By Jim McKairnes
In 2010, after 21 years in L.A.’s network-TV trenches, I spent a five-year Pay It Forward hitch in academia, teaching about the television business. The five years were up in June.
The entirety of the experience was rewarding, energizing, enlightening. But also eye-opening. Maybe troubling. Because no matter what those of us who work in and around TV think we know about our changing business, we know nothing unless and until we spend some time around those who are changing it.
That there’s a New Normal is no headline. Talking about, let alone teaching, media today is like trying to describe the roadside scenery from a bullet train. It’s a change that was readily apparent from my first class, courtesy of an exchange with a student who asked my opinion of a then-new show and screwed up his face in confusion when I answered, “I haven’t seen it yet – when’s it on?” (“What do you mean ‘When’s it on?’ professor? It’s on when I turn it on.”). But the five-year immersion told me that there’s more than just a New Normal of consuming today, there seems to be one of thinking. An “It’s on when I turn it on” mentality seems to have leached into the social soil.
The concept of viewing on demand, hard-wired into the DNA for a generation now, seems to have led to a bit of living by demand. From ways of meeting and communicating (texting = respond to me now) to methods of commerce (apps and drones = receive it now) to means of socialization (Tinder, Grindr = hook up with me now), vestiges of When I say so are everywhere. And it’s no more so than in our business of content and the one issue changing it more than any other: piracy.
Or as one of my students put it in class last year when the topic came up: “We want what we want and we want it now.”
With a shrug: “We just do.”
They just do.
For my Business of Media course, we focused on five key forms of advertiser-supported and/or advertiser-connected communication: film, TV, print, music, and digital. For students’ sake, the more on the music business, the better: It got their attention. The headline there? Ninety percent of those in every class illegally downloaded content.
“So basically,” I’d ask, invoking my best Socratic, “you’re taking something without paying for it?”
The response: Of course.
And I’d wonder aloud, “Is that wrong?”
Do you care?
Said one, seeming to speak for many, “I know it’s wrong and I can’t begin to care.”
Codify that, Capitol Hill.
It didn’t seem just the hubris of youth talking, either. It was a way of life. A new way of life. The consensus: “Why shouldn’t we be able to try out something, anything, for free as soon as it’s available, to know whether we want to buy it? To stream a new single before paying for the whole CD?” (Spoiler alert: They don’t even when they do.)
Something, anything, for free.
“Take it without permission or payment, you mean?” I’d ask.
Yes – music, movies, whatever. What’s the big deal?
“So in other words, your fathers or mothers should be able to walk to the local dealer when they’re in the market for anew car and drive an SUV off the lot without permission or payment to see if they like it?”
Silence. Too big a picture. Besides, that’s a maybe, for then. This is real, for now.
Many didn’t even seem to understand my not understanding of their thinking, even as it upends an entire commercial system rooted in a timeless concept of payment for goods and services. (“Oh, please – the music and movie stars have plenty of money already.”) When I’d point out efforts to combat the piracy? Chuckles all around, in every class. Countermeasures amused them: For every roadblock constructed above ground, a half-dozen work-arounds are created down below.
Fascinated, I once asked, “So I can name a movie that hasn’t even been released yet, might not even be scheduled for release yet, and you can get it for me today? From more than one website? What are they?”
The answer, from one enterprising student:
“You want the list alphabetically?”
The college-age demographic doesn’t much care for the term entitlement, but the word does seem apt. A life lived by the mouse seems to create a long tail. Imbues a sense that the stuff we want or need (information, entertainment, distraction, food) is a click away. Me? I blame another word: demand.
“Pay-per-view” seemed more than adequate a term to describe the personalization of television as the concept was introduced in the 1980s. When and why did it devolve into such an ugly off-putting one? (Demand, n: “an insistent and peremptory request, made as if by right.”) Children and terrorists and kidnappers demand. Reasonable people request.
To those who point out it’s all leading to a re-writing of the rules of media consumption, far from finalized, I’d counter that based on my two-semesters-a-year survey these past five years, we’re dealing with a mind-set that doesn’t seem to understand the need for rules in the first place. That’s the real upshot here when it comes to digital piracy and for those crafting efforts to stem it.
Entitlement needn’t be all bad. It can also imbue a sense of power that can breed success. I actually came across an amusing, almost charming example during one class when I singled out Thomas, one of the smarter seniors in the room, for a discussion of digital piracy and its effects on income.
“Thomas, it’s a year from now. You’re a struggling filmmaker living in Los Angeles. And a movie you made while a student is being shown online without your permission or any compensation. Here’s my question: How exactly – ?”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Thomas interrupted. “Go back a second, professor. How come in that example,” he asks, “I’m a struggling filmmaker?”
I reply, “Well, because in the example you’re only out of college twelve months.”
Said Thomas: “Twelve months? Twelve months? No way I’m struggling after twelve months, professor. I’m already a successful filmmaker in Hollywood after twelve months.”
And he very well may be.
Because these days college students have a certain expectation of how things will play out.
They just do.
Author and lecturer Jim McKairnes is a former CBS Television executive. He lives in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
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