By Rich Danker
No one would confuse today as the Golden Age of anything; not for podcasts, videos, websites, or anything else that falls under “digital media.”
The eras of peak Hollywood (mid-20th century) and peak television (1990s-2000s) left hordes of films and shows that continue to fascinate us. But the big budget digital content shaping the culture now is at best premium mediocre and at worst satanic. We certainly won’t care about it in the future.
Why has the improvement in technology come with a free fall in content quality?
Consider podcasting. The interview format, for instance, once dominated the margins of programming. There were late-night and weekend talk shows, public television, and AM radio. Now it’s owned by podcasting, and dramatically worse for it.
Celebrities talking to their friends has replaced the concept of the serious interview altogether. It’s in such a state of decline that a D-list comedian obsessed with fighting has become the most prominent talk show host in America.
Adding to the buyer’s remorse is the hype piled on by traditional media. The same media that consists of leftovers of reporters and pundits seeking a lifeline to their industry’s future.
To them, every new digital venture is above criticism because it’s digital, like when Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen team up for a boring Spotify conversation. They suggest we should settle with being enamored by the medium, not the message.
This leads to the first reason for digital media’s inferiority: because it’s a novel medium, most concepts are the first of their kind on digital. Hosts have grabbed massive audiences on podcasts, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and other places because they were the first on their platform to specialize in their content area.
This first-mover advantage can last for decades. Since the internet provides for never-ending niches, each new specialty content creator has access to this advantage. Not because they’re necessarily good, but because they’re first.
That leads to the second reason; Big Tech rigs their platforms to protect established voices. While some is done through old-fashioned media deals and corporate favoritism, it’s also embedded as a defect of digital media. Discovery of new content is so poor that audiences are left with few actual choices from their searches.
Apple, Spotify, YouTube, et al. emulate the Google and Amazon search template of ranked results rather than the Netflix model of algorithmic curation. What’s justified as easier for the consumer constrains them from exposure to content they’d probably like better.
The third reason is that the revenue streams of digital media still aren’t established. Until then, publishers will be reluctant to produce long term content.
Podcasting is built around direct response ads, which the flakiest of marketers utilize. YouTube has the commercials that used to be on TV and may return there with the rise of connected TV. Facebook’s ad model relies on small businesses, who were hit hardest during the pandemic. Most free news and commentary websites are riddled with clickbait ads and sponsored content.
These revenue streams are far shakier than the ones businesses that financed older media enjoyed. HBO could invest in The Sopranos and The Wire because it could rely on subscription revenue. AMC could get behind Mad Men because it could count on cable carrier fees to pay for seven seasons of a big budget show.
The digital media company writing the easiest checks these days is unprofitable Spotify, which funds these deals through investment bankers primed to think short-term.
Digital media’s revenue problem goes beyond financing. Trashy ads diminish the content they come with. Also, they can make the creator look desperate for money. Consumers don’t necessarily process it this way, but ad-content mismatches surely lead some to tune out.
Only in digital media could an Obama-hosted program come with an ad for Dollar Shave Club. Couldn’t a former president have landed someone better than them? Maybe his lackluster effort was decided once he saw the list of his advertisers from Spotify.
Because digital media lacks quality, it relies on hype to acquire and keep audiences. Stars in the past did their promotion through press tours, which at least had some nuance because they were intermediated.
Now, Twitter is the main promotion channel, and hype is the one-way currency. We’ll explore Internet Hype Culture in a later article; it’s intertwined with the distribution of digital media.
A Golden Age of Digital Media will likely require the decline of Big Tech since it enforces many of the norms shaping digital media content. That would mean the end of the Apple app store monopoly, the spread of more podcasting apps, the undoing of YouTube censorship, and the fulfillment of connected TV’s potential to provide viewers with a seemingly unlimited lineup of digital content platforms.
Until then, we’re stuck with the pre-cable version of digital media that no one will ever be nostalgic for.
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