The medium *is* the message

Every good media student will be familiar with, and possibly traumatised by recalling, Marshall McLuhan and the prophetic 53-year-old idea that the medium is the message. It’s a theory I’d recommend TVNZ’s Andy Shaw revisit in light of his recent comments about Netflix. TVNZ's deputy director of content seems to think Netflix is a fad, saying New Zealanders were treating the global streaming on demand video site like a pet but weren’t getting much in return.

“Let's not get seduced by the fact that Netflix is a ubiquitously available service at a reasonable price” cautioned Shaw. Ignoring that warning at my own peril, Netflix’s ubiquity is precisely what I and many others are seduced by.

When McLuhan talked about the medium being the message, he wasn’t saying content was inconsequential but that when we focus on it too much, we miss the role and power of the form in shaping our experience. Essentially, if you don’t understand the medium, you don’t fully understand the message. And that’s where Shaw revealed what I think is a fatal flaw for someone heading up a content business today.

Shaw zoomed in on the content, claiming maybe only 12 of the 500 new television titles launching this year would be on Netflix and seemed to be trying to argue you weren’t getting any real value paying for it.

"There are some that are good but it's a brand that is over-hyped by the media and frankly if you search for longer than four minutes there's actually not that much out there. So lets not get carried away." said Shaw.

Shaw went after Netflix on the basis of the content but has missed that people are equally attached to the form of Netflix and the way in which the content is delivered. Its availability, the appearance of it being a smorgasbord of whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like, and it’s brazen disregard for all that has gone before in TV land; in many ways it is everything we dreamed the internet would be for entertainment – borderless and on demand with a liberal, sometimes risky approach to commissioning, a home for both niche content and comforting revivals and a haven and saviour for fans of shows that other networks have cancelled because of poor performance.

In a weird juxtaposition, five days after Andy Shaw’s rage against the internet machine, others at TVNZ were demonstrating a greater appreciation of McLuhan’s ideas and modern media by pushing play on Re:, TVNZ’s ‘socially-driven alternate news brand that creates video content covering important issues that affect young New Zealanders.’ Launching without a lot of fanfare, Re: is a new venture from TVNZ aimed at catering to ‘non-traditional’ TV audiences i.e. the same people who sit at home stroking their pet Netflix all weekend according to Shaw. It looks like all the work is designed to live on social and is bespoke for those channels. Re: have a presence across Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. It’s all short, mobile friendly content and while TVNZ have said it will be viewable on their website, at the moment they’re just embedding it from social media and long may it continue.

It’s a great example of understanding the medium as much as the message and catering to an audience who not only consume more online video content than TV but whose experience of the message is vastly impacted by a rapid-fire, socially driven mobile medium.

"Netflix is is everything we dreamed the internet would be for entertainment – borderless and on demand with a liberal, sometimes risky approach."

Fortunately for Andy Shaw, there was a late contender for the award for the least understanding of McLuhan and weirdest media move of the month, with Sky’s announcement of Sky Box Sets. Announced last week, Sky Box Sets will take over Sky Channel 9 - where sci-fi channel the Zone was - from August 1. Travis Dunbar, Sky’s Director of Entertainment, says that the development of Sky Box Sets is in direct response to SKY customers’ clear appetite for premium drama and comedy series.

Every night Sky will screen an entire season of ‘binge worthy’ TV from 7.30pm. Every night, a new season TV to binge on. You have 24 hours to binge an entire season of TV as long as it’s what Sky decides you have the appetite for. It’s literal bingeing on TV because you’ll need to derive some kind of nutritional value from the show you’re watching, because I’m not sure when you go to work to earn money to pay for groceries in this new arrangement. And sure, I guess you can record it all and watch it later and yeah, if you subtract the ‘watch what you want, when you want’ factor other on demand streaming services provide, it could be a viable rival to that.

My gut says it isn’t the silver bullet needed to save a sunset business.

It is not enough to have the content, you need to deliver the experience - and the medium has changed that forever. McLuhan’s message has never seemed more pertinent - the internet isn’t important because of its endless supply of content, but because it’s created a world where we expect the content we want to be endlessly and immediately there when we want it to be. And that is what we really have an appetite for, Travis. That is what we are seduced by, Andy. And that isn’t going away.

The medium is the message, and there isn’t going to be much room left for content providers that don’t grasp that fully.

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