Competition in the media: G-Forces

In this essay Ben Fenton, Chief Media Correspondent at the Financial Times, suggests that the speed of change in the information market has rapidly increased.

The first G-force was Johannes Gutenberg who, with the creation of movable type in 1439, created a market in which for the first time there was a glut of information.

Then came Joseph Goebbels, who demonstrated the truly dangerous power of information when it is channelled into one unchallengeable voice. Concerns about monopoly were born.

Google and the internet have created a “post-Gutenberg” world where everyone who buys a computer for consuming information now also has a means of production. Plurality of opinion has been made redundant by ubiquity of opinion, typified by the blogosphere. But this era has also given rise to issues about ownership of information, copyright and piracy, which are yet to be solved.

The increase in the speed of change is remarkable. The gap between Gutenberg and Goebbels was exactly half a millennium. It was 53 years from the end of the War to the founding of Google. And it has taken little more than a decade to get from there to the Digital Britain report, which will have to face the real possibility of financial collapse of at least one major broadcaster, as well as radio and consumer print businesses.

The industry has been left with three Gorillas – Public Service Broadcasting, plurality of content and plurality of distribution – which need to be tamed. There is potential for unprecedented change but there is a fine balance to strike. The mood right now is in favour of helping the media survive the immediate impact of recession. The question is – what will be left standing in the brave, or even cowardly, new world that will be found on the other side?

The key findings of the paper are:

There has been a dramatic increase in the speed of change in the media market. The gap between model-failures is getting much shorter.

In Public Service Broadcasting, there is an axiom that there must still be at least one non-BBC voice. It is assumed that the market will not provide “Broccoli TV” to counter the “Pop-Tart TV” provided by commercial organisations. But with advertising being stretched in the multi-channel world, and with broadcasters and newspapers coping with the greatest ever market change and the greatest ever cyclical decline at the same time, to what extent can public service broadcasters such as Channel 4 survive?

Is an alternative public service broadcaster even necessary when the multichannel TV market provides specialist channels catering to every taste?

In the complex and rapidly-changing world of distribution, regulators are struggling to keep up with market developments, with questionable decisions over new internet TV and IPTV platforms such as Kangaroo. The Government has yet to detail how it plans to universalise broadband, or to ensure that there will remain spare capacity for future growth.

There is a government movement towards propping up regional media. But any government intervention – especially in Public Service Broadcasting – must be finely balanced. A new arrangement between Channel 4, Five and/or BBC Worldwide could exclude commercial broadcasters from up to a third of the advertising market.