The vanishing media middle class

For some time now it’s been fashionable to debunk The Long Tail. Even I have partaken of the sport at times in this blog. The Economist has a taken the middle ground in the debate with a leader and article this week. Surely niche content has grown, but more interestingly it has not been at the expense of the blockbuster. Big hits in cinema, television, and music are bigger than ever. All this while overall media consumption per capita has remained relatively constant.

So who are the losers? Mid-tier content. The number 15 prime time television show has lost audience, as has the number 30 CD and the mid-sized city daily newspaper.

Creative types who are accustomed to lavishing money on moderately appealing projects will have to do more with less. Or they must learn how to move between big-budget blockbusters and niche, small-budget fare, observing the different genre and budget constraints that apply in these worlds. A few forward-looking folk, such as Steven Soderbergh, a film-maker, are already doing this. Some will find shelter. Premium television channels such as HBO, which are built on passion more than popularity, offer some protection from chill market winds. So do state broadcasters like the BBC.

Mid-tier media properties employed a good number of skilled workers — writers, shooters, editors. It’s a small number of craftspeople who have been able to work exclusively on blockbusters. While niche content might be doing well as a market segment, it doesn’t require the same level of talent to produce. The writing need not be as crisp, the editing as tight, and the lighting can be close enough.

The demise of the media middle class may bring about the demise of the media professional middle class. That would be a shame. Middle class voices in mainstream media are good for civil discourse. Look at the type of discourse we get in niche cable programming.

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