TV's iPod moment?
Watching the Defectives
Column Last month, the British television industry belatedly joined in a ritual that has been performed by a variety of industries over the past decade. Pointing manically at the rising tide of digital technology, it shook itself awake, and demanded a little more panic.
The occasion was the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival. The figure who did most to rouse the assembled producers and executives from their slumbers was Vint Cerf, Vice President of Google and Chair of ICANN.
TV, Cerf announced, was reaching its "iPod moment", where viewers would become increasingly active in finding and downloading content, and exercise far greater discretion over how and when to view it. What hit the music industry around 2002-04 was about to hit the television industry.
There is an interesting choreography that all such wake-up calls share. They begin by building a sense of panic, often with the use of striking pieces of data.
“In Japan you can already download an hour's worth of video in 16 seconds” Cerf informed his increasingly nervous audience.
The implication is always this - that if you don’t start panicking now, then you’re going to have to start really panicking at some point in the future. So let's opt for productive panic now, rather than unproductive panic later on.
The next step is to share the surprising secret of how to deal with this unnerving situation: don’t panic. Contrary to the impression he was no doubt giving, Cerf reassured his audience that this iPod moment was an opportunity and not a threat.
The comparison to the music industry is perfect for those seeking to orchestrate this emotional conjuring trick, not least because it involves that ubiquitous zeitgeist technology, the iPod.
Lets not forget that everything from political parties to libraries to marketing companies are having to confront the 'iPod generation' or experiencing their 'iPod moment'. This is perhaps the most symbolically over-loaded technology since the Model T Ford.
But how meaningful is this analogy to the music industry and this iPod metaphor?
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.