How Digital Competition Lowers Quality

Internet access, cable and satellite television, and the abundance of niche magazines all provide a cornucopia of content to consumers, creating some interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive effects.

As someone who began his career decades ago before that cornucopia existed, three counter-intuitive effects fascinate me.

I previously mentioned how the abundance of content suppliers leads to competition that actually lowers the threshold of acceptable quality in the minds of consumers in “Good Enough Triumphs Over Perfection,” but I don’t think I explained it as concisely as I should have. Allow me to do so now.

How “Good Enough” Now Beats Perfect

Decades ago, when consumers had access to fewer suppliers of content, suppliers used higher quality content (i.e., “high-production values”) as a competitive weapon against each other. With such an abundance of suppliers today, the competition slides toward being the first to produce content that is at least of acceptable quality.

Millions of videos are viewed billions of times each month on sites like YouTube — not because of high production values, but because the videos are good enough to watch. Production of higher quality content delays distribution and curbs widespread usage.

This corollary runs against the grain of traditional mass media organizations, which tend to delay release of content until it’s perfect. Still, the effect of this corollary is an observable phenomenon.

Dumbing Down Mass Media

An abundance of suppliers tends to “dumb down” many traditional mass media outlets. The primary business model of mass media vehicles (newspapers, magazines, broadcast programs, etc.) is to attract sufficient numbers of consumers so the vehicle will attract advertisers who will pay to place their advertisements either adjacent or interstitial to the content attracting the consumers. The more consumers the vehicle attracts, the higher the rates an advertiser is willing to pay and the more money the vehicle earns.

Yet when the sheer number of media vehicles available to consumers radically increases, as it has during the past decades with Internet access, cable and satellite television, and the abundance of niche magazines, the median number of consumers attracted to any vehicle decreases. That’s because the overall number of consumers are now spread across many more vehicles, thus resulting in audience fragmentation.

The lower medium number of consumers tends to reduce the median revenues of those vehicles. So, most mass media vehicles try to compensate by dumbing down the quality of their content, attempting to restore a larger audience by appealing to a lower common denominator.

For example, A&E’s “Biography” television program used to broadcast biographies of Einstein, Picasso, and Michelangelo, but now broadcasts biographies of Madonna, Jim Carrey, and Britney Spears. The Learning Channel used to broadcast instructional programs about mathematics, science, and the humanities, but now broadcasts programs about purchasing real estate, upgrading wardrobes, and home furnishings. Reality programs have replaced quality programs.

Timid Mainstream Media

Many traditional mass media vehicles get more timid as they face more competition and lose more audience through fragmentation. Gone are the days of hard-hitting reporting from mainstream media companies.

For example, you won’t find an entire evening newscast devoted to a controversial political topic, the way that Walter Cronkite would devote an entire “CBS Evening News” show to Watergate. The controversy that hard news reporting creates might today alienate some of a newscast’s remaining viewers, so broadcast companies shy away from that. Pointing out obvious lies by politicians is now left for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central.

You might think that increased competition would lead to competition for high quality and more probative content. Alas, it doesn’t, perhaps for the same reasons that fast food outsells quality cooking.

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