The new meaning of programming

The new meaning of programming

Summary: If you can imagine a vast army of uncontrollable media programmers storming the gates, you'll start to understand why Hollywood is so fearful of the Internet.


Guest post: Robert Young looks at what media programming means in the Internet age, and how the rise of social media is shifting control away from modern day Hollywood and established media giants...

Some of you might be familiar with the seminal whitepaper that David Isenberg published back in 1997 titled “The Rise of the Stupid Network” (for a great commentary, read Tom Evslin’s post here). Isenberg, who was a researcher with AT&T Labs at the time, foretold of how the Internet would disrupt the world’s telecommunications infrastructure and industry by shifting the “intelligence” of the network from the center to the edge.  If you can imagine a vast army of uncontrollable media programmers storming the gates, you'll start to understand why Hollywood is so fearful of the Internet. VoIP (e.g. Skype, Vonage, GoogleTalk, etc.), of course, is the early manifestation of what he was describing and the transformation to a “stupid” telecommunications network with programming functionality at the edges is now all but inevitable.  That said, the subject matter of this piece isn’t about telecommunications.  Rather, it’s about Hollywood… and what I see as Tinseltown’s version of The Rise of the Stupid Network.

Just like the word “network” has two meanings in the aforementioned context, I love the word “programming” for the same reason.  That one word, in my view, sums up the radical transformation that’s occurring as the Internet gradually usurps and devours… er I mean… convergences with Hollywood.

We all know what programming means in the world of technology.  It refers to the science and skill of writing a computer program.  While programming was once a domain reserved for academics and engineers with advanced degrees, the combination of improved tools and the ubiquity of the web has democratized programming to a point where virtually anyone can participate in the creative process.

hollywood_1.jpgBut if you’re a player in Hollywood, the same word has a different meaning altogether.  The four major TV broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are known as “programmers”.  And within the halls of these media conglomerates, there is an exclusive club of about 40 elite executives that control the programming that we all see on our entertainment screens.  As programmers of shows, movies, and channels, these executives wield enormous power over the production, scheduling, marketing, and distribution of media products.

But what happens when broadcast networks start putting up TV shows on the web, like ABC and Fox announced last week.  Put another way, what happens to the value and need for traditional media programming when a show is placed on a non-linear medium like the web? Does making a show viewable on-demand negate the need for programming?

In my view, the need for programming will actually increase. But, the source and control over media programming will shift away from the exclusive club of Hollywood executives into the hands of the audience. Consequently, a third definition of the word programming is emerging. It’s a hybrid of the two traditional definitions, yet one that I believe will ultimately define the transformation that we are going through. And the fuel for this transformation is the rise of social media (e.g. blogs, social networks, etc.). 

To illustrate where I’m going with this, I’ll provide a very simple example.  You’re surfing the net and you come across a very funny video. You happen to have a blog, so you decide to blog about it and include an outbound link to the destination site with the video. I like to call this type of hyperlink to media a “microchannel”, and guess what?  What you just did made you a media programmer… just like the ones in Hollywood!  Now, multiply this behavior by another 100+ million bloggers and users of social networking sites like MySpace. What you end up with is a growing collective of millions of media programmers developing a massively distributed and decentralized media guide comprised of a gazillion microchannels. Bye, bye TV Guide.

In short, social media is rapidly decentralizing and democratizing the act of programming media out to the edges.  As a result, I believe that traditional network programming of channels will be replaced by social media programming of microchannels.  So if you can imagine a vast army of uncontrollable media programmers storming the gates, you’ll start to understand why Hollywood is so fearful of the Internet.  After all, losing that kind of control is a threat unlike anything they’ve ever seen, and it’s one that goes to the very heart of power in the media industry.

Rupert Murdoch made a bold move to exploit this massive shift in control and power by acquiring MySpace.  With one move, he has effectively hedged his bet by owning the two opposing forces that are in a death match over the control of directing people’s attention to media.  Whichever wins, he wins.  It was a brilliant move, classic Murdoch.  Or at least that’s the way it seems on the surface.

There’s only one problem.  Even if a media giant owns the social network, blogging platform, or any other kind of social media service, it is not actually buying “control” over the programming and distribution of media. That privilege will remain with the people, and as such, the jury is still out as to whether online communities are an asset that can create a net advantage for traditional media companies, or a liability that can accelerate the loss of control. For the media companies, social media programming is double-edged sword that can cut both ways.

But there’s hope on the horizon… new models and services are emerging that capture this transformation in a manner that will benefit individuals and content providers alike.  For instance, if I were a media company, I would be keeping close tabs on Mary Hodder’s new venture,

Bio: Robert Young is a serial entrepreneur who is currently focused on, a P2P-enabling “superdistribution” digital media service. Previously, he was an exec at Delphi Internet Services (which he sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), and founder/ceo of Freemark Communications (where he led the invention of free email and pay-per-click advertising). He can be reached at

Topic: Software Development

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Networks

    Actually, AT&T started NBC (which begat ABC after anti-trust) and they were called "Networks" because they were based on networks of phone landlines across the country. That is how you could listen to content coming from NY when you were in Kansas. AT&Ts original thought was that radio was a phone call from one person to many (hence broadcast) and originally just leased the lines to whoever wanted to reach a lot of people in a particular radio area. Pretty quickly these advertisers realized they were not in the content business, so AT&T via what became NBC started producing the sponsored productions. GE and Westinghouse later bought out AT&T. So it is the same network today.
  • Social circles and ownership

    Very true - the social circles on the Internet are pushing the control to the edges, away from the center.

    There will still be (and should be) some control in the "center" when it comes to the rights of the items being "published", but organizations should make it so easy to keep those rights but allow people to share and comment so that information continues to spread.

    This is not unlike the idea of a cooperative (coop), which has many advantages: people share common goals, each member gets an extra benefit of being an "owner" and the community feels good supporting each other and not some faceless executive who gets $$$MM annual bonuses.

    Thanks for the post. It's got some great points.
    Paul C.
  • And street mimes will replace Broadway...

    • that's so bad it's not even an analogy

      You have to take into account Bit that today's commercial entertainment completely sucks, and no one's really buying it the way they used to.
      And people are growing more tired of a corporate hand being stuck into everything we consume.
      Finally, it's much more exciting to create your own content [url=][b]like this[/b][/url] than to watch another rerun of that sorry American Idol..
      Spicoli's Avenger
      • Uh huh...

        Care top take a guess how much American Idol grosses every week? ;-)

        PS, it was meant as a bad analogy to show how silly the idea is.
        • my bad..

          [i]"Care top take a guess how much American Idol grosses every week?"[/i]

          Further proof that America is toast. Imagine that: grown adults tuning in to watch 16 year old pimply faced dipsticks singing bad cover songs, to be "judged" by a closeted bloke, a washed up "singer", and some random insignificant black dude..
          Spicoli's Avenger
      • OMG, people want to do their own thing?!?!

        You're kidding, right?

        Our "society" works on the Pied Piper philosophy. (aka the "sheep principle".) One person with clout and a silver tongue does something, and all the rest want to say "I can do it too!" because everybody wants to be cool and feel wanted.

        [u]And for two reasons, individuality is a great evil:[/u]
        1. People who are allowed to be themselves means that net profits are reduced. You've [i]got[/i] to have something that appeals to everybody - even if it means dumbing down the populace in the process.
        2. People who think for themselves might (or might not) think outside the guidelines "society" has given for all to obey. Especially if you're a dictator, fascist, or some other nasty person, you have to find a way to collect and eliminate those nasty little intellectuals. (and that's not by paying them big money to become engineers and scientists...)

        But I digress.

        Those who are true individuals are usually the feebs, loners, geeks, oddballs, scapegoats for crimes, bullied and abused as children, Libertarians... you know, that kind of thing. :D
        Not that I'm calling myself a Libertarian, I like to think I vote for a candidate out of competency rather than mere political offiliation. So I get hated no matter what. Oh well, please pass the chips and carrot sticks...
    • Not a good analogy, I'm afraid

      In fact, Broadway HAS, to great extent, been replaced by a far more decentralized model: regional theatre. Fifty years ago, playwrights pretty much had to make it to The Great White Way to be successful. Now they can do quite well on the regional theatre circuit and, in fact, it's in the regionals that one tends to see the more innovative and exciting work.

      That's because Broadway has become such a high-stakes gamble that producers are afraid to do anything inventive. This is exactly what has happened to mass-market movies and TeeVee, hence the decentralization trend there as well.
  • George Lucas announces new Star Wars trilogy!!!

    [url=][b]Check it out!!![/b][/url]
    Spicoli's Avenger
    • Cool! (NT)

      P. Douglas
  • Who knew?

    Who knew all our self-grandizing and wasting of time could be made to look like it was actually worth the effort? And all by assigning some feel-good terminology to the act.
  • Changes Are Coming

    Quite frankly, I?m not sure how the print media is going to survive soon. I personally put more stock in what blogs report and comment on, than what are in newspapers or on online new sites. The thing about blogs, is because there is so much competition among them for an audience, they tend to have little time to get big headed and political like their more established competitors. You therefore get smarter, more sincere work from them.

    Eventually, a lot people are going to be walking around with Ultra Mobile PCs, and will be getting a lot their information and entertainment from them. Large media companies are going to have to adapt to this reality. The companies that can aggregate a lot of information, and make it easy for users to get to the stuff they want to the most, will win. (And this is where MS will come out ahead with many of the excellent technologies it has placed into Vista.) These companies are going have to produce very innovative smart client applications (or else a new breed of web applications with strong ties to the client), that allow users to navigate through the information very richly and quickly. I?m talking about e.g. smart client applications that allow users to pull data from RSS feeds, searches, etc. (maybe using some specified filtering and business rules) and create a custom electronic magazines that include text, audio, video, etc. All of this could be supported by embedded advertising.

    Also I?m not sure how established content providers will survive. The world will increasingly consume everything through computers, in a super, highly competitive way. Established content providers cannot be locking down content in such an environment, because just as people size up a web site within a few seconds before moving on to another, people will have very little patience for locked down content, when more freely usable content is available.

    Established content providers need to hire smart people who can let them continually adjust to the changing information landscape; and they should not think that the content consumption landscape will change in a particular way and stay that way for a while. Those days are over. Established content providers will have to get used to a continually evolving environment, and will have to constantly reinvent their distribution methods as a result. Content providers may have to experiment with different ways of embedding advertising into their content that is not too annoying to consumers. Ebooks could take on a more magazine feel with embedded advertising. Video and audio streams could have advertising display in an adjacent plane as small, quiet, animations, that are noticeable but not (too) annoying.

    One thing is for certain, the Internet is intent on democratizing everything, and all businesses will have to adjust to remain relevant.
    P. Douglas
  • Video(& other content) distribution and review blog site

    I'm sure that with a proper (sane DRM based) micropayment portal, Hollywood will be battered, and so will all traditional content distribution networks: NBC, Sky, etc etc.
    Instead there will be a giant like ebay.

    Note: this could actually be Apple. If for example they port iLife to Windows...
    or Google. Or Microsoft.
    Apple is content king (85% of internet media market) at the moment, and no-one is selling anything like as many videos as Apple.
    I wonder if the recent Intel switch, and Boot Camp is driven by a feeling by their upper management that their traditional business no longer matters compared to this new one!

    The winner is irrelevant, in my view, this is going to happen. The site I buy computer parts from has a user-review facility very much like Zdnet talkback. You find out much more about computer parts from the average joe's comments than magazine reviewers ever told you.

    Are there any computer magazines left? Once upon a time I bought them for the Classifieds (ebay has taken that market).
  • relevant NY Times article

    A good story in today's NY Times on MySpace... <>

    Money quote...

    ...but turns the typical media-company business model upside down, which is one reason that it is so hard for the News Corporation to use the audience to sell ads or to promote its own programming. The best way to get, say, a television show in front of the MySpace audience is not to cut a deal with a programming czar at a Hollywood restaurant, but to win the hearts, one by one, of thousands of members who will display the show to all of their friends.

    "We can't look at this as a media property," said Peter Chernin, the News Corporation's president. "This is a site programmed by its users."
    Robert Y