VON spiel

Video on the Net keynote – Jeff Jarvis – September 2006

I thought I would try to bring some historical context to the revolution we are now waging.
My life is TV.
I was born in the mid-’50s, when television hit critical mass.
I grew up with TV, and you see before you today the product of that upbringing.
And I became TV critic at People in the mid ’80s, when an important event occurred that would change television, media, technology, and society:
The remote control passed 50 percent penetration on American couches.
Add the VCR and the cable box. . . . And we had choice.
Back then, I made an appearance on the CBS morning show to review the season’s ratings. I noted that the shows on the top of the ratings were good. And the producer said, “Jarvis, you are defending the taste of the American people.” I recoiled in horror. Couldn’t be. I’m a snob. I was in the media elite (or the People magazine annex to it). What about the vast wasteland. What about American pop kitsch?
But, indeed, TV – TV of all things – proved that Americans do have good taste.
So that producer turned me into a radical populist. Changed my worldview. Changed my career and my life.
I learned that you must have faith in the taste, intelligence, and good will of the people — or else you don’t believe in democracy, capitalism, education, art, journalism, reformed religion…. Why bother with any of that if we, the people, are all idiots?
But when we had choice, we used to to choose the good stuff. Hollywood was then forced to make more good stuff. And we then had more good stuff to choose from. This is what you call a virtuous circle.

Ah, yes, some lamented the loss of our grand, shared national experience of television: Uncle Walter, moonshots, assassinations, and Gilligan. But the truth is, it wasn’t so grand and it lasted only three decades, from the mid50s to the mod80s, when the unprecedented reach of three TV networks killed competitive newspapers, hammered nails in the coffin of broadcast radio, and turned film from a habit into a hit industry. It produced one-size-fits-all media that became purposefully bland and overly produced. It’s greatest virtue was to say nothing – to be “objective” and “middle-of-the-road” and “mass.” It lost the touch of humanity and fire that had been the fuel of media before (and is now). The grand, shared national experience is gone and I don’t lament it. We have returned to the natural state of media, with many voices and viewpoints, a wonderful cacophony of conversation.

Some also wailed about “fragmentation.” So who was wailing? The people in charge of mass media, that’s who, for they saw their gravy train derailing. Here my blogging friend Jay Rosen would quote sociologist Raymond Williams saying: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” We’re not a mass, damnit. “Fragmentation” is just “choice” viewed from the wrong end of the pipe.
The remote control freed us from the intertia of the couch, the VCR freed us from the prison of programmers’ schedules, the cable box freed us from the tyrannous triopoly of the three networks.
I say the remote control was the first technological step on the way to the internet. It addicted us to choice. And what happens when you’re addicted to something? You want more and more of it. And now we have more choice than we every could have imagined.
That blessed remote control gave us control of our consumption of media.

This yielded changes in the culture and in media, of course.
When I was at People, it was easy to pick covers: Take a top 10 TV show, put it on the cover, sell millions, make millions. But then came the ghost of media future: choice and fragmentation. We didn’t all watch the same things. We no longer all woke up as one demanding, “Who shot J.R.?” My editor at People came storming down the hall after oe too many flop covers about TV hits and shouted, “TV’s dead, Jarvis, it’s dead.” No, TV was more alive than ever. It was the mass market that was dying.

The result for me: That was the moment when I saw the opportunity for and proposed Entertainment Weekly. I said that America needed a new guide to entertainment because we had more choice than ever. It took a mere six years at Time Inc. to get it launched.

The result for People and other mass “news” media, by the way, was different: Attention had to shift from the event in the star’s career to the event in the star’s life: marriages, affairs, births, diseases, deaths: bodily fluids journalism. And the stars realized that they were what sold magazines. So the power shifted from media as gatekeeper to the audience . . . to flack as gatekeeper to celebrity. It was just one more symptom of the decline of the power of mass media.

But mass media got a stay of execution thanks to Madison Avenue. For even though network audience to shrink year after year – hitting its lowest rate ever last July – still, rates and revenue for the upfront continued to rise – until the last two years. Lazy, self-delusional advertisers and agencies were addicted to one-stop-shopping for mass audiences and we know the problem with addictions: It’s hard to give them up.

Now let’s fast-forward – or rather, let’s TiVo – to the explosion of the internet, the ultimate choice machine. You know that story. I won’t recount it. I’ll just summarize three of the major lessons I have learned so far:

The first and more important lesson: We now have the tools to control not just the consumption but the creation of media. Everything else falls out of this.

We see at last the perfect convergence that is leading to the explosion of TV:
1. The equipment is getting better and cheaper and smaller. It literally puts TV production in our hands.
2. The tools are getting better and easier and cheaper. We can create anything.
3. Distribution is limitless and also cheaper and easier. See YouTube.
4. And here’s the key element that we had to wait for before we could see the explosion of our new television. It is the same key factor that made blogs and podcasts explode. It is our means of marketing: The link.
So now we can make anything, distribute anything, market anything. We own media.

Second lesson: We debated for decades in media whether content or distribution was king. Turns out, neither is. Conversation is the kingdom. Trust is king. You can’t own all the content. You can’t control all the distribution. It turns out that trying to do either is extremely expensive – and, in our post-scarcity media universe, ultimately futile. In the old, closed world of media, owning content or distribution gave you the advantage. It gave you control. Now it just gives you an unbearable cost structure that millions of new competitors – us – are not burdened with. So what should media’s relationship with all of us be? Are we competitors? Or are we partners? If conversation is king, then we must be partners. For the big guys are not in control of the conversation anymore. We are.

Which leads my third lesson, which I pompously call Jarvis’ First Law of Media (and Life):
If you give the people control, we will use it.
If you don’t, you will lose us.

The big, old networks were slow to learn these lessons, of course. But now they are staying after school to catch up. And we are witnessing the explosion of TV at this very moment:

You know where the bomb craters are in TVland: Networks, which once depended on their channels of distribution as their source of power, now risk pissing them all off by putting shows up online, direct to the viewers…. To hell with local broadcast affiliates, cable system operators, and retail outlets.
The producers, too, have been taking their shows directly to the people, bypassing and surely pissing off the networks.
They are all finding new talent online, going around agents.
It’s every media mogul for himself. Hollywood’s time-dishonored systems implode.

We’re seeing new stories of new distribution every week. Many networks – broadcast and cable, free and pay – are now selling or giving away shows on iTunes… ABC found success streaming its hits online the moring after… CBS is premiering shows on TiVo… NBC is sending DVDs to Netflix customers… CBS is distributing clips to mobile phones via Bluetooth… CBS and NBC are streaming their news shows as they air… NPR is podcasting its shows… the BBC is reorganizing itself away from television….

Here is my favorite illustration: When Jon Stewart went on CNN’s Crossfire to kill it, bless his heart, he got, according to the head of the network, about 150,000 viewers that day. The next day, of course, it went up on iFilm, where it has been viewed 3.8 million times. Figures double that on Bittorrent et al. So compare: 150,000 on CNN versus 10 million on the network no one owns, our internet – and to a far younger demographic, by the way.
And, of course, YouTube is serving 100 million videos a day now.
The result: The old network is dying.

But I’m preaching to the choir. So what do we do about this? I humbly submit six items on our to-do list to nurture the people’s television – televox.

1. Get our advertising act together. Blogs and RSS would be bigger today, I argue, if they were ready for prime time. But they’re not; it’s too difficult for advertisers to find the good content, measure the audience, serve the ads, negotiate with the producers, and measure the results. Video is much harder. So let’s make it easier to place appropriate forms of advertising – the public will define appropriate – and thus find ways to support a continuing explosion of production and creativity in video on the net. Let’s also help advertisers find good (read: safe) programming they will support.

2. Redefine the network. It was a mistake, all these years, to define networks as their means of distribution. It’s not a network’s job to get video to us. It’s the job of a network to find the good stuff for us. Used to be, that meant you had to own or license the content and distribute it. But that’s no longer the case.

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.

In our mass of niches that replaces the mass audience, we will all have many networks. We will be networks. When we recommend shows to friends with links, we become a channel. When we share our playlists on iTunes – when our act of consumption becomes an act of creation – we are building a network schedule. You need to enable and encourage the creation of more networks of links and recommendations to get us more good stuff – because that will addict us to video on the net. And we know what happens when we get addicted.

Jeff Pulver just created the infant TV Guide of the the new TV, listing the nonbroadcast shows that are on the net. I blogged in response that I wanted to see the good ones strung together in one feed. Voila: Network 2.0. Jeff came back and made a feed. That’s a step. But we need to do so much more to make the new television easy, enjoyable, and worthwhile to watch. We need to make it simple and quick to find the stuff we like and browse through it.

Televox needs its remote control.

3. Convince the big, old dinosaurs to distribute their stuff on the net. Why should we care about them? Because we want the net to BE television. We want lots of conforming uses for our tools – our Bittorrents – so they don’t try to restrict them. We want them to bring advertisers to the net, where we play on a level field and compete for those dollars. We want them to learn that owning content and copyright aren’t the keys to success – being seen is the only definition of success now. We need to teach them to think distributed, not centralized.

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.

I just recorded a commentary for the new Katie Couric Evening News (though since I mention Dan Rather in it, I wonder whether it will ever air). In the piece, I told them that they shouldn’t just be streaming their shows; they should be taking every segment and allowing it to go up on the net and on YouTube. They should be letting us distribute and market their best stuff – and we will… if it’s any good. Networks should be fighting for viewers where viewers live. For those are the stories we care about; those are the stories that are part of our conversation.

By the way, when I taped that CBS segment, I saw the real reason why networks will die: Seven people worked to get my minute-thirty on tape; God knows how many more touched it afterwards. I turned around and used iMovie to make the same segment myself. Networks, like dinosaurs, will die from bloat.

4. Avoid the bubble. If the bloat will kill networks, the bubble will kill us. John Battelle said there are 200 companies involved in video search with VC funding. He called it a bubble of company creation and I think he’s right. We need to spot and back the winners. We need entrepreneurship. We need invention, experimentation, and strategic vision. Let’s just not be stupid again.

5. Redefine and reward quality. The last thing I want to see is our TV, the televox, turning into the dull, plastic, soulless, tacky image of old network TV. I’ll damn sure take Ze Frank any day over Andy Rooney! Even The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan says the Lonelygirl15 is better than most of the series she reviews on network TV. Still, we need to recognize TV was crappy in its early days – I argue that was no golden age; the true golden age stretches from Hill Street Blues to The Sopranos. And so will televox improve. Quality will have many new meanings, different for all of us. But we want to recommend, support, and reward the good stuff. For as we’ve learned in the history of TV, good stuff begets more good stuff.

6. Think live. I love watching TV on my iPod on the train. I am grateful to be beholden to no network schedule for the net TV I watch. But I also want to see live TV on the net and on mobile that allows us – citizen journalists – to cover news and also allows us to turn TV into a conversation.

And now for a few minutes of conversation….