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Squeezing through the Technology Gap
By Mark Waters
19, Jun 2003 - 14:31

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We have less choice than we used to. Every song on the radio sounds the same. Every six months a new boy/girl band is paraded before us with the obligatory phone-and-vote TV series and tie-in merchandising. The video store used to have a half-decent foreign film section, even an oldies section. Now it's just a conveyor belt of new releases, each one blander than the last. It's the same with the cinema. Tried and tested clichés are thrown before us every week, all style and no substance. Television is even worse as old reliables reinvent themselves to serve the lowest common denominator. Every new channel is just a cheaper imitation of what has gone before.

Why is this? One of the primary reasons is because the means of distribution is so expensive and inefficient. Despite the falling costs of making an album, a movie or a TV program, it still costs a lot of money to get the product to the people. Only a handful of companies have the financial might and distribution network to do this.

It makes good business sense for these companies to sell as few different products as possible to as many different people as possible. The less movies, music albums, TV programmes and magazine articles that they have to create and promote the better. If they focus on a few high-profile products and distribute them to a wide audience then their profit margins will rise. It's the economies of scale in action.

So it looks like we're stuck with the latest Britney or Boyzone clone, endless movie sequels and reality TV variants. Before long we'll be phoning in to vote for the all new girl band who must survive together for three months on a deserted --except for the 47 members of the TV crew-- island, before performing in and presenting the Eurovision Song Contest, releasing a number one album, and starring in Star Wars Episode 27: Return of the Spice Girl Clones.

It's all very depressing.

The good news is that it is a temporary situation. Right now we are squeezing through a gap in technological history and when we finally burst through to the other side everything will be changed beyond recognition.

In the old days the inefficiency of the distribution network actually enhanced choice. There were many paths by which a product could travel from the hands of the producer to the consumer. Even in a small town it was likely that the different video, book and music stores had different selections. There was nearly always something unusual or different sneaking into the mix. The selections varied from town to town too.

As the distribution channels were consolidated and came under the control of a few bigger companies the choices became narrower. Efficient business practices were replicated across the country. In place of the local video store, we got X-travision; in place of the local cinema we got UCI; in place of the pick-and-mix selections of the local record storeowner we got Warner Brothers; in place of home produced TV programmes we got 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'. One size fits all.

The trend is established and looks irreversible. So what's going to change it?

The Internet, that's what.

Not another pipedream, I hear you cry. No, not exactly. In fact, the bursting of the bubble is proof that the future of the big media corporations is shaky. They have tried to apply their old models of 'distribution channel domination' to the Internet and they have failed miserably. The Internet channel cannot be dominated.

Why is the Internet different? It is different because finally after a lifetime of passive consumption the consumer can now shout back. Finally we have two-way communication.

This is a profound shift in the producer/consumer power struggle. We are no longer a passive mass audience to be moulded and manipulated by the powerful few. The Internet has reduced the costs of the distribution channel to practically zero. Now we can all be producers as well as consumers.

The quiet revolution started with e-mail and discussion forums and it is spreading. On-line newspapers give us the opportunity to view every side of a story not just the opinion of the media magnates dominant in our country. Web logs go even further. Everyone can be an opinion columnist. This article is living proof.

Distribution of music over the Internet is giving the choice back to the consumer. Small, specialist music labels can compete with large multinationals because the cost of distribution over the Internet is virtually non-existent. We no longer have to buy a CD full of average songs just to hear one gem. We can make our own 'Greatest Hits' compilations by picking only the songs we like.

The power is shifting from the centre of the network --where the mega corporations are-- to the edges --the places where you, me, and the little record label with a tiny-but-obsessive following, live.

You can smell the fear and incomprehension of the big music corporations when faced with something as groundbreaking as Internet distribution. Instead of adapting to the new reality they are attempting to block it out. They take court cases over copyright issues and produce CDs that won't play on PCs in a vain attempt to stop the tide. We might have some sympathy for the corporations if they hadn't held us to ransom for so long with outrageous prices, constant repackaging of old hits, low quality market driven new sensations, and less and less choice. 

Book selling has been revolutionised by on-line bookstores. Not only can they offer an unrivalled choice but also by allowing customer feedback into the system through reviews and recommendations they open up a whole new world to the consumer.

The tools at are an example of the power of customer feedback. keeps a record of my purchases and looks for common items in the purchase records of others. By analysing the purchases of other people with similar taste to me can give me a list of other products that I might like. It's all done automatically based on the real choices of real people. There is no central control. The MD of Amazon is not telling me what to buy and indeed has no control over the computer's choices. The power has shifted from the centre to the edges of the network.

Digital TV will follow the Internet model. There is only so much more crap we can take. We are already reaching saturation point.

Intelligent video recorders such as TiVo are already hugely popular in the USA. These video recorders have huge storage capacity and record programmes automatically, remove the ads, and play them when the viewer wants to see them.

This has caused consternation among the big TV networks who have gone as far as to accuse people who don't watch the ads of stealing the programmes. Can you smell the fear? The power is shifting from the centre to the edges.

Eventually, the big corporations will give up on Digital TV as a means of manipulating the masses. Lower production and distribution costs will open up the TV network to niche operators. Channels that offer a real alternative will thrive while those that are just regurgitating someone else's rubbish will die. Why would I watch Coronation Street and Eastenders on RTE when I can watch them just as easily on BBC or ITV? But where am I going to get Ros na Rún but TG4? 

So fear not if you feel swamped and helpless, overwhelmed and isolated by the mass media. Help is coming. The power is shifting from the centre of the network to the edges. It's coming your way. Now what are you going to do with?

About the Author

The author has been an enthusiastic consumer of inane drivel for as long as he can remember. He has endured the slights of his peers and their cruel accusations of 'fashion victim' and 'teenybopper'. He lives in hope of the eventual restoration of Wham! to their rightful place in musical history. In his spare time he likes to make believe that he is part of the Big Brother house by pretending not to see the security cameras in the various shops and streets as he goes about his everyday, ordinary, run of-the-mill, boring business. He is the darling of security personnel the world over.

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