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Image courtesy of zenshaman.com

For about half my life, roughly, the media that I consumed was essentially collectivized.  That is to say that everything I saw or read or listened to was from a very limited set of corporate producers.  The individual content was from a huge mass of folks of course, but they were collected under the heading of “The TV Networks” or “The Big Publishers” or “The National Newsweeklies” or “The Big Record Companies” or what have you.

Over time, the collectors changed somewhat–cable and satellite TV became big business; the phone company was broken up, acquired media properties, and started consolidating; big players in one industry (Warner, e.g.) bought big players in other areas (Time, record companies, etc.).  But from the consumer perspective this all had the appears of deck chairs shuffling around on the Titanic; we were all still sailing on the USS Media Collective, where a very limited number of companies controlled a huge percentage of what we these days call “content”.  And it was in the interests of these big media companies to become even bigger, to acquire even more properties, leading us to a place like the current proposed Comcast/Time-Warner merger.

I was thinking of all this recently because of a big push by the New York Times to try to get people to subscribe to just their opinions section.  The New York Times opinion section is immensely popular, so much so that about 10 years back, they tried to put a paywall in the way of people who wanted to read just that content.  And like the vast majority of pay walls, it was a monumental failure and they gave it up.  Now they’re trying again.  But the thing is, I don’t want to pay some monthly subscription fee and get stuck with their idiot columnists like (shudder) David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or cliche-thrower & metaphor mixer Tom Friedman or right-wing anti-sex moron Ross Douthat; I just want to read Paul Krugman whenever I like. So I’m not going to subsidize people I consider overpaid ass-clowns just for that. And I doubt very much I’m alone in that regard.

And this got me thinking about how much the Web era has changed our expectations, how we consume (and want to consume) content, and the effect that’s having on these big–but terrified–media companies.

Big media companies want to continue to force you to purchase things collectively.  You know how it works:  If you want HBO, you have to get a cable or satellite subscription, and you have to pay for some kind of “premium” package, forcing you to buy dozens (or even hundreds) of channels of programming you don’t give a rip about just so you can watch “Game of Thrones” for three months out of the year.  Or you have to get a ruinously-expensive “add-on” package to the premium package if you want to watch, I dunno, hockey or football or whatever beyond what the networks offer “for free”.

It’s the same with newspapers; you may just wants the sports and comics (or in the case of my bff the rocket scientist, the comics and the technology section), but you also have to pay for the ads, the obits, the opinion section, the business section, and whatever else they put in there.  Or in the case of the New York Times and their brilliant new Opinion Subscription strategy, they want me to subsidize people I consider overpaid ass-clowns just to get the one or two people I think are worth actually shelling out dough for.  And every newspaper has that issue to some degree.

Hell, it’s even the same with music; they want you to pay $10-20 for a whole album, not just buy the one song from that album that you’re interested in.  Do you really want the entire “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack, or do you just want “I’m Happy”?  And media companies want you to spend $15 just to get your personal dose of Pherrell.

Now, there are reasonable arguments to be made for forcing people to pay way more than they want for packages of stuff they’re not interested in so as to subsidize quality “minority”-level content.  But about 20 years ago, something funny happened that started us moving toward an a la carte world:  Mosaic, the first legitimate Web browser, was introduced.  And that, combined with the Net Neutrality-induced low bar of entry to publishing content, opened the content floodgates.  Mix in things like Amazon, iTunes, portable media players, iPads, and whatnot, and you have a world where not only are people familiar with buying only what they want, when they want, to consume at their own leisure, they expect it.  People get irked when their favorite podcast is late, or when they can’t download this week’s episode of “Mad Men” the day after it is broadcast.  (Not to mention the insanity of companies like HBO trying to force you to wait nearly a year to watch programming like “Game of Thrones”–a topic I go into in boring detail in other post.)

Now there is an entire generation–a generation as familiar with YouTube and NetFlix and Amazon Instant Video and iTunes as I was with the flavors of Slurpees available at my local neighborhood 7-Eleven–that has grown up with that.  (And don’t even get me started on social media!)  My son doesn’t care that the episodes of MythBusters he’s watching were filmed 7 years ago; my daughter doesn’t give a rip that the Anime she is enjoying were broadcast originally in Japan in 2003; they are products of the Internet age, and don’t care.  And for me, a long-time nerd, that the episode of “Top Gear” I’m watching was made in 2004 matters to me not a whit; it’s still fun to watch.  These are the times we live in, and the big media companies simply don’t get it.

Used to be, when I moved someplace new–and when I lived in Santa Cruz, I did it on an almost-yearly basis–I did three things immediately:  Unpack and set up my stereo, get out all my books and put them on the shelves, and subscribe to my newspaper of choice.  Getting everything else set up took a back seat–even the phone.  But music, books, and news were critical.

Now?  Now, I take out my iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and I have all three immediately.  I haven’t subscribed to a newspaper in nearly a decade.  My books are all in boxes.  I don’t even have a stereo.  My entire music and book collection I carry with me all the time, and the news I can access whenever I like, wherever I like.  For the media companies, this is of course a monumental disaster.  For the consumer, it’s unbelievably convenient and wonderful.  Talk about overcoming the PITA principle!

Until such a time as media companies like HBO and Time Warner and Comcast get on board with the fact that not only do we live in an a la carte world, but that denying people that access is counter-productive not only to their business model but also to their bottom line, we’ll continue to get pushed to sign up for things like the New York Times’ new Opinion-section Only Subscription App.  And I’ll say it again:  I doubt I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t want to subsidize overpaid ass-clowns just to get the content I want.

It’s an a la carte world, media companies; time to get over it and move along.  Or you’ll get run over.