Abundant Choices

Last week, I had an odd first-time experience. I was at a neighborhood party, when the host asked if anyone had heard the funny story on NPR about the cocker spaniel. Some of us had not, so he went to his PC (hooked to the stereo via Airtunes) and played it.

As technological advances reduce the cost of storage and distribution, we are getting more and more choice as to what media content we consume and as to when and how we consume it. This trend is expected to continue until we can watch or listen to any TV show, radio show, movie, concert or song any time we want on any device.

But how will such abundant choices affect the content that is produced?

Chris Anderson argues in his Wired article, blog, and book, The Long Tail, that this trend will cause our economy to shift away from producing a small number of hit products to producing a large number of niche products. He has found hard evidence that, “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.” (E.g. Amazon’s total sales of less popular books is greater than their sales of bestsellers).

I see clearly how this will affect distributors—I would much rather be Amazon (whose technology allows them to sell Long Tail as well as hit products) than Tower Records (whose limited shelf space only allowed them to sell popular titles).

As for producers, there will now be a place at the table for the little guy. Lots more low-budget content will get produced because Long Tail distribution will make it economical. For example, this excellent video on how children can train puppies with clickers probably made a profit.

It may be true that all the Long Tail content out there will siphon some consumer spending away from hit content. This would mean smaller hits or fewer hits.

But does the Long Tail phenomenon mean big producers will stop trying to make hits? I think not, for two reasons. The first is emotional: humans are competitive and ambitious. Even the little guy making low-budget productions really wants to have a hit. The second is rational: for those few producers who have the dough, there will always be a reasonable inducement to spend money on things that increase sales (e.g. in movies: star talent, special effects, and advertising).

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