Friday, March 16, 2007

The Three Ds of Media: Distribution, Distribution, Distribution

I have a mantra in all of my media classes that the good students get and the average to poor students don't: Distribution is everything. Not only is it about getting your content to your audience, but distribution encompasses marketing as well since your audience needs to know that you are available to be seen, heard, read, etc. Anyways, I was glad to see that someone at Time gets this as well...
"Content is king." It's a phrase uttered repeatedly by media executives making the case that the movies, music, TV shows, books and journalism their companies produce are the core of their business.

It happens to be a dubious claim. Sure, movies, music and TV shows have value--as do, I feel compelled to add, magazine columns. But they alone have never generated the huge, reliable profits that keep investors happy and pay for midtown-Manhattan skyscrapers. No, the big money in media has always been in distribution.

Sometimes the media companies do this distributing themselves--think TV networks, or newspapers and their delivery boys. But even when others own the movie theaters or the bookstores, big media have long been defined by their ability to make sure their products are displayed prominently there. "The historical media play," says consultant John Hagel, "is having privileged access to limited shelf space."

On the Internet, though, the shelves go on and on and on. And as words, music and now video move to this new environment, the traditional economics of media are under attack. Tellingly, the most valuable media company in the world right now is not Disney or News Corp. or Time Warner (owner of Time) but Google, which helps people find stuff on those endless online shelves.

Google makes virtually all its money--$10.6 billion in revenue last year and $3.1 billion in after-tax profit--selling advertisements. But except for a few endeavors like Google Maps, it's a media firm that produces no content. Rather than take on established media outfits as outright competitors, Google has been trying to persuade them to let it help them find audiences and sell ads. Some media powers have signed up. But the prospect of a world organized on Google's terms remains unsettling to executives accustomed to controlling the path their products take to consumers.
And that's why Google is interesting to me: they are creating what seems to be the de-facto distribution platform for commercial and non-commercial media. This has consequences for artists, amateurs, pros, etc., and I have yet to find someone who has articulated what this means. Unlike other platforms for past media distribution (broadcast networks, film exhibitors, all varieties of record wareshouses, distributors and retailers, etc.) this environment is imminently permeable: media can find its way onto the net with relative ease. In fact, Google is interesting because their applications are soooo user friendly that they essentially challenge you not to use them. If you don't believe me, try out Googlepages and you will find a drag and drop application that allows you to make a decent webpage sans html and css. In other words, my Dad could do it and he would get something out of it. In fact, this Blog is published on Blogger, an application acquired by Google because of its ease-of-use and flexibility. By acquiring nodes where content can be uploaded and efficiently organized for searches, Google is becoming the best example of a neo-liberal media company yet: content is produced by a decentralized workforce (like me and you), it is distributed through a decentralized mode of distribution and it is accessed and viewed by a reader/producer. Throughout this process, Capital is deregulated as much as is tolerated by governing forces (see China for an example where Google has capitulated to the demands of the State) with public service requirements kept at a minimum.

Finally, what I think Google is aiming to become is something that most media hope to become at some point in time: social networks. I just presented on how I felt music scenes and genres are the best place to look to see how the rules of neoliberal social network media have developed (in fact, I will upload my paper and presentation later in the weekend). But this is something that media want to do and they do it by organizing around and producing new social habits. This cinema grew in America around networks of entertainment that already existed (see Vaudeville, Chataquas, Magic Lantern presentations, lectures) and produced new visual habits as well (seeing movies based on modern "stars", a standard mode of cinematic expression, etc,). The key is that this created a kind of social network where the cinema existed as a site of social discourse, organization and debate around which cultures could be debated and contested. The same could be said of TV, radio and popular music, each of which have their issues of media specificity to negotiate. What Google is doing is trying to become the Paramount, NBC and Columbia Records of our day: i.e. the premiere distributor of media for their medium. And everyone else is just beginning to figure this out.

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