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Is there another black swan coming for the media world?

There are lots of clichés in the development of mass media over time.  We talk about the ‘fragmentation of the media landscape’ and ‘device proliferation’.  These are now predictable changes occurring gradually over a relatively long time frame.  Our industry can work with these changes as typically their short term impact is overstated.  We need only remember that over time, the changes are usually more significant than their initial impact leads us to believe.

However, a black swan event is one that is not predictable and has a major impact. Another interesting thing is that people post-rationalize black swans after they occur, as if they were predictable and actually flowed naturally from previous events.  The term itself originates from a time when all swans were deemed to be white until black ones were discovered in Australia.  No one had thought to look there and a basic tenet that all swans were white had to change.  Many think that the course of human history has been more influenced by black swan events than by predictable developments.  Examples are the Great Fire of London, the invention of the internet or 9/11.  No-one foresaw these, or their subsequent impact on the development of London, on human interaction and geo-politics. Note that black swans can be devastating or they can lay golden eggs. Also, they can be concentrated as a sudden impact event like 9/11. But also they can be developments over a longer period of time like the roll-out of internet over at least two decades.

So if such events are not predictable, why bother thinking about them in advance?  But perspective is all.  Turkeys spend their entire lives being fed every day; they have no reason to suspect that a black swan event will befall them sometime around the middle of December.  However, what a black swan event for them, is a planned development for the turkey farmer.  Is it possible to put ourselves in the ‘farmer’s’ shoes, or build some insurance mechanism to cushion the effects of an (unspecific) black swan event?  These insurances against black swans already exist for large national and international risks. We have special governmental ‘Cobra’ meetings to deal with sudden events and we have global programs like the Near Earth Object Programme to deal with the low probability/high impact event of an Asteroid strike.   To bring into being such systems means questioning the assumptions that we hold the firmest.

In the world of those who work in media, could it be that it is worth envisaging a future time when a black swan has turned our current assumptions aside? Let us start to imagine not what the black swan looks like. Instead, let’s examine our assumptions to see if they hide a possible black swan. What follows is a series of statements that are worth examining to see what the ramifications are if they are not true.

Public funding will always form part of the media ecosystem. In many countries, there is a long established public service broadcasting model for TV and sometimes also for radio. With economic crisis becoming entrenched in a country, might this come to an abrupt halt? It is worth considering what the implications of this would be for content production, the advertising industry and content control by the state.

Gold standard audience measurement currencies exist to provide accurate data for consumption of TV or Radio content, that facilitates the trading of commercial airtime. Usually there is a currency (JIC) for TV and for radio in a country, but with the advent of cross device and non-live consumption, measuring it is only possible with current technology if live viewing on a TV or radio set remains the norm. The less the norm it becomes, the weaker the measurement models are. At what point do they break? ‘Breaking’ may well be is the critical mass effect of enough key influencers ceasing to trade using the information and the systems becoming moribund as a result. Advertising on the internet is measured with systems that produce metrics but are less understandable or accountable than for TV and radio – will we need to depend on these types of measurement systems in the future.

The big consumer behavior innovations have already happened. The biggest black swans were internet and mobile, so everything that may occur in the future is thought to be much smaller in comparison. It is notoriously hard to imagine transformative inventions. Think about how hard it must have been to imagine electricity or television before they were brought into the home.   So, let’s not take too much time trying to gaze into the crystal ball. But what is the next ‘internet’ or ‘mobile’ revolution? Let’s think bigger even than social media. And what effect will it have on a media world still playing catch-up with the first two?

The media industry needs a framework for the future laying out these ‘what if’ scenarios. The idea should not be to describe the black swan but to plan for what effect the black swan would have. For example, how would we cope with the step change to a brand new measurement currency or a world without publically-funded TV? Whatever scenarios we map out will undoubtedly be different to what emerges, but we can’t stop the black swan from happening. Let’s think about it.

For more information, contact Guy Holcroft, Research Director in GfK’s Brand and Consumers Experience team, at guy.holcroft@gfk.com.

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