The media infrastructure implosion

We are about to see an implosion of the expensive and outmoded infrastructure of media: the presses and trucks of news, the production priesthood of TV, the money that goes to everything but the information and creativity that really matter. This is good news.

On the way to one of three meetings I happened to have this week with people who are starting new, lightweight networks — because the internet lets them — I walked by a location shoot for a TV show. We see them all the time, we jaded New Yorkers, and so we’re never amazed. But what does not cease to amaze me is all the stuff it takes — or they think it takes — to shoot a show: trucks filled with lights and cables and plugs, handcarts filled just with the director’s chairs with stars names on the back, bins overflowing even with wooden boxes with the Paramount logo on the side, assistant directors running around trying to act more important than the snotty gophers they are, catering trucks with expensive caterers: expense everywhere.

Do they really need all that to shoot three minutes of obvious primetime drama? Of course, they don’t. Studio and network executives have lamented the cost for a long time, but they haven’t been able to change it. That’s how TV is made — or that’s how the priests of the TV tools told us it is made. But with ratings and now revenue facing merciless shrinkage, the networks will attack this cost structure. The first, stupid response was to invent stupid, cheap, reality shows: NBC’s answer to its declining economics was to declare defeat at shovel us shit at 8 p.m.

I predict that one smarter network will soon discover a show made cheap, handheld cameras, no location trucks, no gaffers, no ADs, no caterers, and no numbing studio structure but lots of creativity and passion and independence: a show made by one of those three ventures I met with this week. That show will go on the air and be a hit, not because of how it is shot but because of what it says. The networks will discover that they can get quality TV that is still popular — not as popular as the blockbusters of old, yes, but popular enough to be profitable so long as the costs are low. That will be great news for the creative class, because it will lower the barrier to an audience. And that will be good news for us, formerly known as the audience, because we’ll see TV that is valued for its creativity over its infrastructure.

And then a lot of those location trucks and all the expensive stuff in them will go into mothballs with battleships and propeller planes: relics of old technology.

We’ll see the same thing happen in TV news: See my tale of three tapes, how I could get the same message across as a CBS News segment with nothing but a Mac, how quality can even improve with three-camera HDTV shoots but with low cost and no priesthood. This week I also went to a show by the National Association of Broadcasters and I wandered around the floor looking at more expensive equipment thinking, your days are numbered. Same thought went through my head as I wandered the floor of the Folio magazine show: Knowledge doesn’t need your gadgets anymore.

And we’ll see it happen in newspapers: See yesterday’s post about the “free fall” of the newspaper industry.

Let me repeat: This is good news. This means that we can eliminate incredible costs — and with them, the bureacrats and time-wasters and creativity-killers they support — in the making of media, both news and entertainment. This means that we can rediscover what these media are really about, what makes them valuable, what makes them good: We don’t define quality by the number of sound guys or gaffers or producers or assistant managing editors, they do. We define quality by substance and value and creativity. And it’s high time we return to those measures of media.

This is why I find it so disingenuous and dangerous for media executives, especially editors, to defend the old cost structures as if that defined their quality and value. That means they don’t understand their own value. It means they will help destroy that value by stubbornly holding onto those costs. Be honest: newspapers, TV networks and stations, studios, magazines are filled with waste and we should be grateful to have the chance to peel away those stinky layers of onion and get back to what we’re really about: informing or entertaining or connecting. And if the clumsy old big guys don’t learn that lesson fast, us nimble new little guys will steal their stage.

But I think that the survival instinct of smart media executives will kick in and I think we are going to see a rapid implosion of the old infrastructure and hierarchy and priesthoods of the tools in old media. Media are about to go on a crash diet.

  • Allen Edwards

    I would bet that the major networks/studios are at least partially constrained by various union requirements, similar to what the major auto makers in the U.S. have to deal with. Maybe even worse, if some of what I’ve read is true. Craft union rules are often more restrictive than “industrial” unions.

  • http://spaceygreview.blogspot.com/ Grayson

    Partially? How about totally! You simply cannot say it’s all going away until the unions have their say in the matter. It might be a last-gasp say, but it will not collapse into relic status until they, the unions, do. And I doubt they’re going to lay down their craftsmen’s gear without a large wimper.

    Don’t forget, many union technicians, writers, etc. ARE extremely skilled and highly experienced craftsmen. Creating high quality audio back in the day, for instance, DID take a skilled craftsman, not a clueless caffeinated millennial with iMovie and a mic.

    So please, give the industries, and the skilled and gifted “craftsmen” who created them, the honor and the credit they are due before tossing them on the scrap heap of media history. There are plenty of fine, noble, union workers, albeit aging ones, still working very very hard to bring us, uh, OLD media offerings. Let them go in dignity at least.

  • beloml

    On a peripherally related matter, the CEO of EMI music has declared that the CD is “dead.” The story’s on Drudge; I don’t know how to do linkies other than pasting in the URL.

  • http://ipid.wordpress.com/ digitallantern

    Another collapse is the final distribution. My newspaper delivery person is often late or a no-show at least ever other month. But my home screen and printer are idle. Often I like to lean back and read paper. On a remote vacation, the front desk would cut an paste the good bits from a few sources and make an edition of no more than 4 pages front and back side. About all I read for breakfast. MIT called this the “daily me” in the 1980’s.

    Newspapers should offer a variable format, the way TV guide streams are issued – 20 character, One sentence, One paragraph reviews of the same show. The editor fit the block. Only for papers it could be – one page, four page, sixteen page “folios” for home printing. Let the people pay for the ink and paper and stick to the business of finding interesting things to know.

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  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Societies can exist as deliberately inefficient in order to keep people employed (see China and the USSR before 1990) or they can put the emphasis on minimizing labor costs (Walmart).

    The latter is good for business, but ignores the impact on the working class. The US has, so far, refused to adopt a national industrial policy (as contrasted with Japan) which is aimed at solving these problems. Right now, the only industries which support inefficiency are financial and legal services, and health insurance. It is interesting that these sectors don’t make anything, not even transitory things like video.

  • ronbo

    When studio execs complain about production costs I don’t think they mean below the line costs (other than CGI, I guess). The IA (craft/tech union) work rules can be appalling, but I don’t believe they make the difference between profit and loss, or between a viable and an obsolete business model.

    The real problem is an above the line cost structure that places impossible revenue demands on most pictures. The salary and points for a Tom Cruise or a Jim Carrey have a lot more to do with a studio’s financial health than the wages and benefits for an assistant director (annoying as they may be), an electrician or a grip.

    I certainly agree that the availability of low-cost, lightweight prodution gear is revolutionizing content creation, but there is no need to dispense, Dogma95-style, with the production values provided by trained technicians using sophisticated equipment. It’s still a valid production choice in many cases; let’s just be happy that we now have other alternatives.

  • Emas

    The digital revolution you talk about is simply too disruptive for the networks to do. A cable channel might be the conduit of this type of programming- but most of THOSE are owned by the big 4. SciFi is owned by NBC etc

    The key is competition- since I don’t have the bandwidth the Big 4 have- we can’t deliver to the market- we CAN YouTube

    I predict there will be a long slow decline as viewers go to their computer downloads- mostly free or pirated. If one of the Big 4 goes under – the others will just buy the bandwidth and linger on for another decade or so. It will be painful to watch-

  • http://none Patrick

    To echo Mr. Edwards’ comment, I believe he’s right. I live in North Hollywood, Ca., and I see these crews everywhere I go. It looks like a ‘moving van convention’! People everywhere. When I comment to friends I know in the business, (along with a dirty look) they always say the same thing: it’s union mandated. Same with the end credits that seem to last longer than some of the b-movies we saw from the 30’s and 40’s. I grew up as a Liberal, pro-union guy….but one would be hard pressed to find a better example of union excess.

  • chico haas

    Pick your favorite movie, reshoot it scene for scene with your cheap handheld camera and tiny crew. Content carries more weight with production value. Not to say technology can’t reduce crew size, but if something looks and sounds like crap – you reduce the impact of your content. Every time.

  • http://www.agileprogrammer.com/eightytwenty Gordon Weakliem

    Nobody’s mentioned location costs. Most cities won’t let you simply set up a scene on a street corner and start shooting – you need to get a permit, and that costs money, especially in the big cities. There’s cases of movies being done guerilla style (I think “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” was done that way), but it really doesn’t scale. And you wouldn’t be able to do anything involving a car chase or crash, big explosions… not that that’s necessarily good theater, but it’s certainly popular.

  • ronbo

    “Right now, the only industries which support inefficiency are financial and legal services, and health insurance.”

    Don’t forget newspapers!

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    A group of workers managed to get organized and negotiate good working conditions. This always brings out resentment in the Libertarians (I include Jeff Jarvis) and those with inferior job benefits. Lately we have been seeing criticism of school teachers for earning too much. The fact that they start at under $30,000 in most places and need an advanced degree and/or 18 credits of education credits gets overlooked.

    Instead of resenting those who have fought for decent wages and a good career, why not take steps to improve your own lot. There are two new groups offering quasi-union benefits to those who don’t have access to traditional unions.

    Working America

    and

    United Professionals

    Stop blaming the victim. If you can’t stop working without starving you are a member of the working class. How about developing a bit of solidarity with your peers and stop falling for the divisive themes put forward by the business owning class.

  • anonymous

    “Right now, the only industries which support inefficiency are financial and legal services, and health insurance.”

    And public education.

  • JennyD

    Here’s an interesting perspective on the cost of things: CBS spends oodles of dollars on news, etc. but does not pay its college interns anything. Instead it relies on the children of affluent to flock to NYC and work for free. Here’s the

    Maybe if they cut back on catering they could have some working class kid work at CBS some summer.

  • http://www.vergenewmedia.com Jim Long

    I straddle two very different worlds here. I’m a NABET Local 31 staff network news cameraman for NBC. I’m also the founder of new media venture, Verge New Media, LLC. (which dovetails nicely with NBC’s layoff/cost-cutting measures LOL!).

    Jeff… YES SOMETIMES IT TAKES ALL OF THAT GEAR TO MAKE A SHOT!! Cinematography is an art. It’s a very creative and highly skilled art, far beyond the ability of a news-hack like me. Having said that, ZeFrank’s use of natural light and incredibly clever writing is also a highly skilled art. But as to your reference to all that “stuff”…would you ask Haskell Wexler or Jordan S. Cronenweth if they “needed all those lights”?

    As for the union-bashing going on in the comments here…let’s not make this a zero-sum game. I know a great many hard-working union people, who risk their lives (i came perilously close to losing mine in Baghdad), sacrifice time with their families, and travel to the crappiest parts of the world because they believe in what they do.

    So while I’m very excited about the promise of new media, I don’t think we should be celebrating the demise of what has been a noble calling to some of the finest people I’ve ever worked with.

    Jim

  • http://robertdfeinman.com/society Robert Feinman

    Never let it be said I can’t argue both sides of an issue.
    Compared this You Tube Walmart parody with the lame Walmarting across America phony blog that Edelman put up a few weeks ago:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=no0WqYWdH74

    Jeff is right about average people creating content, he just minimizes the issues with creating professional quality productions. Xeroxed church newsletters look much better since the invention of desktop publishing, but they still don’t compare with “Vogue”.

    anonymous:
    Usually I don’t respond to snide, unsigned remarks, but your ignorance of the costs of public education shines through in even such a short remark. Why don’t you go study the issue and see what percentage goes to salaries and what percentage goes to things you might consider “inefficient”. I’ll give you a hint to get you started: salaries = 80%. Now add in building construction and maintenance costs, educational materials, computers, sports equipment and all the rest.

    I suppose you think highly trained professionals are overpaid at $30,000. If you want underpaid, under trained teachers than why don’t you teach your own kids. I prefer having experienced people guiding my kids education.

  • anonymous

    Robert, I have a PhD in education. I know of what I speak.

  • http://www.kenvsthcity.com Ken the City Mouse

    I was walking down Park Avenue last week and someone was shooting a scene in the tiny American Express office that’s near 23rd Street. They had truckloads of lights, cameras and other unrecognizable equipment crammed into the tiny storefront. I was tempted to walk up to one of the crew and ask “Do you guys really need all this stuff to shoot video?”

    One argument for all the stuff though: TV’s, commercials and movies sure look and sound a heck of a lot better than most of the podcasts and things shot with handheld digital camcorders.

  • adslfan

    >Do they really need all that to shoot three minutes of obvious primetime >drama?

    no. they can make tv dramas using webcams.

  • SteveSgt

    I’m a refugee from the industry that supplied, designed, and built a lot of the big studio facilities used for things as wide ranging as local nightly news, to major home shopping channels, to satellite TV origination, to late-night variety/talk shows. Before that I built big-budget recording studios which have mostly been replaced by low-budget home and project studios. I’ve done workflow analysis on the job descriptions required to get a show on the air, and to make the most efficient use of equipment and labor.

    I’ve seen the collapse of the economics of producing such shows coming for a long time. It’s been the most obvious since about 2001, when the cable news organizations went from a standard field crew of 5 to 2. The equipment they carried was reduced from 3 or 4 dishwasher-sized flight cases down to a laptop case and a carry-on suitcase sized bag. Local TV stations went from having camera operators, sound technicians, and floor directors, to having one computer operator in the booth driving robotic cameras, mixing sound from wireless microphones, and feeding text to the electronic teleprompter.

    But with that came other demands for cost-cutting. Once they were doing what had been several people’s jobs at once, they couldn’t do any of them quite as well; certainly not with as much art and finesse. They had to produce the same number of air-minutes per day with less manpower, which meant that they had less time for fact-checking, research, on plain-old on-the-ground reporting.

    Does the audience care that the production quality has dropped? I think yes and no. There’s a certain percentage of the population that thinks that good writing is obfuscation, good grammar and punctuation is foolishly pedantic, and thoughtfully edited and elegantly-produced audio and video is evidence of an attempt to deceive. But then, if you look at what’s popular in the podcasting world, as the mainstream audiences move to the medium, professionally produced content with traditional production values and well-known brand names are beating out all but a handful of the content produced on the fast & cheap by amateurs.

  • http://cellar.org/iotd.php Undertoad

    but if something looks and sounds like crap – you reduce the impact of your content. Every time.

    Such as The Blair Witch Project?

    Cheap & dirty = authentic, shot by us

    Expensive & slick = fake, shot by Hollywood Unions

    Blair Witch or Lazy Sunday rely on the notion that the camera holder is part of the action and the cheapness reinforces that. This is currently surprising and increases the drama/comedy by making it seem even more realistic. But in the future, it won’t be surprising, because it’ll be more common.

  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    Bravo Jeff, for a wonderful and insightful piece. I have emailed this to most of my clients.

    I make my living by both converting existing stations to far more cost effective models and by producing programming using small hand held cameras and cutting on on FCP on laptops. The issue is not technical, the technology is there. The issue is purely psychological. The architecture of television production was cast in the 1950s, when cameras were big, expensive and hard to operate and so were editing suites. The technology has made all that gear obsolete but the people who grew up in that world often cannot envision another way of working, or consider it ‘non professional’.

    Several years ago, when I first presented these ideas to the Board of Governors at The BBC, they listened, then asked, “when you do yo believe this change will happen?’ I responded, “when all of you are dead, because you are the only ones holding this back”. Fortunately for me, (and for them) they decided to act sooner.

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  • jazzone

    I expected Mr Rosenblum to turn up on this thread. His original pitch to the BBC was that should sack all their craft camera ops and ‘set the journalists free’. Not being insane BBC bosses baulked at this and introduced his ideas in a limited way in the BBC’s regional newsrooms.

    The Rosenblum experiement at the BBC has not been an entire success – some journalists have been liberated and have produced good stuff.

    But an awful lot of crap has also been produced – badly shot pix with shitty sound which is then badly edited. Alas some of this embarrassing stuff has gone to air.

    I know some BBC producers who are living with this and they know the quality of quite a lot of it is poor; often stuff gets commissioned but programme editors refuse to put it out because it is rubbish. Plain and simple rubbish which would only serve to undermine the BBC News brand.

    I wonder if Rosenblum could answer this – if the BBC are such enthusiasts for your theories why isn’t Matt Frei (BBC Washington corr and the most admired packager among his BBC colleagues) running round covering the midterms with a PD150? Why didn’t David Loyn shoot and edit his own Newsnight reports from Afghanistan last week?

    Could it be that the BBC are prepared to countenance some erosion of quality in their local journalism but when it comes to their premium products they know that having a skilled shoot/editor working with a journalist still makes for objectively better telly?

  • chico haas

    Undertoad: enjoyed Blair Witch a lot. But the first-person cheapo-cam was intrinsic to the story.

  • Guy Love

    SteveSgt said

    But with that came other demands for cost-cutting. Once they were doing what had been several people’s jobs at once, they couldn’t do any of them quite as well.

    —–

    I guess it makes sense that the drive to being more productive and making things less expensively would lead to overtaxed workers scrambling to keep up. I have seen this occur in multiple professions / fields in the last decade. There is a balance somewhere that we can’t seem to hit in our neverending pursuit to streamline. If the quality of media drops to the level of noise, who will watch it? If all the craftsmen disappear to be replaced by the cheapest widget, it may be profitable in the short term, but I can’t help but think we are flushing decades of talent and knowledge down the tube.

  • http://davemartin.blogspot.com David Martin

    Jeff,

    In the city, New York 1, provides their reporters with a single person rig. Do their standups look as good as the broadcast locals? Well, not really, but to the average non-professional viewer the packages are fine and get the job done sans entourage.

  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    The VJ “Revolution” is percolating its way through the BBC as it is working its way through many other networks. It is a process that will take time, and the bigger the budget of the currently existing shows, the longer the transition will take, but come it most assuredly will. Will we see Ben Brown carry a small camera? I hope so. Will we see John “I liberated Kabul” Simpson do so.. unlikely. As more and more young journalists enter the reporting team – and have no aversion to doing this..and as they get better, their work will filter into the output. This will take time, but I am patient. The ‘quality’ issue is specious. I have seen enough unwatchable output shot by ‘craft’ cameramen to last me a lifetime. In this case however, these discussions are a hiding to nothing (to use a Britishism I particularly like). In the end, the pure economics of this will drive the transition, and there will be no escape, nor need to. The best advice I can offer you is, ‘resistance is futile’. Sorry.

  • jazzone

    I was watching re-runs of some of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth at the weekend. A masterpiece of informing, entertaining, connecting television.

    One of the interesting parts of the show is the 10 minute behind-the-scenes segment at the end which explains how some of the amazing footage was gathered.

    For example a crew of experienced technical guys had to spend a month in a rainforest at the bottom of a deep cave full of cockroaches and bat shit. They had to light the cave and build a rig which would give a smooth tracking shot up this amazing mound of bat shit.

    Then there was the first ever close up footage of a snow leopard hunting in remote Pakistani mountains. An incredible sequence of this beautiful creature bounding down an almost vertical slope in pursuit of its prey. A sequence which took a year to shoot.

    What this illustrated to me was that if we want to preserve certain types of great television it will have to be a mixed economy. It’s easy to be zealous for the ‘fast moving, lightweight little guy approach.’

    But I don’t see how you can create something like Planet Earth without extremely skilled technical staff using high end kit. Sure the price of the kit is likely to fall with time but it still takes large gobbets of BBC/Discovery/NHK money so you can have a guy up a mountain in Pakistan for a year staking out a leopard.

  • jazzone

    I glad we agree the pure economics is the driver! I can just imagine the thought processes of any station manager:

    ‘I’ve got a great way to liberate your journalists, get closer to the story, make the grammar of television more intimiate and informal.’

    ‘Hmmm sounds interesting – we’ll meet sometime.’

    OR

    ‘I’ve got a way you can sack all those grumpy old unionised bastards who insist on taking lunch breaks AND get your journalists to be many times more productive’

    ‘Come on in..have a cigar!’

  • SteveSgt

    jazzone Says:
    “…I don’t see how you can create something like Planet Earth without extremely skilled technical staff using high end kit. Sure the price of the kit is likely to fall with time but it still takes large gobbets of BBC/Discovery/NHK money so you can have a guy up a mountain in Pakistan for a year staking out a leopard.”

    Well said, jazzone.

    While I agree that some of the content we see IS overproduced, I’m quite wary of Jeff’s gleeful cheering of a race to the bottom. There are some tremendously excellent works of media out there that just couldn’t have been done without a well equipped and highly skilled crew. We risk loosing these kinds of things when most project financiers assume that what content producers do is nothing special.

    When is “just good enough” not good enough?

  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Michael Rosenblum

    At the end of the day this is a business. If there are profits to be extracted from having a guy up a mountain in Pakistan for a year, then that will continue to exist. If the revenue from showing that on TV does not equal the cost, then that kind of programming will cease to exist. You can spend $100 million making a hollywood movie, but there is a rate of return on that investment that warrants that kind of expenditure. Will the million channel video on the web environment support David Attenborough type costs? That is an unknown. Only the market will make that determination, but even if it does, it is sure to be the rarified anomoly rather than the mainstream of the medium.

  • SteveSgt

    Michael Rosenblum Says:
    “If there are profits to be extracted from having a guy up a mountain in Pakistan for a year, then that will continue to exist. … Only the market will make that determination, but even if it does, it is sure to be the rarified anomoly rather than the mainstream of the medium.”

    I hold that the bottom line is a poor measure of the worth of a cultural work to society. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary measure.

  • C.J. Johnson

    Poorly lit, badly acted (or worse — reality content) is not all that exists outside of Hollywood / union filmmaking. There are also people with no money who have been to film school and know how to light, shoot, direct, and edit according to Hollywood standards.

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xint4_korn-throw-me-away-cj-johnson

    I wrote, shot, directed, edited and distributed this music video for only the cost of the camera, which I pay for with freelance work. I’m thrilled that I can do all these things outside of the “system” and still produce something that could possibly be confused with a $1,000,000 video — or not. You decide. But I am happy with the $5,400 HD cam I used to shoot it, and the $1,100.00 power-pc I used to edit it, and YouTube for giving me almost 10,000 viewers so far. It’s a wonderful world of opportunity we live in right now!

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