American Big Media has recently announced the last dark little gem in its triple crown of doom for 2003. First, the music industry registered a major downturn. Then the movie business released reduced figures despite increased ticket prices and some of the widest release patterns in history. And now American network TV has revealed a reduction in viewing numbers. This last is apparently significant enough that advertisers are reportedly gathering to negotiate a reduction in the ad rates network TV charge. And since network TV is little more than a delivery system for advertising, people are starting to run scared. To the point where Jeff Zucker at NBC has suggested the previously taboo -- that perhaps too many suits are involved in the creative process, issuing too many conflicting notes and generally pissing in the drinking water.
On one hand, the answer to the problem of the triple crown is blindingly obvious. 2003 was just a hideous year for the popular arts in the mainstream. Even going by Theodore Sturgeon's cranky old dictum that 90-odd percent of everything is complete toss, 2003 was an unusually bad year.
On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the mediascape has caught up with a certain reality of the human condition -- that no two people will agree on what exactly constitutes that 90-odd percent of worthlessness. Certainly some works will accrue a broader consensus than others. But when otherwise intelligent people like Oni Press editor in chief Jamie Rich can write of the pleasure he derived from the new Britney Spears album, you know there's more going on than subliminal messages or inoperable tumours.
(We're ignoring for the moment the fact that Jamie has infamously hideous taste in music and will don Laurenn McCubbin's cat ears and lipstick at the drop of a hat.)
Art does not have intrinsic absolute value. Art is a purely subjective experience. That a year can be characterised as a bad one for the popular arts, therefore, would seem on the face of it to be my usual intolerant bullshit. But it was also a year without massive popular consensus.
Commentators are bringing up "the good old days" a lot, lately. The days where the majority shared the experience of watching a single TV show, hearing a single song. The days of a homogenous popular culture, essentially. But these were also the days, in Britain, of two, three or four TV channels. Of four radio stations. Of cinemas that only had one or two screens. And, of course, days before the Internet.
With the digital explosion in media channels (and also, over here, of radio deregulation), you don't necessarily have to, say, not turn on the radio until 10pm to hear the music you like. In fact, if it's John Peel at 10 you're waiting for, you can do something else at 10 because you can stream it off the BBC website next day. But you can find whole channels of what you want at most times of the day across media. As I write here in the pub, my girlfriend's zoned out in front of the Kerrang! Channel at home. Fifteen years ago, you had to wait until Saturday night to get two hours of that crap on the Tommy Vance show on Radio 1.
This is variously termed niche broadcasting, narrowcasting and microcasting. It eschews the usual network values and delivers a stream of a single form of content. And this is what's breaking up big media. The multiplicity of channels and screens means that, in theory, you can find what you want, not what you're given. The failures of big media lay in their death-clutch on the old game, where we take what we're given and like it.
We don't. And so we head off in a million different directions, following the dictates of our own unique set of interests. The old consensus block is broken up and shared across a hundred channels, two dozen radio stations, the dozen films the multiplex serves up each week, and the vast array of internet-based materials.
And I'm not necessarily talking about copyright-breaking downloads. I'm unconvinced about the numbers cited by big media in relation to profit-loss from downloading. I fired up KaZaA last night as an experiment, and it told me three million people were online. But, frankly, unless every single one of them were downloading PAYCHECK or whatever, the numbers don't hold up. And, in fact, human nature dictates that they weren't. I take a look at BitTorrent every now and then -- I pay my licence fee, so I've paid for BBC programming, so I don't feel bad about grabbing episodes of SPOOKS or other things I've missed from BBC1 or BBC2. The most popular downloads have, at best, 200 people leeching at any one time, and BitTorrent files tend to die after a week because people stop seeding them.
The mass audience is breaking down into smaller sets; and beyond that, into what Dr Joshua Ellis (no relation) terms "taste tribes" -- people whose group status is defined by their particular cultural apprehension. Where one says, I know and interact with this person on the initial basis that we share tastes. Not that we all trade notes on Star Trek -- not a fan thing -- but that we share a cultural sphere. This creates and defines a loose community of its own, stitched together by cultural communication. And with the net in place, taste tribes are borderless.
As TiVO and RSS allow us to build personalised content channels, and emergent taste tribes begin moving content between themselves, it's possible to see the building blocks of a system that microcasts to tribes, and tribes that expand the coverage of a microcaster. I spent some time at the end of last year writing a bible for a small record label that'd allow them to build an active online community behind their music, driven by early mp3 releases and streaming audio. It speaks directly to the new media condition: an audience that can and will select their culture from many hundreds of different streams can and will get tribal about it.
Even if 2003 was not The Year That Big Media Broke, it was certainly the year that its grip slipped. And even if you're not a producer of content, the tools are in place for you to make truth out of one of the central tenets of a 1980 document I've recently been re-reading, The Rozz-Tox Manifesto: "If you want better media, go make it."