Monday, June 2, 2008

A Series of Niches

I was recently reading Nick Reynold's blog, an editor at the BBC Internet blog and all-around astute guy on Internet trends, and came across the following statement:

[t]he internet is becoming more dominant and sometimes the internet feels like a series of niches, not a broad mass medium. TV too is becoming a series of niches.
This is not a totally new thought, but it struck me at the right time to consider how important we think about the practical impacts that media can have on our daily lives. Most importantly we need to be clear about the special relationship that public purpose media has on evaluating and measuring those impacts in terms of benefit for users, rather than general moral stands on "the value' of public service media.

I Lived in South Philly
I think that Nick is right on about the Internet being a series of niches, just like my former home Philadelphia is a series of neighborhoods. People often don't have much to do with what is happening six or seven blocks away, but we all still make up a great city. To keep up the analogy the we often think of public purpose media as being the wonderful, bright and shining downtown of high-end news, cultural programming and civic engagement shows. That is not the whole city and for the people who live in South Philly, going downtown does not seem like a great option. They like their own neighborhoods, perhaps a bit gritty and run down, but we know everyone and the content that is created in this community is not pretty, but better than that it's useful.

Wake Me Up When You Go, Go
In the UK the Office of Communications (see Wikipedia's entry for more), the lord high executioner of television there, something like a super FCC, uses the following definition for the purposes of public service broadcasting:
  1. Inform the World
  2. Reflect & Strengthen Cultural Identity
  3. Stimulate interest in "art, science, history and other topics"
  4. Promote awareness of different cultures and vie....huh! wha! Sorry, I fell asleep.
They go one to define public service content as having the following characteristics: High Quality, Original, Innovative, Challenging, Engaging and Accessible/Discoverable.

OK, these are very laudable, and I agree whole heartedly on the last point, but these sound more like the characteristics of a partner in a what will be a very tiresome relationship.

Towards a New Definition of Public Purpose Media
I like the quote of my friend Dan Fellini, the Executive Producer for the Public Internet Channel who says "Public service content does not need to be high quality, original, innovative or challenging to work. It does, I believe, have to be engaging, discoverable and accessible. It’s best when it is high quality, original, innovative and challenging, but those things can get in the way of getting a message out, I hate to say."

Where is the action and impact in the type of neutered content definition used by the UK? Where is the local expert, the guy that sits down at the end of Tommy's Bar & Grill and gives you that one piece of advice that is perfect?

Dan goes on to say "The fact that information exists and it is relevant, accessible and leads to action, is what makes content ‘public service.’ That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for high quality content. We should. It adds to our authority and avoids our message being muddled by poor, distracting production. But at the end of the day, the actual content — the message, the thing that leads someone from idle to action -- is king, and its delivery quality, its originality, how innovative it is... It is secondary."

To let Dan carry it home, here is what I think is a very good starting definition of the characteristics of public purpose media:
  1. Inform people about their world
  2. Reflect and strengthen community
  3. Stimulate action to improve life through content
  4. Demystify complex topics and promote awareness of change opportunities, and provide access to tools to affect those changes
  5. Provide more than just the bare necessities. Art, culture and critical thought are important to everyone.

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