There are three main drivers of media change: technology, gatekeepers, and the consumer. And the greatest of these is the consumer (as it says in 1 Corinthians 13:13 - sort of). Okay, so that's not the most elegant corruption of a Biblical text you've ever read, but it makes the point.
We all know that the rate of change impacting the media industries has increased exponentially in the past couple of decades. We all feel the consequences and uncertainties that such change has brought with it, and we have only an inkling of what might be coming down the pipe. So let's take for granted the fact of accelerated change and get down to the drivers of change and what our real challenge is.
First, let's talk about the trinity of technology, gatekeeper, and consumer. Practically all media change is driven by some sort of technological advance. Whether a quantum leap forward in communications technology, like the invention of television, or a simple improvement in a process or end-user experience, pretty much everything that has made a significant impact on the media world - aside from creative formats and the like - originated in technology. Even social shifts that change behavior patterns, with a subsequent impact on media use and consumption, generally have their origins in tech-based change.
This is not to say that every technological change will drive a media change. We have a spectacular track record in overestimating the short-term impact of technological change and underestimating the long-term impact. The Internet is the best example in recent times. We all know what happened with it in the short-term, but the longer-term impact of the Web as a mass medium, work tool, learning tool, etc., cannot be doubted. It just requires technology, gatekeepers, and consumers to become properly aligned around meaningful propositions, price, and business models, not to mention sufficiently satisfying experiences.
The gatekeepers in the equation (cable companies, telcos, retailers, content owners, and others) have traditionally held the power when it comes to putting the brakes on change and steering it in their preferred direction - namely, the direction that maintains their power base and revenues. If these gatekeepers make a concerted effort to take advantage of new technologies or the platforms and capabilities they spawn, sooner or later they will find their natural place in the market. Too often, of course, the incumbents have sought to resist change or squeeze it into existing business practices, which results in a brake on change.
But at the end of everyone's value chain sits the consumer. This point of the trinity doesn't care about your business plan, is frequently averse to doing things differently, is an irrational being - and has the ultimate power to determine at what rate behaviors will change, which devices will be bought, and what services will be subscribed to.
At the Center for Media Design at BallStateUniversity, we talk about the Continuum of Consumer Adoption. It describes how media propositions, whether service, content, or device, start at Can Do and must progress through Will Do to achieve the nirvana of consumer Must Do. At this point they reach true assimilation in the daily lives of the audience.
The rate at which propositions move along the continuum is determined by a range of factors originating from each member of the trinity of technology, gatekeeper, and consumer. Each will move at a different pace. Some will never move from their starting point, some will stop and possibly fail along the way, some will successfully complete the journey, and others will fall spectacularly off the continuum altogether (into a state that one of my colleagues wryly refers to as "fondue").
In any event, the real impact of these changes is not felt overnight. I don't agree with alarmist projections of the imminent collapse of everything the media world holds dear. Things are certainly changing faster and are more complex than before, and there will be plenty of road kill as we seek to define what will work in the future. It's all too easy to dismiss major media incumbents as dinosaurs, but we must remember that dinosaurs ruled the planet for around 490 million years through successful adaptation. The world-destroying comet for media incumbents isn't the simple fact of rapid change. It's the challenge of understanding how consumers will respond to it.
Mike Bloxham is director, insight and research, at BallStateUniversity's Center for Media Design. (firstname.lastname@example.org)