Is NBC Built For Failure In The Digital Age?

from the can't-retrofit-a-community-model dept

If you haven’t yet read John Hockenberry’s fascinating piece in the current issue of Technology Review, you ought to. Hockenberry was a longtime correspondent for Dateline NBC and went from there to the MIT Media Lab. It’s hard to think of anyone more qualified to assess the news industry’s relationship to new technology. And although the article does eventually devolve into (juicy) carping about his former employer, prior to that point Hockenberry’s analysis of the media’s failure to meaningfully embrace online technology is incisive. But Hockenberry also makes this more general point:

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.

By now everyone is familiar with the "Long Tail" concept, which, among other things, points out that information technology makes niche communities and products viable at a much more specialized scale than was previously possible. It’s fairly well accepted that this focus on niche products may decrease the profitability of the mainstream hits found to the left of the long tail (see here for a good example).

But Hockenberry’s observation makes obvious a point that’s often neglected: that the shift in cultural attention that comes with the long tail may be closer to zero sum than we might imagine. It’s not just that the network allows niche communities to proliferate; people also value those precisely-targeted communities more than they value media experiences designed for a general audience.

With this in mind it’s a little easier to excuse the lame online efforts cited by Hockenberry. A broadcast network like NBC is fundamentally designed to produce at most a handful of signals, each as broadly appealing as possible. There’s just no way to retrofit such a system into something that can compete with the endlessly precise intimacy of online communities. Sure, NBC may have missed some opportunities. But it’s hard to believe that any of them would have stopped the inevitable diminution of mass media’s importance to the average person.

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Companies: nbc

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Comments on “Is NBC Built For Failure In The Digital Age?”

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mirross says:

But their strength is...

The obvious strength not mentioned is that they offer resources per-project that outweigh those currently available to more specialist outlets.

For example, to go with the heroes example above, it’s a high quality drama that’s expensive to produce. That quality is keeping consumers in the “mainstream” even though the subject matter may not align as directly with their interests as they might like.

In the days of digital camcorders, anyone can make a movie, but people will still happily pay $10 to see a good one for this same reason.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t believe that the long tail says anything about decreasing the value of “hits” but rather says profits can be had from a huge inventory of content. Hits will always generate profits, in the past, maybe the lion’s share of profits. The long tail may generate profits but won’t reduce the profit ability of hits, while possibly lowering the overall percentage of profit that comes from hits.

Jdrefahl (profile) says:

I should be able to watch Streaming TV

This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t even need cable now. I should be able to watch TV on my computer through streaming channels. They drag their feet hoping that the circle shaped new media industry will some how fit into the square shaped traditional business box. Keep hammering, you might get an octagon that fits, or loss your whole business in the process to pirating much like the British TV market is with Bittorrent to the US Market. I don’t want some ‘cherry picked’ content on BBC America.. I want all your channels, now.. and I can get them through bit torrent! I don’t want to, but you leave me no choice.

Thom says:

It's not digital

You’re comparing NBC with its handful of shows on its one broadcast channel with the myriad of digital options available on the NET and asking if it’s built for failure? Well, forget digital and the Internet for a moment. Consider NBC vs. satellite and cable for a moment and you’ll see it’s the exact same fight – the only differences are in scale and signal to noise ratio.

The NET may offer many thousands of times the content options that satellite and cable do combined, but QUALITY content on the NET is many tens of thousands of times scarcer. That’s really pathetic given the garbage we see on tv, but the fact is tv is backed by big money and expensive equipment and that makes a difference in the end product. The only way any player on the NET will truly compete with television is when that player grows to match the size and budget of television – and then that player will face the same problems.

If NBC, or any player, fails it’s not the digital age but the competition in general and the failure to listen to the viewers rather than the marketers and bean counters.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have to disagree with the statement

A broadcast network like NBC is fundamentally designed to produce at most a handful of signals, each as broadly appealing as possible.

There is no doubt that this is what NBC (and the other networks) have done but to imply that it is all that they could do “as designed” misses the point that at any time they could provide a “product” that is targeted to a smaller, more defined audience IF they truly wanted to.

NBC has the same problem that it seems like all, or most, of the other big players do: when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. NBC can change the tools they have and how they use them without forgoing their current offerings. But to make it effective they have to change their tool, and that’s where I think they keep failing at it.

Udayan (user link) says:

Do we really know?

For one, being online is pretty unknown and murky new phenomenon. We rely on pageviews or unique hits to determine how our sites are doing, which is similar to the way NBC counts its popularity.

Furthermore, there is the fact that NBC has great brand recognition – and no number of YouTube videos, despite the insane popularity of lolcats and so on, will come close to competing with it for some time.

The fact that NBC is organised and easily recognisable makes it preferable to online content: good online content is hard to find amongst the masses of talking heads, guitar riffs, and various other odd things on YouTube etcetera.

Anonymous Coward says:

I guess I’m a little lost on NBC’s overall strategy.

I’ve always thought that the goal as a creator of content should to be to provide the content through as many distribution channels as possible– Be it through Local Affiliates, OnDemand, DishNetwork, DirecTV, HDTV etc, how is the internet, iTunes, or the like any different? Is it a distribution channel? Can it be? How is it different? If it is different, who is telling you it’s different? Is it people who understand the technology, or could their reccomendations be fueled by their own Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt?

The FCC recently ruled that AT&T’s uVerse is internet/TCPIP based. Maybe that’s a starting point.

Overcast says:

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well.

Yep, since they don’t have a ‘captive’ audience with no other choice – I guess so.

As more options become available, I guess we see how crappy current media really is. Well – let’s say these ‘experts’ have begun to realize what the public has been painfully aware of for years.

Kevin Townsend (user link) says:

I agree that the goal of the creator of content should be to provide the content through as many distribution channels as possible. Online entertainment is improving in quality at a rapid rate, not only from networks transferring existing shows to an online format but mainly from advertisers pouring dollars traditionally spent on network advertising such as NBC, into online/mobile branded programming.

With the partnership between Hollywood Boulevard and Madison Avenue getting stronger by the day, we are seeing the creation of great entertainment featuring existing properties, established celebrities and great storylines specifically targeted directly at consumers who are already a fan of ‘The Brand’.

Fast forward a few years and this paradigm shift will have become the media model for content creation, revenue generation and consumer demand for entertainment.

This leaves the networks in an interesting position when advertisers deal directly with show creators.

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