The Media and the Message

I recently attended a digital media event in which a panelist, a video producer, disagreed with Marshall McLuhan: the media is not the message; the message is the message, the panelist said.

Even if you’ve never heard of McLuhan, chances are you will recognize the reference. The Canadian scholar made up the phrase at a time when the new medium of television had all but secured its dominance as a message delivery platform.  Alternately brilliant and inscrutable, McLuhan’s controversial media theories got industry experts to think in a new way about the impact of technologies on people’s behavior – and on content itself.

McLuhan categorized different media as “hot” and “cool” according to the extent of sensory interpretation required of the consumer. Radio and newspapers were deemed hot because the information is presented fully formed, needing little sensory interpretation by listeners and readers.  Television, on the other hand, which in the 1950s and 60s offered a low-resolution, black-and-white image of inconsistent quality, was cool (and by that McLuhan didn’t mean ‘boss’).  Television required greater involvement of the viewer’s senses to ‘get the full picture.’

Back to the panelist’s point and what it has to do with the name of this blog.   Media has come a long way since McLuhan’s time.  There is an endless array of high and low-resolutions screens – HDTV, IPTV, mobile devices, portable readers, iPods, PCs, IMAX theatres and more. This variety offers new opportunities and challenges for advertisers, content publishers and influencers.  With so much content competing over so many platforms for the attention of a greatly disaggregated audience, quality, as defined by the beholders, will be an essential differentiator.  As the old saw goes, content – that is, good content – is king.

But the nature of the platform – the media – as well as context matter, too. For example, what demographic prefers what type of video and at what length?  How should a message or brand be shaped to leverage the power of a particular medium?

When it comes to video, conventional wisdom on this topic seems fleeting.  Online was thought suited best for user-generated video-snacking, an association that didn’t appeal to advertisers; then came Hulu and viewers started consuming full-length television episodes.  NetFlix’s Watch Instantly function will now be available through the Vista Media Center; and internet-ready televisions were front-and-center at this year’s CES.  Will this cause more filmmakers to consider direct-to-web features? Will advertisers now reassess online video or will the shrinking traditional television audience share still represent the biggest bang-for-the-buck?  Will users who are accustomed to free be willing to pay for premium content?

Hopefully this blog will serve to initiate discussions on these and other questions, as “The Media and the Message” will endeavor to explore a broad range of media-related issues involving monetization, content creation, messaging, branding and more.

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