TOPICS: There’s been too much stuff

Emily Bell

The diagnosis is that over the last 10 years there has been too much stuff so a lot of it has to go. The tricky bit is choosing what to keep Bear with me as we recap last week’s 100-yard dash of British media industry financial woe before breasting the tape of eternal doom. First comes ITV, the main national commercial terrestrial broadcaster, with its 40% profit decline, 600 redundancies and regional closures, then Channel Five making one in four people redundant — saving almost as much money as Channel 4 will gain from Kevin Lygo, its director of television, halving his GBP1m pay package. In print, things are no less unappealing.

The ABCs, as insiders call statistics produced by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, for national newspapers recorded almost universal sales decline, with no sector growing and the Daily Sport newspaper withdrawing from the audit altogether. In magazines, Arena closed, and even on the internet Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, has folded his blogs together, proclaiming that “micropublishing is dead”. Wherever you look, it is clear that the media industry is in dire need of quantitative tightening.

The “TMS” syndrome (too much stuff) became endemic in the past five years, when the digital possibilities of many platforms drew the industry to create more in all formats. The lack of any boundaries to bandwidth was only encouraged by a seemingly ever-expanding pool of advertising opportunities. Audiences have become super-served by pagination, programming, streams and options, all buoyed in an advertising bubble that popped loudly enough to wake even the most somnolent. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the past 10 years has been the idea that digitisation is an invitation to do more, when it is in fact an opportunity to do less, but better.

How does an industry that has force-fed all manner of output to an audience that can’t digest it draw back? The economic downturn will make this confrontation easier to resolve. The way out is for a narrowing at one end of the distribution pipe - the creation end. Production companies in the UK are now bigger and more powerful than broadcasters, not least because of the over-commissioning spree. There is as much good television now as there has been for a long time yet it barely has space to breathe. We are moving, probably for all manner of creative content, toward the “iPlayer model”. The number of shop windows and the level of output will drop dramatically with closure and consolidation, but the opportunity to consume will exponentially expand through technology.

Rationally this is something every media business knows, but moving towards it is incredibly painful and often extremely expensive. Not to mention slow. The light at the end of the tunnel is the possibility that, when all of the current attrition is over, there will still be enough revenue from advertising to support the very best of the content. The war against too much stuff has officially begun. The challenge is to make sure we are left, when the gloom lifts, with the right stuff.