This past week saw the International Television Conference in Edinburgh, where various stars of British screen life pontificated on, what else, the future of media. The show stopper was a keynote lecture by James Murdoch where he railed against the BBC, Ofcom and government’s role in media more generally. His language was inflammatory and his politics insufferable, but I found myself agreeing with him about the economics of the emerging media model.
Here’s the core of his argument: we live in a world where there is no longer radio journalism and TV journalism and print journalism and web journalism, but simply journalism. Stories–whether told in words, pictures or sound–are all going to be transmitted the same way, as a combinations of 1s and 0s to be read on laptops and mobile phones. Murdoch calls this the “all-media market,” and the people who provide it “branded mediators.” Clumsy phrases, but they do the job.
That is exciting and positive for journalists: it means we can be jacks-of-all-trades, capable of telling stories with a full belt of tools, but dangerous for media outlets and competition. What it does, says Murdoch, is make the BBC astronomically more powerful than it was before, because even its smallest channels fit into a massive cross platform network that no individual commercial provider can compete with. Meanwhile OfCom regulations prevent individual commercial outlets from merging with one another to develop a similar structure. That competitive imbalance is going to get even worse, according to the BBC’s own Robert Peston, when the commercial outlets (led by Murdoch’s own company) start charging for their content online, while the BBC will remain tax-subsidized and free to consume.
That Peston concedes some of this is telling. There’s really no economic argument that shows a way for private sector UK media to compete effectively with the BBC . And while I spend a lot of time listening to BBC Radio online, swear by its World news broadcast, and certainly don’t frequent any of the Murdoch papers’ websites, I would mourn the loss of other UK publications if the competitive imbalance took them down too. In other words, I think Murdoch is right that we want a media ecosystem in which it is possible to subsidize content with profit and for multiple people to be profitable in that space. I just happen to think charging for The Sun won’t get us there.
In the States, for-profit journalism is equally challenged. And blanket pay wall policies won’t work here either, though smaller walls for specific niche content might. What might also work is a rethinking of advertising in which aggregators and search engines enter revenue sharing deals with the news sites to whom they link. Or a move by news organizations to own their ad pages, but selling them directly and having ads travel with content where ever it goes. Or some other advertising innovation that smarter minds than mine can dream up.
In Britain, all of these challenges await media organizations, to be sure, but they will become relevant only if and when they can overcome the first hurdle of competing with the BBC. I’m not sure how they can achieve that without actually punishing the BBC (forcing it to sell some of its channels, say). And if the hostile reactions to the Murdoch talk are any indication, Britons would much rather give up choice and have their media offerings slowly consolidated under one roof than sock it to a national icon.