The future for expensive TV is bright

Clay Shirky gave a fantastic keynote at MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival about how the TV business needs to adapt to the community behaviors happening around their programming online with or without their knowledge and consent.

He was very well received and undoubtedly inspired some new thinking, though I’m sure he wouldn’t have been embraced so wholeheartedly by this crowd had he done the same talk he delivered at Web 2.0 Expo earlier this year. In that talk, he gave a harsh view of the TV landscape and the blinders keeping people in that business from embracing and feeding the ‘cognitive surplus‘ happening out there as a result of the new social dynamics online.

I was able to catch him at a cocktail party later, and we spoke about the power laws that are starting to show cliff-like shapes in the media business. He emphasized that at the peak of the power curve there’s a much higher endpoint than what we’ve seen in the past. And the tail may have gotten longer at the expense of the curve in the middle.

power law long tail
In other words, in order to have sweeping success in the mass market, production is going to cost a lot more in the future. The tail just gets longer and longer. But the people in the middle who have enjoyed healthy margins on the past on things that are somewhat costly and have somewhat interesting customer numbers are getting squeezed from both sides.

I asked if this could actually be an argument supporting what many TV businesses are doing — searching endlesly for the next hit, the mass market play first and foremost. Could the increase in the cost of mass market success make it easier for the leading channels to break away from the pack? Could a leading position today actually be the only way to secure a successful future?

Clay added that the market for dominance in television may only be 2 or 3 national channels. And if those channels don’t spend enough to make truly exceptional programming worthy of appealing to the masses, then they will be competing with the millions upon millions of participants producing material somewhere to the right of the cliff.

This got me thinking about one of the important panels of the day…the News discussion. The panelists there discussed diferent approaches to prime time news shows, among other things. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Michael Rosenblum spoke truth when he predicted the end of the prime time news show:

“The notion of linear television news is antithetical to the web – a distinctly non-linear, VOD environment. The notion of waiting until 6:30PM or 10PM to get the ‘breaking news story’ is simply a non-starter in the web world…technology has now consigned that model to the trash bin. But people still cling to it in the fear that the tidal wave of news and information uncontrolled and unedited is far too overwhelming for the average person.”

That’s not to say that very very difficult and costly journalism wouldn’t come and take its place. I hope it does. And after talking to Clay I feel more confident that the market would in fact reward the producers for exceptional journalism for the mass market. Paying top dollar for important work seems real and justified.

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