Nothing Remote about Control Anymore

The title of this piece is a quote from Nancy Robinson, VP & Consumer Strategist at Iconoculture (from this recent CNET article). Now that’s a great quote! It’s right up there with something a very close friend/mentor used to say in the early ‘90s… “let’s put the Me back in Media!” (That was the late John Evans, former right-hand exec to Rupert Murdoch.)

I consider the remote control, first commercialized in 1956, one of the greatest inventions in electronics. It’s so ridiculously simple, yet that little device was powerful enough to dramatically impact the evolution of the TV & cable industries. Think about it… without the remote control, there would be no interface to manage hundreds of channels, no serendipitous discovery of new shows enabled by channel-surfing during commercial breaks, no watching two or three shows simultaneously by clicking back and forth between channels.

Without the remote control, watching TV would not be the relaxing, lazy experience we’ve all come to enjoy… it would, instead, be a stressful and annoying experience, having to get up and down, up and down, over and over again.

The titled quote is very apt now, as the emerging interface for video is now the mouse and keyboard (see YouTube). Being “remote” gives way to being in full, interactive control. Content “programming” shifts away from the Hollywood elite to the masses. The critical point here is that *we* now get to decide what we want to consume, and increasingly do so in a format, and from a menu, that’s not pre-selected by the old media gatekeepers. So just as the adoption of the remote control ultimately fragmented the TV industry, the mouse & keyboard will fragment it even further. In fact, any media that gets digitized and put online is experiencing hyper-fragmentation.

Just look at music and publishing. Via the Internet, these industries are feeling the “remote control” effect. A great example is the rapid obsolescence of “albums” in the music industry, giving way to individual tracks. The same goes for newspapers and magazines, where the value of the curated/edited package gives way to people wanting specific articles that are only relevant to them.

All that said, let’s be careful when we interpret what all that means. For instance, it doesn’t mean that the need/demand for quality content will decrease. For the old media guard, that’s good news. But it does mean that the need/demand for “packaging” and programming, old-fashion style, will rapidly decline. This is where control in the hands of users will have a diametrically opposite, and negative, effect on the control previously held by the traditional gatekeepers. Bundles get unbundled… user control causes hyper-fragmentation.

At the end of the day, the strategic implications for such change towards user control ultimately ends up being an issue of business models. Media industries that built their businesses based on the model of branded packages are now going the way of the horse-and-buggy. With consumers increasingly in control, it’s not only the markets that are fragmenting. It’s also the business models themselves that are being sliced and diced. Monetization techniques must adjust to this new environment as the economic rules are being redefined.