 2009

Media Morphosis

The Internet chews up media and spits them out again. Sometimes they get more robust. Sometimes they get more profitable. Sometimes they die.It's a scary thought, especially if you're personally attached to an old medium like movies, books, records, or newspapers.

But just because an industry is socially worthy, it doesn't follow that it is commercially viable. Today, besides newspapers, three other media are thrashing over their futures in a networked world, and as with newspapers, the rhetoric is mostly of the nonproductive "But I like it!" and "It's good for society!" variety, with not enough thought given to whether these media are commercially viable in the Internet age.

The imminent collapse of the American newspaper industry has spawned entire gazeteers' worth of high-minded handwringing about the social value of newspapers and the social harm that their disappearance will unleash. It's probably all true.Newspapers are fundamentally an advertising-supported medium. Advertisers place ads in newspapers because they believe these ads will sell more products for them. The price of an ad is set by factors such as: How many people will see the ad? Who is likely to see the ad? Are they the sort of people who are likely to want to buy what the ad is selling? What happened to newspapers is easy to understand: There are more and better ways for an advertiser to deliver ads of similar quality to the "spendiest" newspaper readers, most of them on the Internet.

Big-budget movies require a lot of capital and rely on studios controlling the rate and nature of distribution of the finished product. If you're going to recoup your $300 million box-office turd, you need to move lots of DVDs, TV licenses, and assorted "secondary" revenues.
Let's be realistic here: Nothing anyone does is going to make it harder to get movies when you want them, where you want them, and at whatever price you feel you should pay for them and the harder you crack down on Internet movie-downloading, the more attractive you make buying pirate DVDs -- a virtually zero-risk transaction that directly displaces DVD purchases.
Now, maybe film studios can do what Magnolia Pictures is doing -- distributing day-and-date releases to satellite, pay-per-view, cinema, DVD, and foreign film - and recapture a lot of the money. But if it's not enough, commercially motivated BBMs might simply die. Besides BBMs demands a technological reality that has ceased to exist-- just enough technology to distribute the films, but not so much technology that the audience gets to overrule your distribution decisions.
Making stuff for the Net just doesn't cost as much the audiovisual material we're used to see. It may not be as pretty, but it's very cheap.

The problem was that the record industry was built on per-unit income from CDs (and records and tapes and so on). The economics of this stink. Besides they produce a great number of failures for each success they make.Whatever profitability there is in the system is seriously jeopardized by the music-listening public's ability to get any song they want, at any time, for any price (including free). And, just as with movies, it's never going to get harder to copy music without permission. Now the good news: The more your music gets copied, the more people there are who will pay to see you perform it live. This may not support a record label with offices on five continents, but it can probably put a comparable (if not larger) amount of money into the pockets of a comparable (if not larger) quantity of artists. But as a category, the future's looking good for recorded music and the musicians who make it.

This one's more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Internet copying of printed matter is impossible to prevent. On the other hand, for many kinds of books -- long-form narratives, for instance -- reading off a screen is a poor substitute for the standard support. The bad news for books is twofold: First, the quantity and variety of titles carried outside of bookstores has radically declined, thanks to the rise of national big-box chain stores, who do all ordering from a centralized database. The other problem is that we're increasingly conditioned to read short blocks of text -- more text than ever, but in radically different form than you generally find between covers. Combine this with the sheer amount of read-for-pleasure text available at one-click's distance on the Net, and even those of us who worship books find ourselves reading fewer of them.Now for the good news: It doesn't cost much to write a novel neither to produce it.

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