We live in a time of unprecedented access to entertainment, news, information — even to each other. But that access requires navigating a digital labyrinth, with toll booths, hidden doors, gates that only open in one direction, false exits, and misleading turns — along with some clear paths and dazzling topiary. I wish I could say that will get easier in 2013. It won’t. And if there’s one prediction I feel safe in making, clarity isn’t even in our mid-range future. Why? Three reasons:
Or more bluntly, the need to make it. That applies to traditional media businesses, Internet powerhouses, and nimble startups alike. (On the most basic level, the folks who produce cat videos and sunset photos still have to get devices and someone has to pay for or subsidize storage and distribution.) Nearly all rely on advertising, subscriptions, sales, licensing/syndication, or a mix of those to make money with some other revenue sources sprinkled in. How they manage those revenue streams governs much of what we can access.
That is not new to the digital age; relatively few cable networks are fully distributed, for instance, and programming packages were sold at different levels long before we started watching TV on cellphones. Studios made exclusive deals with premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Starz. Wire services were for members and clients. But digital makes it different by opening options for consumers, creators, and distributors across devices and platforms. As any regular reader here knows, the increasing reliance on digital also changes the economic structure, as people shift access points.
Traditional players like The New York Times or the part of CBS that makes the most money have to balance between getting as much income as possible from their legacy media for as long as possible with finding ways both to make the most from digital and make up for the gap. That takes us to rights deals that may block access for a day, a week, or to everyone except subscribers to certain services. It means paying for access after 10 or 20 articles, finding other ways in, changing news providers, or perhaps answering a question to read an article. We can pay to watch out-of-market MLB.com games at home; we can watch all the play at Wimbledon from anywhere in the U.S. if we pay a provider who has a deal with ESPN and have the right apps on the right devices.
The “get an audience first, money will follow” startups add to the uncertainty, especially when the ways that money might be made aren’t spelled out well from the start. In the most recent public example, a number of Instagram users deleted their accounts rather than accept terms of service related to possible future advertising plans, leaving in their wake myriad broken links and gaps. Features, products, and entire companies disappear when reality doesn’t make enough money to match the audience or fulfill the funding — leaving disappointed, sometimes disoriented users behind. Pivots leave divots to trip over.
Without money to produce, store, or distribute, content has a hard time surviving and good content has a harder time getting made at all. One of the biggest pluses of 2012 has been the use of crowdfunding for a wide range of niche projects, from Plympton’s serial books to Read Matter’s longform science writing and a lot of video. In 2013, we’ll get a better sense of how crowdfunding is faring, as well as the beyond-Kickstarter viability for those tapping in.
A lot of content is available in digital format. A lot isn’t. My 12-year-old niece wanted to read To Kill a Mockingbird on her Nook or her mom’s Kindle. Companion story guides can be downloaded, but the actual Harper Lee classic isn’t available in digital — legally. She stuck with the paperback. Some of this is the whim of the author: Ray Bradbury withheld permission to digitize most of his work until just before his death earlier this year; now HarperCollins is producing a digital backlist. His editor at HarperCollins, Jennifer Brehl, told me soon after his death she’d urged him “to step boldly into the future” and he finally agreed. All of the books will be available to libraries, even if the publisher’s policy for other authors and titles doesn’t match. Some rights are too difficult to obtain retroactively (“China Beach” isn’t on legal DVDs yet let alone streaming).
Even when books, movies, or songs are digitized, availability isn’t guaranteed. A movie Netflix offers today might be out of the rotation next month, based on the studio deal. A publisher might only allow some libraries to get some titles or allow lending only in certain device-linked formats. Titles might be exclusive to Amazon or Nook. You can make MP3s out of Beatles CDs, but you can only buy the songs digitally through iTunes. You can share an article from a news site, but not everything in its app. The CBS-Vevo concert series “Live on Letterman” can be watched live through Google Chrome on a PC, but not through Google Chrome on Google TV. Pay in the U.S., and you might not be able to watch in Germany. Trying to insure offline access to cloud-based media or that downloads will play can be like playing a shell game, sometimes without anything in the shells. Forget to sync? It could be a long, silent plane ride.
Tech advances make it easier for us to get anything anywhere — but also easier to control what we can get, when, and how, unless you are more into hacking than the average consumer. Tech decisions like blocking Flash from an operating system or skipping walled-garden apps for browser-based HTML5 change who can get access and how or what is available where. The single most important decision News Corp. made in launching The Daily was to plant it in the walled garden of iOS. Nearly everything else — the cost, the early delivery problems, the lack of the right kind of exposure, and ultimately, its demise — stemmed from that.
One way for consumers to get through the labyrinth is to find an ecosystem and stick with it, accepting the limitations from the start and knowing that more are coming. It’s reductive but alluring. You can play device and subscription roulette, hoping that the mix you pull together covers allow the options you care about.
You may get satisfaction but you probably won’t get everything you want where you want it — even if you’re willing to pay — in 2013.