The day before Thanksgiving, Rebecca and I had a meeting with some TV producers. These guys put together very high quality hour-long documentaries, which air on PBS. Once. And perhaps a few times more in repeats. But the primary audience has to tune in at the right time on the right summer night to experience the hard work they’ve done.
This seems a little crazy to me. The amount of work that goes into a documentary is analagous to the amount of effort involved with writing a book. But the shelf life of a broadcast television program is shorter than that of a blog post.
These producers are smart folks. They get it. They’ve got an excellent website which gives a great deal of background on each program, which means that a viewer’s experience of a program can continue after the end of the hour. And they work hard to create other audiences for the programming by sending programs and teaching guides to classrooms. But they’re still very aware that the lifespan of their programming is shorter than it could be.
I’ve been thinking about the lifespan of media since hearing Andrew Heavens’s brilliant talk at the Digital Citizen Indaba, “How I learned to stop worrying and love Creative Commons“. Heavens is a photographer for Reuters (as well as an excellent blogger and Global Voices correspondent for Ethiopia), and he’s used to ephemeral media. When you’re shooting news photography, your photos are good for about 36 hours, tops. If no one uses them, they’re dead – you might put them into your portfolio, but it’s unlikely that the general public is ever going to see them.
Heavens started putting his “spares” on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. Some of those photos – shot during the Ethiopian elections and the protests that followed in June 2005 – became the raw material used by Ethiopian activists on posters in pro-democracy protests around the world. Many of them were remixed into a video produced by anti-Zenawi activists which has generated tens of thousands of views on YouTube. In other words, the lifespan of Heavens’s spares has been vastly longer than the lifespan of the official shots.
Broadcast media has a naturally brief lifespan. Tools to extend that lifespan – VCRs, DVRs like Tivo – are generally fought by broadcasters, who are used to making money out of scarcity. (If you can only see “must see TV” one night a week for a few hours, just imagine how much money we can charge for an ad on it!)
Asynchronous digital media is nearly immortal. I got a clear illustration of this a few months ago when Google started indexing Usenet. Do a search for my old Tripod email address in the Usenet archives on Google Groups and I can find Usenet posts from over a decade ago. (They’re not as terrifying as I would have feared. Evidently spam-fighters really, really liked us…) They don’t seem to have any of my posts from college… but that’s not a luxury contemporary college students will have – by default, every dumb thing you post online will live forever, indexed in Google and stored on archive.org forever.
The smartest people in broadcast media are looking for ways to extend the lifespan of the content they create. It’s not a surprise they’re taking advantage of digital immortality as part of the process. My friends at Radio Open Source produce extraordinary radio shows five days a week. These shows used to have a lifespan of an hour – Chris and crew have worked hard to stretch the lifespan of their show in both directions. They invite their community to brainstorm new shows with them, getting people involved with and excited about the programs before they air. (Excited? The comment thread for one of these shows has 413 entries, and it hasn’t hit the airwaves yet…)
After the show airs, the comment thread stays open and the show is available for download. Combine this with the fact that the site is loved by Google (search for “open source” and the show is the 9th match) and it’s likely that the programming produced can have a long, healthy lifespan. If the x-axis is time, and the y-axis is attention, Chris Lydon’s old show was a quick, sharp blip – Radio Open Source is a longer, smoother bump, starting small and decaying slowly over time.
If you make media, it’s to your great advantage to have your creation live as long as possible. If you make money off of media, you’ve got this incentive as well – once we understand that the scarce commodity is a viewer’s attention, not access to the airwaves, it doesn’t matter if someone is paying attention to your work early or late in the work’s lifespan. What matters is the number of different contexts in which someone can find your work. Breaking news? Fodder for political activists? A long lifespan digital work can be both and more. Won’t it be great when documentaries can be, too?