You can’t kill the middleman

Jeff Jarvis correctly notes that ABC’s decision to offer popular programs for free download is big news, but then goes off the rails a bit in the comments. First, the good stuff:

What this really means: TV is grabbing a share of online advertising by redefining TV as both broadcast and broadband. Advertisers have always been more comfortable spending big money on TV. Now they can continue to spend their money with those familiar players and get broadband, too. And TV is doing this so as not to lose money to other media even as broadcast — and next, cable — shrink; this is how they rescue upfront. And if TV succeeds at holding advertisers’ attention and money, other players — online companies, magazines, newspapers — may not be able to break in. This an effort for both networks and ad agencies to keep ahead.

In the comments, though, Jay Currie speculates:

[E]xactly why do the producers of these shows need the networks if these models work? If I own – to take an old example – Seinfeld why not put the entire thing up on the net with a few different revenue options and see what sticks.

(I’d sell that entertainment conglomerate stock too.)

Jarvis agrees:

Exactly right. At some point, soon, content producers will get rid of all middlemen.

Now, I’m not picking on Jarvis or Currie or anybody else in particular, but on this sentiment, which is pretty widespread, practically to the point of tautology, among the digerati. See, e.g., David Heinemeier Hansson’s self-congratulatory post on publishing. But, as Tim O’Reilly says in the comments to Hansson’s post, it’s really not at all clear that the “middlemen” are going anywhere. Or, more precisely, it’s not at all clear that middlemen, as an integral part of the distribution system, are going anywhere, even if the currently-extant middlemen disappear from the scene.

You see, even aside from the fact that writers tend not to be their own best editors and musicians tend not to be their own best producers, there are potentially billions of people out there who are or will be self-publishing their creations. The internet already comprises (at minimum) hundreds of gigabytes worth of material and, as broadband proliferates, that’s only going to increase exponentially. How am I, as a content consumer with a day job, supposed to unearth the good stuff from the overwhelming sea of crap?

The traditional answer is that publishers/record labels/movie studios find the good books/albums/movies and distribute them, then reviewers sift through the still-gigantic mountain of published material and point you and I towards the best of it. Of course, this system isn’t perfect and never was, but it actually does pretty effectively relegate rather a lot of the crap (which, of necessity, comprises the overwhelming majority of artistic work) to obscurity. And the need for that aspect of traditional middlemen will only increase as more people get hooked up to the internet.

Which, as I hinted above, doesn’t mean that tomorrow’s middlemen will look anything like yesterday’s. Probably the biggest middleman on the internet today is Google; just imagine how hard it would be to find anything interesting or useful online without a search engine. Or what about Slashdot, Digg, and YouTube (to name just four examples I use), which aggregate content based on how popular it is among their users? They’re middlemen, too. So are popular linkblogs like InstaPundit and boingboing. None of these sites looks like Time-Warner or Arista, but, from the consumer standpoint, they perform basically the same essential function of separating the wheat from the chaff.

No, the difference between traditional content distribution and future content distribution is not that there won’t be any middlemen in the future, but that the middlemen will less homogeneous: in composition, process and in scope. The composition part is easy to see: some will be corporate (like ESPN or Wired or Google), some will be collaborative (like Slashdot or Digg), some will be individual (like Glenn Reynolds). The process part is also easy to see: Google is on one end of the automation spectrum, Wired and (presumably) Glenn Reynolds are more or less on the other end and sites like Slashdot and are somewhere in the middle. This is even more muddied by the fact that many of the “middlemen” are themselves content-producers.

The inhomogeneity of scope is also relatively easy to see for anyone who spends a fair amount of time online. A middleman like Google is pretty good at picking out sites and information relevant to both relatively standard queries (like “ABC” or “William Gibson”) and extremely esoteric queries (like “circumcenter activities” or “Helmut Hofer”), but isn’t good at all at finding stuff relevant to vague or only slightly unusual queries. Google’s scope, being global, is just too broad to be effective in those circumstances. For example, if you’re looking for useful (and free) productivity software on the Mac with no foreknowledge of the subject, your best bet is probably to use Google to look for more specialized middlemen like Lifehacker or VersionTracker and then search those sites for links to potentially useful software (or maybe just to even more specialized middlemen). Quicksilver is a fantastic bit of software, but you have to go through at least two or three layers of middlemen to find it, especially since you would probably never guess, ahead of time, that such a thing exists.

Anyway, the point is that middlemen aren’t disappearing; if anything, they’re proliferating. It’s just that people confuse the decline of particular middlemen (such as the perceived decline of publishers or TV networks) with a general decline in the importance of the middleman.

Update Mark Cuban agrees with me. Indirectly, anyway.

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