Monday, April 13, 2009

Media Morphology

I’ve already written a post about the demise of numerous newspapers and the precarious situation faced by the surviving ones. The future of the newspaper is subject to heated debate in the current discourse, and the reader needs no help from me to access those exchanges. I don’t think the printed page faces extinction, but clearly its scope and function faces profound transformation over the next few decades. For all I know, even legal documents will be digitized with notary public technician monitored retinal scans replacing signatures over the printed names of the signatories.

The subject of this post extends far deeper than the plight of our newspapers. I am talking about the whole enchilada of media as we know it, and let’s move to the major television networks of NBC, CBS, ABC, and more recently FOX. When I was young, we had three channels. Such days are over, and cable and satellite television has exponentially blossomed to where traditional television reception is all but obsolete. The implications are profound as the television "triopoly" now competes with literally hundreds of alternative options including AMC, TNT, TLC, HIST, DISC, CNN, Spike, HBO, Showtime, the list goes on. Half of the people I know don’t even watch the current equivalent of the big three networks that once comprised all that existed of television.

Just to scratch the surface, HBO started a trend with top quality and immensely popular series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Sex and the City, with Showtime following suit with The L Word and Dexter, and AMC now producing Mad Men. Every show just listed is intelligent, well produced, and of quality at least equal to and more likely exceeding any show produced by the not so big four.

In fact, I’m not even to the punch line, for the cable and satellite television technology is really only an intermediary step to what the reader can already foresee. We’re going online, and the Internet is where all of this is headed. Network television already offers streaming video of many of their programs at their Web sites. I exaggerate not. Miss the season finale of Fox’s Sarah Conner Chronicles Friday? No problem. Go to the Terminator Web site and you can see it online for free. Just click in the box to the right. The distance from your PC monitor to your 42 inch HDTV is evaporating as we speak. All too soon Channel 13 and youtube are a click from each other on the same screen over the same connection.

While all of the content and entertainment aspects are interesting, the critical consideration involves the financial infrastructure that effectively solicits the revenue necessary to fund the production and delivery of this content. Who pays for it in the new reality? In case the reader isn’t following, in the old paradigm, advertising funded the edifice. This program brought to you by... and we watched a 30 second piece on Charmin’s, another for Ragu, and maybe one more for Alka Seltzer. Rates for such spots were based on ratings, and there’s the glitch. As the ratings metric shifts to hits, and going further, visit durations, how this pans out is anything but straightforward. ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX will soon be scratching their heads as those at the New York Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Tucson Citizen are scratching theirs today.

By the way, and I love cinema, but when 40+ inch HDTV’s and affordable Bose home theater sound systems are commonplace, which is only a matter of time, and movies are instantly available for download viewing, who goes to the Park Mall to see a flick? How does the Hollywood of 2020 fund $250M+ pictures without a box office?


Blogger Sirocco said...

It's not just network TV - almost any form of sports you care for can be had for free or a nominal cost streaming over the web. Every baseball game played this year available for $80. It's $110 if you want the HD quality. On cable, it's $170, and that's with only a few HD games, not all of them.

Similar packages available for virtually any other sport. Like Aussie Rules football? You can buy a package to see games over the web. Really like Tennis? Rugby? Cricket? All available over the web.

About the only thing keeping me from ditching TV entirely is many of the shows I watch from Discovery, or Science TV, or History International don't put all (or any) their full episodes online. Once they do, a TV carrier becomes entirely extraneous.


An a different, but related topic, there seems to be a real dichotomy between the quality of show on TV these days. You either have very, very good, intelligent shows OR you have mindless tripe (just about any form of reality TV for example). There seems to be little middle ground, little that is truly mediocre. Either high-quality stuff, or material appealing to our lowest-common-denominator and basest instincts.

Of course, it's often the latter shows which garner the largest audience. The 1st network channel to broadcast a death-sentence execution live will make a bundle, thus ensuring such things become regular programming. Hopefully we will never reach that point.

4/13/2009 4:03 AM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

Good post and comment. With sports, there will always be the appeal of seeing it in person, which can never be FULLY replicated with a television, even though I must admit for me, the phenomenal camera tracking and coverage of football, for example, is even better than the stadium.

I think the movie theaters have a huge concern. As x4mr says, a decent sized (I agree that this starts at about 42 inch) HDTV with a good Bose sound system, and even more so, with a Blue Ray disc player, is pretty much there. Even alone, why pay theater prices, and if it's a family, forget about it.

Sirocco makes an excellent point about the increasing stratification of television content on the axis of quality. There is a growing bifurcation between first rate, top notch programs like "Mad Men" or "Planet Earth" and other fascinating programs on the Discovery or History Channels. I feel like I've earned a degree's worth of material, and I think it's great. I can't even watch the nonsense on "regular TV" like those people stuck in a house or flopping around in obstacle courses. 60 Minutes is probably the only remaining network show I watch. Probably due to this blog, I mostly get my news now from MSNBC.

I think Chris Mathews and Olbermann are terrific.

Lastly, the financial question x4mr posted is the real challenge here. How indeed will the money flow given these impending and virtually unstoppable changes? I speculate that somehow advertising has to be integrated into the content. When you watch online television, they do have commercial breaks.

4/13/2009 12:05 PM  
Blogger TexPatriate said...

I think that advertising is already being integrated into content. It's called product placement and it's the single reason that Reese's Pieces went from under the radar to the top candy seller after ET came out.

If you pay attention in movies, you see cars, soft drinks, jewelry, clothing, whatever. . .

I think it's one of the most subtle forms of advertising and that it will become even more prevalent in the future.

4/13/2009 2:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think it's one of the most subtle forms of advertising and that it will become even more prevalent in the future."

Interesting you say that Tex, we are already seeing this in video games too.

I don't think that the cinema is set to die any time soon though. While it is true that there is sufficient movie quality to be had at home, the fact remains that the cinema is an event, a thing to do. As much as I like staying home, I have to get out every now and then. Whether that's the ball park, the movies or what have you, it's the getting out that counts.

4/13/2009 5:08 PM  
Anonymous Observer said...

I agree with you, Anon, that the cinema is an event and of course nothing grabs the viewer like the truly big screen and the fantastic sound systems in the theaters.

I think x4mr's point has to do with the economics. Will ENOUGH people want to get out ENOUGH to generate the necessary revenues? Consistent with Texpat remark, the theaters also advertise with still shots while you wait for the film to start, and actual (video) commercials are increasingly being shown before the film starts.

What has gotten ridiculous is the number of trailers shown before a film. The last time I think I had to sit through over half a dozen $#%##@# previews.

In the film Minority Report which is all about the future and information technology, the whole world has become an advertising space. When the Tom Cruise character walks around, ads flash up customized for him. That's a frightening possibility.

4/13/2009 6:12 PM  
Blogger TexPatriate said...


Re: the customization of ads in a person's "space" -- this is exactly what GoogleAds takes advantage of. They read your content and target ads to keywords that may be in that content.

The car manufacturers may have something like this in the works as well. I have read about the possibility of ads being "inserted" into GPS technology to pop up "suggestions" for the driver for dinner venues, films & theatre directions, sporting events and routes to those arenas, etc.

As far as "how are they going to pay for this", I anticipate something like what is going on in the sporting world at the moment -- luxury boxes and their ilk. It's no longer enough to go out with Joe Sixpack -- eventgoers don't want to have to go out with Joe Sixpack (or Suzie Cosmo, either).

I will be the FIRST to admit, however, that I LOVE the VIP theatre option here in my little town. You are required to be over 21, alcoholic beverages are available to patrons, there is no concession line (your refreshments are brought to your seat when you're settled), and it's (I think) only about a dollar and a half over a regular theatre ticket. Having said this, it's absolutely worth it to me to be able to watch a film without the teenage crowd flicking their cell phone screens on and off obsessively -- checking texts or whatever -- and I know that the other folks in the theatre have also made a choice to pony up and, thus, are invested in their behavioral choices as well.

If it makes me an elitist to be able to watch a film without having to deal with the lowest common social denominator, I will go get my nametag now. =P

4/13/2009 7:08 PM  
Blogger x4mr said...

The notion of creating separate service levels is illustrated by first class airline tickets, and obviously it occurs big time with stadiums for sporting events, where different sections are color coded by desirability and status. Premium "box seats" are only available to high paying VIP's.

What is predictable is increasing sophistication, and good point, Texpat, about refining the customers into separate classes, extracting a happily paid premium from those such as yourself willing to pay to avoid concession lines and cell phone screens.

Pursuing the concept further, customers will be distinguished by their ability and willingness to pay, and products and marketing will correspond. What I'm saying was said 70 years ago (GM had Chevrolet for one level, then Pontiac, then Oldsmobile, then Buick, then Cadillac), but we are now discussing it in a Web 2.0 context.

At the 40,000 foot level, I think Observer's noting Minority Report points exactly to what is going to occur. Our media is going to be fractured into components which are then assembled according to viewer profiles that contain advertising tailored to those profiles. This is completely impossible with broadcast media (as we know it), but entirely feasible with Web programming.

The implications can be disturbing. For example, I might not read the same New York Times that you read. At the minimum, the advertisements would be different because we have different profiles. Spookier, the content itself might change to suit us, boosting traffic (see where I'm headed?) and therefore revenue. Your sports section might be larger/smaller. The set of opinion pieces might be different.

To go completely spooky, and this won't happen anytime soon, but consider the notion that if you watch a film at your machine, and I watch it at mine, we don't see the same one. (Queue Twilight Zone music)

4/13/2009 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Framer said...


Your future is already here. Entertainment is fractured to the point that it is ALREADY micro targeted. Whole genres of music and film are available and are being listened to and watched by people that you have no idea even exist. The fact that people are getting their "news" from Chris Matthews and Keith Oberman further shows that this goes beyond entertainment. If I'm hawking my Obama collector plates I know where my advertising buck is going.

Look at Battlestar Galactica. At times this has been, by far, the best show on television, yet hardly anyone watched it. It was, however, able to stay alive on the SciFi network as their crown jewel. NBC would have canceled it after the first 10 episodes.

And cinema will die eventually, at least in the form that we know it. As production costs come down and the barrier to entry is smaller, people will drift to niches that they are comfortable with. There may be the occasional blockbuster and phenomenon, but with the dilution of the "big name actors" much of the hype will fade as well. This is already well underway in music. There will never be another Elvis or Beatles, not because they were that great, but because of the sheer volume of choice. There will be far more Tower Theaters than Megaplexes in the future.

How many "must see" movies have any of you attended on opening night in the past year? I'm down to about 1 most years.

Of course I consider all of this a good thing (except possibly the Oberman part.)

4/13/2009 10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The implications can be disturbing. For example, I might not read the same New York Times that you read. At the minimum, the advertisements would be different because we have different profiles. Spookier, the content itself might change to suit us, boosting traffic (see where I'm headed?) and therefore revenue. Your sports section might be larger/smaller. The set of opinion pieces might be different.AWESOME and intensely thought provoking. Framer and x4mr are right, although I'm not as comfortable as Framer appears to be about all of this. I find this conversation fascinating, but quite disturbing. The concept of "agenda spun" information is highly problematic. My question for everyone here is where does the truth fit into all of this?

4/13/2009 11:22 PM  
Anonymous Anon 2 said...

x4mr gets that reality is a construct. Yes, there are facts, but facts only exist as seeds for our interpretation. I think that is part of the point of this.

Media is communication. It is our news. It is our TV shows like Lost, American Idol, or the latest installment of Survivor. It is the World Series, the Final Four, and the Super Bowl. It is our movies. All require financing.

X4mr is asking how all that is happening changes who is paying for all this media (news, sports, movies) and how they recoup their expenses. He doesn't say it, but I think x4mr is pointing at the total commercialization of media.

George Orwell was right, except that Big Brother is really Big Buck, before whom we all serve.

4/13/2009 11:51 PM  

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