Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Atomization of Content

One of my favorite movies is Shane.  Seems I am not alone: it is often included on lists of the best American movies and is referenced by everyone from grand thinkers like Joseph Campbell in the "Hero with a Thousand Faces" to Kevin Spacey and Samuel L Jackson during a silly riff in "The Negotiator" as they argue whether Shane lives or dies at the end - something that is intentionally left unresolved by the film maker.

Shane, for me, was one of those movies I would watch over and over again if I came across it during a mindless TV channel surfing session.

Over the years I have stumbled on Shane at various points in it's run time on TBS, TNT, AMC and a handful of local broadcast stations and sat through every ad until the end.  Although everything about the movie is great - the acting, the script, the extraordinary cinematography with a Wyoming valley and The Grand Tetons as a backdrop, it is really the ending that I wanted to see, one of the great gun fights in movie history - where Alan Ladd and Jack Palance face off in a climactic showdown of good versus evil.

A couple of years ago someone posted the last 8 minutes of the movie, including the gun fight, on YouTube.  Although it was was pulled recently, probably at the insistence of the copyright holder, the damage was done.  Of the 500,000 or so views it generated, 100 were from me, dampening the desire to ever sit through the entire movie again.   I "played it to death" much like my daughter does to her favorite songs on her iPod.

It's all part of what a blogger I recently stumbled upon, calls the atomization of content.  Here he relates what happened to the music industry to every other media form:
"People were able to select the precise song they wanted to hear, download it, and listen to it. An industry of albums became an industry of (less-profitable) tracks. Molecules became atomized.

There’s a chicken / egg question here. Did people gain a taste for picking out their favorite nuggets – or did MP3s allow people to realize a latent desire? (And why was music the first media economy to atomize? Because of the compact size of songs – and, therefore, downloads in the modem era?)

Whichever came first, the expectation of atomized consumption is spreading.
In Sunday’s Times, Joshua Brustein looked at the advent of stations and online tools that show only real-time sports highlights or provide alerts when games become “worth watching”. Hulu does the same for TV shows; YouTube, for movies – a quick search yields your favorite scenes.
In every case – just as Radiohead would argue about its songs –the consumer loses context: the preceding three minutes in the basketball game, or the set-up to a joke on Community. Subtlety, flow, drama, more important moments or information – all are (or, can be) sacrificed to atomized consumption.
It's not just the content itself that is breaking into pieces but the entire creation and distribution models that the media and entertainment was built upon.  Cable operators are beginning to allow customers to pick smaller packages of cable channels, cable and broadcast programs can be viewed independent of their network distributors, digital media companies like Netflix and YouTube are funding the creation of new television series, and the list goes on.

And while we can argue convincingly that certain forms of content atomization, such as breaking a great album or movie into pieces, is having a negative impact on important art forms, the broader "unbundling" that is giving consumers much greater control of what they watch, and ultimately what actually gets produced or renewed, is positive and inevitable.

But what are the economic models that support the creation of content in these new freestanding formats?  Musicians are now more dependent on touring and merchandising than they are on the sale of music.  Advertising will need to be more effectively integrated into free content, generating enough revenue to incentivize the writers and producers.  Hulu, despite it's hazy future, has been quite innovative in creating more relevant and valuable ad messaging formats. 

I agree with this blogger that everything needs to be thought of in a more modular form - As it relates to television newscast, he writes:
Present finished product news in modular form and let the modules contain their own commercial(s). We currently make newscasts, but those are a form of bundled media. We need to be producing individual newscast elements as standalone entities, complete with marketing, so that they can be used in unbundled settings. This means creating content specifically for an unbundled universe, not simply re purposing elements of newscasts. I like the idea of reporters introducing their own stories on camera, for example, so that the entire package is self-contained. These modules could be then assembled together or presented separately.
Regarding that Shane clip, which had no ad messages attached to it: why not post a less compelling scene from the movie with an ad telling me where I can buy the movie or watch it on a commercial television station or network in the future?

As we move through this massive media transformation there will be endless new business opportunities related to the marketing, distribution and monetization of content.