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.