Shortage of Audiences: The Great Paradox

The consolidation of a large global information network unleashed at the end of the last century an unprecedented explosion of data and content, causing an oversupply of information sources and a subsequent shortage of audiences willing to consume them, altering the formula that explains mass communication, no longer from few to many, but from many to few.

What are the challenges of communication in the Internet era?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

The 20th century was the historical moment in which the mass media were consolidated, whether in radio, press or television, large information conglomerates, in practically all the countries of the world, controlled the information monopoly, through a very simple formula of Mass Media: “Information is transmitted by a limited group of media to a large critical mass, therefore, it is a process of few media to many consumers“.

The historical restrictions to found media outlets, such as the use of the spectrum or the large amounts of capital required, turned information transmission services into oligopolies and very powerful structures, with the capacity to massively impact the population, which even gave shape to the theory of the “Hypodermic Needle” proposed in the second decade of the last century by Harold Dwight Lasswell, or the publication of George Orwell’s book 1984 in 1949.

With the consolidation of the Internet, although these large communications conglomerates did not disappear, their ability to massively impact audiences has been decimated, while millions of digital accounts of Blogs, Videos and Content, emerge daily to compete in this market.

The Paradox of Disinformation in the Information Age

The current historical moment represents the greatest explosion of information in the history of mankind, i.e., no other generation of human beings living on planet Earth has had access to as much data and content as our generation.

Today we are exposed to a virtually unlimited supply of data and information sources. Thanks to platforms such as Google or Wikipedia, we can solve almost any question in a matter of seconds.

Although we are facing the moment in the history of mankind with more accessible and available information, this same oversupply has become a threat to reliability. Anyone can create content and there is an abundance of it on the web, but determining which of it is reliable and truthful is very complex, and misinformation grows almost proportionally.

The biggest challenge in information consumption is not access to information, but the credibility that underlies it.

The Long Tail Theory

Formulated by journalist, writer, physicist and editor of Wired Magazine: Chris Anderson, the Long Tail theory was explained in 2007 in the book Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More [1], which proposes that the Internet unleashed a new market capable of satisfying multiple tastes and needs, regardless of the number of people individually interested in each product or service, moving from a mass market to a niche market.

“The digital culture and economy is moving away from being concentrated in a small number of ‘hits’ (widely accepted products and markets) at the top of the demand curve, to being devoted to a huge number of specialized niches at the tail end.”

“As production and distribution costs decrease, especially online, there is now less need to cram products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other distribution bottlenecks, products and services with a narrowly defined audience can be just as economically attractive as those for popular consumption.” Chris Anderson

A new economic paradigm

One of the most interesting aspects of The Long Tail Theory is that it is not only a social phenomenon on the rise, represented in thousands of blogs and content distribution platforms, websites, social media accounts and YouTube channels, but it is becoming a new economic paradigm, financially viable.

A good example is Spotify. While some decades ago in the record stores users found a limited number of records, almost all of them market hits, at present, the same users can consume “hits”, but also have the possibility of accessing many musical productions that are not massive, thus generating a very satisfactory individualized and personalized experience.

The same phenomenon is repeated with audiovisual consumption on Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, or books distributed by Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

The Role of Thematic Content

More than three decades ago, and long before Anderson published his theory, producer John Hendricks envisioned generating television for niche markets, moving away from the traditional paradigm of mass television. It was thus that he created Discovery Channel, a project that few believed in at the time, but which became a successful thematic documentary channel and laid the foundations for subscription television. Today it is a conglomerate with more than eighty specialized thematic channels, focused on a niche market, proving Anderson’s theory for services not connected to the Internet.

The more thematic content is offered, the more demanding audiences become and the greater the level of personalization they demand, as they do not want to settle for one-size-fits-all products, but rather customized designs. This means that more and more content must be personalized and focused on market niches, which produces a domino effect that forces to privilege the tail even over the body or the head of the graphics and statistics.

A study conducted by Erik Brynjolfsson,[2] of the National Bureau of Economic Research NBER of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT⎯ called: From niches to riches: anatomy of the long tail, concludes that the loyalty produced in the consumer by accessing a wide range of products, much closer to their tastes and distributed in the Long Tail of the sales matrix, can generate more wealth for the bidder in the long term, than massively selling the same product from the head to an unknown audience.

The General Media Crisis

To affirm that traditional media such as Television or Radio will disappear is not only reckless but also unlikely, since they represent a very important paradigm of contemporary society, however, their role is not the same as it was during the last century, being possibly their main mission no longer the mass communication in the universe of audiences, but the rigorous treatment of contents, becoming validators and informative legitimizers in the turbulent whirlwind of disinformation.

The mass media will not disappear in the next decade, but they no longer have the audiences of three decades ago and in 10 years they will surely have fewer than they have now.

Media that do not focus on niche markets will find it increasingly difficult to guarantee their survival.

In conclusion, we are witnessing a historical moment in which hegemony no longer resides in the masses but in niches, where diversification of supply is more important than concentration of demand.

Although we are clearly witnessing a shortage of audiences, the most important thing is no longer to have a large number of viewers, but to achieve quality in the supply of content for much more demanding and qualified audiences, which translates into greater social and economic value for all parties involved.

[1] Long Tail : Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Trends (Ediciones Urano), Chris Anderson, 2007, ISBN 8493464260, 9788493464264, 318 páginas.

[2] Erik Brynjolfsson Research Associate Stanford University