Public trust and confidence in the media has taken a battering in recent years, with the rise of so-called ‘fake news’; the demise of the printed press and the concerns regarding the way in which Social Media operates.
In this article, Steve Orchard (CEO of Quidem and Chairman of Atlantic Screen Music) introduces four fundamentals of the new media landscape and explores the opportunities emerging for regional media from the carnage of the pandemic.
The latest Tom Hanks Movie “News of the World” is the tale of a man who made a career out of reading news clippings from local newspapers to live audiences in town halls across postbellum Texas, the very Wild West. The film speaks to a fundamental truth of the human condition: we need news, and we relate to stories. Need for news is literally innate, it is embedded in our DNA through an evolutionary process going back millennia. When mankind was establishing its hold on life it was the better informed that survived…Where are my predators? Where is my food source? These were news items of life and death import. Fast forward to 2021 and that deep behavioural instinct remains. Today it takes the form of an irresistible urge to keep checking your smartphone and each time your thumb scrolls a screen a tiny dopamine hit is released in your brain…a reward for checking what’s going on.
Stories provide the human framework that help us relate to facts, to our sense of wrong and right, and to our sense of identity. Stories are everywhere and we need them to stimulate our imagination: a form of mental exercise as important to your health and wellbeing as your 10,000 daily steps. From workplace banter, and drinks with your mates in the pub, through to social media and news on your smartphone. In the Lockdown experience, a time of re-evaluation, those daily rituals and habitual procedures which serve the routines of work and school ceased when home-based employment and schooling became the norm for so many people. We bought fewer copies of newspapers, we saw fewer billboards (because we didn’t commute) but we couldn’t get enough of podcasts and streamed Box Sets…. In 2020, the year of great change, there have been winners and losers in the media sector but the need for news and our love of stories remains undiminished.
The Tom Hanks movie is instructive in another way. In the UK with cinemas shut, the film debuted on Netflix. The history of the world’s number 1 subscription video on demand service (SVOD) tells us much about where media is headed post lockdown. In the year 2000 Netflix management offered 100% of its shares to Blockbuster for $50m. Blockbuster declined the offer. Four years later Blockbuster started a futile attempt at catch-up with Netflix in the business of DVD rentals ordered online and delivered by post. Futile not because Netflix wasn’t beatable in the DVD postal delivery market, but futile because in January 2007 at precisely the point Netflix posted its billionth DVD it pivoted to a video streaming model (note for Millennials… posting something in 2007 still involved a small disc called a DVD, an envelope and a postman). Netflix’s superior IP in the field of movie recommendation was then put to good use: it was able to predict what people wanted and ultimately become a tastemaker. In 2012 Netflix launched in the UK and produced its first original content (House of Cards). As of today, 73%, of US households have a Netflix subscription…and Blockbuster has one shop left. It is in Bend, Oregon population 94,000, about the size of Nuneaton. You can buy a Blockbuster hat and T-shirt in the Bend store, should you pine for the old days.
So as the end of Lockdown approaches, here are the fundamentals of the new media landscape.
- The consumer is now firmly in control.
Media consumers value choice and quality. They use media content to alter their mood, stay in touch, and to feel connected to a wider community. Technology enables media companies to put forward the greatest choice of the highest possible quality content in a way that consumers can match to their individual moment. Catch-up and streaming mean that the Rubicon has been crossed…content must now fit our mood and our timescale. The consumer is now in control. Without ITV Hub, All 4, My 5 or BBC I-player our four terrestrial free-to-air broadcasters would have no means of satisfying the individual mood requirements of their viewer… what if I don’t want to watch Peaky Blinders on a Sunday night at 9… I want it on Saturday night with my takeaway curry… and waiting a week for the next episode … are you serious?
- “The Man” knows what you are thinking before you are thinking it.
The bedrock of the growth in personalised media is Artificial Intelligence. The reason the streamers and smart speakers are so successful is that they are assembling a huge body of behavioural data. To parody Sting for a moment…Every tiny decision you make, every channel you switch, every tab you open…they are watching you. This behavioural data is so much more powerful than any insight we ever had in the pre-digital age. It enables content makers and content platforms to target precisely the kind of programmes that it knows will be to your taste.
- We have entered another Golden Age of Audio.
In radio the consumer exercises control via listen-again apps (like Global Player and BBC Sounds), and podcasts. Whilst live radio, the peerless mood improver, still predominates there is a trend towards non-live output and in particular the podcast format. In 2020 there were some 16 million UK podcast listeners by 2024 Statista Research forecast that will have risen to nearly 19.39 million listeners https://www.statista.com/forecasts/1147560/podcast-reach-uk.
Such is the potency of the growth of audio formats that in February this year an agenda item in Campaign magazine’s Summit on Radio and Audio posed the question “Are we moving towards a screenless future?”. This question makes more sense in the specific context of the evolution of voice assistants on smart speakers (Siri, Hey Google, Alexa et al). I have noticed a generational schism in our family…whilst I am still ensnared by the combination of my thumb and smartphone when seeking out information, our daughter Rosa simply asks out loud for said info. That and her increasing use of podcasts is indeed reducing the time she spends on her phone’s screen. And where there’s an audience, there’s money…innovation in the field of Voice Assistants is developing apace. The technology now exists that allows you, on hearing that Wasps have a new first team shirt to shout “get me that” and Alexa will locate the product, order it (it already knows your size), deliver it and charge it to your Amazon account. Check these guys out https://www.sayitnow.ai/
- Some media formats are losing our trust
The explosion of channels by which you get your news and stories has caused the delineation of fact, opinion and fiction to become less distinct. Is Fox News really news, or is it opinion? How come Facebook is full of conspiracy theories? How much of The Crown is based on true fact? One of the reasons that the debates around Brexit, Trump, Black Lives Matter, HS2 etc. have been so bitterly polemical is that the opinion of every man and his dog can find a platform. No matter how bonkers you are, no matter how narrow your views, you can find a channel and a like-minded tribe to reinforce your viewpoint. The inevitable consequence of extreme views and the fakery of news is that trust is eroding, especially in the Social Media arena. At the same time there are the first inklings that TV news in the UK will become more politicised as broadcasters try to emulate the commercial success of openly partisan news channels in the US – a development that will further diminish trust.
So, for our regional Media there is now an opportunity emerging from the carnage of the Lockdown. Those local newspapers, local radio stations and regional news TV programmes which can maintain trust during these turbulent times will survive what has been a bruising commercial period. The attributes of relevance and trust in news and story-telling are much more important than the technology and cannot be recreated via any AI thus far developed. Picking the right story and writing it in an engaging way for the specific audience is a journalistic skill that media owners and we as consumers will start to value more highly. Just like the scenes in the new Tom Hanks movie…tell me a story about something important happening round here and I’m all ears.