The question of serendipity

Ben Compaine offers a nostalgic and, therefore, shallow response to Matthew Gilbert’s Boston Globe article in support of à la carte programming for cable. The bio for Ben says he’s been around awhile (“when manual typewriters were considered state of the art”), and that’s evident by his dismissal of anything unbundled. He argues, for example, that the Boston Globe wouldn’t sell him just the City/Region and Business sections, so why should cable do the same? Then, he gets to the usual high ground of the bundlers.

And we should not under estimate the value of serendipity and diversity in the value of the bundle. One of the great joys of the newspaper is stumbling across something that we wouldn’t have seen if all media were stove piped– that is, focused only on what we know we want or like. Like the Web is for many. I’m glad I saw your column, just as I’m glad that in using the “next channel” button on my remote I occasionally stumble on something on the Biography or History channels. If asked to pay for them I probably wouldn’t. But they’re bundled and it’s not such a bad thing to hear some promotion on the radio or elsewhere for one of their programs and, what the heck, I watch since it’s available. Bundling equals diversity.
I’ve heard this argument many times in my travels, although nobody has used the word “serendipity” to describe what we’ll miss in our increasingly on-demand world. Here are a couple of points for consideration.
  1. It isn’t serendipitous when an editor or promotions manager puts something in front of you designed to drag you into another section or segment. That’s called marketing, and it’s what people are trying desperately to escape. If such is perceived as serendipity or an “occasional stumble,” then the marketeur has especially won, for that is the ultimate goal of the ad pro. That’s an absurdly cynical perspective, I realize, but very little happens by accident in the media world. The difference between now and then is that the people themselves want to determine the accidents. We’re not as naïve as we used to be.
  2. The notion that bundling equals diversity assumes much and begs many questions, the first of which is who determines the diversity — presumably the owner of the bundle. It assumes that people are somehow resistant to diversity, and I would argue that that’s pretty tough to prove. I don’t know anybody who isn’t curious, but I know a lot of people who don’t want to be told what they should be curious about.

    The biggest complaint I have about this bundled diversity theory is that it assumes people are stupid and — absent the “serendipity” of a bundle with lots of choices — they’ll just wither away stuck in their own cocoons. Where’s the proof?

  3. Finally, this argument suffers from the “all-or-nothing” syndrome that accompanies most media opinions (sadly, I get that way too), regardless of which side they’re on. The mainstream way of doing things isn’t going away completely. Blogs aren’t taking over completely. People will always leave themselves choices, and if there’s profit to be made from “serendipity,” then someone will move in to claim it. Matthew Gilbert makes good points in his Boston Globe article, and Ben makes some good observations too. But finding our way to tomorrow would be a whole lot easier if we could drop the notion that new media is REPLACING everything that’s old. It’s just not so.

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