The Handmaid’s Tale: the future of television.

The Hand­maid­’s Tale.

In the first decade of the new mil­len­ni­um the music indus­try was destroyed, felled in a sin­gle strike by Nap­ster. Sud­den­ly, indeed overnight, every song that had ever been record­ed was freely avail­able over the internet.

Tra­di­tion­al media was a thing of the past, and any day now, tele­vi­sion, news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and all of those oth­er relics of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry would like­wise be con­signed to the dust­bin of history.

The Nap­ster him­self, Sean Parker.

But as we move into the third decade of the new cen­tu­ry, news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines are still around, TV is thriv­ing and even the music indus­try is actu­al­ly doing rather nice­ly, albeit in a dimin­ished form.

There are two per­spec­tives on the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. One says that the future is dig­i­tal, and every­thing else is doomed to go the way of vinyl. The oth­er slight­ly more nuanced view goes as fol­lows; we all have a cer­tain amount of mon­ey that we enjoy spend­ing on stuff. All the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion does is to change the way that we dis­trib­ute what­ev­er that sum is, by adding a new out­let to chan­nel those funds into.

So if you had a cer­tain amount of mon­ey that you looked for­ward to spend­ing on cds in any giv­en year, the fact that any album you might be inter­est­ed in is now freely avail­able on the inter­net will very prob­a­bly mean that you now spend lit­tle or none of that cash on actu­al cds.

The hand­maids.

You’ll still spend that mon­ey on the music indus­try though. It’ll just be on going to gigs, on down­loads or on mer­chan­dise, say on a rare, deluxe cd boxset, or on a vinyl edi­tion of an orig­i­nal recording.

Indeed, what all the research shows is that you’ll very prob­a­bly spend more than you used to now, whether that be on music, film, tele­vi­sion or pub­lish­ing. As the inter­net cre­ates fur­ther syn­er­gies for all of the oth­er medi­ums, in much the same way that tele­vi­sion, and then video and cable did for cin­e­ma, in the 50s, 70s and 80s. Hav­ing access, in oth­er words, to all that free music just makes you want to spend even more of your mon­ey on music than you used to, before every­thing was avail­able for free.

Ama­zon’s Seat­tle bookstore.

The same thing has hap­pened in pub­lish­ing. When ebooks began to take off about ten years ago, the death of the print­ed book was con­fi­dent­ly pre­dict­ed and was, more over, a mat­ter of days and weeks.

But ten years on, ebooks have plateaued and been super­seded by audio books. Nei­ther of which, we now realise, are going to replace the print­ed word. Rather, ebooks and audio books are an added source of rev­enue for a reju­ve­nat­ed pub­lish­ing indus­try. And it’s not just the indus­try that’s bounc­ing back. Inde­pen­dent book stores are expe­ri­enc­ing a mini renais­sance as well. Indeed, the big bad wolf itself, Ama­zon, has start­ed open­ing up its own bricks and mor­tar, actu­al phys­i­cal books stores.

Most obvi­ous­ly of all, tele­vi­sion is alive and well and boom­ing. Which isn’t to say that the dig­i­tal effect has been neg­li­gi­ble. Far from it, dig­i­tal has com­plete­ly dis­rupt­ed every con­ceiv­able cor­ner of the media land­scape. So that the way that we now watch, read and lis­ten to films, tele­vi­sion, music, the radio, books, news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines has been com­plete­ly trans­formed. It’s just that none of them are about to dis­ap­pear any time soon.

Apple’s view of the future.

If you want to see what the future of tele­vi­sion is, all you have to do is look at screen size. Mobiles want to be smart phones, smart phones want to be lap­tops, lap­tops want to be desk­tops, desk­tops want to be TVs and TVs want to be cin­e­mas­cope. Every­thing is get­ting big­ger, not small­er. And all con­tent is fol­low­ing suit, and is try­ing per­pet­u­al­ly to move in the same direc­tion. How many TV stars do you know that dream of one day being on the internet?

Try watch­ing the Handmaid’s Tale and see how you feel. Of course you could watch it on your lap­top, or even on your mobile. But as you do so, you’ll have this increas­ing itch to see it on a prop­er screen and with a grown-up sound sys­tem. So you can real­ly lux­u­ri­ate in the tac­tile sound of an old fash­ioned foun­tain pen, as it scrawls and scrapes its ital­ic script clum­si­ly across the fibres of an actu­al piece of old fash­ioned paper. And you can pick

out with pleas­ing clar­i­ty the dusky book cov­ers as the Com­man­der runs his fin­ger lov­ing­ly over their cor­ners, as he appears from the depths of the shad­ows to gaze greed­i­ly on his mahogany bookcase.

Eliz­a­beth Moss and Joseph Fiennes square off.

And the peo­ple who make the best tele­vi­sion, and the tele­vi­sion being made at the moment is some of the best that’s ever been made, the Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point, feel exact­ly the same way about mak­ing their pro­grammes as we do about watch­ing them.

Nobody’s going to choose to watch some­thing on a lap­top if giv­en the choice of see­ing it on a 32 inch tele­vi­sion. And no-one’s going to be sat­is­fied with watch­ing it on that 32 inch screen if offered the chance to see it on a 55 inch one. Television’s not dead. On the con­trary, it’s get­ting big­ger and bigger.

You can see the trail­er of the Handmaid’s Tale here.

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Apple, Amazon, the Big 6 and the Future of Publishing.

In May, Apple and three of the Big Six lost the first round in what looks like­ly to be a long and cost­ly fight (two of the oth­er three had reluc­tant­ly set­tled and one, Ran­dom House isn’t involved). What’s at stake is, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of pub­lish­ing. So here, very briefly, is the sto­ry so far.

When Ama­zon began sell­ing ebooks through their Kin­dle in 2007, the price they charged for them was a lot less than for actu­al phys­i­cal books. For one thing they did­n’t cost as much to pro­duce. But much more impor­tant­ly, ebooks were a com­plete­ly new idea, and peo­ple had to be encour­aged into try­ing them out. So fre­quent­ly, Ama­zon would sell their ebooks at a loss, for even less than they had pur­chased them from the pub­lish­er in the first place.

Cul­tur­al­ly then, this dis­count sell­ing was both wel­come and nec­es­sary. Eco­nom­i­cal­ly how­ev­er, it meant that Ama­zon quick­ly estab­lished a stran­gle­hold on a rapid­ly expand­ing mar­ket. Not only that, but the rise of ebooks threat­ened to ren­der the tra­di­tion­al book­store and indeed the con­ven­tion­al pub­lish­ing world redundant.

Nobody want­ed to let what had hap­pened in music take place in pub­lish­ing. So when Apple entered the ebook mar­ket with the iPad two years lat­er (fol­lowed by Barnes & Nobles and their Nook), a new pric­ing sys­tem was put in place; the agency mod­el.

Instead of pub­lish­ers sell­ing at a dis­count to retail­ers, who would then take their cut from the price they sold it on to the pub­lic for, pub­lish­ers would set the price that the pub­lic would pay for a book, and the retail­er (whether Ama­zon, Apple or who­ev­er) would get a flat 30%. This is what Apple did in music.

But Apple would only agree to enter the mar­ket in the first place if a min­i­mum of four of the big six (see image below) agreed to imple­ment their new agency mod­el. In the end, five of them did, and the sixth Ran­dom House joined in a year later. 

So Ama­zon had no choice but to play along. But they were as the Amer­i­cans say pissed. They made more mon­ey from the books that they sold now, but their share of the still grow­ing ebook mar­ket had gone down from 90 to 60%. And cul­tur­al­ly, they were being forced to sell books for more than they might have liked. Or to put in anoth­er way, they were being pre­vent­ed from so dra­mat­i­cal­ly under­cut­ting their rivals. 

So they went to the courts, and in May the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice found in their favour. After all, as Ken Aulet­ta says in his much more in-depth piece in the New York­er here, the let­ter of the anti-trust leg­is­la­tion is crys­tal clear. Did­n’t Apple say that they would only go ahead if they got agree­ment from at least four of the big six? And hadn’t the cost of books to the pub­lic gone up once their agency mod­el had been put in place?

But wait a minute. The cost had gone up, but the pub­lish­ers were now receiv­ing less. So how can it be a car­tel, if the peo­ple orga­niz­ing it end up mak­ing less mon­ey? What’s more, Ama­zon was now get­ting more. And was­n’t the whole spir­it of the anti-trust leg­is­la­tion designed to curb the likes of Ama­zon, and pre­vent them from putting the much small­er pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies out of business?

Of course Ama­zon could afford to sell its books at a loss. Books make up just a tiny frac­tion of what Ama­zon sells. But books is all the big six do.

All of this has been bril­liant­ly chart­ed by pub­lish­ing (and now dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing) guru Mike Shatzkin, whose blog (here) is a must for any­one inter­est­ed in the world of pub­lish­ing. But what it all seems to boil down to is this: 

The pub­lish­ing world allows for a wide vari­ety of books to be pub­lished by using the mon­ey it makes from the few books that sell huge­ly, to fund a pletho­ra of books that might, but almost cer­tain­ly won’t do any­thing like as well.

And the phys­i­cal book­store is the best and only place for some of those small­er titles to get noticed. And who knows, maybe even take off.

By sid­ing with Ama­zon against them, the DoJ is seri­ous­ly putting that whole eco sys­tem in grave dan­ger. And there is a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that the only thing that will result is a sig­nif­i­cant­ly nar­row­er choice of books to read from, with sig­nif­i­cant­ly few­er writ­ers mak­ing a liv­ing from it. 

And the ques­tion then is, if Ama­zon is the only play­er left stand­ing once book­stores and the world of pub­lish­ing have been dis­man­tled, will they have any inter­est in try­ing to do any­thing about that? Or will they just be far too pre­oc­cu­pied in hav­ing to com­pete with rival mono­liths Apple, Microsoft, Google and Face­book for an ever-nar­row­ing choice of prof­itable content?

Oh, and for all of you who still think that e‑readers are a fad, have a look at this one year old try­ing to oper­ate a mag­a­zine, here.

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