Embrace — Even Demand — Change


New York— Last time I looked, this magazine was still printed on paper. So, afraid I was missing something, I headed over to the Digital Magazine Forum last Tuesday at the New York Hilton.

The opening panelists were Marta Wohrle, vice president of digital media at Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.; David Klein, vice president, publishing and editorial director of AdAge Group; and Peter Meirs, director of alternative media at Time Inc. Collectively, their companies publish a ton of pulp content, from Elle to Car and Driver to Advertising Age to Sports Illustrated and, of course, Time.

They collectively spat on the premise of the forum: That there is such a thing as a digital magazine.

Wohrle won’t put another ounce of effort into producing digitized editions of her print books. Klein sees them as just a tactical tool, promoting traffic to Web sites and extending reach internationally. But Meirs put it best.

Putting magazine pages online is doomed. You end up mounting them behind glass and then try to figure out how to make it easy to move about, using navigation bars and menus. Even so, the reader still has to zoom in to actually see the text decently.

“Why would a consumer want this product? I think the answer is, they don’t,” he said.

What does this have to do with the state of television — cable, satellite or other?

What the publishers were debating was how to perpetuate the magazine format in a new medium. Can’t be done. Digital magazines are here in abundance. We just call them Web sites.

And what have Web sites done? They’ve ripped content off pages, unbundled it and served it up in a fashion that allows the audience to read only those pieces of content that each member wants to read at the time each wants to read it. No forced march from the front to the back, or the back to the front. No flipping through pages. Just direct clicks.

The same thing is now happening with television. There is no forced march from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night on a particular channel. There is less and less reason to even flip through all the channels you pay for. Every month, every week, there is more and more reason to just direct click on what you want to watch, when you want to watch it.

Digital technology, whether on the Web or in headend servers, is unbundling the component parts of television. Whether you’re TiVo-ing it, Slinging it, YouTubing it or pulling it off Optimum On Demand, you’re managing the medium yourself.

Where it used to be that “producers” and “editors” and “creative talent” figured out what content to produce, what technology to deliver and then broadcast it, now it’s technology that comes first and the audience that figures out how to use it. Content producers are supplicants.

That is actually producing a lot more creativity. Content, commentary and ads created by viewers will never go away; they will just keep expanding. But, if you want to make a buck at it, you’ve got to capture the spirit and raise the bar, in terms of usefulness or entertainment value.

Comcast just unveiled its own user-generated content service, with an almost-hip name, Ziddio. In fact, it seems to be in the midst of great creative convulsions, trying to figure out what will stick, as TV itself gets unbundled and programming — Kevin Martin, are you listening? — increasingly gets offered up a la carte.

In Maryland, the nation’s biggest cable operator is working with police to deliver … fugitives on demand. It’s the two-minute video clip equivalent of the “Most Wanted” posters in the post office. Only citizen crime fighters can rewind and replay the videos, until they come up with a reason to call in a clue to police.

Comcast this past Friday was also part of a “Singles Nite” at a convention center in Pittsburgh, where speed dating, psychics and sexologists all combined to help turn mass mating dances into a party. Oh, and let the party-goers film their own personal profiles for its “Dating On Demand” service on digital cable.

And for the high-minded, there’s Comcast’s new GalleryPlayer On Demand, which lets digital subscribers with high-definition service throw up masterpieces from 45 top-drawer museums on their home screens. Without paying market price for a wall-sized da Vinci, Monet or Van Gogh.

For good measure, Comcast has now got ABC, CBS and NBC programming on its own On Demand service. It is trying hard to unbundle primetime, for its subscribers.

Embrace the change, like Comcast. Resistance, as the Borg said and magazine publishers found, is futile.