In my previous post, I had a clear, compelling set of ideas I wanted to table as a warmup for Wednesday’s IN09 panel. Axioms like It’s not the content, stupid, it’s the access. Then blam! You walk into a roomful of 300 entrepreneurs, developers, execs from global brands, etc. All of a sudden there’s 290 people who think you’re fulla shit.
Okay, that’s the whole point of conferences and conference panels. Who wants to sit and watch 5 guys patting each other on the back? After our session, The Right Questions, several people paid us the ultimate compliment. We were lively, stimulating, even entertaining. Nice. But at several points I was dumbstruck by what I heard. How could anybody possibly think Net neutrality was too complicated to get into? That cableco Web portals are a great idea? That we should explore a “fast lane” for Canadian content – especially since the one thing everyone agreed on was there was no possible way to I.D. Cancon online.
Well, let’s see… These are great ideas if e.g. you’re a small to medium-sized content developer and a tiered approach to ISP network management will make you boatloads of money. And yes, if our panel had one relentless theme, money was it. But from the way the Q&A went, you’d think there was a recession. Or uncertainty about what the Canada Media Fund really means for new media. Ottawa is finally going to give viewers “what they want, when they want it”? Some skeptics in the room thought we’d stand a better chance getting the CEOs of Canada’s chartered banks to spend a day together and arrange to put 1% of their money into a VC fund. Hey, then the proceeds could be chopped up into derivatives guaranteed by subprime mortgages and we could build our own damn Internet.
The New Rules. As I watched yesterday’s follow-up panel from the floor, the talk was, if anything, even more focussed on money, or rather how quickly it’s vanishing. CBC’s Stursberg set the tone with his gloomy views on how the current crisis in old media is putting new media at risk. His logic was relentless, alarming and, imho, based on a completely phony premise. His argument is new media takes all its worthwhile content from old media. Old media is moribund. If it’s allowed to die, all that expensive content will become unavailable to new media outlets. And they will then perish along with the dinosaurs, or have to resort to the “inconsequential” stuff onliners find at destinations like YouTube.
Panelist Brady Gilchrist, an accomplished digital pioneer and entrepreneur, took serious issue with Richard’s assumptions. Not wanting to put too fine a point on it, he reacted by saying too fucking bad for the old media. You’re being replaced.
Richard asked rhetorically how you make a business out of a newspaper that has lost all its classifieds, with content no one will pay for. Not missing a beat, Brady turned to the audience to ask how many of us use Twitter to get our “news” (lots) and how much do we trust what our tweets tell us (plenty). Broadcasting in trouble? People with PVRs don’t watch commercials. Too bad. The network TV model isn’t just broken. It’s dead. Brady was all over the idea of creative destruction. Letting the old media fail isn’t just the right business posture. Their failure is also richly deserved because “this freight train didn’t just appear around the corner, it’s been coming for 15 years.”
Ironically, Richard runs what has always been by far and away the best broadcaster Web site in Canada. Unfortunately, while this site gets the lion’s share of Canadian traffic, it only pulls in 5% of the revenues earned by the network. Money again. Our broadcasters (if I heard rightly) pay for 85% of the original content on our screens and their business model is collapsing. At a gallop, with Global teetering on the brink of insolvency.
This prospect made Richard wax nostalgic for the old kind of disruptive technologies, like the VCR. The ones that didn’t disrupt things too much, like the Web is doing now. Funny, I distinctly recall another hard-headed old media guy, Jack Valenti, making a pretty alarmist case for how disruptive Sony’s new cassette-based video technology was going to be. In testimony to Congress in 1982, Valenti said the VCR “is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Yeah, and where did all that home video money end up? With the Boston stranglers who run the studios.
But I digress. By the time this brawl was over, it was pretty clear that for the old media guy, “content” means blockbuster TV shows, movies, journalist-of-record news reporting and all the other stuff that’s filled our screens and print publications for decades. For the new media guy, content is a much more inclusive concept. It covers two expansive categories, personal messaging and social networking (as in the Twitter example), along with a staggering array of software applications – as exemplified by the 15,000-plus “content” items available from the iTunes App Store. Richard didn’t say so, but I suspect that if asked, he’d have said the iTunes Store was really about that old medium called recorded music, whereas the apps are secondary, piggybacking on the “real” content. And if he had said so (I might as well take this straw man for a spin around the block), I would have reminded him that the old-media foundation for iTunes – online music originating with the big multinational labels – would never have seen the light of cyber-day were it not for the distinctly new media geek who created iTunes in the first place (that would be Steve Jobs).
So what did we learn from this lively debate? That 15 years after that big scary digital freight train started bearing down on us, the old media guys and new media guys are still from two different planets solar systems. Is the recession going to make this mutual mystification worse? You bet. Will a big healthy dose of money create more common ground, get these guys talking, help them discover some, uh, synergies? Not a chance. Money never alleviates the damage caused by creative destruction, especially when it’s allocated by public officials for the development of content. As I was saying, it’s not the content, stupid, it’s the access.