This is one of a series of posts; the last post was here.
Gutenberg’s printer created mass media, a way for producers of content to distribute those works to many consumers. Producers were freed of the powerful technical limitations of one-by-one document production or of in-person, live production. Gutenberg created the copy, the widely-distributed, faithfully-executed physical instantiation of content. Printing brought with it reproductive fidelity and volume, the ability to turn a single manuscript produced by an author into many accurate copies available to the public. Until recently—say the last three decades roughly—a copy of the content provided only a way to consume the content, that is, to read the book or listen to the music or go the movie theater to take in a show. And it wasn’t even possible to possess a copy of radio or television broadcast: radio waves emanated through the ether to be received, ever so briefly and fleetingly.
For work distributed on physical media—printed works, recorded music and movie reels—control over the copy translated into a natural (if incomplete) business model: pay for access to the copy. Buy the book or the sheet music, the wax cylinder or the CD, buy a ticket and some popcorn and go to the picture show. This is simple to implement, though even in this basic setting issues arise (what about shared copies, either through libraries or used book markets? If I buy a copy of a play, can I put the play on Broadway without paying anything else? If I buy the sheet music for a song, can I record it? Sing it at the opera?). And “pay for access to the copy” didn’t necessarily mean that consumers were doing the paying. Advertisers could pay for access as well, could pay to have their ads included with the content. Under the right circumstances, advertisers might foot the entire bill for the content and consumers would pay nothing for copies. Mail in a Bromo-Seltzer label and get sheet music for free.
For radio and television—works distributed as waves—the copy had never been the unit of interest. Individuals didn’t possess radio shows or TV shows. Families gathered around the radio to listen to The Shadow—“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”—and to laugh with Fibber McGee and Molly. Shows were fleeting, to be heard at the appointed time or lost forever. Programs weren’t possessed. And this was no less true of television, as television supplanted radio in defining mass media entertainment.
Without a copy to sell, how would we pay for radio and television? AT&T launched radio station WEAF in New York in 1922 as a “toll” radio station: “The American Telephone and Telegraph Company will provide no program of its own, but provide the channels through which anyone with whom it makes a contract can send out their own programs.” AT&T planned to sell blocks of time to anyone who wanted to broadcast, just as it sold telephone service to all comers. But eventually we “paid” for radio and television through the advertising that came with it. We listened and watched, and the advertisers paid to reach us.
For radio, we never invented the copy. Radio started as a mix of live music, comedies and drama; it later replaced live music with records. For music, the copy already existed, Edison had seen to that with the invention of the phonograph. We didn’t need to copy songs off of the radio for listeners to own the music. The original shows were something else: we could just as easily have time-shifted Jack Benny as we did later did with Sex and the City. The Radio Corporation of America—the giant of early radio and then television—offered home recording equipment as early as 1930, but the price and technical limitations of the equipment meant that we didn’t copy radio.
For television and movies, Sony invented the copy. Others had tried and failed—CBS had electronic video recording, and who remembers Cartrivision?—but with its Betamax video cassette recorder, Sony succeeded. Hollywood tried to stop Sony—or at least hoped to sue and win and then negotiate—but the irony is that while Sony won its legal war with Hollywood when the Supreme Court ruled in Sony’s favor in 1984, Sony lost the VCR wars, as its Betamax format lost out to the competing VHS format, and Hollywood laughed all the way to the bank.
For television, the creation of the copy put at risk the business model for selling these works. Television was paid for by advertising, though with the rise of cable, consumers started to pay directly for TV. Unlike Gutenberg’s printer, which created both the copy and the business model for printed works, the VCR made copying possible and that challenged the business model of television. Over-the-air TV was free to all, but only fleetingly so. Watching the shows meant watching the commercials—or at least ignoring them. The VCR meant that consumers could watch content whenever they wanted to, and they could fast-forward over the commercials. With the VCR in hand, who would watch commercials, and if no one watched commercials, how would we pay for television?
But the creation of the TV copy also made it possible for consumers to pay directly for TV shows. TV watchers have had few opportunties to vote with their dollars for shows. Advertisers track the number of viewers for a show and the demographics of those viewers. The willingness to pay in cold, hard cash makes it possible for someone who really, really likes a show to communicate that in the most direct way possible: paying money to buy the show. Willingness to pay can capture the intensity of preferences or desire for a show in a way that mere watching can’t. You can’t do that with over-the-air TV or even with traditional cable, where you buy tiers of channels packaged together, though we start to get closer to that with video on demand.
And the rise of the Internet has enormously simplified how individual shows can be delivered. Creating and delivering phyical media of TV shows—VCR tapes or DVDs—takes time and requires guesswork about how many copies of a particular show to send to the local Target. That creates a guaranteed lag; that may work for some shows—comedy shows may stand up over time—but may be fatal for shows that are tied to current events. You can watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central if you want to, but you can’t buy DVDs of it. But with a broadband connection and iTunes, for $9.99, you can subscribe to The Daily Show multi-pass and get 16 episodes delivered directly to your desktop.