Whither the networks

In my latest Guardian column, I argue that the big, old networks won’t die but they won’t grow and in business, isn’t that as good as dying? Here it is on The Guardian (and here it is on Buzzmachine). I go over some of the same turf longtime readers/sufferers will find familiar: How the netework that no one owns, the internet, is more powerful than the network the big guys own. And then I compare the businesses of CNN and every media commentator’s new-age darling, Rocketboom. I point out all the things Rocketboom doesn’t have: expensive studios, equipment, staffs, lawyers, deals, marketing budgets.

But they do have audience. Rocketboom serves at least 60,000 downloads a day. Compare that with Crossfire’s audience on CNN: 150,000. So Rocketboom has more than a third of the big network show’s audience at a fraction of the cost. And, by the way, CNN’s audience is near retirement age while Rocketboom’s fans (excluding me) are young enough to be CNN viewers’ grandchildren.

Rocketboom itself won’t kill CNN. But a thousand Rocketbooms will explode television.

Last week, Paul Farhi at The Washington Post explored the same thicket and came out with different burrs. He still believes that the networks have “some unrivaled competitive advantage.” And that’s true, if being big is the goal, if blockbusters remain the basis of your economics. But in this new small-is-the-new-big you no longer have to be No. 1 (or 2 or 3) to survive. You can be No. 3000 or 30,000 and be big enough to succeed. And so the networks will find themselves with 30,000 or 30 million new competitors nipping at them.


  • I’m with you on this. Networks will continue to exist, but only as somewhat bigger fish in a pond full of brine shrimp, minnows, tadpoles, and the odd piranha.

  • Of course the new media can afford to operate on a fraction of the cost of the media giants — it piggybacks off the MSM’s infrastructure. Rocketboom is the online equivalent of reading one of those free “Metro” newspapers they hand out in most American cities which consists primarily of recycled stories from the AP and Reuters, albeit a little more fun to watch than the Metro is to read. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it isn’t quite fair to make these Old Media vs. New Media pronouncements without acknowledging the latter’s ongoing dependence on the former as a source of cheap raw materials.

  • I think the old networks will resemble major newspapers; they’ll survive for a long time yet but they won’t really grow. The end will be a long, slow erosion of market share and profitability. The new media will have plenty of time to build its own established infrastructure.

  • jeff m

    The Guardian?

  • The new media will have plenty of time to build its own established infrastructure.

    Don’t get me wrong — I’d like nothing better than to see that happen. But right now it’s not about big fish versus little fish, but more like sharks with a host of remoras hanging around them. When the new media can swim on its own without scamming a free lunch off of the old only then we can start talking about the inevitable death of the MSM dinosaurs… er… sharks.

  • To the nay-sayers:

    In my life-time, I grew up with only 4 stations including PBS. Most people in other parts of the world still have fewer options when it comes to the powerful moving image.

    Now in the US many homes have several hundred stations.

    Out of those several hundred, or even thousands of stations, it’s so expensive to get a show on the air, and there is so much competition, the content that we see there has only been the lowest common denominator content.

    In the future, as more and more professional producers realize the availability of distribution over IP, we will start to see many professional shows that will actually be good because they will cater to niche audiences; a niche audience can be a big asset, especially when the cost for availability is nearly zilch. Think of all those Hollywood pilots that never got made because one person didnt think it would sell enough or couldnt get a personal favor.

    The meaning of a niche audience is much bigger now too because it involves the “on demand” aspect and especially because of global, cross cultural reach.

    As a result of all the personal media and citizen journalism, everyone in the world will begin to see a more candid and truthful reality then we see now as a result.

    This is only just the beginning of a revolution that has been predicted and tried for years, its just that bandwidth speeds are now pervasive enough for the audience, IMHO.

  • z adura

    One concern I have about this transition is that it reduces the already staggeringly small amount of investigative journalism we have today. While there is significantly less such reporting than maybe a generation ago, there is still a paycheck to be found for the likes of David Kay Johnston or Lou Dubose.

    What happens when they are gone? Who will be vigilant about accountability?

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  • This is what my friends on Madison Avenue fail to understand. They think people like us are into blogs because of some semi-mystical Cluetrainy goodness. When in fact we’re into it because it’s cheap and easy.

    Like the uber-chap Clay Shirky says, “Help, The Price of Content Has Fallen and Can’t Get Up!”

    “A business is either growing or it’s dying.” -Hugh’s Mom.