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For the better part of the twentieth century, three networks dominated American broadcasting. CBS and NBC ruled network radio from the 1920s forward. The networks sought to provide what David Thorburn calls “consensus narratives” which were calculated to attract the interest of the largest possible share of the American public as an incentive for us to watch commercials and in return, they helped to fuel the dramatic increase in consumer goods in circulation within the American economy. Ironically, cable networks, such as those headed by Mr. Kellner, were the first to undermine the economic logic of American broadcasting, though they have been followed by a range of new media technologies-the VCR, the DVD player, the game console, the digital video recorder, Pay-Per-View, Webcasting, and so on-which have helped to expand the range of entertainment options available to consumers and thus dramatically decrease the ratings shares of the major networks.

As a consequence, the various ways networks measure their viewership-and make commitments to advertisers-are increasingly losing their credibility. The Nielsen Ratings have long been discredited as having little or no social science validity, measuring, by design, only those consumers who are desired by the advertisers themselves. Most of us frankly don’t count when it comes time to decide which series should be renewed.

These new media technologies, which allow us to mute or fast-forward through advertisements, call into question the concept of the “impression,” the basic unit upon which advertising buys get made. In the old model, the number of people who were watching the program were assumed to be roughly  the number of people who were being accessed by the advertisers.

Those of us who grew up in a television culture know that this was probably never true, but it kept the accounting simple for those in the business of buying and selling spots. Consequently, despite a succession of significant shifts in broadcast technologies and consumer behavior, the same basic vocabulary dominated commercial negotiations for decades. Today, those negotiations are reaching a crisis point. The networks are responding not by rethinking how they do business, not by developing new metrics for measuring and accurately reporting viewer interactions with media content, not by adopting new marketing strategies which take advantage of the affordments of the new media environment, but by wagging a finger at consumers and demanding that we behave according to their antiquated dictates.

If the networks stopped at name-calling, that would be one thing, but they didn’t. Last fall, the networks sued SONICBlue, the manufacturer of ReplayTV, and convinced a Federal Magistrate to force the company to collect data on thousands of individual consumers: what shows they watch, what commercials they skip, and what-if anything-they forward to their friends. Not content to wait and worry, the networks are now invading our privacy to ensure that we make good on Kellner’s imaginary contract. Thankfully, the order was subsequently stayed by a higher court.

Confronting such hostility, consumers are increasingly committing acts of passive resistance (flush often!) and forming organizations, such as DigitalConsumer.org, which is making the case that consumers have rights and interests in the negotiations that occur between media producers, technology companies, and policy-makers. To borrow a line from Network, “we are mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it anymore.”

We are now witnessing scorched earth-style warfare between consumers and networks, as the old institutions resist change and hold onto old approaches up until the last possible moment. As the battle lines intensify, we move step by step closer to the blipvert era which Max Headroom predicted not twenty minutes ago but twenty years ago. The future is closer than you think.

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Tagged: Communications

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