Green Spectrum: Specific Trumps General-Interest

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Now that people choices and access to news, entertainment, and other information has switched from relative scarcity to surplus or overload, one of the many profound effects is ascendancy of specific over general content. People use specific contents more and general contents less, proportionate to their supply of choices and access.

General-interest Mass Media had been predominant during the Industrial Era. So, when the rise of Informational Era technologies began to make people’s choices and access to news, entertainment, and other information expand, many observers had thought that the ensuing competition for consumers among content providers would revolve around general-interest categories of media; that the increase in supply would be comprised of increasing numbers of general-interest media vehicles. In the beginning that was true; it began as a competition between an increasing numbers of general-interest channels. For instance, during the 1970’s when the implementation of cable television (CATV) system increased the numbers of channels or networks which consumers could receive, extra channel allocations were initially filled by regional channels that were slightly too distant to receive in homes using conventional television antennas. Then new national general-interest channels began to appear to fill extra channel allocations on CATV systems. Examples of these in the United States were WTCG Channel 17 in Atlanta which became the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) or WGN Channel 19 in Chicago, two of the handful of general-interest ‘superchannels’ or ‘superstations’ added during the early years of CATV. However, savvy television programming entrepreneurs sensed there was a better market for specialized channels. Cable News Network (a creation of the Turner Broadcasting System), the world’s first 24-hour continuous news channel was among the first specialized CATV channels. Most CATV systems in the United States contain ten times as many specialized channels as general-interest channels, specialized channels such as the Cartoon Channel, Golf Channel, Military Channel, SyFy (formerly the Science Fiction Channel), Travel Channel, WE (Women’s Entertainment) Channel, etc.

The widespread implementation of offset lithography by periodical publishers during the 1980’s made specialized magazine publishing economical because it eliminated the need for melted lead type. General-interest publishers also used offset lithography, but what media companies and media entrepreneurs used this new printing technology for was new specialized magazines. The average local newsstand in the US during 1970 might have sold 20 to 30 magazines (not including comic books) of which half were general-interest titles (Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Life, Look, etc.), but by 2000 was selling hundreds of titles, the vast majority of which were specialized and not general-interest.

And during the 1990’s the public gained access to the Internet, where specialized and special-interest websites rule. In broadcasting, in print, and in new media, specialized content tends to thrive and general-interest content tends to wilt now that people no longer have relatively scarce choices and access. People are simply gravitating to whatever mix of contents, from whatever supply of purveyors and courses, best fits their uniquely individual own mix of needs, interests, and tastes. It wasn’t coincidental that the U.S. daily newspaper industry’s aggregate declines circulation (particularly when compared to population growth) began during the 1980’s once cable television systems had become prevalent in the United States.

General-interest websites run by Mass Media companies were overwhelmingly the most visited online media during the 1990’s when most Americans had only dialup telephone access to the Internet. Yet once most Americans gained ‘always-on’ broadband access during the first years of 21st Century, the majority of websites visited by most Americans were no longer general-interest ones but topical, special-interest ones. And the rise of early manifestations of Individuated Media, such as Social media sites, has unequivocally reinforced this effective trend.

Indeed, once most Americans gained the convenience of broadband, how they gravitate to content radically changed, and general-interest periodical circulations, which had been declining at an annual rate of 0.5 to 1 percent accelerated to plunge 5 to 10 percent, declines that will continue. General-interest magazines are suffering a similar fate yet topical or special-interests magazines are generally thriving. Moreover, the versions in post-industrial countries of many magazines that were once considered slightly categorical or topical (such as National Geographic, Playboy, People, and Sports Illustrated) have suffered major declines in circulation, primarily from more specifically-focused topical magazines.

How people now gravitate to specialized rather than general-interest contents affects entertainment, as well as any other forms of information, and has combined with another of this new gravitation and individuation: unbundling. For examples, now that people have greater choices, they prefer to record and watch just their favorite television shows from all the TV channels and networks to which they have access, rather spending most of their viewing time watching any one channel or one network as they used to do. With music, people prefer to download just the songs they want from an album rather than the entire album, etc. They now consume only the specific items that match their own uniquely individual mix of interests, needs, and tastes, rather than continue to consume general-interest packages or editions or even categorical editions or albums.

Perhaps because most senior academicians of media were trained during the Industrial Era when general-interest Mass Media was prevalent, few media schools seem to study this Informational Era effect that’s arisen with the new gravitation of Individuation. The ascendency of specific contents over general-interest contents was rather obvious during the past 30 to 40 years.

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