The present and future of post production business and technology

Why is Television like newspapers?

I’ve had an inordinate interest in how the news industry, particularly newspapers, are faring in the Internet age. It’s only relatively recently I realized why I thought that was even relevant to the fields I study – among them what is going to replace (or grow in parallel with) the current model of “Television”. Then it struck me…

Television is to newspapers and magazines what movies are to music.

In the music and movie models we’ve been used to, there is a direct transaction – payment is made to buy music (on disc or download) or to pay to view a movie (in a theater or by buying a DVD). This is a fundamentally different model than Television, where the content is “free” in return for your “attention” to advertising. Advertising supports both Television and newspapers and magazines.

Yes, people pay a small amount for newspapers and magazines, but that is nowhere near the cost of producing the magazine. Newspapers and magazines (I’ll just say “newspapers” from here but I include magazines) are heavily subsidized by advertising or they can’t survive. (Consider how many magazines have been closed in the last year all attributed to the “loss of advertising revenue”). Given that I don’t believe advertisers are coming back, what are the implications of the music experience for movie distribution, and the newspaper experience for television distribution. Without distribution there is no production.

The music industry has found that “infinite goods” – those that can be produced for close-to-zero (a digital copy) – has changed the market. Classic economics tells us that the sale price will trend toward  incremental cost of a sale. For music that’s zero or close to it because there is no scarcity. Scarcity, again classic economics tells us, is what drives up price: no scarcity and the price drops toward the marginal cost of producing the copy. (Yes, classic economics ignores the cost of production.)

The movie industry is finding some of the same dynamics happening, except that the movie industry has an advantage: the primary product is not the movie, but the “going to the movies” experience. Clearly the movie-going experience is more important than the movie otherwise attendance would have dropped dramatically as the quality of picture has dropped. Instead movie attendance is up despite audiences being treated like criminals with bag searches and, in some theaters, full body, airport-style scanners.

The smart people in the music industry have also realized that the business model they grew up with – where Record Companies actually had a role to play – is no longer viable. (When you have to sue your customers to “keep control” of your product, you have acknowledged a total failure of business model and you should be allowed – encouraged even – to go out of business.) So they’ve been deriving new business models that use the non-scarce good (the recorded music) to promote scarce goods – like concerts, experiences and merchandise.

Music, and movies, will continue to have “direct pay” models but they won’t be the same as in the past. (Nor should anyone who has two working neurons think the models can remain the same.)

It is newspapers and television that I’m worried about. The current models for both are unsustainable. Advertising revenue has dropped dramatically partly because of the current economic conditions, but long term because advertisers have better alternatives than renting some irrelevant eyeballs for 30 seconds at a time with a message that’s irrelevant to 99% of the audience who aren’t ready to buy your product right now.

Newspapers once provided a valuable service(s) that have been replaced by better models online. Craigslist has effectively killed the cash cow of classified advertisements because it’s a better model (free, instant). No-one really needs a newspaper to learn the session times for the local movies (available online) nor really, to decide what car they’ll buy next.

People, by and large, don’t need newspapers for news either. Not that most newspapers did that much “reporting” anyway. Surveys of typical local newspapers showed that they often have as few as five or six “real” stories (researched and written by staff reporters) not sourced from elsewhere. Most “news” comes from Associated Press, Reuters, people-in-foreign-countries, press releases, etc.

Worse, most newspapers (and television news) do not really vet their stories, taking away one of the major claims that we “need” professional journalists because, unlike bloggers, they “fact check”. (Really CBS? Who “fact checked” last night’s industry-lacky piece full of major errors on 60 Minutes?) It’s hard to make the case that the majority of professional journalists actually fact check anything. (Quick quiz – in any news story that you’ve been involved with and then seen the reporting, has it ever been completely accurate? Never in my experience, never.)

So, when the impetus for “demand” drops, and the money to produce evaporates because even the advertisers have a better way to do things, newspapers will, of necessity, die. That does not mean that great journalism will die, but it will be funded differently and have very different forms.

Television, including basic cable, is facing the same challenges: advertising revenue is drying up and unlikely to come back to previous levels, meaning the whole model is probably broken. Not this week, not next year, but long term Television as we know it is being destroyed by this lack of advertising revenue; the failure of the “players” to adapt business models, and that audiences for any given show are much smaller because there are so many choices.

What we’ve known as Television will have to evolved into a model that allows for “any program, any time, any device for a fair price” (i.e. a return that is similar to the return from advertising, not an attempt to get a 4x return as the Networks currently do with iTunes et. al).

I suspect that will, like with the Record companies and Movie Studios, leave the Networks out of the picture as middle-men imposed between producer and audience.

I don’t (yet) know what that model is going to be, or indeed if there will be only a single model, but the transformation of a nearly-70 year old business model based on scarcity (broadcast licenses) has to evolve when that scarcity no longer exists. And it no longer exists.







3 responses to “Why is Television like newspapers?”

  1. Phil,
    You know I have been sprouting this issue for two years now. The more interesting issue is..

    I still see a need for terrestrial/satellite broadcast technologies.. Live Sport or news. Infrastructure wise, a single tower covering a huge area is more robust and requires less kit and NO-interoperability issues as to try and do it over the internet.

    There “should” always be a need for terrestrial/satellite for that type of content distribution.

    However, I am not sure it is completely viable. Once all the other content is pulled out of our typical commercial packed free to air TV.. can the high expense of supplying the niche products of sport and news pay for itself? And if so, how well? Where will the level of production quality lie?

    This is the more interesting point. Being in a typical Free-to-air industry has a dim future just like paper based media. Strangely this does not seem as apparent to those in that industry as yet.

    This brings me back to the point of one of the key reasons AppleTV and similar systems fail. They never include support for older technologies like Terrestrial or Satellite. Until they do, the traction will only be limited. The Vendors supporting digital-tuners and integrating a streaming media services. That is going to start making a difference over the next few years indeed.

    Still waiting to see if Apple will wake up to itself. Tho the New Remote with still only 5 buttons. Its as idiotic as a one button mouse.


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