The Post-Information Age13

Demanding on Demand

Digital life will include very little real-time broadcast. As broadcast becomes digital, the bits are not only easily time-shiftable but need not be received in the same order or at the same rate as they will be consumed. For example, it will be possible to deliver one hour of video over fiber in a fraction of a second (some experiments today show that the time needed to deliver one hour of VHS-quality video can be as small as one-hundredth of a second). Alternately, over a thin wire or narrow radio frequency, you might use six hours of broadcast time overnight to transmit a ten-minute (personalized) video news program. The former is blasting the bits into your computer and the latter is trickle-charging it.

With the possible exception of sports and elections, technology suggests that TV and radio of the future will be delivered asynchronously. This will happen either on demand or using "broadcatching," a term coined in 1987 by Stewart Brand in his book about the Media Lab. Broadcatching is the radiation of a bit stream, most likely one with vast amounts of information pushed into the ether or down a fiber. At the receiving end, a computer catches the bits, examines them, and discards all but the few it thinks you want to consume later.

On-demand information will dominate digital life. We will ask explicitly and implicitly for what we want, when we want it. This will require a radical rethinking of advertiser-supported programming.

In 1983, when we started the Media Lab, people felt that the word media was pejorative, representing a one-way path to the lowest common denominator in American culture. Media, with a capital M, almost exclusively meant "mass media." A large audience would bring in large advertising bucks, which in turn would underwrite large production budgets. Advertising was further justified in "over-the-air" mass media on the basis that information and entertainment should be "free" to the viewer, since spectrum is public property.

Magazines, on the other hand, use a private network of distribution and share the cost between advertiser and reader. Magazines, a notably asynchronous medium, offer a much wider range of economic and demographic models and may in fact be a bellwether for the future of television. The proliferation into niche markets has not necessarily ruptured content, but it has shifted some of the burden of cost to the subscriber. In some specialty magazines there is no advertising at all.

In future digital media there will be more pay-per-view, not just on an all-or-nothing basis, but more like newspapers and magazines, where you share the cost with advertisers. In some cases, the consumer may have an option to receive material without advertising but at a higher cost. In other cases, the advertising will be so personalized that it is indistinguishable from news. It is news.

The economic models of media today are based almost exclusively on "pushing" the information and entertainment out into the public. Tomorrow's will have as much or more to do with "pulling," where you and I reach into the network and check out something the way we do in a library or video-rental store today. This can happen explicitly by asking or implicitly by an agent asking on your behalf.

The on-demand model without advertising will make content production more like theatrical Hollywood movies, with much higher risk but much higher reward as well. There will be big busts and wild successes. Make it, and they will come. If they do, great; if they don't, too bad, but Procter & Gamble is not necessarily underwriting the risk. In this sense, media companies will be throwing bigger dice tomorrow than they do today. But there will also be smaller players, throwing smaller dice, getting part of the audience share.

The "prime" of prime time will be its quality in our eyes, not those of some collective and demographic mass of potential buyers of a new luxury car or dishwashing detergent.

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Updated on April 15, 1996