Long Tails, Exploding TVs, and Experience Goods

There has been a recent surge in web commentary on the growing transformation of video distribution and consumption, in particular network TV. The technology pundits will tell you that video is following in the footsteps of text, photos, and music into the maw of the Internet, driven by today’s on demand economics and digital lifestyles. The common theme in most of these discussions is the toppling of incumbent media houses: the old school networks and studios who have invested heavily and reaped great rewards from their monopolies. The long tail faithful suggest that audiences are fragmentary (specialized) by nature and how they consume and re-contextualize cultural artifacts is likewise a fragmentary and niche-driven process. The idea of a cohesive, unified work of art, long challenged among cultural theorists, is now seeing a quite literal disintegration.

As technologies continue to converge, and as the bit torrents challenge the perceived sanctity of the living room, we no doubt will see a shift from broadcast to narrowcast cultural production and consumption. As a lover of “foreign” and “independent” cinema, this should be a welcomed change for me since the collapse of traditional distribution channels means almost limitless access to everything and anything, anywhere at any time. However, in the face of this one-click immediacy, how will the experience of culture change? I am particularly interested in terms of audiences.

In 1948, Americans went to the local theater to see the latest Warner Bros. comedy and perhaps the latest Italian neorealist import. In 1966, they watched these films on their televisions, ‘81 on HBO. In all cases someone else decided the when, and less so the where. This is still true today, with the latest Hollywood release following a carefully rehearsed trajectory from must-see opening weekend to the 2 for 1 DVD bargain bin at your local box retailer of choice. Hollywood isn’t just selling the images on screen, but also the experience of those images, within a crucial window of time. This is what gets top dollar. And this is what has the studios so upset about leaked/ripped pre-release copies. The cat is out of the bag, they fear. Why go to the cinema if you can have it in your pocket? I suggest one answer is the pleasure in the sharing of experience — be it water cooler recaps of your favorite TV drama or reality TV show viewed the previous night on Fox, or sitting in a darkened theater with 200 strangers.

How might the long-tailers reconcile this pleasure of mass culture? Perhaps this isn’t their purview, preferring instead to praise the liberation of the catalog, pleased more in describing the inter-personal and social realignments shaped by recommendation and reputation engines outside the mainstream. Or maybe the point is simply that experience will still be shared, only in new, often impromptu and ephemeral settings. Perhaps. Until then, I think in the proposed slice-and-dice on demand world of video searching, downloading, and the like, shared cultural context is fundamentally negated. It is a void that will be filled one way or another.