Bandwidth Unicorns

On Tuesday night, I downloaded 1.6 gigabyles of high-definition video from the internet. It cost five dollars.

Then I took the HDMI cable that usually attaches a television to its digital cable box and plugged it into my laptop. The video was Aziz Ansari’s new standup special, and I happily watched it in 1080p resolution on a 46-inch LCD display as I laid on a couch, sipping Diet Coke.

A year ago, doing this legally seemed unlikely. Then, in November 2011, Louis CK released a self-funded comedy special online called Live at the Beacon Theater. No third-party distribution. No DRM. Just a visit to his website, five bucks and a brief download to get an hour of comedy.

It made $1 million in its first month.

People have inevitably tied the two recordings together, and Ansari confirmed in a GQ interview that Live at the Beacon Theater had a big influence on his decision to release his Dangerously Delicious special on his own.

It also confirmed that it is a brilliant idea, both in ease of use and price point. I know a number of people who have downloaded both shows and have said they will continue to download specials for five bucks from comics they love. It’s easy, safe and you know exactly where your money is going.

Curiously, this business model gains steam as horror stories about traditional distribution methods start to creep up. Making a standup special with Comedy Central sounds like an awful experience, a necessary evil if you don’t have the audience or cash to handle it on your own. (Ansari is asked about Comedy Central in the GQ interview linked above. Safe to say, his response was cryptic.) Proving self-distribution viable with my own purchase has a nice new media feel to it, but I didn’t pull the trigger on it simply because I wanted to give Aziz Ansari five bucks.

The internet has gotten us comfortable with directly funding the things we love. Kickstarter is a fine example of that. Do you enjoy sports writing? Tacos? A large audience and its desire to make something happen can make even the most specific of goals possible. And, based on the monetary support, deservedly so.

Meritocracy is the word bandied about in debate about the internet. If it’s worth anything, people will notice. It’s a lovely thought, certainly worthy of notoriety, but the truth is the internet just isn’t perfect. Reddit has moments of brilliance and hours and hours of junk. Deadspin needs millions of genitalia-sparked pageviews to justify publishing the good stuff. It’s just the current state of the machine, an ecosystem still remarkably young and always ripe for change.

Content on the internet seems to revolve around two things: Free and easy. In recent years, the ‘free’ part has begun to fade and the ‘easy’ has become much more valuable. Freemium is the buzzword. It’s how (iOS users, at least) get cajoled into paying for the good version of Angry Birds and Spotify makes a profit despite handing out all that free music.

You can argue that consumers crave more, hence the up-sell. It’s a fair point, but I think convenience wins out above all else. People buy things after free trials because they get used to the product. You gain a familiarity with the ecosystem to the point that it’s too much trouble to change. That’s how Apple makes its billions and spawned undying legions of hip, minimalist fans. An iPod begets an iPhone begets a Mac and Apple TV and an iPad. Forever and ever, amen.

So why did I pay the five bucks on Tuesday? I didn’t have to. I don’t own the Louie CK special and I almost like him as much as I do Aziz. If I looked hard enough, I could have found Dangerously Delicious for free on a torrent site. The cheapskate in me could have crept out and reminded PayPal-wielding Ryan that he saw Aziz over the summer at the Seneca Niagara Casino. The material was bound to overlap. Maybe it’s wasn’t worth the asking price to see it again. After all, what is an hour of comedy really worth?

The convenience of it all is what struck me when I made my purchase on Wednesday. That incredibly easy process that got me something I wanted so quickly that I barely thought about the money. Compared to other ticket prices and the cost of alternate entertainment (sporting events, books, pets, bars) the purchase was a relative no-brainer.

I put in my PayPal information, clicked once and that was that. The HQ download took about 17 minutes. It would have taken at least that long to drive to Walmart and buy it (priced at least $10 more) in a jewel case. Distribution methods for movies and television are changing every day. Tuesday, it feels, was a big day in that regard.

The evolution is happening rapidly. Aziz said himself that a few months ago there was no way for him to release a profitable standup show with no marketing, no distributor and no restrictions. Now it’s becoming a cottage industry.

Every form of entertainment has its digital pioneers. Radiohead has been willing to explore the space in the free-range online music market, releasing In Rainbows and The King of the Limbs on its own website. They seem to be still successfully making music, so maybe it works.

Music, though, had many luxuries in the digital sphere. Mixtape enthusiasts could argue the proliferation of music online has helped find better, more deserving artists. The retail model for music may be fading, but no matter how many Sam Goodys or Virgin Megastores close music is far from dead. Solutions have been searched for and, for the most part, found.

Most importantly, Apple figured things out relatively early with its iTunes music store. Selling songs first for 99 cents then music videos and movies and beyond; not to mention setting the standard for the application market on smartphones in the process. Now you can hear a song in a bar and download it to your phone in seconds, just fast enough so you can’t remember a world in which you lived without that track for decades. It’s quick, speedy and positively fast. There is no time for regrets.

It is easy. Maybe a bit too easy, but convenience almost always wins out.

Meanwhile, newspapers continue to lurk relatively unchanged.

The more I think about it, the ‘easy’ part is what the newspaper industry has always been missing online. Most All newspaper websites are ugly and difficult to navigate. Too many companies, from the top down, are unwilling to change or put resources into figuring things out. Many simply can’t afford it. Others don’t seem to care. As far as I’m concerned, if the last decade or so isn’t cause for action, there will never be a reason deemed good enough.

Despite the growing atrophy, plenty of time and effort has been spent discussing online journalism. Journalists and industry leaders have done a nice job of publicizing the hand-wringing, but the results are slim and grim. The conversation goes something like this:

Question: ‘How can newspapers make a sustainable, predictable profit online?’

Answer: ‘…’

My senior honors thesis at Canisius was 50+ pages arguing that newspapers could find profit in the internet if they adapted their business model and took advantage of the medium’s strengths (unlimited space, immediacy, potential for low overhead). A little more than two years later, that information is largely irrelevant.

The problem, however, is still looming. No one has figured it out and I, along with everyone else, have no grand ideas to get us closer to a solution. Newspapers are still run by the same people and most still want to rely on a pool of physical subscribers that are, well, dying. The ad revenue and circulation continues to dip, but at least the obituary pages remain thick.

Few journalism professors are bringing new ideas to the table when educating the writers of tomorrow. Old journalists spin tales of the good old days, when whiskey was whiskey and writers were men. When the old newshounds retire, they are replaced by journalists who hastily tacked on a master’s degree to their resumes after their positions were cut as the industry began to turn. For every Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky there are hundreds of writers with ink-stained hands begrudgingly starting and subsequently abandoning Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Web junk full of failed lessons. Confused, old dogs Googling new tricks to no avail.

Despite all this uncertainty, the lines in the sand are pretty well drawn at this point. Paywall supporters were downright giddy at the news that the New York Times didn’t die at the hands of its own soft paywall. The Old Gray Lady celebrated by slashing its freemium story limit in half.

Other papers are sure to follow. Gannett is next in line and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s plan to fortify is already causing a stir. For the Buffalo News, it’s only a matter of time. The big man says so, anyway.

The start and eventual end of ‘freemium’ newspapers online is coming, but I worry that it won’t fix the real problems that still loom. Reading a newspaper’s content online has never been easy, and I’m starting to think it never will be. The charm of a paper arriving on your doorstep and smearing newsprint on your fingers is dead. Remnants left in sentimentality and nothing more. The content is all that will remain and soon it will be surrounded by a nice, sturdy fence.

The newspaper industry needs a hero, and no one is ready to toss on a cape. No one willing to really try something different, to really streamline things for consumers. The monkey is already out of the barrel. There is no Spotify for journalism coming. Readers will not simply shift back into paying for something they haven’t opened their wallets for in over a decade. Since the tipping point — four airplanes crashing and changing the course of American history — newspapers rushed to the web and pushed the journalistic toothpaste out of the tube. There is no going back.

Other industries have made the most of rapid changes in technology. Music has had a number of players willing to change the game, and even comedy writers continue to push boundaries on stage and in their own industry. The internet will continue to fund deserving causes thanks to passionate users.

Newspapers, though, remain hulking, aging and slowly fading away. There are no charitable causes, no sympathetic ears. Something has to change, and I worry that those in charge of the old dailies won’t be the ones with the answer. I no longer have a dog in the fight, but I worry paywalls will simply make readers as crafty about their news consumption as they have been about stealing music and movies and television shows.

None of those mediums have a magic bullet in the chamber, but there are signs of progress beyond the dead trees. Indications that someone is making things easy enough to convince consumers to pay for the things they value. As time goes on and the world continues to change, I worry more and more that newspapers will just become the butt of a virtual joke, paid for and delivered with ease.

2 Comments

  1. PKB

    “Indications that someone is making things easy enough to convince consumers to pay for the things they value.”

    …the things they value. Just think about what that means and how difficult it is to make non-fiction media profitable. What does it take? An exceptional story-teller. A compelling subject. But even if you have that, the people who use words get crushed by something like ESPN’s 30 for 30 because it’s visual and packaged neatly. You might not think 30 for 30 is any kind of threat but I know there are people who feel sort of intellectually satisfied with a sports doc and then when its over flip back to Two and a Half Men and never think about news again for the day.

    Anyway, you might buy and read a biography because you’re familiar with the author or the subject (that’s value). Albums, comedy specials, that’s entertainment based on performance and ability not an arrangement of information. It’s not non-fiction. It’s not journalism. That’s something they, newspapers, need to think about — creating value. Is value being created before a deadline? Maybe, if you’ve been doing it for 40 years. Alan Bedenko is someone who has created value (personality on social media and personality in his primary content). Now I feel like I want to hear his opinion on Trayvon Martin.

    The closest I can sort of get to in a comparative is like magazines. If you believe in the editorial direction of a magazine and it’s execution, that’s enough to get someone to pay for it. I think maybe there are some lessons in the way the model magazines are functioning.

  2. Barry Berlin

    Ryan:
    Pretty interesting and substantive. Ya make good points in a nicely written piece.
    In re: newspapers, Pew has a new report (journalism.org/print/28629) that empirically supports many of your points. The study involved proprietary data and individual interviews at 38 newspapers and finds the industry struggling to reinvent itself–and making “halting progress;.”
    Take care,
    Dr. Berlin
    P.S. What ya mean no longer have a dog in the fight?