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What Seems to be Happening... | Zealot Or Alarmist?

The media environment is changing irrevocably, the ground shifting under our businesses’ feet. Call me a zealot or an alarmist, but here are five new trends we see that will probably reorder our world over the next few years. (There are other important big trends besides these, but everybody else is talking about those already.)

1) Search engines rule, and they will do so cross-platform. Occasionally, late at night, when I’ve been spending an hour or two thinking-by-Googling, I’ll try to follow up on an idea by pulling up a search page and typing in somebody’s name so I can talk to them, or a movie so I can see it there and then. In a few years, I will not need to stop myself and feel stupid when doing this; it will actually work. More of these other media will be Googlable on the net, but my web-based search engine will also control my digital video recorder or my iPod/cellphone, and deliver the goods over these other media.

- Traditional radio and TV “programming” (that is, the art of the programmer, the making of a flow from one show to the next, the identification of a channel with audience) will die for anybody who consumes media this way, and most people eventually will.

- Search engines (which may be located in your TiVo or your phone) will get all the ad revenue... Except for product placement, which goes digital.

- Search-engine based production rules, too. Media asset management (MAM) systems have long been a high-cost thing to implement, lately with costs tempered as technology companies have seen MAM as glue that sticks customers to their full systems approaches. But now that assets can bring in new revenue when resold to consumers, all archives will more rapidly be digitized, with more of that storage being online or “near-line.” And this will change production workflow yet again. And change the look of media projects as both professionals and consumers assemble more material from archives. And, of course, spur growth of online asset payment systems.

- Almost all traditional media become pay media, while new media become free. (This is kind of like that dictum of Nicholas Negroponte’s a decade ago, “Everything wired will go unwired, everything wireless will become wired.”) “Almost all,” in this case, because ad-supported broadcast is not going pay. See number 2.

2) National/trans-national channel fragmentation is over, but local channel fragmentation now begins. Sure, there may be a few more successful niche channels breaking nationally over the next few years, but that trend has gone about as far as it can. Meanwhile, TV stations will use their new digital frequency allocations to multiplex compressed channels. Since live local TV is a valuable and largely irreplaceable commodity, watch for some combination of all-news-and-local-events with national feeds. Watch for all sports with a similar concept. And why not an NBC or Fox movie channel, one that’s available both on broadcast and Internet stream? And why not a channel that supports interactive apps on the Internet such as gaming and shopping by broadcasting what is best broadcast and having those point-to-multipoint bits called up as needed by online two-way interactions? See number 4 below. Broadcast companies’ share prices go up and cable operators’ share prices go down.

3) But peer-to-peer networks are getting to be very easy to use. So’s Skype. Anti-virus and anti-spyware programs increasingly make using P2P safe. Digital rights security systems will continue to be easily bypassed. Kids don’t see any ethical reasons not to do so, and those kids are growing up. This is not a value judgment, it is simply observed fact. Retailers call it “spillage,” and program suppliers, telcos and cable operators must learn to deal with it. Spillage hastens cable operators’ transit to become de facto common carriers; they can still profit off monthly payments for bandwidth, after all. It helps keep movie theaters open, despite lowered profitability due to ubiquitous availability of lower-res versions of the same movies: people still like to get out of their homes, films or big digital cinema files are hard to bootleg and box office is real revenue. And, essentially, it lowers profits overall for the programming business. People will make movies anyway, but production costs must shrink because investment will stagnate. “Independent” films become one norm.

4) Movies and TV funded by the big games developers, movies and TV that merge with games, games companies merging with film producers and broadcasters become another set of norms. After all, the games companies will continue to have plenty of money. It’s very hard to bootleg a massive multiplayer game. That game can carry personalized advertising/product placement, and it can be enhanced by such mobile-broadcast or quasi-broadcast technologies as DVB-H and MediaFLO.

5) Digital signage networks are not a fad. They will be everywhere, replacing traditional non-moving billboards and signs within stores. Spots will be produced especially for them, because their ability to generate product sales will be proven superior to much of TV advertising. Curmudgeons will complain about annoying clutter, but most people will get used to it. News broadcasts and some programming premieres and snippets will run on them, prompting mergers and co-ventures between signage networks and TV networks.
But mostly our signage environment will be about commercials all the time. Most of those will be silent, because sound is annoying or unusable in public places, bringing about a renaissance of silent filmmaking. For every new Mr. Bean-like talent, this will unfortunately help the careers of a thousand mimes, thus destroying our culture.

That’s about it. There’s no magic to this number of trends, it just looks pretty darn predictable at the moment. On what schedule will all this stuff grow? Figuring that out is where the money is.

Neal Weinstock is editor-in-chief of Weinstock Media Analysis and can be reached through