Bread, Butter and the Media

Imagine that every channel is a slice of bread. And a slab of butter is the money available to spread across the slices. The smaller the loaf, the easier it is to spread generously. But as the number of loaves and slices mount, it becomes one of the hardest jobs to do. Which is the story of how media companies became the force they are in today’s advertising environment.

We’ve gone from a few loaves to hundreds of loaves in the last couple of decades. If you count ‘channels’ on the internet, it’s in millions. Assume that news is one of the loaves and you’ve got national, regional and language ‘slices’ catering to smaller and smaller audience segments. The same rule applies to music, or movies or sports channels. But the money available for advertising has not grown at the same breakneck speed. If anything, applying the butter has now become a statistical game of mind-boggling proportions. Figuring out where the customer is going to be is an art – and a science with a lot of equations and algorithms built in.

There are nearly 200 channels on the TV that one can watch today. But the vast majority are going to confine themselves to a maximum of 10 or 15. If you’re interested in football, you can now choose between 4-5 tournaments at any given time. There are three 24 hour sports channels in India dedicated to cricket. There are already 20 ‘top’ cricket websites listed by ‘The Telegraph’ and readers contributed several more. So, sports fans are not a general category under one umbrella. The cricket segment needs to be weighed against those who watch football or tennis or Formula 1 racing.

We’re watching sports, movies and serials on screens that start from 5 inch handhelds and go all the way to a giant 55 inches. Designing communication that effortlessly straddles this entire spectrum is a huge task. We’re in subtly different mental states when we watch TV, surf the latest episode on a mobile or catch a celebrity interview on the tablet. So, something that is meant to intrude on TV can get very annoying when extended to the mobile screen. We’re getting better and better at shutting out rather than letting in.

Our internet connections are getting faster year on year. The size of our hard disks is growing by terabytes. There are 50,000 movies being produced every year. The Gracenote database shows a record of over 97 million songs that have been recorded until now. Like accumulating unread books in a library, we are accumulating humongous wish lists of movies, music, travel and art. And even if we were to spend decades viewing, listening or experiencing even a fraction of the catalogue on offer, we would hardly have scratched the surface.

So, if the choices that fight for our attention are bewildering, imagine the plight of the media owner desperately trying to maintain the freshness of the programs on the channel and predicting audience taste. Like butterflies in a sea of vibrant flowers, we now flit aimlessly from one experience to the other. From food to fashion to drama to sports to sex, we have more options than opportunities. I think we are in for a lifetime of distraction rather than fulfillment and achievement.