I was hooked on Kevin Spacey’s performance in this year’s House of Cards, an American update of the 1990s British political drama (starring an equally brilliant Ian Richardson). The line ” You may say that, I couldn’t possibly comment” became a catch phrase I looked to use when I was agreeing with something I should not.
What was ground breaking about the 2013 TV series was that it was funded (to the tune of $100m) not by a TV or movie studio, but by the online movie rental and streaming service Netflix. Moreover, they released the whole series in one go. You did not have to wait every week for another episode, or set your recorder to do so.
Is the way of the future? As Spacey himself put it in a recent address, we have to allow viewers to “gorge” on quality TV if they want to. Like all media, TV has to adapt to new realities. Viewers may like to buy the box set and watch it all weekend. They want to decide what to much, when and how much. I rarely watch anything live on TV anymore (maybe the odd session of a test match). Everything is waiting for me on my Foxtel IQ.
So, is giving people what they want always the way forward? Forbes magazine have decided to open up their online magazine to anyone, with 120 contributors writing articles and being paid per view (with bonus payments for repeat views). The risk has been devolved down to the journalists. It sounds like a clever idea, with the journos motivated to use their own social media powers to pump up their page views. Everyone wins?
The problem with this approach is that some writers might dumb down their stories to bump up their numbers. More and more “celebrity Kardashian lurid sexting scandal” stuff follows as everyone rushes to the bottom. It’s happened in news, it’s happening in journalism. We are worshipping the wrong God, pandering to the fickleness of ratings. Watch the brilliant Newsroom for a view of how ratings can get in the way of great journalism.
The success of Netflix’s TV experiment will have repercussions. So will Forbes, standing alone among other business media who have all erected pay walls. People don’t like pay walls (as a rule). They get in the way (that is the point of a wall). Recent research shows that 9% of consumers are now prepared to pay for content online, whereas a year ago this figure was 3%. We are in the middle of a shift. Sometimes giving people what they want is not the best course of action. Sometimes you have to lead them in a new direction. That takes innovative thinking and courage.