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TV's iPod moment?

Watching the Defectives

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TV isn't music

The first thing to note is that there is a very large part of the music industry who see the internet and the iPod more as a threat than an opportunity.

Admittedly the industry was pathetically slow to offer legal, pay-for online music sales, so they may have missed some opportunities. A call of ‘Quick, panic! And now stop panicking’ might have done them quite a bit of good circa 1998. But the more profound sense of disquiet facing the music industry stems from the knowledge that music labels may not actually be as necessary as they once were.

Good pop music doesn’t necessarily cost very much to make. The people who make it don’t initially demand very much money (which has always suited major labels very nicely). Nor does listening to it necessarily require very much attention on the part of the consumer. Remove any of these aspects, and music’s 'iPod moment' would look very different.

None of this is true of television. While consumption may be becoming more fragmented, at least in terms of the greater freedom of how and when to watch it, there is a limit to how fragmented production can become. You can have good music without a music industry, but you can’t have good television without a television industry.

Amateur or ultra-low budget television may be growing, but it is hard to imagine it having much impact on the entertainment industry at large. Nor does the idle, semi-attentive consumption of small television clips, impatiently shuffled and skipped through, really sound like plausible viewer behaviour any time soon.

The least we can say, then, is that TV’s 'iPod moment' shares little with music’s iPod moment. Are there better ways of thinking about the transitions at hand, or perhaps better models?

Revenge of the process people

Speaking at the same conference as Cerf was Britain’s highest profile, and arguably most feared, political interviewer, Jeremy Paxman. Addressing some of the same anxieties as Cerf, and to an extent fuelling them, Paxman took an entirely different tack.

Yes, change is in the air, he argued, but the way to deal with it is to focus on what remains constant, not to whip up a frenzy about that which doesn’t. “We’ve got too focused on the way we deliver what we do, at the expense of what we deliver”, he said. Threaded through Paxman’s speech is the constant refrain ‘what is television for?’ And the answer will have little to do with its means of transmission.

The cost and professionalism involved in making high quality television is what allows this industry to focus on Paxman’s question. And Paxman is right. It needs to take advantage of this fact, and work on resuscitating its sense of purpose.

The danger with Cerf’s rhetoric is that it suggests that TV producers need to work twice as hard in chasing viewers, rather than twice as hard at making high quality content. The iPod, meanwhile, will continue to be dangled in front of executives of all walks of life, as proof that the unexpected can blow up in their faces.

But the lesson should have been learnt long ago. Any industry that commits itself too closely to a single technology runs the risk of it being superseded. This was true long before iPods, and will remain true long after they’re gone.

William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch.

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