Posted on 20/May/2015
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There is concern among those who produce professional content that their role is being marginalised in the debate around the Digital Single Market, which is too often over-simplified into a matter of balancing interests of “users” and “creators”.

The task of sorting the wheat from the chaff, of finding the new J K Rowling among the thousands of self-published wannabes – maybe needles and haystacks would be a better analogy – falls, in professional media production, to the producer or publisher.

For the purposes of this article I’ll use producer as a generic term encompassing editors and publishers, as well as those who, in the music, film and TV business, will have ‘producer’ as their job description.

At the moment, there is increasing concern among those who produce professional content that their role and their interests are being marginalised in the heated discussions in Brussels around the Digital Single Market, or reduced to derogatory comments about “intermediaries”.

This is not the fault of the European Commission. It is the Commission’s job to question whether legislation is needed to ensure that the success of the single market can be replicated in today’s online, connected world.

And if the purported GDP benefits of the DSM ever become tangible then clearly this will have been a great EU success story. But when discussion turns to the DSM’s impact on the content sector, this is too often, maybe as a function of today’s tweet-driven politics, over-simplified into a discussion about balancing the interests of “users” and “creators”.

These are important stakeholders but reduction of the digital content business to a two-sided debate between users and creators ignores the whole series of business processes which work the original creative idea into something the user will wish to pay money to watch, read or listen to.

There is a risk that the discussion may overlook processes like paying large advance for a book which has just been pitched by the author and which might (but might not) cover its costs; or selecting and marketing those ideas which have the potential to succeed – it has long been a rule of thumb in the music business that the record company will lose money on nine out of ten releases; or getting the distribution strategy right.

Here, the trick is to use the internet as one platform among many so as to maximise distribution. For example, the political drama Borgen, produced by Danish public television but with financial contribution to its production and development from other broadcasters, is now a success in many European countries.

But this is thanks not just to the quality of the programme itself but also its marketing and distribution: by selling the national rights to broadcasters like the BBC or VRT in Belgium, the rightsholders knew that their show would be scheduled and promoted in such a way as to attract the interest of an audience which has high expectations of the “subtitled drama” slots on those channels.

An internet-driven distribution strategy – streaming the content, presumably with subtitles, and relying on word of mouth, social media or recommendation engines to bring an audience to the frankly rather arcane subject of Danish coalition politics – would not have worked.

The internet has had a profound and positive impact on the content businesses by easing distribution of both professional and amateur content. It is a great opportunity for the commercial content business.

Digitisation has also encouraged the production of content, sometimes blurring the line between amateur and professional. For instance, the group of citizen journalists – basically activists with cameraphones – from the Kiev Maidan are now running a respected online TV channel, Hromadske TV, or there are many examples of You Tube stars and bloggers establishing viable businesses and solid fanbases among their particular niche audience.

But although the Internet is an exciting distribution platform, it does not finance content production, and for all the digital enthusiasm one hears in the Brussels bubble these days, the fabled ‘disruptive’ effect of the internet has yet to affect the content sector in two ways.

First, to date, few online content ventures have broken through to, and changed, the mass market in the way that the “Tin Drum” or “Anarchy in the UK” did.

The shifts have happened in distribution rather than production of content. Secondly, and more importantly, those advocating disruption as an end in itself have yet to come up with a new model of ensuring that the people who make the content get paid.

The producer and publisher, like any other business, seek to ensure recoupment of investment, maximise audience and viewership – which translate into revenues that flows back to the creator or creators.

The model works offline and is increasingly working online, although there are issues around revenue sharing between platforms and the creative sector. And it’s in Europe’s interest with the creative industries accounting for €509 bn of EU GDP and seven million jobs.

If the current system is to be challenged – and to date we have seen no evidence of a viable alternative – then the European content producers need to be at the heart of the discussion.


photo credit: Zé Pedro
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