The Distribution Democracy and the Future of Media

A few hours ago, a friend of mine emailed me, lamenting a story that CNN was passing off as breaking news, even though it was far from being either news or newsworthy. His displeasure reminded me of a conversation I had with serial entrepreneur and startup guru Steve Blank when he came to my office to tape an interview. As we sat there waiting for the cameras to roll, we talked about what media is in this post-broadband, always-on world. I told Steve that the problem with most media companies is they define themselves by the product they hawk. Music television, CNN, Breaking News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, ESPN or whatever — these are all products that define the media companies behind them.

And therein lies the problem. Unless media corporations stop defining themselves by their products, they are going to be unable to navigate the big shift that is changing the rules of the game — what I call the “democratization of distribution.”

The Distribution Democracy

Let’s talk about the television business for a minute. During the early days of television, access to spectrum determined who owned and operated the networks. CBS and ABC became the gatekeepers of attention — whether it was through 60 Minutes, Wide World of Sports or some other such program. Hit programs essentially ensured that viewers “attention” switched from one channel to another, and with it, the advertising dollars.

Then came analog cable and we saw the emergence of more media entities — for example, HBO, ESPN and CNN — which siphoned away attention from broadcast networks to all these new entities. With digital cable, attention got sliced and diced even more, but still the scarcity of “spectrum” inside the cable network pipes meant that there was finite amount of channels available.

Then came broadband, which essentially removed any channel scarcity. The distribution, which had been in the hands of a few large media conglomerates, was suddenly available to everyone. Today anyone, even talentless acts such as Rebeca Black can upload their video to YouTube and become instant celebrities. Justin Bieber, too, is a product of this channel-less revolution.

Just like television, we have seen the same drama unfold in the music, radio, newspaper and magazine industries. The gatekeepers of attention have been disrupted.

“Over 5 or ten years, fiber optics and the wireless explosion will completely crush the business models of old media companies and industries,” Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, said in an interview with McKinsey & Co. “For companies focused on content and distribution, distribution just goes away.” Schmidt rightfully argued that there is no need to think of content types by the distribution network they are tied to, because there will be one single network.

Media, as far as I am concerned, has been and will always be a game of attention. A few years ago, during the go-go years of the 1990s, Forbes or Fortune magazine had all our attention and thus were able to monetize that attention by selling tons of advertising against it. CNN could charge premium dollars during its heyday. The New York Times informed us (especially the New Yorkers) and held our attention and was able to monetize it.

Broadband and lately wireless Internet has changed the dynamics of attention. Rebecca Black (with her “Friday” video) and Foursquare are now media, thanks to their ability to grab our attention. Similarly, if people spend all their time scanning through photos on Instagram, then that too is media.

The distribution democracy, which has been accelerated by the emergence of wireless Internet and smartphones, is putting that capability in the hands of tens of millions of people, and we are starting to see the disruptive impact of that in our society.

There have been endless debates about the role of Twitter and Facebook in societal and geopolitical dramas, but I think they are merely tools that have thrived and have enabled changes because the distribution of information has been unshackled, a point so well argued by my colleague Mathew Ingram and New York University media professor, Jay Rosen.

Your Attention Please

One side effect of this distribution democracy is the sheer volume of information that is coming at us from all sides. The torrent of information threatens to drown us and encourages short-term thinking. In a speech earlier this week, Andrew G Haldane, an economist who works for the Bank of England, said:

Information is streamed in ever-greater volumes and at ever-rising velocities. Timelines for decision-making appear to have been compressed. Pressures to deliver immediate results seem to have intensified. Tenure patterns for some of our most important life choices (marriage, jobs, money) are in secular decline.

These forces may be altering not just the way we act, but also the way we think. Neurologically, our brains are adapting to increasing volumes and velocities of information by shortening attention spans. Technological innovation, such as the World Wide Web, may have caused a permanent neurological rewiring, as did previous technological revolutions such as the printing press and typewriter.

If that is indeed the case, and I do believe it to be true, then the concept of what is media needs to be rethought and re-imagined — and that also means that we need to start rethinking our tools of measurement and methods of monetization. And as for my friend who lamented about the quality of content on CNN, he should probably get used to it. With increased competition for attention, he can expect even more of the trivial bits as part of his info-diet.

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