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Content Is Not King

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Content in not king, unless your first name is Stephen.

In an article in the October issue of The Atlantic titled "The Moguls' New Clothes" authors Bruce Greenwald, Jonathan Knee, and Ava Seave write:

Media executives lament what the Web has done to their business. But that complaint conveniently ignores the dismal financial performance of most media conglomerates in the pre-digital era. Until media companies are willing to get back to basics and jettison the flawed thinking that has guided them over the past two decades, they will continue to disappoint their shareholders.

To support their claim, the authors list four myths that have led media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Sumner Redstone to disappoint shareholders: 1) Growth Is Good, 2) The Gospel of Going Global, 3) Content Is King, and 4) The Cult of Convergence.

The myth that most resonated with me was that content is king. Here's what Greenwald, Knee, and Seave write about this myth:

But content cannot be king, because the talent required to create it cannot provide a sustainable competitive advantage. Even if the ability to produce compelling content perennially inhered in certain individuals or groups, there is no efficient way to monetize this skill for the benefit of shareholders rather than for the producers themselves. Big media companies may consistently exploit some creative artists, but over time, that exploitation does not produce superior corporate value. For starters, where the media companies have executives clever enough to consistently exploit the talent, these executives are typically clever enough to ensure that they are paid enough to reflect that skill. Furthermore, when particular brands seem like sure things, as in the case of a popular film franchise, more often than not a well-represented creative artist essential to that level of certainty ends up appropriating much of that value.

Furthermore, the explosive growth of the Internet has led to such a proliferation of content out in the long tail that it is now virtually infinite. To say that "content is king" in today's world is like saying "a grain of sand is precious."

There are gems mixed in with the infinite content, but the conundrum is finding those jewels. In the age of the Web, the puzzle has been solved by Google, which has become the largest media company in the world by being an aggregator of content, not an originator, a creator of content.

Content is no longer king, marketing and search are the rulers now. If excellent content ruled, the best movies would be the most popular. But the movies that sell the most tickets are the ones that are marketed the most heavily, regardless of their artistic merit. And as the authors of The Atlantic article point out, established, branded creative artists such as actors and directors end up appropriating much of the value of a hit movie, leaving the corporate conglomerates with barely enough profit to cover the fixed costs of a bloated distribution and marketing bureaucracy.

If creative types such as actors, directors or writers -- Stephen King, for example -- establish a well-known personal brand, they don't need the media moguls' swollen bureaucracies to exploit them: they are in the driver's seat. See Stephen King's slick and robust Web site for a model of effective self-marketing, self-distribution, and an artist capturing the majority of his content's value.

You can see from Stephen's Web site that content is king only if it's capitalized.