Get to know the media habits of an impatient, underserved audience
Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. "Time" has ceased, "space" has vanished. We now live in a global village . . . a simultaneous happening. . . . Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously. — Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, 1967
We media professionals have always thought of ourselves in terms of functional divides — electronic
vs. print, radio vs. television, local vs. national. Those dualities in turn govern how we organize
ourselves, how we produce and distribute content and even how we think about our careers.
Out in the real world, however, a different sort of divide is emerging for media users — real time vs. non-real time. Broadcasters operate mostly in real time, but our listeners and viewers increasingly consume the programming on what might be called in ad copy, My Time — that is, whenever they choose.
We ignore My Time at our peril, and some public broadcasters are already finding ways to respect the many ways that people use media today.
These days, My Time is marked by acronyms — AAC, CD, DVD, DVR, MP3, PVR, RSS, VCR, VOD, WMA, WMV — and by new trade names — Audible, AudioFeast, iPod, iTunes, Netflix, Rhapsody, TiVo. All provide media experiences to consumers at their convenience.
Although My Time has been with the print media since Gutenberg and with us broadcasters since the phonograph record and VCR, we have only recently begun to think about adapting our distribution, production and rights structures to this new reality. In the meantime, consumers have rebelled against our schedules and seized many opportunities to consume their media when they choose.
The average consumer increased My Time media usage from 375 hours to nearly 500 hours between 1997 and 2002, and is expected to further increase it to nearly 600 hours by 2007, according to the media merchant bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson. (For comparison, consumer use of broadcast TV channels declined 15 percent to 786 hours between 1997 and 2002, while radio listening increased 6 percent to 994 hours.)
My Time listening (using iPods, for example) and viewing (TiVos and DVDs) compete with real-time usage, so as more people acquire the means to achieve this convenience, real time's share of media usage will continue to decline. Indeed, the share of TV and radio viewed or heard in My Time rather than real time is rising rapidly — from one-fifth in 1997 to a predicted one-third in 2007.
The recent CPB-commissioned study of primetime television habits found that public television viewing was small in two audience segments — both composed of people who might otherwise enjoy the programs but have limited free time. These viewer groups — "Innovating & Inclined" and "Distracted & Unavailable" — together amount to 26 percent of viewers and both are frequent users of technology (Current, Oct. 18, 2004). Although the researchers were looking at TV usage, they were pointing at people whose demographics resemble public radio listeners and, indeed, these two groups were medium-to-high NPR listeners.
My Time users seem to qualify as an underserved audience for public broadcasting. In other words, instead of cannibalizing existing audiences, as satellite or cable might, My Time distribution largely serves (1) people who have already left scheduled broadcasts for other reasons — career, chores, family, community, and (2) people who just can't get enough of what they like on your air.
What are we doing about it?
Public broadcasters are making some real progress toward serving the My Time audience:
System leaders are laying the groundwork. Public television producers and PBS are building VOD rights into new programming. PBS has worked with TiVo to improve public television's visibility. CPB's Public Broadcasting Metadata Dictionary Project has completed a metadata standard for the field — PBCore (www.pbcore.org), developed in an amazingly productive ad hoc collaboration — that will be crucial for moving pubcasters into the digital age. Think of it as the DNA that describes the genome of our programming.
Pubcasters are using a variety of old and new technologies to deliver programming to be consumed in My Time. Many stations are providing some access to local content via on-demand streaming, and a few (NPR, Public Radio Exchange and some stations) are syndicating text and audio on the Web via RSS feeds that alert listeners to programming they might like (see directory at www.npr.org/rss/). WGBH and KWSU are recording free public lectures and streaming them online. There are a number of interesting experiments with DTV datacasting (e.g., KERA and Nashville Public Television) or hybrid distribution models (e.g., Chalkwaves).
And, of course, we still offer viewers the option to purchase DVDs or videocassettes of our programming, including extra-value added content. Some (including my own television station) are using this model to pay for the cost of production.
Stephen Hill, producer of the public radio music show Hearts of Space, has developed a successful subscription-based My Time music service and has proposed a broader service he calls Public Radio Online (A PowerPoint presentation is available at www.integratedmedia.org).
Station executives and boards need to know where to make investments — and moreover they need to do it at a time when the legacy business model is under moderate to severe stress. How can we justify these repositioning investments if we're struggling to be significant institutions in our communities — or even fighting for survival?
The "Long Tail"
Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, recently made a persuasive case that media organizations like ours will see more than enough "upside" to make the investment worthwhile. His compelling article, "The Long Tail," in the October 2004 issue of Wired [text], expands on his keynote to public broadcasting's Integrated Media Association in April. He writes: "Forget squeezing millions from a few megahits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream."
Shallow end? Although Anderson is talking about niches like the ones that public TV and radio fill every day, we're still thinking like broadcasters — trying to maximize real-time audience for a limited amount of airtime. We regard it as bad business to run niche programs that don't help maximize our performance in the real-time world. We often put local productions on a back shelf after they've aired, even though they're a significant part of our mission. Some stations are already reporting that some programs have been seen by more people online than when they were broadcast. A "loser" program with a 0.3 rating might be a winner after a couple of years in "the shallow end of the bitstream."
When we think real time, only a few titles in the huge inventory of available programming are hits.
The same is true for other businesses. Anderson writes, "Wal-Mart needs to sell at least 100,000 copies of a CD to cover its retail overhead and make a sufficient profit; less than 1 percent of CDs do that kind of volume."
He goes on to describe how online media stores like Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and RealNetworks' Rhapsody have much larger inventories than brick-and-mortar stores. Though they all sell popular titles in the greatest numbers, sales are steady and profitable a good distance out "the Long Tail" of titles that sell few units. Rhapsody has 735,000 tracks (the average record store has 40,000). Every one of the top 400,000 tracks at Rhapsody is streamed at least once a month.
This is the key take-away for us: "Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you've got a market bigger than the hits," Anderson notes. "The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles . . . [, but] more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles."
Operating at a larger scale builds value. Anderson's long tail analysis may be a variant of Metcalfe's Law, the observation by 3Com founder and Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe that the value of a communication system grows exponentially as it adds users. In this case, we're not only expanding choice but freeing listeners and viewers from the tyranny of time. When you aggregate enough content and find ways to recommend, search and deliver it — as Amazon, eBay and Google have done — users will find it much more valuable.
A My Time platform
Some media groups are forging ahead. The BBC has announced an ambitious plan to make its archives
available to the public online. Although the issue of rights clearance (with the usual suspects) has
delayed developments on the television side, BBC Radio has already launched the BBC Radio Player (www.bbc.co.uk/radio),
which helps users search through a huge array of online content. Likewise, its North American cousin,
the CBC, has made an extensive part of its audio and video archives online (archives.cbc.ca).
No single U.S. public broadcaster has enough cleared content to create a sufficiently long tail — that is, with the necessary critical mass. More importantly for success, our My Time distribution platform will need access to the whole range of sophisticated support systems that Amazon, for example, has refined — search, recommendation, reputation and digital rights management technologies. It can also exploit technologies such as RSS and perhaps hook up with commercial partners such as Audible, Netflix and TiVo (Does this promo look interesting? Click here and have your TiVo record the program).
These requirements, like our also — essential digital asset management standard, PBCore, would be best developed or acquired collaboratively. The end result, however, can wear a "skin" that makes it look just like part of your station's website.
We don't make My Time easy for users today. Although there is much content online on our websites, one has to first figure out the URL of the station that has the content, then navigate through hundreds of different web designs trying to find the archives, then usually deal with downloading from a single server where a popular program can bring your connectivity to its knees.
In real-time broadcasting, distribution is a relatively trivial expense. It costs no more to reach 1 million users than one — but it has very limited time for content, forcing broadcasters to go for hits. My Time distribution turns that on its head. There are incremental costs to serve each user, but content is so plentiful that the main challenge becomes how to find it.
To give My Time media a chance to become self-supporting, the public will have to think about online delivery in the same way people regard a trip to the book or record store. We don't often give away DVDs of programs we've produced, but many of us think if it's delivered electronically it has to be free.
The truth is, each online delivery costs both you and the recipient incremental bandwidth charges, so costs mount up as they do with distribution of physical media. Yes, we will want to deliver some mission-related programs for free, but others should have fees attached to compensate for these incremental costs. Just as people are willing to pay for CDs and DVDs of extra-value programs, they will be willing to compensate you for delivery and program value costs through either per-use or subscription fees if we make it easy and give them a sufficiently deep well of content from which to draw.
One successful example is the Hearts of Space subscription service (www.hos.com). Think of it as a "short tail" premium service. It has been charging $10-$20 per month (dial-up vs. broadband) for access to its full archives, but in December it will launch a second-generation, full-archive service for under $13 per month, also available on a "pay-as-you-go" basis. It has been a successful endeavor for that small company.
If I were to bet now on the platform of the future for My Time users, it would have aspects of the BBC and CBC players and Hill's Public Radio Online proposal — a national "tailcasting" service. Broadband penetration is already at critical mass and continues to grow. Necessary search, recommender and rights-management systems are available.
As has been the case with BBC Television, PBS would find it very difficult to clear the rights to offer most national programming on these terms. Ditto national radio content where complex negotiations might be involved. But clearing rights for other content, especially station-owned content, would not be as hard. Public broadcasting most likely could build a compelling national archive with many thousands of hours of audio and video content from stations, independent producers and content partners in the museum, library, archive and education communities.
Content could be delivered through the broadband Internet connections that many Americans now have (beginning late this year, all new TiVos will ship with an Ethernet port), or via DTV datacasting, through video-on-demand partnerships with cable systems, or even through just-in-time recording to physical media à la Netflix. Popular items could be stored on multiple servers distributed regionally so that programming downloads readily.
Getting our feet wet
This is an ambitious goal — one conceivably as transformative for stations and producers as the creation of NPR and PBS were 35 years ago. It is likely to be less costly and difficult than were those seminal efforts.
In the meantime, where can we get our feet wet in My Time distribution? There are a number of things every station and production house could do now:
It's about time — traditional real time and My Time. And it's about time we pursued a digital distribution strategy that recognizes both. Real-time broadcasting is in decline and we're underserving compatible audiences who can't fit us into their lives. Producers and legacy distributors can and will find alternative delivery modes. Our survival, significance and our future prosperity depend on our serving this growing segment of listeners and viewers as well as we do our traditional audience.
Dennis L. Haarsager is an associate v.p. at Washington State University and g.m.
of public TV stations KWSU and KTNW-TV and Northwest Public Radio. He writes the weblog at www.technology360.org/weblog.
Web page updated March 2, 2005
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee