Why the web mustn't become the new TV
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Will the open-ended internet ride become a buckled-down train journey...?
A consortium of rivals are gathering to impede media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's bid to gain total control of cable outlet BSkyB. Murdoch's News Corp enterprise currently owns 39% of the pay TV platform, but has been publicly challenged by rivals the BBC and Channel 4, in association with Brit newspaper The Guardian, known to wear its tin-foil hat proudly.
The anti-Murdoch consortium wrote to the British government last week protesting the possibility that Murdoch could gain so much control over UK TV content, not least because he arguably has deeper pockets than any of the contrary parties as far as purchasing sports and first-run rights on popular foreign (i.e. US) shows. Producer David Putnam added his voice to the protest along with The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and British Telecom.
The fact that such a disparate and opposing group of interests have united so solidly in this cause indicates a deep level of feeling, but more importantly a terrible fear that a superpower PayTV channel driven by an impetuous billionaire could turn all practical British alternative TV outlets into a second-class ghetto in terms of ratings and the influencing of public opinion.
Murdoch's history of cutting the price of his newspapers is behind the press's contribution to the cause, and to a certain extent this is all reminiscent of the furore in the sea-change from practical to digital newspaper production in London's Wapping in the early 1980s, engendering protracted but ultimately futile strikes from the pre-digital technicians who were made jobless by new, computerised automation of magazine and newspaper production.
"Current worries among publishing houses that magazines and newspapers will succumb to the digital written word on the internet are perhaps analogous to Victorian fears about mechanical horses taking over from real horses in the drawing of carriages. The point is being missed, the wrong fear being indulged."
The most interesting aspect of this is where Murdoch sees future audiences re-gathering. With an increase of video content on the internet and the phenomenon of the BBC's iPlayer and rival equivalents, it could be that the locus of pending change in media delivery is not a direct shift from hard-print to web-print, but from hard-print to the increasing diminution of print in any form, digital or otherwise.
Current worries among publishing houses that magazines and newspapers will succumb to the digital written word on the internet are perhaps analogous to Victorian fears about mechanical horses taking over from real horses in the drawing of carriages. The point is being missed, the wrong fear being indulged. And someone of Murdoch's status need not have an instinct for the media trends of the future - he is quite capable of creating them.
One obvious example of the linearisation of previously 'browsable' internet content is the almost ubiquitous transformation of 'top ten'-style lists from complete, single page chunks of information into 'slideshows' that present no possibility of skipping straight to the No.1 entry without clicking all of the intermediate entries.
Many assume that this is solely to increase page impressions in the site's user statistics, and certainly that does no harm in terms of the site's demographics. But since the most valuable figure in web stats is 'unique users' (where an individual may read one article on the site or a hundred), it makes relatively little difference if one person clicks through ten pages or fifty - they still make only a single contribution to the 'unique users' list in that day's site statistics.
"The consumer-value of internet-based content to date has been the fact that it is browsable, skippable, 'zappable'. But it's in the interest of big business that this genial versatility be put firmly back in the bottle, and that information be returned to the linear model that made commercial TV viable."
Instead, the value of making web content 'linear' is to present interstitial ads to the 'unique user' between (in this case) list items, or between over-paginated features or web galleries. Even when interstitial ads are not used, the ad modules surrounding each piece of content (the ad-campaign of which changes on each new page) presents the 'unique user' browsing a 'slideshow' list (or highly-paginated feature) ten or twenty targeted ad campaigns surrounding the core content , instead of just one - if the feature had been presented on one single page.
Personally I find the increase of the use of video in web content (particularly features and news) to be another depressing trend. The consumer-value of internet-based content to date has been the fact that it is browsable, skippable, 'zappable'. But it's in the interest of big business that this genial versatility be put firmly back in the bottle, and that information be returned to the linear model that made commercial TV viable.
Further discouraging is the increasing use of video interviews instead of transcribed interviews. Every journalist knows that transcription is the worst task their job presents them. You can't easily listen to music whilst doing it, you can't 'space out', and - unless you happen to have been interviewing one of your heroes (a fairly rare occurrence) - the content you're transcribing is often tedious, recycled junket fare. Transcription is almost always sheer hell, particularly for longer interviews.
"It is depressing to see an increasing number of popular websites sending their reporters to junkets with video crews instead of MP3 recorders."
But at least it can be indexed by Google once done, or be found in the obligatory copy to the British Library (or US national archives) and at least it adds something, however small, to the literary body of world knowledge, if the interview turned out to be a good one.
Which is why it is depressing to see an increasing number of popular websites sending their reporters to junkets with video crews instead of MP3 recorders. For one thing, any revelation of exceptional interest by the interviewee will already have been extracted and syndicated in advance as a 'hot' news piece, complete with a trailing ad for the forthcoming 'full interview'. Little incentive then to bother with the video interview itself when it arrives. It's essentially 'trim' by that point, except for rabid fans of the interviewee.
The same thing happens with transcribed interviews, admittedly, but at least you can scroll down the page to find headings or paragraphs that catch your eye and your interest, but may not have seemed important to the publication's editor. With a video interview, you just have to buckle up and enjoy the ride as best you can, hoping to hear something of interest at some point.
With current technology, there's nothing to stop a Flash-based video interview starting off with a list of subject sections, to increase the level of browsability at least a little. But why would a publisher do that when they want the viewer/consumer to consume the entire product, ads, animated logos and all?
Google and other companies have experimented with voice recognition on the audio track to make video interviews available with subtitles, but this process is currently about as effective as Google Language Tools in terms of accuracy (and in fact Google uses Language Tools in the auto-subtitling process). And if you're going to pay someone to transcribe the subtitles properly, why do a video interview in the first place? Also, for obvious reasons, this is not a piece of drudgery that can be farmed out to cut-rate Asian companies, whose employees often have a tenuous grasp of English.
Another negative aspect of video interviews is that there are a huge number of potential interview subjects that are too vain, too shy or too (by their own admission) inarticulate 'in real time' to be willing to undergo the process. Removing forty or fifty instances of 'umm' and 'ahh', or twenty instances where the interviewee restarted a sentence from the top because they began talking a few seconds before the answer was properly framed in their own mind...it's no betrayal to the fidelity of an interview to omit these instances in transcription. If the interviewee let something crucial slip in such an instance, that's different - but then, they can simply tell you not to print it, and you're obliged to comply anyway.
Additionally, interview subjects will potentially 'open up' to one reasonably friendly and competent interviewer in their own living room in a way that they never will when booms are hanging over them and a crowd have gathered to watch. Intimacy breeds revelation.
"How this potential media dystopia plays out depends on what happens to so-called 'consumer journalism', which is perhaps the one thing temporarily impeding the linear media-empire that I believe Rupert Murdoch sees as the future not only of TV but of print and the internet"
Since the Reagan/Thatcher era, 'consumer choice' has been the magic mantra, and the proliferation of TV channels and (later) highly-rated websites seems superficially to have delivered on that promise. The front page of many popular sites, much like TV listings, seems to present you with a smorgasbord of potential things to read, watch or listen to. The problem is, if the internet develops into a TV-based paradigm, the front page, just like TV listings, will be the only non-linear item available to consumers. Everything within it risks becoming a one-click, buckle-up linear journey through highly controlled content.
How this potential media dystopia plays out depends on what happens to so-called 'consumer journalism', which is perhaps the one thing temporarily impeding the linear media-empire that I believe Rupert Murdoch sees as the future not only of TV but of print and the internet. Right now there are smaller, non-corporate sites that are extremely popular alternatives to mainstream, linear-obsessed internet channels.
But if a small site is unpopular, it's no threat in any case. And if it becomes increasingly popular, it will inevitably adopt the 'linear model' in order to compete and monetise. Only a new 'Howard Hughes'-style media mogul could sidestep the syndrome, fully financed by completely separate business concerns and indulging his or her own ethical standards in the running of a major media channel on the internet.
Until they drive past some grassy knoll...