The Greatest Change in the History of Media

by Vin Crosbie

We live amid the greatest change in the history of media. Its speed, intensity, and magnitude are so enormous that most media executives and media scholars fail – and some even refuse – to recognize the change’s epochal nature. Of those who fail or refuse to see it, most do so because so many of its major aspects contradict the theories or contravene the beliefs upon which they’ve built their careers.

However, as the pace of the change of accelerates, an increasing number of those media executives and scholars have begun to claim that they now do perceive the greatest change. Yet the reality is they don’t. They are instead joining a growing movement of executives and scholars who mistake the traits or characteristics of the greatest change as the change itself.

This movement erroneously believes the greatest change underway in media is that consumers are simply switching media consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’. [Or a more recent but parallel misperception: that the greatest change underway is that consumers are simply switching their media consumption from ‘desktop’ to ‘mobile’]. In other words, these executives and scholars believe the greatest change is that people who used to consume news, entertainment, and other information via printed periodicals, television sets, and radio sets, instead are now consuming the same packages of news, entertainment, and information via personal computers, tablet computers, and ‘smartphones’. This myopic misperception has led these executives and scholars to believe that all the media industries need to do to survive and prosper is to transplant the traditional business models, the traditional content packaging, and the traditional content (albeit with the addition of hyperlinks, audio, video, animation, and other multimedia) into online media accessible by personal computers, tablet computers, and ‘smartphones’.

This pernicious strategy, based upon a misperception of the change underway, has become responsible for the continuing failure of the world’s media industries to adapt successfully to the epochal change underway. Despite more than ten years of its implementation in post-industrial nations, this strategy, called convergence or ‘digital first’ by its proponents and shovelware by its critics, has demonstrably failed to generate revenue from online that are anywhere equal to those the same companies and industries earned from providing the same contents via traditional forms of media such as printed periodicals and terrestrial or cable broadcasting. Nor has implementation of the strategy created usage of the contents online that has been as frequent or thorough as the contents have in those traditional forms. The results of  ‘convergence’ or ‘digital first’ strategy are new media that are less frequently and less thoroughly used and are less profitable than the old media, despite having more users than the old media, are that are cannibalizing old media as more and more users switch to it.

The strategy’s failure flummoxes the executives and the scholars who believe its central assumption that the greatest change underway is people are simply switching media consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’. Nevertheless, rather than question that core assumption, these executives and scholars doggedly continue to pursue implementing the strategy, for lack of any other ideas. They are leading most media industries into catastrophe. They have wasted more than 15 crucial years that could instead have been used to adapt the media industries properly to the epochal change underway. During that lost time, many formerly robust media industries in post-industrial countries have withered, losing significant portions of their audiences (including most of a new generation) and having had to discharge hundreds of thousands of trained media workers (including many tens of thousands of journalists whose investigative and expository reporting is necessary for their nation’s democracies to function properly). The aggregate damages to these industries in some of the post-industrial nations are grave, as well as warnings to the media industries of industrial nations in which the epochal change underway is only now beginning.

The media executives and media scholars who believe that the greatest change underway in media is that consumers are simply switching media consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’ figuratively can’t see the forest for the trees. They mistake one of the change’s traits or characteristics as the change itself. It is the stunning conceptual myopia of ‘convergence’ or ‘digital first’ strategy that I address and remedy.

People are indeed switching their media consumption from ‘analog’ to ‘digital’, but not because they find that reading texts, listening to audio, and watching video is easier and more pleasurable via personal computers, tablet computers, and ‘smartphones’ than via printed periodicals or radio receivers or television sets. That’s certainly not why they do it or the greatest change in media.  Instead, 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 surplus, even 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 lithographythat 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 1990’s brought Internet access to the public. More than 3 billion people worldwide have since gained access to more than 857 million active Web sites. 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: broadbandaccess 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 by the end of 2015 the number of people who have Internet access will increase to 3 billion (and sooner or not very later than that the number of Internet-equipped ‘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 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 billions of 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 movable 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.

12 thoughts on “The Greatest Change in the History of Media

    1. Yes and those are the people that are the easiest to manipulate. They don’t allow themselves to see the power that the media has over them. Of course, your comment would also show the ignorance of those best and brightest who of course won’t earn as much as we do in the industry. It should also be noted of course that the best and the brightest tend to end up behind desks with no imagination and a very stressful life, not so for the creatives in the media industry – without which of course our whole world would fall into chaos. Ignorant comment.

  1. Interesting post and like the onset of technology categorised by decade. The scary thing is that I remember them all! Concise and succinct thank you – there should be more blogs like this, providing an excellent base of information rather than data-less assumptions. Thanks again.

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