TV News in a Postmodern World

Chaos in the Feedback Loop

by Terry L. Heaton
When the voice of God (at least we HOPE it was God) spoke — "If you build it, they will come" — in Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner's character created a baseball diamond amidst the corn on his Iowa farm so the Ghosts of Baseball Past could play their night games. He built it. They came. They played.

The slogan became the mantra of the Internet boom of the late 20th century and proved to be a better movie fantasy than business axiom. We built it. They came. They played. And we had such grandiose thoughts! We knew this Internet thing was something huge, but it just refused to perform the way we felt it should. The early failure of most Web businesses was due, I think, to the fact that we missed the cultural change that came with the technology, and we made a fundamental mistake in our business assumptions. We thought the Internet was just another business tool for Modern times. It's not. It's the lifeblood of Postmodern times, where Modernist business rules don't apply.

As a TV guy, my first view of the Internet was that a computer screen was just another TV set, albeit interactive. This, it turns out, was hopelessly naÔve. Like everybody else, my business model for the Web was a one-way street — what could I, as a Web publisher, bring to you, the Web audience? This is Modernist thinking all-the-way, because it's top-down, one-directional. What makes the Internet different is that it is a two-way street. In this sense, it's more an innovative extension of the telephone than the television set.

The first breakthrough to genuinely take advantage of this two-way street for the news business — this feedback loop — is the Weblog. Blogs are redefining contemporary journalism in ways that threaten traditional news people. Andrew Nachison, Director of The Media Center at the American Press Institute, writes:

To some, blogs represent a degradation, if not a downright blight, on real journalism. One author said in a post to the ONA discussion forum, "Anyone can "publish" their stuff. Drivel is passed off as journalism. The ramblings of someone somewhere are passed off as news. The result is acres and acres of terrible reporting. Incoherent ramblings and notes-to-myself that are published in public space."

Itís a sentiment I encounter often with newspaper editors and other "seasoned" journalists who have been there and done that and believe that journalism is best handled by trained professionals.

Nachison says the information dialog of the future may not resemble what we have known from the past, and that "the emphasis now is on the word relationship — implying a two-way conversation."

Former TV Guide and People TV critic, Jeff Jarvis, is a prolific Postmodern blogger and another proponent of the idea that relationship is the central component of the Internet. His BuzzMachine blog is a nifty blend of media, pop culture and politics, and Jeff is a highly respected member of the Weblog community.

"This medium is about relationships and the audience wants (desperately) to relate to media (or at least news media) as more than just an audience. They want a conversation. They want influence. They want power. No, we want all those things. That is the real guiding principle for the future of media: relationships."
This is absolutely true and the key reason most news people want to run and hide from the medium. Relationships? With the audience? Yes, and it means giving up command and control and the air of elitism that the press wears so well. It means tossing aside Walter Lippmann's great social engineering experiment of the last century — the belief that the people are incompetent to govern (and inform) themselves and need a group of educated and, therefore, objective elites to do the job for them. It means arguing our points of view instead of pretending we have none. It means listening instead of just telling. It means actually engaging with the people we're trying to inform.

It is the chaos of the feedback loop that Modernist news people fear the most, because it defies their logic and undercuts the core belief that only someone trained to do so can be a journalist, a folly that's being exposed every day.

For TV news people, the sense of journalistic protected status is further heightened by knowledge of "how to do TV." It's one thing to be able to write, the thinking goes, but it's quite another to use pictures and words to tell a story. This argument is also falling apart as the technological revolution is bringing shortcuts and simplicity to the consumer video market. The truth is that a small investment puts anybody in the video news business today, so the feedback loop is no longer limited to just text and/or still pictures.

This is extremely significant in my view of TV news in a Postmodern world, for it opens the door to an entirely new paradigm in the world of video news. If, in fact, anybody can be a video journalist, then the only structural barrier in moving the idea to a viable business concept is a delivery system. Once again, the Internet is where and how this will happen, and there are two important, on-going developments to watch in order to determine how soon.

AOL bought a little search company called SingingFish last week. Instead of searching for text-based Web pages, SingingFish's technology searches for multimedia, specifically audio, video and Flash (rich media) clips. Observers believe AOL bought the company not only to enrich their own content offerings but to temporarily block Yahoo and Google from getting into the multimedia search game. SingingFish is the lead player, but others will come along, because the Internet is evolving, from a medium that serves only text and pictures to one that serves other forms of communication as well. This is being made possible by the dramatic growth of broadband connectivity.

Ultimately, if I'm an independent video journalist, I'm going to need a way for people to "find" my products. Multimedia search technology is a key component of this. One day, video news on demand (VNOD) portal companies will offer an organized form of multimedia news clips produced by a variety of journalists, similar to what Google News offers via its computerized text editorial system. The business model will be advertising, and independent VJs will get paid based on the number of times their work is viewed.

The second development to watch is a move by broadband providers to increase upstream speeds instead of just downstream. Currently, there is a dramatic difference in the speed with which I receive (downstream) and send (upstream) a data stream to and from the Web. Playing a video stream from a Website also involves sending packets of data back to the source, and the speed with which this happens can influence the quality of viewing. Upstream speed, therefore, can be a critical element in an Internet-based, video on demand (VOD) world. Moreover, as noted above, the key difference between the Internet and other communications' media is that it is two-way. The degree to which the speed of upstreaming is increased will determine the potential for business opportunities coming from consumers to the Web. Voice over IP, video conferencing, Webcams, and many other applications and potential applications are affected by slow upstream speeds.

A recent reader survey by BroadbandReports.com found increases in upsteam speeds to be second only to lower pricing in what users want from their broadband providers. Readers of BroadbandReports.com may not be typical consumers, but among them are highly tech-savvy people who lead the way in Web development and expansion by pushing the creative envelope. The site predicts some areas of the country will see Time Warner Cable upstream speed experiments of 512kbs by Christmas, but that's still just 1/6th of the download speed offered by Time Warner.

These developments also have implications for broadcasting, because even now, TV stations use photographs provided by viewers during emergencies and spot news. When Hurricane Isabel pounded the east coast in September, stations used Webcams and viewer pictures to help tell the story. In the future, citizen reporters will do likewise with digital video.

Of course, this two-way flow of audio and video isn't a great idea to certain elements of the culture. If you haven't noticed, for example, there's a war underway between media companies and people who are tired of the gluttonous greed of a celebrity culture made possible by the money we pay for entertainment.

Harvard blogger, Dave Winer, is asking Democratic Presidential candidates to "make an impassioned plea to keep the Internet free of interference from the entertainment industry." SiliconValley.com's Dan Gillmor adds, "Keeping Hollywood's infuence from wrecking the Net would, by extension, help solve the copyright disaster that's been building in America for decades."

These two, and others, are writing about this, because the status quo doesn't appreciate its fatted calf being whacked by a citizenry armed with weapons it can't control.

The media cartel, as Gillmor calls it, is winning a few battles here and there, but as long as the Internet remains free of their control, they will ultimately lose the war. The Recording Industry Association of America's lawsuits to stop the file-swapping theft of copyrighted songs and the Motion Picture Association of America's victory with the FCC in the "broadcast flag" decision to stop the potential theft of copyrighted movies are desperate and defensive attempts by a Modernist institution to keep its place in a changing culture.

Meanwhile, and seemingly invisible to the status quo, a whole new order is being created and new rules of engagement written. It's no longer, "If we build it, they will come," for the builders aren't in charge anymore. To the Postmodern, it's the phrase I remember from first year Latin, "Veni. Vidi. Vici." We came. We saw. We conquered.