It’s no longer one size fits all, but one size fits me
Monday July 24, 2006
Witness the toppling of the TV tower: this month in the US, primetime viewing of broadcast networks sunk to the lowest level in ratings history: 20.8 million on average. At the same time, the open video-sharing service YouTube revealed that it is delivering 100m shows a day. No wonder BBC director general Mark Thompson just announced a major restructuring, tearing down walls between broadcast and digital for a “360-degree, multiplatform” world. “Much of what we call new media,” he said, “is really present media.” Yes, thanks to the internet, we are watching the end of linear television.
But the internet does more than destroy. It forces the media to redefine themselves, to discover their essence. Broadcast networks thought their value was in controlling precious distribution and content. But in this post-scarcity media economy, the real job of a network is to find us the good stuff. Doing that no longer requires owning studios or transmitter towers. Today, a network is born with every link. When you recommend shows to friends, you’re a channel. When your blog links to good reading online, you’re a magazine. When you share your iTunes playlist, you’re a DJ. Today, everybody’s a network.
The old networks are beginning to realise that their economics are turned inside-out. In the US, the networks are starting to offer hit shows on iTunes and the web, undercutting their own distribution channels: local affiliates, cable systems and retail. TV studios, in turn, are undercutting the networks by offering shows directly to viewers online. Meanwhile, the BBC is desperate to go digital. But the responses of these old networks still concentrate on content distribution, in the US networks’ case, and content creation, in the BBC’s case – that is, on their own stuff. Their tactics are right but still focused inwardly. What is needed next is an outwardly focused strategy: what is a network’s relationship with other people’s stuff?
Simply put, a good network today will find the right stuff for you: no longer one size fits all, but one size fits me; no longer a prisoner of a 24-hour schedule, but primetime as my time.
As Amazon helps you find the right book, so the new network will be built on experience, trust and relevance to help you find the shows you’ll like. And in a world with unlimited content, there is an unlimited demand for such networks that filter and recommend.
How do these new networks capture their value and make money? Damned if I know. But let’s learn from the internet pioneers. When Yahoo was young, co-founder Jerry Yang told me that his site’s job was to get you in and out as quickly as possible. That certainly changed. Now Yahoo licenses and creates content and services to keep you in front of its ads for as long as possible; it is known for collecting, and not sharing, traffic. Yahoo is the last old-media company – still trying to get viewers to come to it – but it is successful because it is unencumbered by presses, towers, talent contracts and other media legacies. Contrast this with Google, which does still try to get you in and out quickly. It makes a fortune by putting targeted ads on many of the sites it sends you to. Thus its potential is unlimited, for the more content there is, the more Google has to organise, the more we need Google to find what we want, the more its ads can appear everywhere, and the more it earns. Yet Google still satisfies both traditional roles of the old networks in the content industry: it takes in money by aggregating audiences for advertisers, while it also pays out money to support content creators. Google is network 2.0.
So the old networks – including newspapers, which should start acting more like networks – must transform themselves from closed to open, centralised to distributed, one-way to two-way. They need to learn to find and recommend not just their own good stuff but good stuff from the world, from fellow creators (who need not be competitors). This is a new and valuable service. And they need to learn to support these new creators by sending them both audience and revenue in distributed promotional and advertising networks. Consultant and blogger John Hagel puts it this way: “Audience-relationship businesses take these proliferating content options as an opportunity, rather than a challenge. The more options there are, the more value that can be created by organising, packaging, presenting and adding to these options for specific audiences.” So the big guys need to see themselves not as the owners of a network but as members of networks. For networks are no longer about controlling but sharing. They are not about broadcasting but about finding and being found. They are no longer static. Networks are fluid.