Defining culture or reflecting it?

I\’m not sure what to think of this.

I spent the last few days at the nextMEDIA conference in Banff (Canada). At one panel I attended, a number of TV company representatives were telling the assembled room full of producers exactly what they\’re looking for as far as content is concerned.

They said a number of perfectly reasonable things, like “Remember that no means no”, and “Don\’t hassle us just as we walk around – set up a meeting.”

And then a rep whose network funds shows like “Dog the Bounty Hunter” (which is, actually, a pretty cool show in many ways) said something that stopped me cold:

“Don\’t bring me any international content. Nobody with accents. Our audience is xenophobic. They wouldn\’t like that.”

On the one hand, xenophobic people deserve to be entertained like anyone else, if they\’ve paid their money. On the other hand, if you\’re a person with enough intelligence to know that xenophobia is a negative force in modern societies, don\’t you have some kind of responsibility not to coddle that attitude? This woman was totally cool – someone I could relate to. Yet she was an enabler for modern incarnations of racism, and what\’s more she seemed to be aware of it.

I think most people would agree that it\’s not always ok to make money just because people are prepared to spend it. We ban the sale of porn or alcohol to minors, or unlicensed firearms, or bootlegged DVDs.

I don\’t think there\’s any reasonable way you could tell a TV company to show “international” content to people who don\’t want to see it, nor do I think we should. But for the love of God, if you\’ve got the intelligence to know better, use your privilege as a member of the broader fourth estate to present a balanced picture. This is exactly the kind of bigotry that has bled into journalism and resulted in trash like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and even some of the raving lefties at MSNBC – people whose danger to the public is not just in their comically biased opinions, but in the fact that they dare to present them as reality.

Whoops

For the last 5 days I\’ve been in Banff (Canada) at the nextMEDIA festival – an event for “New Media” practitioners and those would would like to be.

This event very deliberately intersects with the beginning of the Banff TV Festival, one of the world\’s largest television festivals, where producers get together with distributors and strike deals,

Almost everybody I spoke to was very generous with their time and experience, and it\’s been exciting to be here.

However, last night I had a fascinating run-in with two representatives of a major US cable TV provider. We were getting along famously, chatting about the various people they know and introductions we should make. And then I said one stupid thing and everything came to a screeching halt.

I had already mentioned that I\’m making content for the online world, and that this content would be free to download. “How are you going to get an audience?” they asked. “Oh, well I\’m just going to SEO the thing, talk to various communities that may form the audience for it. It won\’t cost much to make so even a moderate but highly engaged audience would be fine.”

them: “Oh, really.”

me: “Yeah.”

them: “So, you don\’t watch TV?”

me: “Not really, I mostly get my entertainment from gaming or the Internet. And some DVDs”

them: “Oh, DVDs are dying! Forget about it! And as for the Internet, ha! There\’s no revenue model.”

me: “Doesn\’t matter. Internet will replace most TV, eventually. It kind-of has to. It does everything that TV does but better.”

At this point, I realised I\’d stepped in it completely. I tried to back track but couldn\’t.

them: “So how long do you think TV has left?”

I could have said 20 years. I could have said “Oh, it\’ll be around forever in some form or other” (which is my actual opinion, and would have sufficed perfectly). I could even have said “TV will win, the Internet sucks, there will be bandwidth gridlock”.

But no. I said:

“Oh, I give it five years”.

KA-BOOOOOM.

Now before my eyes they danced through every excuse the TV industry makes for its own relevance and unique benefits. I did my best to keep up but I realised quickly it was a lost cause.

“You\’re the fringe, you\’re an outlier, you don\’t count!”

(well, I can only speak from anecdotal evidence as I don\’t run a cable company, but literally none of my friends watch television – they play games and download stuff from the internet. And eventually this generation will grow up and become mainstream consumers.)

“People WANT to sit on their couches and watch TV – most people don\’t want choice, they want to be fat, stupid and happy”

(putting aside how condescending and unrealistic this is, and the fact that until now people have had few other entertainment options, there\’s no reason why an internet-connected device can\’t provide this kind of experience)

“Do you have kids? You won\’t get it until you have kids. Then you\’ll watch a whole lot of TV.”

(This struck me as bizarre, frankly. if I have kids I\’ll probably watch even less TV than I do now – because I\’ll be interacting with my family. My own family barely watched TV growing up, maybe half an hour a day. I spent most of my time drawing, painting, riding my bike, playing soccer or programming my Commodore 64. My parents spent their time fixing the house, shopping, playing music or sports. There\’s nothing about having a family that requires you to watch TV instead of use the Internet or do anything else.)

“The cable industry pours $22 billion per year into making content. Where is that money going to come from now? Who is going to pay for that?”

(well, maybe the money won\’t come from anywhere and those people will be out of work, which sucks but it\’s happened before. But I suspect consumers will be happy to pay just as much to be entertained, it just won\’t get taxed by distribution agents like cable companies. Which means even more great content than before!)

“You can\’t make cheap content – what about the Unions? It costs $2 million per episode to make {X}”

(well, I\’m sorry but you\’re still competing with local theater companies, kids on YouTube, parents filming local sports. The quality of these might suck right now, but they have improved dramatically and will continue to do so. These people aren\’t members of the union. They\’re just making great content their friends will care about. And hey, hopefully they\’ll get paid if it\’s good enough too!)

And so on and so on. Argument, counter-argument. But the fact is, they now simply hated me.

An ironic aspect to all of this is that I really really want to help content creators keep getting paid well for making great content. And I want to create Internet alternatives to cable and terrestrial broadcast that enable those experiences to transition as painlessly as possible to the online world.

Yes, I\’m naive. In fact, I\’m happy to be wrong. I just wish I could have these debates without people exploding. I\’m not here to destroy your industry!


Afterthought:

I was told by a friend the other day that before the invention of the printing press it used to cost something like a million dollars to buy one copy of the bible. There was a whole industry around it too – churches with their bible bolted to the rostrum, the holy manuscript revered for its rarity and value as much as the content. Monks holed up in mountaintop monasteries spending years delicately painting illuminated manuscripts. It was one of the few books that existed at all, and few could read it. When the printing press came along, I\’m sure it really sucked for the monks who wrote Bibles for a living, and probably even made life somewhat difficult for priests who wanted to be the only people you could come to for Bible-related information. But I think that few would argue that the printing press has been, overall, a bad thing.

It certainly created more industries than it destroyed.