In Medium Rez

I

Although Apple introduced its Video iPod at the end of 2005, this is the year when video begins to take off. Everywhere. The sheer profusion of devices which can play video – from iPods to desktop and laptop computers to Sony’s Playstation Portable, the Nintendo DS, and nearly all current-generation mobile phones – means that people will be watching more video, in more places, than ever before. You may not want to watch that episode of “Desperate Housewives” on your iPod – unless you happened to be tied up last Monday evening, and forgot to program your VCR. Then you’ll be glad you can. Sure, the picture is small and grainy, the sound’s a bit tinny, and your arms will get tired holding that screen in front of your face for an hour, but these drawbacks mean nothing to a true fan. And the true fans will lead this revolution.

We’re growing comfortable with the idea that screens are everywhere, that we can – in the time it takes to ride the train to work – get caught up on our favorite stories, the last World Cup match, and the news of the world. A generation ago it seemed odd to see someone in public wearing earphones; today it’s a matter of course. This afternoon it might seem odd to see someone staring into their mobile phone; tomorrow it will seem perfectly normal.

II

Now that video is everywhere, it won’t be long until the business of television moves online. Already, Apple has sold close to ten million episodes of television series like “Lost” and “The Office”. Google wants to sell you episodes of the original “Star Trek”, “The Brady Bunch” and “CSI”. For television producers it’s a win-win; they’ve already sold the episodes to broadcast networks – generally for a bit less than they cost to make – so the online sales are extra and vital dollars to cover the gap between loss and profit.

Today only a few of the hundreds of series shown in the US, UK and Australia are available for sale online. By the end of this year, most of them will be. Will the broadcast networks like this? Yes and no. It deprives them of some of the power they hold over the audience – to gather them at one place and time, eyeballs for advertisers – but it also creates new audiences: people see an episode online, and decide to tune in for the next one. That’s something we’ve already seen – “The Office”, for example, spiked upward in broadcast ratings after it was offered online. This year, there’s likely to be another breakout television hit – a new “Lost” – which starts its life online.

III

Once video is everywhere, once all our favorite television shows are available online for download, we’ll learn something else: there’s a lot more out there than just those shows produced for broadcast. On sites like Google Video and YouTube, you can already download tens of thousands of short- and full-length television programs. Some of them are woefully amateur productions, the kind that make you cringe in horror, but others – and there are more and more of these – are as funny and dramatic as anything you might see on broadcast television. Think TropFest – but a thousand times bigger.

Once we get used to the idea that television is something they can download, we’ll find ourselves drawn to these other, more unusual offerings. Most of this fare isn’t ready for prime-time. Much of it is only meant for a tight circle of friends and aficionados. But some of it will break through, and get audiences in the millions. It’s already happened a few times in the last year; this year it will become so common that, by the end of 2006, we’ll think nothing of it at all. This thought scares both the broadcast networks and the commercial TV producers. After all, if we’re spending our time watching something created by four kids in Goulburn, that’s time we’re not watching commercially-produced entertainment. And how do the networks compete with that?

IV

This fundamental transformation in how we find and watch entertainment isn’t confined to video. It’s happening to all other media, simultaneously. More people listen to the podcasts of Radio National than listen to the live broadcast; more people read the Sydney Morning Herald online than read the print edition. And these are just the professional offerings. As with television, each of these media are facing a rising sea of competition – from amateurs. Apple offers tens of thousands of podcasts through its iTunes Music Store – including Radio National – on just about any topic under the sun, from the mundane to the truly bizarre. You can get “feeds” of news from Fairfax – headlines and links to online versions of the stories – but you can also get that any of several thousand news-oriented blogs. Click a few buttons and the news is automatically downloaded to your computer, every half hour.

As it gets easier and easier for us to choose exactly what we want to watch, hear and read, the commercial and national broadcasters find themselves facing the “death of a thousand cuts.” Every pair of ears listening to a podcast is an audience member who won’t show up in the ratings. Every subscriber to an “amateur” news feed is a subscriber lost to a newspaper. And this trend is just beginning. In another decade, we’ll wonder how we lived without all this choice.

V

Choice is a beautiful thing. We define ourselves by the choices we make: what we do, who we know, what we fill our leisure time with. Now that our media is everywhere, available from everyone, any hour of the day or night, we’re going to find ourselves confronted by an unexpected problem: rather than trying to decide what to watch on five terrestrial broadcast channels – or fifty cable channels – we’ll have to pick from an ocean of a million different programs; even if most of them aren’t all that appealing, at least a few thousand will be, at any point in time.

That kind of choice will make us all a little bit crazy, because we’ll always be wondering if, just now, something better isn’t out there, waiting for us to download it. Like the channel surfer who sits, remote in hand, flipping through the channels, hoping for something to catch his eye, we’re going to be flipping through hundreds of thousands and then millions of choices of things to watch, hear and read. We’re going to be drowning in possibilities. And the pressure – to keep up, to be informed, to be on the tip – is about to create the most savvy generation of media consumers the world has ever seen.

We’re drowning in choice, but, because of that, we’ll figure out how to share what we know about what’s good. We already receive lots of email from friends and family with links to the best things they’ve found online. That’s going to continue, and accelerate; our circles of friends are becoming our TV programmers, our radio DJs, our newspaper editors, and we’ll return the favor. The media of the 21st century are created by us, edited by us, and broadcast by us. That’s a deep change, and a permanent one.

One thought on “In Medium Rez

  1. “Every pair of ears listening to a podcast is an audience member who won’t show up in the ratings.”

    Oh, but they do! It’s just a matter of finding a way to measure them. For instance, Feedburner.com is an excellent and accessible caching service which tracks not only feed subscriber numbers, but also downloads for individual podcast episodes.

    With measurement comes confidence. That’s the basis of ratings.

    Mark, my article on Australian television’s future may interest you. Probably a bunch of stuff you already know. But proof that some of us in the media industry are watching closely!

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