Information Overflow

In part two of his account of the dramatic rise of media, Torin Douglas delves into what the millennium holds.

This month, the culture secretary Chris Smith formally acknowledged that we are entering a new media age – and gave it the Government’s blessing. Addressing the Royal Television Society’s Cambridge convention – where, 20 years before, William Whitelaw had announced the go-ahead for Channel 4 – Smith said digital television meant the end of TV as a broadcaster, and its beginning as an electronic communicator, transcending the old distinctions between TV, computer and phone.

He laid out a vision in which every home with a TV and phone would be connected to the Internet, and in which the elderly and infirm – not just the “young and trendy” – would shop from home and keep in touch with friends and family by e-mail.

“It has the potential,” he said, “to create a world where all sections of society have access to information, news, education and current affairs, erasing the difference between the knowledge-rich and the knowledge-poor.”

Yet, despite its benefits, the new media age also has the potential to overwhelm us with information, offering too many choices to cope with, and fragmenting and weakening the power of what was once called the “mass media”.

At the start of the third millennium, people and organisations already face a bewildering choice of media. In 1979, it might just have been possible for a well-read, well-organised person to keep abreast of what was worth reading, watching and listening to in the UK media. Try that now.

A week’s national newspapers contain about 7,500 pages, in 200 sections, weighing some 25 kilos. And new sections and magazines are launched every month. To add to this, more organisations are producing their own publications, to mail or hand deliver to customers and members.

Excessive choice is also an issue for digital TV viewers. They now have a choice of more than 120 channels through satellite alone. Of these, 48 (soon to rise to 72) are “multiplexed”, allowing viewers to watch the movie of their choice at the time of their choice. But SkyDigital’s TV guide tells me that in addition to these, I have 17 entertainment channels, 12 movie channels, 13 news and documentary channels, eight children’s channels, seven sports channels, eight music channels, four (of the five) terrestrial channels and six other public service channels (from the BBC and others), not to mention 44 audio services. ONdigital gives me several others.

Videos and interactive TV services such as computer games and Teletext (ten per cent of all UK holidays are now bought through Teletext) already compete with TV channels for screentime in the home. Next month, Open, on SkyDigital, will launch many more, including home shopping, games, e-mail and limited access to the Internet. The first TV decoder boxes with a hard disk, which can download and store up to ten hours of programming will be available from this autumn. With digital compression, that will rise to a thousand hours or more.

Web users already have millions of pages and sites to occupy them – supplied not just by media owners, but entertainment groups, advertisers, retailers, government organisations, regulators, charities and, it seems, every Web-literate 14-year-old.

In the magazine sector, BRAD now lists almost 8,000 titles – a situation that has forced WH Smith to impose a cull on less popular titles, and the National Readership Survey to launch a fundamental review of its methods.

Radio offers almost 250 commercial stations – many of which don’t make a profit, despite the City’s high valuation of those groups that do – as well as some 50 national or local BBC stations. Next year, digital radio promises seven new national commercial stations and many more local ones.

Even outdoor, once the most static of media, now uses rotating billboards to bombard stationary motorists and fans at football grounds with more messages per minute.

The Henley Centre, in its Media Futures programme, describes this media deluge as “a Niagara of supply and a pint pot of demand”. The BBC’s Sir John Birt calls it a “digitopia”, ITV’s Richard Eyre a “communicopia”. In an age of hype, hyperbole, hypermarkets and hyperactivity, I would venture the term “hypermedia”, that is, an excess of media (though to computer buffs it already means something rather more technical).

The Henley Centre talks of a growing “time/money deficit” in the “attention economy”. Put simply, most people have too few leisure hours and/or too little money to absorb all the available media competing for their attention.

In this overcrowded market, media owners are having to sell their programmes and titles much harder than before. Only strong brands will cut through the clutter. Programme makers and journalists, once scornful of advertising and marketing techniques, now embrace them as their best hope of attracting an audience. Yet still viewers complain there’s nothing on they want to watch.

Advertisers (who would normally crave a buyers’ market, since it brings down media prices) are also worried. For all the talk of greater segmentation and sharper targeting, the explosion of choices for viewers and readers makes it more likely an advertisement will miss its target altogether – lost in a welter of unread sections and zapped-through commercial breaks.

Media research bodies, such as BARB and the National Readership Survey, struggle to measure all the new channels and sections.

Even politicians now experience the problems at first hand. Instead of dealing with just two TV news organisations, each putting out three bulletins a day, public figures involved in a major story (including company representatives) can now face a dozen TV cameras and interview requests. Not to mention the incessant demands of 24-hour news stations for live reports and instant reaction around the clock. And radio news.

Despite this extra coverage, news audiences are going down. People in multichannel homes, who have a greater choice of viewing, watch fewer BBC or ITN main bulletins.

And then there’s the Internet. Far more than a medium, the Net is a shopping mall, a bank network, a library, a games arcade. With e-commerce developing so rapidly, the Advertising Standards Authority recently admitted it was hard to decide whether a Website constituted an advertisement or a shop, or both.

Now, it seems, Web panic has set in. Media owners are queuing up to follow Dixons’ Freeserve into the free-access portal business, terrified that, if they don’t, their hold on their readers, viewers or listeners may be broken. It is no longer enough for a media owner to have a great Website, for the world may not beat a path to its door. Indeed, in the hypermedia age, the chances are that the world won’t even know it is there.

For example, BBC Online has an interactive screen tour of Althorp House, the former home of Diana Princess of Wales. I have BBC Online on my desk every day, but I was totally unaware this site existed. Like every other organisation, the corporation is still grappling with how to make people aware of what is on its 250,000 Web pages and a dozen or more TV and radio networks. Its answer? To appoint a controller of navigation.

It is one of a raft of media initiatives to guide consumers through the vast over-supply of messages competing for their attention – from the Internet search engines and electronic programme guides (EPGs), to those new readers’ digests, The Week and The Guardian’s The Editor; from spindoctors and media monitoring companies to advertising’s media specialists.

The search engines and EPGs are getting smarter, tailoring choices to an individual’s own needs. Yet, unless they become more sophisticated, the whole edifice could be laid low, like the dinosaur, by a brain too small and slow to control its monstrous size.

Forecasting what the media will be like in 20 years’ time is to enter the world of fantasy. As Richard Eyre observed at a recent Marketing Society dinner, no one a year ago foresaw the free giveaway of digital boxes or free Internet access. The key to success, it would seem, is versatility.

As consumers, my family and I – in a nine-screen household – have embraced the digital opportunities, from the films to the football and Futurama. Yet there are real dangers in the new media age, which may be summed up by one image.

It’s that of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse harnesses his master’s magic to do his chores, bewitching a broomstick to fetch buckets of water. Overcome by his own cleverness, he falls asleep, dreaming he can control the stars, the planets and the tides – only to wake up in a flood, powerless to stop the relentless broomstick adding to the torrent.

The media world is now at that stage, already flooded, its consumers floundering. But worse is to come. Desperate to halt the tide, Mickey Mouse takes an axe to the broomstick, only to find – as if by digital compression – that hundreds more broomsticks are springing up in its place. A memorable demonstration that you can have too much of a good thing.

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