Cross posted at Balloon Juice
Amidst the gnashing of teeth over the suspicious coincidence of Comcast’s take over of NBC and Keith Olberman’s disappearance from the air, my first reaction was, who cares? Or rather, who really will notice?
That’s because I’ve been feeling, without much evidence, that cable blather is reaching a diminishing returns point, at least as far as political mobilization is concerned. Certainly, their impact exceeds their actual reach. As of November, the top rated cable news-like show was Bill O’Reilly’s, with a total viewership of about 3.5 million. In Neilson terms, that’s a rating of maybe 3.4 or so. Not bad — but not exactly dominant either. Next up was Fox’s Bret Baier, someone I confess I’ve literally never heard of. His number for the month? 2.4 million — or about 2 and change in the ratings. Olberman came in at number 12 with 1.1 million and a bit, or a barely more than one Neilson point.
It is indeed horrifying that the top 11 programs in cable news are all Fox shows — but the point is that however successful Fox has been with its business model,** these are not impressive numbers within the mass media and in an electorate the size of ours. Fox has had influence disproportionate to its actual reach — but it helps to remember its man-behind-the-curtain quality.
By comparison, Balloon Juice scored around 25 million total page views last year. Obviously the two media are enormously different, and there is a profoundly distinct impact when a message is delivered in spoken word and picture over and over again. A few hundred words on the screen, however successfully they start your rhetorical engines, can’t hope to set the same emotional hooks in its audience.***
But that’s not actually my point. Rather, it is that the experience of just this one blog demonstrates that there exists a means of distribution and engagement that reaches audiences that are within an order of magnitude of those of great big gazillion dollar media machines.
I’m not usually a technological optimist — as is appropriate for someone who can’t even be bothered to maintain a functioning author’s website or Facebook page. But I’ve just been buying video gear for a course I’ll start teaching in a couple of weeks about making documentaries, and I’m struck again how little cash up front it takes to buy the tools of fully professional production. The machines don’t supply the talent, of course, nor a programming strategy, nor PR or any of all that. But as with blogging and print media eight or nine years ago, the bits and pieces of infrastructure needed to create a whole new architecture of web-distributed video are coming together fast.***
Most important, the medium has finally approached normalcy. My kid’s Wii has a browser in it, not to mention a Netflix app. In a month or so, after I recover from my next visit to the mechanic, I’ll finally buy a web-enabled TV to replace my 16 year old CRT — and I’ll get a wirelessly networked Blu-Ray player with it. The rap on internet video has been that only geeks want to sit at their computers and watch TV in little boxes on some small screen. No more. More or less transparently, you can Hulu and Netflix and browse your way to video in the same living room in which I almost never actually watch scheduled programs any more.
That’s the missing piece. Once it’s easy to find web TV on televisions, then the fortifications protecting traditional content originators and distributors totter.
Which is why I think the bits and pieces of rumor I’ve heard about Olberman thinking about headlining a web network — even if they are wholly fantasy — is exactly the thought that ought to terrify Big Cable the most.
All of which is a long winded way to respond to DougJ’s prediction about liberal hosts on MSNBC in five years time. My guess is that he’s right. But I don’t see that I care.
The caveats: Obviously, the mere physical capacity to create and distribute programming is no substitute for actual talent, smart program choices, tolerable production values and all the rest. It is the easiest thing in the world to make crappy, undiscoverable, utterly irrelevant web-video. There’s already a surplus of such out there.
If a Left answer to the Right’s domination of traditional cable is to have traction, it will have to both concentrate creative talent and build a conceptual infrastrucure — some model to absorb and remake the notion of channels and shows and a programming schedule. And of course the largest cost of anything remotely like a studio program or even a curated and organized repository of audience-sourced material lies with the people who drive the cameras, cut the footage and so on. Cheap isn’t free — but when startup costs thousands (tens of, maybe) instead of millions, you’re in with a chance.
Most important, as we’ve seen with the print world, once the barriers to entry drop, the numbers of those who can do really interesting things grows. That’s been true in radio for a long time — just check out stuff like the Third Coast festival or a lot of what NPR has catalyzed over the last decades. (And look at the new book Reality Radio if you want to learn about how folks like Jay Allison or Ira Glass, the Scissor Sisters, the legendary Scott Carrier or the impossibly young Jad Abumrad — and many others all found their voices telling true stories in sound.)*****
Now the underlying elements are there for video too, in an almost zero (in television terms) cost of the acquisition and post production of video and a nearly costless network on which to “broadcast” the finished product — and in the existence (finally) of an audience equipped with the tech that makes it relatively easy to engage with what could be made with such tools.
I hope the left blogosphere takes advantage. I’m now officially thinking about what I could do to help. And you? More the merrier, folks.
*Breach guys, not breeches. Geez. This is a family blog.*******
**And make no mistakes: Fox is all about the cash. If dittohead hippies became a larger and more exploitable demographic than tea-tardists, you’d see changes. Murdoch is vile boil on the body politic, but it’s C.R.E.A.M for him too.
****Not to gear-head up the main body of the piece, you can now shoot decent HD video on cameras that run $2,000 or less. (You can do pretty well with a camera that runs $6-800, but if you go that route you (a) have to spend a fair amount of money on add-ons that the consumer gear does not possess and (b) have to be a really clever video person. Smarts can substitute for money, up to a point, but the price paid is in all the work-arounds you need to deal with.) Sound gear will run you a few hundreds more for a basic kit. Lights — you can do a lot with “practicals” — the stuff you already have lying around — and a tolerable basic 4 head light kit is another twelve or fourteen hundred at retail.
I’m thinking like a documentary person here, not a studio guy — but the same deflators apply there. A three camera set up with grip, lighting, and sound enough to mike two or three people could be put together on a shoestring of less than $20,000, perhaps even less than $10K if you really scrounged and dumpster-dived. That’s a lot of scratch for any individual — but in the media landscape, in a context of blogs that reach tens or hundreds of thousands per day? It’s not much of a reach.
As for editing — it’s become almost cost free as far as the tools go. You need a reasonably recent laptop, some hard drives (many backups folks! Be paranoid!), and if you are just doing studio stuff, the latest iMovie will do what you need — at a program cost of something like $80 bucks. Even the pro editing bundles are cheap now.
In sum: while it is certainly possible to spend an unlimited amount on anything to do with motion pictures, the point is that you don’t have to if all you want to do is get folks in a set talking to each other or scribbling on a black board — that’s the easy stuff, and it’s unbelievable for someone like me, who started out in the ’80s, just how many barriers to entry for creative types have dropped away. Berlin Wall c. 1989, baby.
*****Which thought makes this perhaps the right place to let y’all know that I’ll on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd — commenter here from time to time, and an FP poster at Atrios’s place, Eschaton. My slot arrives this coming Thursday, 27 January, at 9 p.m. EST. I believe this all happens in Second Life — which is why, I kid you not, I’m having an avatar make-over tomorrow. Come on down! And now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post.
******If you missed Rocky and Bullwinkle, you missed civilization.
Images: Trophîme Bigot, Crying Man, 1625
Johann Heinrich Roos, Gypsies in an Ancient Ruin, 1675