I consume pop culture like a binging omnivore. I’m also a gadget freak. A deadly combo. Beyond it being a simple obsession or a point of pride, I justify my digital obsessions through my career as a digital media strategist. I advise large media companies on the strategy, tactics, trends, and culture that are eroding their strangle hold on content creation and distribution—however, more so than not—I find myself being an insultant rather than a consultant.
Please help: Our dinosaur is sick. “Keep it warm and give it plenty of liquids, I’ll send my invoice tomorrow.” While it isn’t fair to paint all of big media with a single big brush, many established media giants are afraid, really afraid. And fear is frequently a motivator for digging in, eating comfort food, and pulling the tent flaps tight. The meteor has hit, digital climate change is under way, and evolutionary tyrannicide is killing the tyrantosaurus wrecks. Okay, bad pun, but believe me: Humor is important at a difficult time like this.
Dynasty-turned-dinosaur media casualities are found across the full spectrum of the media ecosystem, but there are four endangered species that truly stand out: Gazetteopods, Coaxosauruses, Telecastodons, and the ever-terrifying Platteraptors.
Harsh? Too soon? Ask Kodak about it.
The Gazetteopods (Newspapers) were found in every major city; they dominated as news giants while thriving on forest resources and were routinely enjoyed by millions as part of a tasty breakfast. While reports of their demise seem imminent, the truth is that evolutionary Amazonian forces are desperately trying to rekindle their strength and transform them into digital domestications.
Territorial competition is rapidly deteriorating the traditional habitat of the Coaxosauruses (Cable), the once-monopolistic rulers of multiservice symbiosis; they are reluctantly evolving a robust backbone to lure their food source back into the habitat.
Telecastodons (Network TV) once soared high in the air, broadcasting their dominance to the vast flocks of admirers. Who could have imagined their loud crowing all but silenced by a tweet? The pecking order has changed, which has contributed to their revenue laying an egg.
And let’s not forget the terrifying predators known as the Platteraptors (Music Labels), who at one time held all the records—they were the big fish in the big pond. Songs and lyrics will forever tell of their unwillingness to migrate to new fertile fishing grounds and how, in a fit of evolutionary suicide, they overgrazed—finally turning their anger toward the few prey they had left.
I don’t mean to be preachy or condescending; I genuinely mean no harm. In fact, quite the opposite. There are some brilliant people out there shaping a new future that is quite imaginative and full of opportunity. I truly believe that there are winning prospects and sustainable business opportunities across all the media sectors. They might not look exactly like they did in the past, but the audience is vast, and its appetite is unquenchable. Where there is an audience, there is a buck. Change is here, has been here, and will only become more undeniable—even to the most fervent of dinosaurs.
Death creeps slowly and inevitably to all living things, and the only hope for immortality is the evolutionary promise of procreation, the passing of control and power to one’s progeny born in new worlds and, in Bill Maher’s words, new rules. Some species are really good at this, such as Homo sapiens. Take Madonna: How many times has she successfully reinvented herself? She’s the walking poster child for evolutionary dominance. Corporations are also living beings (with First Amendment rights—so says the U.S. Supreme Court). They grow and mature and ultimately face choices (ahem . . . General Motors) about evolutionary progress, or the lack thereof.
Creative destruction eventually catches up with every market entity, and the survivors all have clear things in common: They evolve, they transform, and they define change as disruptive, not parasitic. The winners are able to cast off the lamps of corporate dogma, embrace the genie, and reinvent themselves in profound ways. The losers fall victim to bureaucratic rigidity and protectionist dogma; they hunker down and build bigger walls around the castle, eventually starving from the ubiquitous siege of market forces.
In their defense, it is difficult for large behemoths to move quickly, to turn the ship and risk change—especially when that change affects the bottom line. The incentives are simply not there. Research and development efforts are expensive and, long term, they take away from the immediate goals of increasing market share and quarterly profits. One great insight to this innovation challenge is found in Harvard Business Review's Managing your innovation portfolio by Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff. Absolutely worth a read.
Mergers and acquisitions are easier; companies simply can buy innovation born from young agile companies who think contemporarily and are directly motivated to generate opportunities that are free of oligarchic control.
This is even true of the innovation giant Google, which has acquired over 125 companies including two companies, Aardvark and AppJet, that were both started by ex–Google employees who left the nest to innovate and rapidly build technologies, only to find themselves right back at Google, albeit a bit richer for their efforts.
But this typical innovation cycle pales in comparison with the problems that traditional media face today—the disruptive change exploding in both the vertical and horizontal media market sectors is profound. The apogee of control and profitability is squarely in the rear-view mirror, and many corporate drivers are busy making U-turns to find where it went.
The relatively accessible media, tools, and the applications of creation and distribution have leveled the creative playing field between the mainstream media Goliaths and the independent Davids. Sophisticated film and audio production techniques, once the domain of big media, are now routinely available to the average fourteen-year-old.
T. S. Eliot’s book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture was a pivotal work that viewed high culture and popular culture as synergistic components of a complete culture. The term mainstream media is an expression historically used to describe high culture (the sanctioned form of media specifically designed to reach a very large audience). It was coined in the 1920s with the growth of national radio networks, mass-circulation magazines, and newspapers.
Since the 1920s, the concepts of high culture or high art in mass media have given way to the “dumbing down” of sanctioned media by the Goliaths in an effort to gain wider appeal and ratings. Large-budget network television programs are quickly becoming a thing of the past due to falling ad revenues and the fractionalization of the viewing audience across new platforms and devices.
As the Goliaths dumb down their programming budgets and as the Davids are further empowered, we see a growing uniformity of execution between high art and low art. Reality shows are cheap to produce and have transformed everyday “reality” into a perception of entertainment. Bloggers are in competition with established newspapers, and record labels are competing with grassroots artist-direct distribution and free UGC (User Generated Content), including derivative and transformational works.
Many new devices allow for transparency of content delivery from multiple sources (web, mobile, cable, or satellite), as well as the merging of content libraries between traditional video on demand (VOD) and broadband content. As the mass-culture content styles and the origin of content become less important, the Goliaths are increasingly becoming irrelevant.
In 2008, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which controls the coveted Emmy, changed its entrance requirements and eliminated the test of “broadcast” as a bar to entry. Emmy-hopeful content entries can now be submitted for all award categories, no matter the original delivery method (mobile, web, or broadcast).
Movies are routinely released in ultra-widescreen 3D in an effort to combat the surround-sound, large-screen high-definition theater found in your living room, and the rise of blogging is certainly no friend to established newspapers. We’re rapidly finding a profound democratization of media across all channels—music, movies, TV, and print.
About the only advantage the Goliaths still have is the financial power to widely advertise and market their content and to include pricy celebrity “bait” in an effort to entice a mass audience. However, the trend is for celebrities to release content directly, such as English band Radiohead’s web release of its seventh studio album In Rainbows and actor Will Ferrell’s FunnyorDie.com, a comedy site that mixes so-called amateur and professional content from the “pros.” Many Goliaths are taking the position that, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Indeed, HBO bought a 10-percent stake in FunnyorDie.com.
Assuming for a moment that there is a profound leveling of the playing field across all media sectors, what factors will engender large audiences, build brands, and ultimately make money for the artists? Talent, creativity, innovation and excellence. That’s a relatively easy answer. The harder question is, how will the business of media make money? How do the 22,000 people sandwiched between you and Jerry Seinfeld make money?
This blog will ask these and other questions and perhaps touch on strategies and tactics to help demystify the process of chasing large growing piles of Internet pennies rather than a shrinking pile of analog dollars.