The AOL/Time Warner merger, the absorption of ebook manufacturers SoftBook and Nuvo Media by Gemstar/TV Guide, and the rise of dot-com advertising on TV have led some to ask whether Big Media will take over the Web. Will the future of the Web be dominated by big-budget extravaganzas with which today's personal sites cannot compete?
Big Media will have a place in the future of the Web, but it will not dominate the scene.
Why Hollywood Budgets Are Big
Films are made by big teams, commanding big budgets. But the studio system didn't arise from an industry cabal: Film budgets are big because film distribution is expensive.
Putting a movie in front of viewers requires theaters. That means real estate: mortgages on prime commercial property. Showing a movie requires projectors and other theatrical equipment -- equipment that is made in small volumes because it's sold only to theaters. The movie industry, as a whole, needs to pay rent on theaters in every city and town from London to Wagga Wagga.
With such huge distribution costs, any one-time expense that might make a film better or more marketable becomes attractive. Because the world can only afford a limited number of theaters, the channel between filmmaker and viewer is narrow. Because broadcast channels are scarce, television provides only a few additional venues at a time. Only a few films can reach an audience, and so it makes good sense to spend infinite care and nearly infinite resources on each film.
The book world, in contrast, operates in a world of plentiful distribution. Bookstores stock thousands of titles; adding one new title costs relatively little. Books can easily be delivered in small quantities because reading is essentially solitary; you don't need a theater, and you don't need an hour of the airwaves. Because distribution is less expensive, other costs play more significant roles. An unexpected expenditure of a million dollars while producing a movie is an everyday matter, but the same expenditure on editing a book would be dramatic industry news.
Production Values and Production Budgets
Creating immersive media is expensive. While inexpensive equipment is beginning to make quality sound and video recording accessible to individuals, live action is intrinsically more expensive than prose. Even the cheapest actors, lights, and locations cost more than pencil and paper. And when something goes wrong -- when sets collapse, cameras jiggle, the sun goes behind a cloud -- retakes cost more than using an eraser or pressing Delete.
Faster net connections may lead to wider use of immersive media, but I cannot think that immersive media will dominate the Web. For one thing, hot media can be a two-edged sword. When everything works right, hot media can have tremendous impact. But when one thing goes wrong -- a video stutter, a brief audio dropout, an equipment shadow falling across an actor's face, an actor forgetting his lines -- the illusion is lost. The finely polished surface calls attention to the slightest imperfection. Even for writers to whom the seamless dream is the goal of storytelling, less immersivemedia may prove desirable.
The Role of Links
Immersive media like film have a hard time participating in the link economy. Portals, search engines, and outside advertising all generate traffic, but everyday link traversal continues to generate a large share of the traffic at most successful topical sites. Immersive media can't link effectively: and audience enthralled the unfolding action cannot follow links.
Because immersive media will capture attention, Web sites will be reluctant to link to them; a reader sent to a news story may read it and return, but a reader sent to an hour of live-action drama is probably lost. Ads will be tricky, too -- especially ads that urge viewers to interrupt their viewing to visit another site. Even Big Media expects a return on investment; where is the money to come from?
Ironically, the sound Big Media investment might not be to build a 50-million-dollar site, but rather to build fifty million sites that cost $1 each. That's exactly what Big Media have been doing: Apple's iTools, Yahoo/Geocities, Lycos/Tripod, and others all use Big Media money to subsidize individual creators. They pay the overhead of "free" Web sites in exchange for their advertising revenue. Individually, small sites generate a meager trickle of traffic, but in aggregate their contribution might surpass the Big Show.