Am I the only creative content producer relishing the fight between Dish Network and the major broadcast TV networks? While I like a good legal slug-fest between Goliaths as much as the next person, I also have a real stake in the outcome. The second-largest satellite TV provider in the United States, Dish has unleashed Auto Hop, a feature allowing subscribers to automatically ad-skip through broadcast television shows. Three of the four major networks have responded with lawsuits to stop what they fear as the ultimate disruptive technology, which would clearly devastate their business model.
I am a professional publication photographer, a trade that has been decimated by digital imaging, a similarly disruptive technology. Whether you call it “user provided content” or “citizen journalism” it all means that certain photographers are doing the kind of work I was once paid to do, but they happily work for no payment. As a business model, working for free is not viable (unless you are the media outlet using that same cost-free creative content.)
At the same time our best publication photography, whether that of celebrities, cars, destinations or musicians has been used, reused and re-purposed without appropriate compensation for years. The internet explosion has made the problem worse. We have been pummeled for defending our copyrights, whether through the legal system or in the court of public opinion. On the other side have been individuals and groups, especially the advocates of what is known as Copyleft as well as the so-called Creative Commons advocates and other groups that believe “content should be free.”
I am thrilled to think they are about to see what the world that they dream of actually looks like. I am hardly one to defend the television networks but they, like any business, need to make money in order to produce the content they broadcast. While complaints about the quality of network television are widespread, the Nielsen rating numbers show that millions still watch and advertisers still pay billions to get their commercials in front of those same audiences. Take away those advertising dollars and the production of that content will grind to a halt, TV screens will go blank.
Yes, the demise of the publication photography market started with the slow death of print publications. The technological disruption that brought the final death knell happened when the rising number of digital cameras and the lowering of the publication’s quality standards intersected. What once was “unacceptable” was suddenly “good enough,” especially if the image came to the end user at no cost.
While the digital revolution has unleashed a slew of technologies enabling people to work in new and creative ways, the business models to pay for that have not kept up with the change. Digital imaging enables photographers to “work” for free just like the “Auto Hop” allows TV viewers to watch shows without “paying” the networks (by watching the ads.) The difference is that the owners of digital cameras who are working for free don’t approach photography as a business, unlike the TV networks.
The Constitution of the United States even recognizes that creators of what we now call “intellectual content” need to get paid, or else they will not create such content. TV executives, who aren’t exactly all constitutional scholars, have built their existing business model on this. Creative content providers have been wondering if a new business model would arise out of the ashes of the old. (Disclosure here: one of the many ways I make money these days is teaching photography, nurturing the next generation of photographers, ideally, sending them into the market with good business skills.) While I advocate (in public lectures and smaller classes) for photographer friendly-business practices, individual practitioners are such small players that we are unlikely to be the ones to create any innovative new business model.
The Goliath TV networks (like the print media before them) have so much at stake that they are the ones who are likely to come up with some new business model in the eventuality that Dish TV prevails, that broadcast TV is set “free” and no one watches the ads. Certain print media channels have already came up with a viable alternative to their old business model, such as the “pay walls” of Financial Times (and the NYT.)
Is this confrontation nothing more than a bargaining chip for Dish TV to force the networks into a deal more favorable to Dish TV as some have suggested? I hope not. I want to see this battle fought out to the bitter end.
If they don’t come up with a viable alternative business model, broadcast TV as we know it will be gone and the creative commons crowd will have “won.” In that world, another part of our collective cultural landscape will be as barren as the banal user provided content sweeping the publication world and as blank as the broadcast TV screens of the future.