Monday, March 09, 2009

Is Mass Media Coming to an End?

These are desperate times in media generally. Layoffs, cut backs in service, and even closing the doors altogether are regular daily occurrences. Today the Conservative government, in the first indication that anyone in Ottawa understands what is going on in media combined the Canadian Television Fund and the Canadian New Media Fund into the Canadian Media Fund. I've said more times than I can count that for all intents and purposes there is no longer any difference between television, radio and the internet and this move acknowledges that.

Make no mistake, this is an attack on the CBC. There has, until now, been a part of the Canadian Television Fund earmarked for the CBC. This earmark has been stripped away and will no doubt mean an even lower budget for the CBC.

What all of this means is currently being discussed far and wide so I'm not going to go too deeply into what the CMF may or may not do. What I'm wondering about tonight is: Is there a workable model for mass media anymore? Across North America and around the world media companies of all types are in trouble (public and private). Television, radio, newspapers, publishers, record labels, and film studios (ok not today, wait six months and film studios will be laying off too.) At the same time nearly everyone I talk to is crying out for relevant media, especially smarter media.

I've said before that CBC Radio 3 seems to be doing well. I've had a much easier time generating support for Radio 3 than for the CBC in general but it is unclear, if it were forced to fend for itself, if Radio 3 would be vialble.

It is worth considering that financially viable media is a new concept, it is largely something that occured in the 20th century. For most of human history there was no 'media' except what happened around the campfire. There were also, within the last 1000 years, traveling troupes of actors and musicians (essentially buskers) who would performs in towns, cities and for groups of travelers in exchange for a little money. This is largely where the stereotypes of 'show people' come from. Books happened eventually but had to be hand copied and were primarily the media of monasteries and royalty. Even with the invention of the printing press books were so expensive that even well off merchants, if they were literate, could only afford a few books. Newspapers emerged late in the 18th Century but it wasn't until the 20th century that there was a 'Main Stream Media' - the big newspapers, radio, television, paperbacks, magazines, film were all things that happened in the 20th century and now the model is completely broken.

The internet has changed everything. The models that generated revenue for media in the 20th century have gone away. Everything is now free, or very low cost. People are no longer interested in watching commercials if they can avoid it, and they can. Public funding is still an option (as in the PBS model in the States or CBC in Canada.) But public support for giving these institutions the funding they will need to do what they do well is thin.

The first problem is that with so much media being available for free people are reluctant to devote tax dollars to the cause. The second and much larger problem is that the audience is so fragmented that broadcasters, public and private, are left with the task of being all things to all people.

With the emergence of the internet people have found opportunities to form communities very narrowly. If you like Neil Diamond cover bands, or Chinese films translated into english you can find friends online that agree with you. If media does not cater to your tastes you can all complain together and it gives the impression that "everyone" feels the way that you do. So media companies are faced with the expectation that they will meet the demands of a mammoth variety of groups and individuals. For the most part media companies cannot do it because the financial resources required to produce media are greater than what can be produced from any individual group.

It seems to me that the only viable approach is to target a niche and cater to that niche exclusively and well. Even when targeting a niche the reality is that others will target that same niche. I think that Radio 3, so far, has been successful because it has targeted a niche (fans of Canadian independent music) and has worked hard at community building which engenders a sense of loyalty and helps Radio 3 keep ahead of it's competitors. It seems that this might be a model which media companies could follow, creating inexpensive content and building communities around a variety of interests (other types of music, literature, history, politics etc.). It is unclear though, as I've said, if this is a viable financial model. If everyone took this approach would the overcrowding kill the financial viability?

I'm really asking questions here more than anything. It is entirely possible that 'mass media' was a blip on the radar, that it's window in human history is closing and that it will be replaced with an online 'virtual' campfire. Stories, songs and (unverified) information shared in the evening among people who do other things to make a living. And of course there will be the occasional traveling troubadours.

This may be far fetched. You may be saying 'no someone will find a way' or 'once people realize how serious the problem is they'll be willing to pay'. You may be right, I really hope so, but you also have to realize that most people aren't reading this or anything like it. Most people aren't thinking about it at all, they simply act in whatever way suits them best and 'the financial viability of media' is not a topic they are interested in.

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