And The Award For The Most Dead Entertainment Medium Goes To… The Web

You Californians sure seem obsessed with this “Oscar” thing. As I write these words, every one of my friends with a 9x zip code is dressed to the nines, snarking their way through one of the forty three billion Academy Awards parties taking place across the state.

I am not amongst them: partly because I am unforgivably late with this column, partly because I haven’t seen any of the movies nominated for the major categories, and partly because watching Anne Hathaway and James Franco (pictured left) being funny is like watching a Chuck Lorre remake of Joanie Loves Chachi.

But that’s not to say I don’t love the Oscars. In fact I adore them. As an unabashed old media snob, nothing pleases me more than an annual reminder that Hollywood still exists. That, for all the ways Internet piracy has chipped away at the bottom line, billions of dollars still churn annually through an area of roughly 24 square miles. And that – forget Zuckerberg and Williams and Pincus – there is still an army of bona fide celebrities earning a crust simply from being glamourous and wonderful and radiant. You wouldn’t catch Natalie Portman dead in an Addidas hoodie and a pair of flip flops.

(Speaking of Natalie Portman: if I were Nassim N. Taleb I’d tell my publishers to immediately re-release The Black Swan with a picture of a ballerina on the front. Fuck ‘em.)

The spectacle of Oscar night has also prompted me to consider the received wisdom that one day the grand Hollywood dream will die. That piracy will finally claim victory over ticket and DVD sales and the only people able to continue making films will be children with Flipcams and indie documentary makers with trust funds (imagine a very tight Venn diagram). One day, we’re told, all entertainment will be free, and quality will be replaced by quantity: magazines by blogs, newspapers by tweets, movies by clips, stories by SEO. For those of us who care about storytelling and spectacle and five years of hard work for 120 minutes of screen time, it’s a depressing future, but it’s one we’ve been warned to expect for some time. Laugh it up, Hathaway, your days are numbered.

And. Yet.

There’s no doubt old media is struggling: newspapers are shuttering, Borders and Blockbuster are screwed, movie attendance is down, people are cutting the cable cord — all that crap. But to assume all of those eyeballs are heading online for free content is just plain wrong. Yes, they’re heading online, but increasingly they’re continuing to spend: buying books on the Kindle (ebooks are now outselling paper books on Amazon), watching movies on Netflix (20 million members, paying at least $7.99 a month is no chump change) and now subscribing to newspaper and magazine apps on the iPad.

It’s traditional at this point to give a personal example of the phenomenon, presented with enough availability bias chutzpah to suggest that the author’s own experience must automatically be evidence of a trend. So here goes: yesterday I was in a Tiffani Thiessen mood (as I have been since 1996) and went to Hulu to catch up on the current season of White Collar. My God, I love that show. I watched the previous season entirely for free that way, gladly tolerating the “limited commercial interruption” between acts. This time though: no such luck. Episodes are only available 30 days after their original airing. I was outraged. 30 days! I demand satisfaction immediately!

Of course what I could have done at this point – and what experts in digital native behaviour tells us we all do – is to spend twenty minutes trawling the free web for a torrent of each episode, and then maybe another hour downloading them.

But that’s not what I did. What I did, and what any grown up with $1.99 to their name would do in the same situation, is to head over to Amazon and plunk down two bucks to watch the current episode on demand. And then another $1.99 to watch the previous episode, and then another $1.99 to… yeah, I know, I should have bought a season pass.

The point is this: both actual and anecdotal evidence tells the same story: paid content is not dead. In fact, it’s making a serious comeback.

Most adults do not want to steal intellectual property if there’s an affordable alternative to doing so. As producers of content get smarter; knowing how much to give away for free, settling on impulse price points, streamlining purchasing down to a single click, it becomes easier and easier for those adults not to steal.

Ease of payment is only part of the equation though. The real sea change in our willingness to pay for content has come as a result of dedicated devices – Kindle, iPad, TiVo – that offer a significantly improved media viewing experience to a laptop screen and a built in payment method that’s quicker and easier than stealing. It’s simply easier for me to pay to read the Economist on my iPad than it is to read it for free on the web. Likewise it’s increasingly more straightforward for me to buy books on my Kindle and Fight Club and movies on my iPad than it is to steal either.

Meanwhile free web content continues its race to the bottom: companies like Demand Media, Associated Content and – yeah – Aol have dropped any pretense of quality journalism in favour of churning out page after page of SEO horseshit. Previously austere publications like Forbes Digital (as was) have turned into link-grabby collaborative blogs. To survive online, newspapers have replaced text with slideshows, news with gossip. It’s no wonder those who produce content that requires more than a ten second attention span – book publishers, movie and tv studios – are fleeing to the safer ground of dedicated devices.

The truth is that the grand idea of the web as a content platform has failed. To make money on a web it’s all about grabbing more and more eyeballs to compensate for plummeting CPMs. On that web there’s no place for quality, and in five years time we’ll see the medium for what it really is: a brilliant advertising platform, and very little else. The web continue to be the perfect place to seed clips from TV shows and movies, in order to drive purchases on other platforms. It’ll still be a fantastic way to promote Kindle book sales by giving away free chapters and hosting author blogs. It’ll remain a wonderful way for news organisations to build their brands through free content, in order to drive subscriptions to iPad apps. And a great way for blogs like TechCrunch to build “mindshare” that allows us to host successful conferences. But as a standalone medium? The web? In five years? Forget it.

But I won’t care – I’ll have long abandoned the web for my entertainment needs, as will anyone else with even a modest amount of disposable income, a dedicated media device or two and a hankering for the uninterrupted pleasure of watching a good story, told magnificently with nary a hint of SEO.

And with that thought, a text arrives from an Oscar-watching friend. Natalie Portman has won the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan. Apparently the poor thing is crying.

Don’t worry Natalie, dear – it’s all going to be fine.