10 Comments

Summary:

Unless media corporations stop defining themselves by their products, they are going to be unable to navigate the big shift that is changing the rules of the game — what I call the “democratization of distribution.”

ipad youtube

A few hours ago, a friend of mine emailed me, lamenting a story that CNN was passing off as breaking news, even though it was far from being either news or newsworthy. His displeasure reminded me of a conversation I had with serial entrepreneur and startup guru Steve Blank when he came to my office to tape an interview. As we sat there waiting for the cameras to roll, we talked about what media is in this post-broadband, always-on world. I told Steve that the problem with most media companies is they define themselves by the product they hawk. Music television, CNN, Breaking News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN or whatever — these are all products that define the media companies behind them.

And therein lies the problem. Unless media corporations stop defining themselves by their products, they are going to be unable to navigate the big shift that is changing the rules of the game — what I call the “democratization of distribution.”

The Distribution Democracy

Let’s talk about the television business for a minute. During the early days of television, access to spectrum determined who owned and operated the networks. CBS and ABC became the gatekeepers of attention — whether it was through 60 Minutes, Wide World of Sports or some other such program. Hit programs essentially ensured that viewers “attention” switched from one channel to another, and with it, the advertising dollars.

Then came analog cable and we saw the emergence of more media entities — for example, HBO, ESPN and CNN — which siphoned away attention from broadcast networks to all these new entities. With digital cable, attention got sliced and diced even more, but still the scarcity of “spectrum” inside the cable network pipes meant that there was finite amount of channels available.

Then came broadband, which essentially removed any channel scarcity. The distribution, which had been in the hands of a few large media conglomerates, was suddenly available to everyone. Today anyone, even talentless acts such as Rebeca Black can upload their video to YouTube and become instant celebrities. Justin Bieber, too, is a product of this channel-less revolution.

Just like television, we have seen the same drama unfold in the music, radio, newspaper and magazine industries. The gatekeepers of attention have been disrupted.

“Over 5 or ten years, fiber optics and the wireless explosion will completely crush the business models of old media companies and industries,” Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, said in an interview with McKinsey & Co. “For companies focused on content and distribution, distribution just goes away.” Schmidt rightfully argued that there is no need to think of content types by the distribution network they are tied to, because there will be one single network.

Media, as far as I am concerned, has been and will always be a game of attention. A few years ago, during the go-go years of the 1990s, Forbes or Fortune magazine had all our attention and thus were able to monetize that attention by selling tons of advertising against it. CNN could charge premium dollars during its heyday. The New York Times informed us (especially the New Yorkers) and held our attention and was able to monetize it.

Broadband and lately wireless Internet has changed the dynamics of attention. Rebecca Black (with her “Friday” video) and Foursquare are now media, thanks to their ability to grab our attention. Similarly, if people spend all their time scanning through photos on Instagram, then that too is media.

The distribution democracy, which has been accelerated by the emergence of wireless Internet and smartphones, is putting that capability in the hands of tens of millions of people, and we are starting to see the disruptive impact of that in our society.

There have been endless debates about the role of Twitter and Facebook in societal and geopolitical dramas, but I think they are merely tools that have thrived and have enabled changes because the distribution of information has been unshackled, a point so well argued by my colleague Mathew Ingram and New York University media professor, Jay Rosen.

Your Attention Please

One side effect of this distribution democracy is the sheer volume of information that is coming at us from all sides. The torrent of information threatens to drown us and encourages short-term thinking. In a speech earlier this week, Andrew G Haldane, an economist who works for the Bank of England, said:

Information is streamed in ever-greater volumes and at ever-rising velocities. Timelines for decision-making appear to have been compressed. Pressures to deliver immediate results seem to have intensified. Tenure patterns for some of our most important life choices (marriage, jobs, money) are in secular decline.

These forces may be altering not just the way we act, but also the way we think. Neurologically, our brains are adapting to increasing volumes and velocities of information by shortening attention spans. Technological innovation, such as the World Wide Web, may have caused a permanent neurological rewiring, as did previous technological revolutions such as the printing press and typewriter.

If that is indeed the case, and I do believe it to be true, then the concept of what is media needs to be rethought and re-imagined — and that also means that we need to start rethinking our tools of measurement and methods of monetization. And as for my friend who lamented about the quality of content on CNN, he should probably get used to it. With increased competition for attention, he can expect even more of the trivial bits as part of his info-diet.

Uh oh!

Something is wrong with your Wufoo shortcode. If you copy and paste it from the Wufoo Code Manager, you should be golden.

  1. Om, interesting observations. If we include commercial offers and messages (e.g., ads), the firehose is indeed a torrent. Consider the rapid growth of Groupon and other “daily deal” providers (and resulting user fatigue), as well as services such as LocalResponse (using NLP to infer your location, allows merchants/advertisers to Tweet “contextually relevant” messages and offers to consumers based on their current location, where they plan to go). As the volume and, at least for a subset, relevance grow, more demands are being placed on our attention, making it more and more difficult for individuals to absorb, much less process and act on information. As I noted in my Location Innovation report last year (http://bit.ly/c6VQDb), “the dramatic increase in location-specific (and contextually relevant) information intensifies the need and creates significant new opportunities for solutions that help individuals filter, find, access and leverage… content.”

    Share
  2. Amit Bhargava Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Om, I completely agree with the observations. In the race for grabbing the attention and thus the advertising dollars, companies have completely forgotten the basics as to why they are into business. I am from India and even here, the news channels on TV and to an extent even the print media sensationalize the trivial bits and pieces of information. Information that should not even exists in the first place has found a medium to enter into the living rooms.

    IMO, the media companies need to identify themselves with the type and quality of news that they want to be associated with. Segmenting the market (which I believe has already started) will at least help the consumer to identify himself with what he wants to read/view and understand.

    Share
  3. Om, interesting thoughts. Respected media brands may have an ongoing role in filtering and selecting from the deluge; offering up a timely view that should in some sense be quality assured, whether they created the content or not.

    Rory Cellan-Jones is technology correspondent for the BBC here in the UK. At the end of a recent interview with Tim Berners-Lee, the tables were turned and Berners-Lee interviewed Cellan-Jones. He asked a series of questions that are relevant to this discussion, beginning to explore the relationship between the organisation (the BBC), the journalist (Cellan-Jones), the intertwined brands of both, and the content one produces for the other. You may find the short video of interest… assuming the BBC lets you see it from the U.S… http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13128741

    Share
    1. Thanks for that link Paul. Very educational.

      Share
  4. Steve Farnsworth Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    Hey Om, I absolutely agree with you that media needs to be rethought and re-imagined. With an organization like CNN is passing off a story that is neither news or newsworthy, I wonder if it is a sign that it will ultimately fail (or is already seriously vulnerable). Do you think it will be displaced by multiple media sources that are better curators of meaningful (perhaps niche) content, or does its size allow it to continue to bumble along indefinitely?

    Share
  5. You’re on the right track, Om but the difference goes way beyond this. News publishers, like music companies, need to realize that they are not selling products, but the service of making sense of the world. I don’t read Google News or this blog because they supply great content but because they do the best job of making sense of the content that’s out there (thanks, btw. :-) Huffington was one of the few that understood this. Murdoch still doesn’t get it.

    Once a publisher realuses that, they stop worrying about owning/controlling the content, they allow twitter et al to break some news and they focus on helping their readers to make sense of what’s known. They do this by filtering it and also contextualising it – including by linking to their sources. They value-add to the relationship by supplying expertise and access to privileged sources like the President, who bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ are unlikely to be able to reach because of the source’s finite attention.

    Publishers who do a good job of this need not worry about controlling their content because they can be sure readers will come back for more …

    Share
  6. You’re on the right track, Om but the difference goes way beyond this. News publishers, like music companies, need to realize that they are not selling products, but the service of making sense of the world. I don’t read Google News or this blog because they supply great content but because they do the best job of making sense of the content that’s out there (thanks, btw. :-) Huffington was one of the few that understood this. Murdoch still doesn’t get it.

    Once a publisher realuses that, they stop worrying about owning/controlling the content, they allow twitter et al to break some news and they focus on helping their readers to make sense of what’s known. They do this by filtering it and also contextualising it – including by linking to their sources. They value-add to the relationship by supplying expertise and access to privileged sources like the President, who bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’ are unlikely to be able to reach because of the source’s finite attention.

    Publishers who do a good job of this need not worry about controlling their content because they can be sure readers will come back for more …

    Share
  7. but the democraticization of media doesnt necessarily means that CNN has to opt for the trivial. Clearly there is too much info coming at us from every direction. Solid news reporting should be a clear differentiator.

    Share
  8. Thanks for writing up your thoughts. It’s great to hear from someone with so much experience in media.

    If media is content and distribution, and distribution is democratized, then we are going to see a resurgence in content. We are already seeing how niche content is outperforming and how new kinds of content are emerging. I think traditional media still have what it takes to pull if they can double-down and focus on content.

    Share
  9. You’re right – it’s about attention.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post