It used to be that media was based on the “push model” – journalists and editors produced what they wanted and pushed it at consumers. Media elites could decide what it was good for people to see, and decided what constituted the “received opinions” that would get column inches or air time. But this is based on the old industrial model of mass production, summarized so powerfully by Henry Ford, who said that consumers could have any colour car they wished — so long as it was black.
But today the economy based on the “pull model”. Soon virtually every car will be built to order. Dell has no stores, yet it is one of the biggest computer retailers in the world. People order the custom computer they want, and a courier delivers it to them within days. The production system is being pulled from the consumer’s end rather than being pushed from the producer’s end.
Mass markets are a thing of the past — we are all niche markets now. The ultimate niche market is the individual, and we are now on the cusp of being able to customize virtually everything the individual wants — including the kind of media content they wish to see.
In the electronic media, for example, the electromagnetic spectrum that carries radio and TV signals used to appear highly limited, requiring public authorities to distribute and supervise its use. Hello CRTC.
But technology will send the CRTC to join the dinosaurs in the museums of unnatural history. Not only can signals be made narrower and narrower, therefore occupying an ever smaller part of the spectrum, but it is now possible for several broadcasters to occupy the same spectrum simultaneously, as sophisticated receptors are now able to sort one signal out from another on the same frequency. That means that spectrum is more or less unlimited. And in any case, if you move the signal onto the internet, or onto a satellite or cable signal that requires a decoder, it moves from the public domain to a private world where people choose only what they want to hear, read or watch. Broadcasting is dying. Long live narrowcasting.
Technology is also destroying the business model of old-style broadcasters. Under the push model, broadcasters got very little immediate feedback from consumers other than crude Neilson ratings, and in any case the programme offering was so limited that consumers pretty much had to watch what the networks broadcast. The bills were paid by advertisers, not consumers.
But Tivo, cable and pay-TV, are dismantling that, too. In a world where you can choose what programmes to watch when, and in which you never even have to watch the advertisements that pay for the free channels, soon people will have to pay themselves for what they choose to watch, because nobody’s going to pay for advertising nobody looks at. And then the whole argument for public regulation of broadcasting falls to the ground. Consumer pull will pull the media world almost entirely out of the public sector, making what you watch your own private decision out of a vast array of choices.
Not even the print media will be spared. Soon we’ll all subscribe to services that deliver exactly what we want to read to our mobile phone or our e-mail. Foreign coverage from Le Monde, sports from USA Today, editorials from The Times of London. You’ll make the newspaper that you want, not the one media elites of whatever stripe want you to have.
With consumer power comes diversity of choice – not merely of provider, but of content. The falling cost of getting into the idea business, whether in magazines or the electronic media or blogs or whatever, together with the growing sense of consumer empowerment, means that the old elite grip on the media is almost finished. Whereas 20 or 30 years ago, it was media elites and others on the left who hounded presidents out of office, today it is media bloggers on the populist right who hound the Dan Rathers of this world into retirement – not just because they disagree with him, but because the old media elites are now themselves held accountable. If you get caught fitting the news to your prejudices when you purport to be telling it like it is, then you will be outed, and your credibility destroyed.
We have not gone as far as the U.S. in this regard, but we are probably only a decade or less behind. And when Canadians begin to realize that they do not have to put up with having elite opinion pushed at them, and that they can tune that out while pulling in an exploding diversity of opinion that suits them better, it will transform our politics and our media. For the better.
Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax.