The Media Equation
New Rules for the Ways We Watch
For the last year, media pundits like me have been running around screaming our heads off about falling skies and collapsing paradigms, and yet as 2011 comes to an end, the sky is still there.
Yes, competition is storming out of every device and connection, and consumers have choices and leverage they never dreamed of. But network television continues to waltz along, attracting advertisers in big numbers. Cable had a great year, and media octopuses like Time Warner and News Corporation continue to find plenty of profits. Big media companies still rely on huge, well-entrenched assets that include brands, distribution and capital.
But even if the sky is still aloft, there are visible, portentous cracks appearing. The inertia that has kept consumers from bolting from traditional content providers is beginning to erode as a new generation remakes media in its own image. Device companies and search outfits are intent on manufacturing their own content. And the migration of movies, music and video to the cloud could change the weather in a hurry.
Even as some of the old truisms in media still obtain — content wears the crown and strong brands break through clutter — a few new rules are taking shape.
A SCREEN IS A SCREEN Steve Jobs taught us a bunch before he exited, but one of his most current lessons could be the one with the most far-reaching implications. Content has a price tag, which is reassuring, but the old dividing lines between television, radio, Web and print disappear within the four corners of a tablet. That means, for instance, that CNBC and The Wall Street Journal are not in different businesses anymore, and in fact The Journal is adding hours of live video with each passing month. The BBC and Al Jazeera are no longer regional curios, they’re here. Every cable channel with two nickels and more than a few digital enterprises is financing the kind of narrative television that used to be available only at a certain time on a certain network.
NEW NETWORKS EVERY DAY On Christmas Day, a lot of people took the ribbon off a Web-enabled flat-screen television, and now the fight for real estate on all those enhanced television screens will be fast and furious. Cable providers will try to keep people from downloading the products of insurgent Web “broadcasters,” but they can’t stop what’s coming. They will have to win by providing value that trumps the now-infinite channel universe of the Web.
The $27 billion that traditional media just paid to the National Football League is a hedge, not an answer. So-called virtual operators — Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google and Apple — have none of the legacy or infrastructure costs. Google has unleashed $100 million to seed new programming on YouTube, and Netflix is financing a series by the director David Fincher. That gaming device your children are playing with? That too is a network in the making. Traditional networks and cable providers have the content, but if they hold on too tight, they will miss out on vast new avenues of distribution and revenue.
THE REMOTE AS BRICK The iPad is a screen on your lap that makes it easy to navigate toward a completely personal experience. That screen on your living room wall is going to have to perform the same way to remain relevant. As it has in many other areas of technology, the smartphone will point the way. Our phones — and now tablets — are always on and poised for action.
When I switched from the first iPad, which took a few seconds to boot, to the iPad2, which stands ready for duty every time I lift its cover, my use more than doubled. I expect that other devices will greet me in similar fashion. Navigating is as easy as a swipe of the finger or, in the case of the new iPhone, a verbal request to Siri.
As for your remote control, well, using it is a little like hitting your television with a stick until it finally delivers what you want. If things go as they should, we will spend less time looking under the couch for the remote and more time telling our television to get us the seventh episode of the second season of “Boardwalk Empire.” (Beginning in December, Xbox 360 owners were already able to search TV shows by voice.) And our media identity is becoming ubiquitous, and transportable: someday, I should be able to walk into a hotel in Kansas, tell the television who I am and find everything I have bought and paid for, there for the consuming.
CELEBRITY AS COMMODITY The multiplatform and infinite-channel universe can manufacture its own celebrities. Is Scott Pelley a more important asset than Kim Kardashian? You may not know who Rebecca Black is, but more than 14 million YouTube users do and have spun her ridiculous music video “Friday” to laugh at or with her. Oprah Winfrey, the celebrity with the golden touch, got clobbered when she started her own network. Anderson Cooper felt compelled to do a daytime show to diversify his bets. Keith Olbermann and Charlie Sheen thought their audiences were a movable feast, but big chunks of their followers stayed put to watch Rachel Maddow and Ashton Kutcher in their slots.
THE FUTURE WILL BE HACKED I happened to be at dinner with Howard Stringer back in June when Sony and its PlayStation network were under attack by hackers. Mr. Stringer, an even-keeled executive who has lived through all kinds of challenges, looked as if he had stumbled onto a beehive. It’s nice that NBC News has a Twitter account for breaking news; but when the hacked version started spitting out alarmist messages about an attack during the run-up to the Sept. 11 anniversary? Not so great. In November, the digital wrenches of Anonymous wreaked similar havoc on Fox News. As more vital content is distributed from the cloud and not cables, security breaches will not be something media companies report about, but something they live through.
THE CONSUMER WILL DECIDE Yes, consumers are programming their own mediated universe, but they can snap healthy companies in two while they are at it. Last year I wrote a story about Netflix’s deft understanding of consumer preferences, but in September the company decided to split its DVD and streaming options into two services, and that, in addition to a price increase, cost the company almost a million customers. The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper started by The Wall Street Journal, came out to a herald of trumpets and now hears only the sound of crickets. Research in Motion decided people wanted a cheaper tablet. Turns out they wanted one that worked, as well.
MASH-UPS AND HYBRIDS WILL RULE Everything that can be mashed together will be. The Tea Party will do a debate with CNN, and the Showtime series “Homeland” will be a cable series, an on-demand product, an app and a community. That informational crawl at the bottom of your television set? It could come from the broadcaster or it might come from Twitter. Soon the Oscars award show could be accompanied by comments from your wisecracking friends, not on your phone but on the bottom of your flat-screen. Huge world events will first appear on social media platforms and then leap to mainstream media and back again. The books you read to your children will take over when you are tired and read themselves, or they might turn into a game when the joys of unadorned narrative begin to bore.
SOCIAL MEDIA AS ITS OWN FRIEND Facebook wants to be your cultural operating system, providing recommendations and serving as a platform for music, movies and news. Twitter has taken its initial lightweight design and begun to offer more windows of content, hoping to keep you tuned in for more than 140 characters. If these services are capable of fomenting revolutions against repressive regimes, they can do plenty of world-changing right here. Occupy Wall Street drew enough notice with D.I.Y. media to command a national stage and reorder the discussion.
What else will we be watching for in the coming year? The fates of Julian Assange and Rupert Murdoch, two men who changed the world in very different ways and are now both being pursued, will probably be decided. We’ll find out whether the 38 or so Republican debates will give the party’s nominee an advantage against the president. And everyone, especially the people at Apple, knows that the consumer response to its next big thing — iTV anyone? — will be a referendum on whether the company can prosper absent its visionary in chief.