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Traditional media and the new media audience

By Matthew Allen - posted Thursday, 17 May 2007


There are many challenges ahead for producers, consumers and regulators of Australian media. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to understand that, along with new media, we now have a new media audience - an increasingly different social formation, often eluding efforts to contain its actions within profitable corporate pathways.

The environment in which the pleasurable businesses of the media conduct themselves today, and their relations with possible audiences, continue to be affected by the dramatic alterations that the Internet brings to our daily lives. The Internet is variously a diversion from, supplement to, or even replacement for more traditional media forms and functions. These effects now are emphasised and also changed as advanced data networks, handsets and product offerings emerge in the mobile communications sector of media development.

Traditional media are also responding to the changes in media ownership laws but these changes are, themselves, a result of government attempts to account for the interface between old and new media forms. Controversies over content (think of the turkey slapping incident on Big Brother and happy slapping on YouTube.com) usually seem to be controversial when they cross the line from online digital transmission to widespread popular consumption on mainstream news services.

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Traditional media, however, remain predominant in our popular and professional cultural lives. True, blogs will be important come the election, but the formal debate will still be a television event, and talk back radio provides the arena for the real struggle for voters’ hearts and minds. Top-rating television programs such as Biggest Loser, Dancing with the Stars and 60 Minutes still serve to create a collective “Australian” television audience in the millions whose attention generates the most important financial returns for the networks as well as a shared (if contested) sense of cultural identity.

Online classified advertisements may prove significant, but they are generated from within the traditional print media system and continue to play second fiddle to the newspapers whose existence they permit. Telstra and the NRL may be battling about rugby league video highlights, but when the free-to-air television broadcast of sport leaks away to Foxtel, questions are asked in Parliament and it is front page news.

And yet … the world has changed. Many television programs can only be produced because of the revenue generated by viewer interactions through telephone or SMS voting. A generation of younger media consumers understands the world first and foremost through the connections made, and broken, through chat and public profiling via services such as MySpace. News services extract surplus value from the costly business of journalism through repackaging and representation on the Internet and, more profitably, through mobile phones.

Games based on films generate more revenue than the films themselves. The music industry now depends on the transmission of songs via network media, either in their own right or as ring tunes for phones. And one of the most central debates in public policy concerns the provision of telecommunications infrastructure suitable for an advanced nation in the early years of a new century.

The process of shaping and developing this new landscape of media in Australia, with its unevenly blended mix of traditional and emerging forms and services, largely rests in the hands of a few very powerful and influential private corporations. Government, driven by market-oriented, individualist ideology, plays only a limited role, except insofar as acting as proxy for those interests.

Of course, those corporate interests are characterised by government as constrained by the necessity, within a very free market, of meeting consumer needs and desires. As a result, the government - acting on behalf of consumers (and indeed constituting the nation’s citizens as consumers) - can in its own terms “act” for Australians by enabling corporate competition.

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What’s best for the nation is, then, equivalent to that which can profitably be delivered. But, as evidenced by the radically different developmental trajectories in this country of, on the one hand, subscription television and on the other, the Internet, the very technologies which media corporations are now most engaged with do not easily lend themselves to corporatised control and profitable exploitation.

In the absence of strong government, and with traditional media and communications companies in Australia still grounded in the past, it is the consumers who matter. Consumers - those targets of business and political spin -might well prove the strongest force for determining the future because they have accommodated the changes inherent in networked online media faster than anyone.

The real impact of the Internet has been to create a new media audience, with three key characteristics. These characteristics appear only poorly understood by some in government and “big media”; others deliberately attempt to limit their impact so as to control the Internet’s transformation of daily mediated life.

It is within these three characteristics that we might begin to discern the battleground for control and creativity within Australia’s media. They can be summarised as follows:

  • interaction is the new content: by which I mean that there is an increased significance within the media of human interaction, as opposed to the previously dominant processes of creation, distribution, reception or discussion of content;
  • distracted and fascinated: by which I mean the rise of user or audience behaviours that simultaneously embody much greater levels of engagement with media while at the same time reflecting an attitude in which users are easily distracted; and
  • you can get it for “free”: by which I mean that media consumers understand that while some media and some information must be, should be, and often is paid for, that equivalent, similar or better media and information products can be obtained at no apparent or extra cost.

It should be obvious how the Internet has led to these changes. However much people utilise the Internet to play games, download music, search for information and the like, the predominant utility of the net is communication. Email, chat and interchanges in discussion forums have always been central to the Internet. In this sense, the Internet is not “media” per se but “communications”.

Successful Internet activities - games, profiles, community websites - serve as the venue and rationale for that most desired and yet often elusive of human endeavours - connection with others like ourselves, through mediated communication.

The Internet also leads to greater levels of deep engagement, because so much of what is “done” there requires users to actively create their environment. This can apply in the use of imagination in text-based cybersex, or complex digital labour for world-building in Second Life.

At the same time, through multi-tasking and the particular nature of the computer environment (where one can appear to be doing one thing to outsiders, while engaged easily in multiple tasks), the Internet is a “distracted” environment. In another vein, the ease of pursuing narrow interests in depth online (for example searching for elusive details) lends itself to fascination, while the extraordinary variety of information available, one hyperlink click, away distracts - even as it leads us into new fascinations.

Finally, the Internet has always carried with it, for many reasons, the idea that what we want can be found there for free. While this idea is as much cultural construction as real situation (the Internet is never free), nevertheless, many people understand the Internet as being “free” when compared to other possibilities.

A generation of younger Internet users have grown up downloading pirate music (and now video) files without either paying for them, or paying for the Internet access itself. Endless varieties of software can be had for no cost from the open source sources. Email, chat, website and blogging services are all free (supported by advertising revenue). Finally, the very quality of immediacy of access to vast stores of information that might otherwise take a little time, effort or money to retrieve, creates the illusion and often reality that there is a free lunch.

What the Internet has done (so far, and with much more to come), has been to create a new form of media user-audience marked by a desire to interact with others, being both distracted and engaged at the same time, and understanding the world in terms of what can be got “for free” which might otherwise cost money.

Of course, this audience is - like all audiences - a plausible fiction necessary for the construction of products and services that will then permit a real audience to emerge in response to them. However it is a very different audience to that with which big media (and the government that serves its interests) is either familiar, or comfortable. Yet, nevertheless, media corporations attempt to engage this audience in terms which will profit them.

For example, Channel Seven and Yahoo combine to launch Yahoo7, long after Ninemsn, and champion the role and value of “user-generated content”. Yet they miss the point that whether the content is generated by users or by Yahoo7, it is the interaction - the communication and sense of connection - which matters most. Content - continuously imagined to be the “killer app” of the Internet which would unleash corporate profit - is only important as the focus and reference point for mediated human communication.

Similarly, Telstra and other Internet service providers understand the significance of high-speed networks for profitable premium-content delivery, as if the computer-based audience is directly equivalent to the DVD-playing, TV watching audience (while noting that people are now, more and more, members of both audiences). The smooth, disengaged spectatorship of televisually produced media sits uneasily alongside the multi-tasking, easily distracted patterns of Internet engagement.

A simple problem lies at the heart of the engagement between traditional media’s new approach and the new media audience. The trend in media is towards direct profit-making (think pay-per-view, subscription TV, premium content) and less reliance on advertising supported models. Yet the new media audience increasingly spends time on mediated interaction (chat, email, skype and more) from which it is almost impossible to make money, except for limited advertising revenues (who ever clicks those ads in MSN or Yahoo Messenger?).

Distraction-fascination makes it difficult to build a loyal audience who will be consistently satisfied and attentive to sell to advertisers in any case; and of course, “free” tends to lead this new media audience to seek out less expensive or free replacements to what is offered for a price by one provider.

Of course, media business will do what business does best - find ways to make money. But those businesses may not be the traditional ones whose entrenched expectations and understandings of “audiences” are not well aligned to the novel features we now find shaping audienceship for new media. The interacting, simultaneously fascinated and distracted, free-seeking consumers of media and mediated experiences pose more challenges than technologies and regulations combined.

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About the Author

Dr Matthew Allen is Associate Professor of Internet Studies in the Faculty of Media, Society and Culture, Curtin University and President of the Association of Internet Researchers.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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