By Christopher B. Daly
Why should journalism depend on advertising? There is nothing logical, necessary or inevitable about it.
Originally, advertising was a trivial source of income for 18th Century newspapers. Instead, readers supported those newspapers by subscribing for fixed (and pretty lengthy) periods. there were few if any newsstand sales. That model worked for more than a century.
It was only in the 19th Century that newspaper publishers began seeking and relying on advertising revenues. This coincided with an explosion of spending on ads, so there was plenty of money sloshing around to allow newspapers to expand. By the end of the 19th Century, many newspapers derived half or more of all their revenues from ads.
When broadcasting came along in the 20th Century, most radio and television operations could not find a way to get their audience to pay, so they became almost completely dependent on advertising income. (NPR and PBS are exceptions; they depend on a shifting mix of foundation grants, “sponsors,” a shrinking direct government subsidy, and the direct financial support of “viewers (and listeners) like you.”)
There, in broad strokes, is a big part of the current existential crisis facing all the “legacy” media with a foot in the pre-digital past. They arose under a set of conditions that no longer exist. Advertisers have reduced their spending overall, and they have reallocated the remaining ad buy so that they can buy a growing amount of space online. They are not coming back to print or broadcasting.
So, if advertisers cannot be depended on to fund journalism, who’s left?
One answer is pointed to by David Carr in his column today. Ostensibly, his column is about HBO and the success of such tv “auteurs” as the creators of The Sopranos and The Wire. Carr observes that HBO never depended on ads, so HBO’s executives never had to worry about what kind of programming advertisers would accept. Instead, the only constituency they had to please was viewers, who flocked to the better (if violent) programs. It was a case of “viewers to the rescue.”
From Carr’s column:
As it turned out, what had been holding television back was not the audiences, but the advertisers. HBO, freed of those bonds as a pay TV service, bet on a show about a fat, conflicted gangster who spent time in a shrink’s office when he wasn’t ordering up murders from the back of a strip club called the Bada Bing.
HBO had figured out that the strategy followed by broadcast networks — trying to please all of the people at least part of the time — was a losing formula for a pay service. Instead it began producing remarkable programming for a discrete audience that would pay a premium for quality. That audience has ballooned to some 30 million viewers and turned HBO into an A.T.M. for Time Warner, a lesson that was not lost on other cable channels. This revolution will continue to be televised.
In cable TV, unlike traditional broadcasting, money comes from “subscribers” — i.e., you and me and everyone else who overpays Comcast or Verizon or some other cable provider. All our monthly bills go into a giant pot, and cable providers turn around and dole it out to the suppliers of programming — X for ESPN, Y for all the NBC properties, Z for Fox, and so on. The details are the result of negotiations based mainly on who’s hot and who is bringing in the biggest audience.
HBO is just one example of a model that could be used to pay for all sorts of creative and valuable original materials. Consider: if I buy a song on iTunes, there is no jingle that I have to listen to first (or in the middle!). If I buy a book, there’s no ad on page 178. In those markets, I expect to pay the full amount, without a subsidy from advertisers.
Can the journalism that has been brought to us by newspapers, magazines, and television be funded without advertising?