Consider radio. Once upon a time, I listened regularly to NPR affiliate stations, mainly for specific programs. Today, I download three NPR-affiliated podcasts and have little interest in the rest. And while NPR affiliates go on periodic, interruptive network fund-raising drives, I would much prefer to support only the specific podcasts I consume. On The Media, for example, plays an important role in my life. Why can't I invest specifically in that program? If it discontinued its affiliation with NPR and went independent, I don't think it would matter to me. In fact, I'd probably be more likely to support it.
Consider, even, news publications that distribute lots of content. The big brands mean less and less to me. Sure, I scan The New York Times online headlines occasionally--but what I really care about are specific writers and my ability to subscribe to their RSS news feeds. What comprises 90 percent of my engagement with The New York Times? The Bits and Freakonomics blogs, and they are competing with about 200 other feeds in my Google Reader.
Consider television. I don't knowingly patronize any single network. Like most people, I selectively watch television programming regardless of the network. In fact, I use TiVo to subscribe to the shows I like and don't pay attention to the networks that carry them. I use the DVR's fast-forward button to undo intrusive advertising, although the DVR falls short in its inability to remove the distracting logos that all networks stick in the corner of your screen. Makes you want network-program disintegration to occur faster!
Which leads to my latest personal media-consumption change. With a high-definition plasma television connected to a laptop and the Internet, I opted-out of a cable television box for it. No traditional network feeds! I'm finding that I have plenty of viewing options on the Web. It's not perfect, but it's getting easier and easier to go straight to the programs I like, regardless of who's serving it. For example, Netflix now includes over 10,000 on-demand titles, including movies and television shows. Then there's BitTorrent and Hulu. Even the networks themselves are getting on the bandwagon and offering more high-quality on-demand streamed programming, directly from their sites and elsewhere. All this is adding up to a world where the importance of the high-profile network distribution brand to the program I like is getting less and less.
Of course, there are exceptions. And they tend to be when network brands offer real premium value or service. Or when they deliver focused niche programming. Consider ESPN or Disney Channel. If you're a sports enthusiast, ESPN could likely be viewed continuously, with very relevant, quality programs resembling chapters of a larger single program. If you're a parent, Disney Channel might provide the service of a trusted source of safe programming for your children.
But with distribution commoditizing, the real value that big media brands can deliver to consumers is to enhance the programming experience--and stop locking it down. Isn't it ironic how I mentioned above both Netflix and traditional networks in the same sentence? To me, Netflix is quickly becoming a preferred network. Not so much because of distribution, but because it enhances my programming experience across a large body of content, not only content that it backed exclusively. It organizes and taps into community. It recommends and informs. It saves me time and it gets to know me. It helps me be a more effective and joyous consumer of content.
Even with these opportunities, the disintegration of big media brands to programming will only become more pronounced. To get an idea of how fast this is happening, just ask a few kids who are thirteen years old or younger to name the major television networks. See how close they don't come. But see how easily they will name their favorite programs.