Web Exclusive Essay
What Old Media Can Teach New Media
While it may be the case that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, the question remains whether that old dog can teach a new dog anything useful from its existing repertoire. Or, in terms of spreadable media, can the “old”—or, as I prefer, “established”—processes of media industries for creating entertainment content teach those who are endeavoring on the creation of spreadable media anything of value? In the overinflated rhetoric of new media, media revolutions, and change, too often we lose track of basics and fail to consider that most of what seems new and different isn’t really, either. In this essay, I identify some of the established characteristics of entertainment-based media industries that remain relevant in an era of spreadable media and explore how some of the strategies these industries have developed to deal with their particularities do or do not apply to the spreadable media context.
A key starting point for understanding entertainment-based media industries is acknowledging that they are different from most other business sectors—often in particularly frustrating ways for their practitioners. This “difference” of media industries means that the rules and practices that hold for and prove productive to commercialization practices elsewhere simply don’t work, or at least don’t work as effectively, for these media companies. One of these key differences is captured in the maxim “nobody knows,” also expressed sometimes as the acknowledgment that such media industries are “risky businesses.” This sense that nobody knows results from the fickleness of audiences when it comes to creative and entertainment goods. Conventional focus-group testing or the combination of known “successful” features tend not to be particularly predictive of success in the design of a new media good. In other words, you can’t test or engineer your way to a hit with any certainty.
Considering the spreadable media successes of the past few years, I suspect the “nobody knows” maxim is likely to be true of the circulation of spreadable media to the same degree it is for the distribution of established entertainment media. Try as we might to identify common features or characteristics, we fool ourselves if we think we can anticipate a formula for producing creative content likely to catch the cultural fancy of any particular audience at any given moment. But all is not lost; these media companies have developed a number of strategies designed to counter some of the uncertainty of their established platforms, and some of these strategies might prove productive for making spreadable media as well.
The primary strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of success is intentional overproduction. Television, film, and recording industry executives all work in a universe in which they know full well that more than 80 percent of what they develop and create will fail commercially. The key problem is that they don’t know which 10 to 20 percent might actually succeed. So, while it is painful from a resource-allocation standpoint, the strategy has been to produce far more creative goods than might succeed and then see what works. The lesson here for spreadable media, then, is not to get too caught up in trying to design the next big new thing by carefully drawing on the lessons of those that have spread before but rather to be willing to try many different things.
Spreadable media have the advantage relative to established media of generally not requiring the extensive sunk costs that challenge traditional creative development (the high first-copy costs of established media arguably present as challenging a characteristic of this industry as the fact that “nobody knows”). To be more precise, in the case of spreadable media content, many costs must be sunk before turning it loose on the world, but audiences don’t have the same high production-budget expectations that hobble established media. The fact that spreadable media is characterized by its circumvention of paid distribution reduces costs and also allows creators to release preliminary content and then follow up on successes with sequels or extensions.
The mention of sequels and extensions brings us to the most readily used strategy in these established media industries for dealing with the “nobody knows” dilemma: formatting. Whether the use of known stars or creative talent, or known genres or textual forms, replicating known or previous success is often banked on as the most likely way to predict new success. While this provides a viable strategy for spreadable media, creators must still walk the same tightrope of avoiding producing goods that are obviously derivative and being intricately engaged with cultural shifts and trends to be aware of ever-shifting fancies.
Certainly, just as is the case with established media, creators of spreadable media have a variety of commercial and artistic desires. Because these goals and motivations vary so widely, then, one strategy does not fit all. It remains to be seen whether what economist Richard Caves (2000) refers to as matters of the A-list/B-list (the inadequacy of a purely economic rationale for the perceived variation in quality among the people involved in creative production) will be relevant to spreadable media. In some cases, the inclusion of “A-list” talent, as in Will Ferrell’s involvement in funnyordie.com videos, reasonably seems to play a role in the sampling and spreading of content. But just as many cases of “B-list” spreadable media successes exist (not to mention the Z-list talent of precocious pets and unknown children). Likewise, some established strategies of the media industries—such as the creation of artificial scarcity in accessing content—may have less relevance in the spreadable media world.
Caves, Richard. 2000. Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.