A friend outside the media business — deeply enamored with the iPad — recently described his version of a killer app: Plugging the iPad interface and Web access directly into his TV.
When it was suggested that the logical extreme from such a wedding — if Web-enabled TVs become common, and the masses begin watching TV like Tom Cruise’s character in “Minority Report” — could potentially obliterate cable and satellite providers as we know them, his response was succinct: “Screw ’em.”
Those who work within a specific vocation are often informed by a measure of sentimentality. For those weaned in or around television, it’s easy to wince at the disappearance of soap operas or TV movies not necessarily because we’re so fond of the genre but because it represents an entire way of life — a sub-industry that launched careers, put kids in private schools and paid plenty of mortgages.
Beyond those insular borders, though, consumers aren’t afflicted by such concerns regarding collateral damage. They want what they want how and when they want it, and don’t care if economic staples — whether that’s family farms, domestic manufacturing or traditional content distribution — suffer as a consequence.
Two op-ed pieces in Sunday’s New York Times each glancingly addressed this point from slightly different angles. One noted how the public really has little interest in compromise, either in the products they consume or their politics. Elsewhere, cultural observer Neal Gabler dubbed us a society of “information narcissists … uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles.” The media, he added, have adapted “to service our narcissism.”
Newspapers, bringing the matter personally close to home, have certainly learned this lesson the hard way. Despite the healthy appetite for information, the desire to consume news online and instantaneously has left publishers wrestling with how to be compensated for their product. To many consumers, such questions are immaterial. In essence, they’re telling companies, “That’s your headache. You figure it out.”
The entertainment industry came a bit late to this party, and it’s not completely clear that showbiz, or at least every quadrant of it, has recognized the inherent threat such a mentality poses.
Admittedly, head honchos at media conglomerates — especially those in the distribution game — are weighing options and plotting contingencies. From Comcast’s expanded content profile through acquiring NBCUniversal to Time Warner’s emphasis on portability, versatility and bet-hedging are the order of the day.
Still, there’s also a lot of lip service paid to the health of old war horses. Local broadcasting? People still love it. Cable systems? Insight Communications in the Midwest is worth $3 billion to Time Warner Cable. The major networks? Plenty of life still in them.
Part of the status quo’s enduring clout has to do with sheer inertia. After all, just waiting around for an installation guy to show up to change one’s digital service is a half-day commitment and a colossal pain.
Even with breath-taking gizmos and gadgetry, things don’t always change as fast as anticipated. Ask Google TV — where returns of the boxes are actually outpacing sales, helping motivate this week’s blockbuster acquisition of Motorola Mobility — or anyone except Apple marketing a new tablet.
At the same time, rapid adoption of high-definition TV sets and digital video recorders illustrate how quickly habits can change. Moreover, the latter’s commercial-zapping function underscores how wholly unsympathetic the public can be to venerable institutions like advertiser-supported networks pleading, “But how are we supposed to pay for this?”
Through the years there have been many Chicken Littles warning of the coming storm, coupled with an inevitable lack of clarity that can cause eyes (especially in creative circles) to glaze over. Even now, then-Disney chairman Michael Eisner’s comment at the 1994 Information Superhighway Summit possesses a certain resonance: “I feel like an English major in an organic chemistry course.”
And no wonder. Because the people grading this exam don’t care who passes or fails, mirroring that “Screw ’em” attitude. Not because they’re not that into you — in fact, a lot of them absolutely love your work. It’s just that in an environment where consumers are accustomed to having things their way, they’re way more into themselves.