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.

Filed Under: community, john hockenberry, long tail, mass audiences
Companies: nbc


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  1. identicon
    mirross, 14 Jan 2008 @ 11:00am

    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.

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