The Greatest Change in the History of Media


We live amid the greatest change in the history of media. The nature, speed, and magnitude of this epochal change are so enormous that most media executives and media scholars fail or refuse to recognize it and that the others who do claim to see it instead mistake its traits or characteristics as the change itself.

The media executives and media scholars who fail or refuse to recognize the change do so because major aspects of it contravene beliefs or theories they cherish or upon which their careers had been built. For the past ten years, this group has been most responsible for the continuing failure of the media industries to adapt to the change.

However, as the pace of change accelerates, the bulk of culpability has recently shifted to another group: the media executives and media scholars who claim to see the change yet mistake a trait or characteristic as the change itself. They, not those who refuse or fail to recognize the change, are now most responsible for their industries’ failure to adapt to the change.

Indeed, the most pernicious misperception in the media industries today is that the greatest change is that consumers are switching their media consumption from analog to digital. In reality, this switch is merely a characteristic or side-effect of something far larger underway. Yet the misperception that this simple switch in consumption is the greatest change has led most media companies to think that all they need to do to survive and prosper is transplant their traditional business models, traditional content packaging, and traditional content (with the addition of hyperlinks, audio, video, animation, and other multimedia) into online.

Despite more than ten years of implementations, this mistaken strategy, called convergence or multimedia by proponents and shovelware by critics, has demonstrably failed in virtually every example to bring the revenues of media companies’ digital operations to near the level of those companies analog operations. The strategy’s failure flummoxes the executives and scholars who think the greatest change is that consumers are switching their media consumption from analog to digital. Moreover, they can’t understand why the media industries in the most prosperous of the world’s countries have been affected worst by the change. Nevertheless, these executives and scholars doggedly continue to pursue the convergence strategy, rather than question the strategy’s basic assumption.

Their stunning conceptual myopia– they figuratively can’t see the forest for the trees –is leading most media industries into catastrophe. Their fault has already caused hundreds of thousands of media workers worldwide to become unemployed, including tens of thousands of journalists whose investigative and expository reporting is necessary for democracy to function properly.

As I’ve been writing since 2004, the greatest change in the history of media is that, within the span of a single human generation, people’s access to information has shifted from relative scarcity to surfeit. Billions of people whose access a generation ago to daily changing information was at most one, two, or three locally-distributed printed newspapers, one, two, three, or four television channels, and one or two dozen radio stations, can now access virtually all of the world’s news and information instantly at home, office, or wherever they go. The economic, historical, and societal ramifications of this epochal change in media will be far more profound than Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, Nikola Tesla’s and Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of broadcasting, or any other past development in the history of media.

This epochal change occurred over several waves during a 20 to 40-year period:

  • The 1970s brought the first wave: cable television (CATV) followed decades later by satellite television (SATV). People in post-industrial countries who used to have access to no more than three or four television channels gained access to dozens and then hundreds. The defining characteristic of this, as well as the subsequent waves of the change, was not only that it gave those people more choices within a format of media but more specific choices. Almost all of the new channels weren’t general interest or foreign-language but instead topical. If you’re a tennis fan, you no longer have to be satisfied with an occasional report during the one, two, or three original channels’ newscasts or hope that those channels’ weekend sport programs might feature a tennis match. You can now watch entire networks devoted only to sports, including one network entirely devoted to tennis. If you love to cook, you no longer have to wait for a weekend cooking show aired by those few original channels, but you can instead watch four or five new networks each devoted to cooking. Likewise, there are entire television networks each devoted to a specific category such as news, sports, history, biography, cartoons, science, comedy, animals, fashion, science fiction, shopping, etc.
  • The 1980s brought the next wave: advances in offset lithography that made publication of topical (‘niche content’) magazines economical. Newsstands that previously sold 20 to 30 magazine titles now sell hundreds, almost all of which are about specific categories or topics. A reader specifically interested in that topic now no longer must wait for the occasional story about that topic in a newspaper or general-interest magazine.
  • The 1990s brought Internet access to the public. More than 2.4 billion people worldwide have since gained access to more than 700 million active websites. These include virtually all the worlds’ newspapers, magazines, trade journals, broadcast networks and stations, plus social networks, some than 100 million blogs, and innumerable sites about specific topics and topical categories.
  • The first decade of the 21st Century brought the next wave: broadband access to consumers in post-industrial countries. The hallmark of this wave of change is instant, ‘always-on’ Internet access. The first decade of the 21st Century brought the majority of Internet users in post-industrial countries broadband speeds, plus mobile access. The hallmark of broadband is instant, ‘always-on’ Internet access, eliminating the need to dialup a telephone line for online access. Although some experts claim the wave which brought the Internet to the public was the most powerful, the broadband wave was deeper and more powerful because it markedly changed how and from whom consumers access news and information. It markedly increased the ease by which those people consume their newfound cornucopia of media, and so reshaped how and from whom they consumed information. It also provided them with ready access to 3,700 TV stations broadcasting online, plus tens of thousands of downloadable movies, and hundreds of millions of professional and amateur video clips.
  • Our current (2010s) decade’s wave will provide all that information to people not just through desktop and laptop computers but via all mobile devices, vehicles, the electronic equivalents of flexible paper, and even television sets. Almost all the new mobile phone handsets are being designed as ‘all-screen’ models with full Internet access. Many top-of-the-line handsets are also being designed to receive streaming video signals (even if only through arrangement between the cellular carrier and television networks). Because most people replace their mobile phone handsets every two to three years, these new handsets mean that probably before the end of 2014 the number of people who have Internet access via ‘smartphones’ will increase to 6.8 billion (and sooner or not very later than that the number of  ‘smartphones’ in existence will be more than the human population!). Moreover, many of the world’s major manufacturers of television sets, companies such as Sony, Samsung, and LG, have announced that most of their products will be connected directly to the Internet. People will be able to view YouTube, Hulu, any other video streaming sites, as well as all Web sites via their television sets. Television sets with Internet access will also be able to circumvent the limited number of television networks and channels available terrestrially or from local cable television service providers. Software programs (such as, a harbinger of what’s to come) already allows users of personal computer, iPhone, or Android mobile phone handset to access more than 4,000 live television stations’ broadcasts from all over the world, and television sets connected to the Internet will have a similar capability. People with Internet-connected television will be able to access any of the thousands of television stations in the world that happens to stream their broadcasts online. Many television networks have already begun streaming high definition broadcasts into the Internet in anticipation of this trend. The result of this coming decade’s wave will be that all information in text, audio, and video formats will be instantly available to the majority of the world’s population wherever they are.

Thus during the past 30 to 40 years the cumulative effect of these waves of technological change is that the majority of humanity access to news and information is changing from scarcity to surfeit. As examples, a Xhosa tribesman in South Africa with a Vodacom HTC Magic mobile handset has instant access to more information than the President of the United States did at the time of the tribesman’s birth; so does a Bolivian girl to whose school has been donated refurbished Macintosh computers; so does a Mongolian plumber who bought a Lenovo netbook for his son’s education. Today, between 1.7 billion and 4.1 billion people can instantly obtain more information than could be contained in the ancient library of Alexandria, the Renaissance Era library of the Vatican, and the modern Library of Congress combined.

Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press some 570 years ago had profound effects upon civilization. Within 50 years of that invention, ten million books had been printed and distributed throughout Europe. However, the historical and societal effects of Gutenberg’s invention pall when compared to what has happened during the past 50 years: the majority of the world’s population has had their access to information change from relative scarcity to instant and pervasive surplus. This is not only the greatest development in media since Gutenberg’s press, it is the greatest media development in history.

Next: What are the Ultimate Causes of These Changes?

 © 2010, 2013

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