We have already lost the ability to define or control what is public service media. From now on it will be what other producers, other networks and the public decide it is -- as well as us. However, we can retain the high ground and build on it by maintaining our values and standards while adapting to new distribution technologies.
The growth of new satellite and online competitors means that all incumbent public media will be left to trade on is its mission, its commitment to truth and quality, its program brands, the goodwill it has earned in the last 40 years, and critically -- the level of competitive service it provides to users. An aggregated, cooperative, federated digital service is the only way to remain competitive, and the only effective way to enable the new business models that will secure the system for the 21st century.
It all comes down to building practical online services. Once launched, they must be upgraded and improved quickly and responsively, in short development-to-launch cycles. OMN.org was built in just over a year by about 15 people: a small group in California and a team of programmers in Ukraine. They roll out an update every 3 months. By intelligently leveraging existing software and standards they've built an amazingly powerful media delivery and business engine at a level of efficiency we can only dream about. [Note: the value of the license for the underlying Kontiki P2P delivery technology was contributed by Mike Homer, who also funded the development of OMN.]
The user value proposition contained in the service is the key to success. An overwhelming user value proposition is the key to building traffic, service, revenue and everything else we seek to accomplish. You know you've got it right when it takes off exponentially.
The full blossoming of PublicMedia.org (or, just PM.org: AM, FM -- PM) should leverage all assets of the Public Media community, including all incumbents and contributors. Not only stations and web sites, air talent and producers, but writers, artists, interview subjects, labels and publishers, PLUS associated non-profit organizations, educators and cultural institutions AND the entire audience -- everyone that shares the values platform that PublicMedia.org represents.
We need to fully embrace "network effects" while maintaining standards. This means opening up the Public Media platform to user and community input, but not compromising the editorial, educational and human values that are the benchmark of professionally produced public media.
Drawing the line between free and paid services is an art. We have to experiment to find the sweet spot. This is the best way to resolve the "theological" arguments around free, universal public service. Absent the massive tax support that has allowed the BBC to establish the standard for this, we have to do it differently. Essentially, we have no choice but to charge intelligently for expanded levels of service. This strategy has the potential to establish a solid foundation for system revenue for the 21st century and allow us to move beyond the just-better-than-minimum level of today and the political uncertainties that come along with government funding.
PublicMedia.org rationalizes the issue of syndication across multiple platforms, by providing high quality public service content to other distributors, aggregators and platforms in an appropriately staged and branded manner. Mike Homer of OMN says that as a strategic business matter he sees no reason why Public Media should have to surrender a big chunk of the revenue it generates from end users and underwriters to other service providers; it can, and should, operate its own platform, and get paid for its content when carried by other services.
The digital media distribution platforms of the future will be built largely on automated royalty payment and revenue-sharing systems. Creating the business infrastructure to support this and fairly allocating the revenue among rights holders, producers, stations, web affiliates and other stakeholders will take a great deal of diplomatic energy and an unprecedented spirit of collaboration. To deserve the moral high ground, we need to take the lead in fair compensation of rights holders by willingly, accurately and automatically paying performance royalties, license fees and commissions for digital transmissions and downloads from which we earn revenue. We should make this an explicit part of our mission statement.
The "atomized" digital media ecology will be characterized by passionate support for strong and unambiguous value identities. For the news operation this means objectivity, balance and rigorous journalism. For everyone else it means taking an unapologetic stand for the content and the values they really believe in. There is no FCC online to enforce statutory restrictions. We are the arbiters of our own values and behavior.
We have to become more efficient in producing and propagating media, both in long form and in convenient, unbundled "micro-chunks." There will be a lot more of it, and it will have much greater value in aggregate.
If we don't create a Public Media platform, producers will be forced to migrate their content to other platforms and services. Since the value of all media will be dropping in the wake of a supply side explosion, they won't be able to afford not to. But even when they do the PublicMedia service will still have unique value, and the possibility of becoming a distribution agent and meta-brand with whom producers will be proud to be associated.
In the end we just have to do it. There are difficult questions of identity and organization, but the stakes are too high not to try to overcome them.
:: Stephen Hill 28 Feb 2006
[rev. 20 Mar 2006. This was originally 13, but one of my colleagues thought we had enough problems without tempting superstition.]