My recent posts on Stephen King’s Entertainment Weekly op-ed piece (why don’t you have a link EW?!) have got me thinking. While the article itself expresses valid concern over how we will continue to produce high quality content, its subtext seems to fear the new future of pop culture which is not national in nature. We no longer have the Cosby Show that everyone watches. Gone are the days of Thriller taking over the airwaves. Hell, even the Oscars and the Super Bowl aren’t universally watched like they once were. I don’t think King needs to worry about a lack of high quality content. There will always be great storytellers and entertainers that find a way to reach an audience. With modern technology, that opportunity is open to more people than ever before.
But what is gone, what truly is a loss, is the unified American pop culture. As a young nation that has no core of kings and queens or ancient peoples, we have often found our sense of self in our entertainment culture. The modern world has cast this asunder and many of our modern problems stem from a lack of shared experience. Today we each exist in our own bubble of media – while great for personal satisfaction, it is sorely lacking in giving Americans a communal bond. This bond is something the US needs now more than ever but pop culture is no longer where we should look to find it.
(This is the fourth in a series of four articles responding to Stephen King’s EW piece)
Finally, King bemoans TV – the great bastion of high quality entertainment. To question the quality of TV is a fool’s errand. There has always been crap on TV.
As King points out, great shows are coming out of the cable networks. This tells me that the ad rates for cable channels are now significant enough to fund high quality entertainment. The major broadcast networks have costs that are so high that they must reach the broadest possible audience. When you do this, you are not going to get the same level of quality as when you serve a niche audience.
This brings us to Jay Leno’s new show. I think it is a great idea. It’s an inexpensive show and eats up about a fifth of NBC’s weekly schedule. This frees up budget for larger, high-concept shows. Rather than spreading limited budget to all shows, it’s wise to let Jay do his thing on the cheap and fund big ideas on the rest of the schedule.
TV will continue as it always has – with a mix of high and low quality programming. This is compounded by the addition of hundreds of cable channels and internet offerings. The media landscape has become fragmented and will only become more so. With smaller audiences come smaller budgets. That is going to affect the larger networks more than the smaller cable outlets. It is a more level playing field where the strengths of yesterday or no longer strengths today.
(This is the third in a series of four articles responding to Stephen King’s EW piece)
King expresses concern that good movies like The Hurt Locker get fairly limited distribution while crappy behemoths like Transformers 2 get massive releases. And he sees little of quality on the horizon.
How can good movies survive and grow in this type of world?
I actually think now is a great time for high quality pseudo-independent movies. As King points out, The Hurt Locker was made for $11 million. While not pocket change, this is pretty cheap for a movie with explosions in it. District 9 was made on a budget of $30 million. Again, by any measure, this is not a small amount of money — however you have to keep in mind that District 9 was a top rate science fiction movie with elaborate effects throughout. When you compare to the $200 million that Transformers 2 cost, these movies are bargains.
There will always be the big, overblown spectacle movies. From Cleopatra to Transformers, we will always have room for the broad movies with giant budgets that everyone has to see. What I’m encourage by is the ability for smaller budget movies to tell stories with as large a scale as the blockbusters.
This leaves us with the concern about the size of a film’s release. King says that Transformers 2 opened on 4200 screens. The Hurt Locker was surely a fraction of this. But to me, this point matters little. So long as good movies are getting released (and cheaper budgets ensure they will), they will find their audience – some at the theater and then a greater number on home video. I don’t think we can use number of screens as any kind of metric for how much the public cares about high quality filmmaking. The general public watches movies as entertainment, not art. As much as we wish the public had the taste of movie lovers, it’s just not so. And as long as film fans have plenty of great movies to go see in the theater and to watch at home, then we need not worry about the death of great movies. If anything, us film fans should do a better job of spreading the good word about top quality movies so they can break out into the mainstream.
(This is the second in a series of four articles responding to Stephen King’s EW piece)
King rightly points out that rock & roll radio is on “life support” — but he sees this as a bad thing. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t around for radio’s true heyday but it’s hard for me to see radio as anything other than a failed medium. By the 1980s, radio had already begun its march towards crass commercialism with tons of ads and executive approved national playlists. It has been a long time since DJs actually discovered and exposed great music.
King wonders “who’s going to find the great new artists to make the little girls scream?” To me, he is equating radio with the opinion leader role. There is no reason why ‘radio’ itself is the place where new music discovery must be channelled. I find it likely that future opinion leaders won’t be doing it as a job but as a passion. They may find some monetary compensation but that will probably be too small to be a career. It will also be much more niche oriented than broadcast has been.
With internet-based publishing tools being so inexpensive, there are already many music websites, blogs, podcasts and more helping music fans discover new tunes. The issue is that it is often hard to find these new outlets. Especially for older generations (such as King) that aren’t as in touch with new media. I don’t mean that as a ‘you’re old, get out of the way’ message. I see it as a legitimate problem that some enthusiastic entrepreneur should tackle.
But in the end, rock & roll radio is on the way out. It is too corporate and no longer works as a place for music fans to gather. New outlets are springing up and eventually the discovery problem will be solved. Listeners will be better served by passionate music fans than radio has been able to in generations.
This week’s Entertainment Weekly features a doom-and-gloom Op-Ed by Stephen King on the future of pop culture. He fears the changes occurring in the book, radio, TV and film worlds and wonders how great content will be produced under the new price-points that electronic media dictates and how the public will discover and drive high quality content. By and large, King’s article accurately portrays the current obstacles facing media industries but there is a tone of potential catastrophe that assumes the new will be worse than the old.
We need to start a discussion on media’s future – its economics, its institutions and its creators. This kind of discussion is my bread and butter.
This will be the first in a series of 4 short articles covering each area of pop culture that King touches on. Let’s begin with books.
King points out that while ebooks currently represent only 1.5% of the market, they are the future of the industry. As much as book lovers are hesitant to give up the rich texture and readability of print and paper, the convenience of ebooks in terms of portability (carry as many as you want simultaneously in a format smaller than a single book) and availability (purchase wirelessly directly from the device) trump these quality benefits. And the quality of ebooks will only improve over time.
ASIDE: I think there has been a misassumption that quality of format is the primary driver in customer adoption. This idea was mainly fueled by the extremely rapid growth of the high quality DVD format. I would argue that while customers definitely value a high quality format, overall it is a secondary concern to convenience. Convenience is the ultimate driver of adoption. We saw this in the MP3 format for music. It experienced rapid growth despite it being a lower fidelity format than CD. The high quality audio formats the labels created (DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD) have basically been DOA except to audiophiles. The convenience of MP3 was far beyond anything available up to that point. This is not to say users don’t care about quality, it’s just that convenience comes first. So make your product incredibly convenient to use and then add as much quality as is feasible.
So if we assume that ebooks becoming the largest segment of books is something of an inevitability, then we need to understand what the book industry will look like. The biggest issue is the price disparity between ebooks (~ $10) and hardcover (~ $25). The components of book pricing are covered better than I could hope to in a great article here: Book Cost Analysis – Cost of Physical Book Publishing
In short, everybody will be forced to take a haircut if we stick with the $10 price point. To me, that price feels right based on the value a reader sees in a non-loanable, non-resalable, non-physical product. When distribution and production is near-free, it is hard to justify to readers the high price of a hardcover in an ebook. But even when you remove the physical production costs, the price point is still too low to support the system that is in place. Currently, the system is basically author->publisher->distributor->retailer->reader.
The three vendors in the middle will be hit most of all. Let’s start with distributors. That is a business that is going away. Not only for ebooks but for any digital content. When the logistics of moving physical goods around the world is removed, distributors add very little value to the system. I wonder if they see the writing on the wall.
Retailers. Certainly Amazon is the big player in ebooks right now and has the potential to dominate just as iTunes dominates music. I want to dig more into this in a later post but in short, physical book retailers are in trouble and Amazon is in a great position to reduce its costs and further strengthening its position.
Publishers. With downward price pressure on their products, publishers are going to become increasingly conservative in terms of taking risks on new authors. In publishing, the hits fund all the misses and with hits generating less money due to the low ebook price, there will be less budget for launching untried properties. Also, budgets will be cut across the board meaning that fewer resources will be dedicated to extensive marketing campaigns for all but the most well-known authors. Cuts will also be made to the entire editing and product design processes.
So where does that leaves us? I believe that new authors will be much more likely to self publish. There will be less money for advances from increasingly risk-averse publishers. Without the need for physical distribution, authors will be able to publish Kindle compatible ebooks directly to Amazon. Readers will find content based on reader reviews at Amazon.
More well-know authors (and authors who gain self-publishing success) will be able to work with publishers. These publishers will mainly provide marketing services to help authors reach broad success.
So the future of ebooks is a much more simple diagram: author->etailer->reader.