The Supposed Growth of Alternative Media
The internet has been reshaping our society since its earliest days. Perhaps the most dramatic and significant change is that of media consumption. Consumers increasingly rely on online content for both their entertainment and news. I, Steve Lauder, will try to show the shape this trend has taken over time and what it could mean for the future. First I will define what can be classified as alternative media, examine where it is heading, and theorize what this could mean for the future.
What is Alternative Media?
Alternative media is a blanket term that could be at least somewhat valid for many different forms of content. Throughout this piece I will differentiate between media delivery method and media production. Delivery method would refer to how it is consumed i.e. cable, streaming, print. Etc. Production refers to how it is made i.e. Hollywood studio, Cable Newsroom, or some guy in his garage. A single media piece can be traditionally produced and delivered through a traditional method, traditional produced and delivered through a non-traditional method, or non-traditionally produced delivered through a non-traditional method, with only this last example truly deserving of the title of “Alternative Media”. Theoretically media could also be non-traditional content delivered through a traditional method, but being that traditional media is so well established it is hard if not impossible for an independent content producer to break into that space. Cable television, cinema, radio, and nearly all print media are obvious examples of content sources that are well established and so are best classified as traditional delivery methods. These delivery methods have been consistent with their business model since before the internet, it is unlikely that they will be able to make any significant pivot towards a different structure in the future. An example of traditional media content delivered through a non-traditional source would include Cable News’ creation of their own individual news channel, or newspapers development of their own websites. Netflix, for example, may have once been firmly in the camp of alternative media, but I would posit that any company that is owned by a massive corporation such as Disney should cease to be considered separate from more traditional societal structures. What this leaves us with is independent video producers, most notably on YouTube but on other platforms as well, newer and so less established independent publications, blogs, and even individuals freely expressing their opinions or creativity without a significant fiscal incentive. Media like this is not made in a large Hollywood or New York studio and do not benefit from the help of a large payroll for staff and technology. A trend emerges with these truly alternative sources, they are to a large degree reliant on larger platforms, like YouTube or social media, to get their content to their audience, but are however separate from these publications. It is wrong to describe the current entirety of YouTube as alternative media when CNN and Fox News have YouTube channels, YouTube is simply a place where alternative media can be found. This definition of alternative media, as in media that is truly independently owned and produced, as opposed to simply calling all digital media alternative, may not match the lingo used within the industry. However, I believe it is the correct definition to understand the real change that is going on within the media landscape.
How to see the trend
The proper definition of alternative media given in above is vital to understanding the true societal movement away from a few massive content sources and towards many smaller ones. The challenge is that it makes this trend difficult to track over time. This is because as viewership scatters across smaller independent sources, the viewer’s habitual data scatters with it, making it hard to aggregate. So, the best way to understand this trend is to look at traditional media’s statistics. By assuming that the relationship between traditional viewership and alternative is negatively correlated, in aggregate and over time, this can be used to extrapolate the growth or decline of alternative media. Here it is important to consider overall media consumption trends as well as population growth.
The rate of overall media consumption in America continues to grow, with a major boom in the last few weeks due to the major societal changes. However, this growth was beginning to decelerate before the pandemic hit. The chart below from eMarketer.com shows this trend from 2012 to 2018, with the years seeing a 16 minute and only 1 minute increase in overall consumption respectively.
Going off the same years, the US population is estimated to be about 314 million in 2012 and 326 million in 2018 according to census.gov. This is about 4% growth at a steady rate of about .66% each year. Putting the population growth and the overall consumption together, this means that, for example, any content producer that saw greater than 3% growth from 2012 to 2018 beat the average and so can be assumed to have gained a higher portion of market share. This is opposed to, as another example, just 1.5% overall growth in 2016. 8.5% growth would just edge out the industry average for the entire 6 year span. According to Nielsen, the total monthly hours of cable TV usage went down from 148 hours in 2012 to 141 in 2014. A 4.73% decrease against an overall growth of 2.58% within the industry (Nielsens study did not account for population growth). So while media consumption was growing, cable news viewership was declining. This is hardly a revelation for anyone in the industry, but it is a helpful quantification to use to start further analysis.
My next step in analysis is where the distinction between defining alternative media as independent media, as opposed to alternative media as digital media, becomes important. We know that the decline in cable left as much as 7% of market share up for grabs from 2012 to 2014. What is less clear is how much of this market share fell to truly alternative media and how much was eaten up by traditional media’s growth into non-traditional platforms. In 2014 Netflix users watched a total of 29 billion hours a content, which grew over 46% to 42.5 billion hours in 2015. This massive number means that Netflix isn’t just growing off increased overall consumption and cables decline, it is also likely capitalizing off moves away from all traditional delivery methods including radio and print. This leaves independent content producers in a bind. At first glance an aspiring YouTuber may think the current times present a great opportunity to take advantage of the trend of those cutting cable, but in reality right now is an incredibly challenging time to produce content without massive backing. Someone trying to create content is now competing with the rise of Netflix as well as other traditional sources moving online. CNN has 9.44 million subscribers on YouTube, and has the funding necessary to acquire many more if they decide to. Those that do not have their notoriety or credibility have huge bars from attaining it. The disproportionate growth of Netflix show that creativity outside of massive corporate structures is being strangled by those that can afford to crush their competition. In order to understand the mechanisms behind this one must understand the platforms used by independent producers of both past and present.
Exposing the Myth
The myth of growing alternative media has been beneficial to new digital platforms like YouTube and Netflix. Netflix positioned themselves as a contrast to media style of previous generations. YouTube has long been seen as a place where someone can consider new viewpoints or be entertained in ways unique to them. If either of these things were ever true, they are certainly ceasing to be. Instead, these companies and those like them hold themselves up as new and different to the public while acting in sync with previous media powerhouses in private. Since its acquisition, the most popular show on Netflix by a wide margin has been The Office. Netflix pays over $100 million a year to retain the rights.
Now, I like The Office, but the idea that many media professionals classify the millions hours of it streamed as “alternative” strikes me as ridiculous. The Office is basically Seinfeld updated for the 21st century. Many different shows in the style of The Office are available on cable. What really is the difference between these two platforms? The minor changes like access through wifi or different advertising structure (that is beginning to look more like Cable every day) mean very little if the quality of the content is the same. The battle between cable, Netflix, and a variety of other players like Hulu or Amazon Video is almost entirely based around who has the money to buy the show that people want to watch. A small television producer that wants to make a new show have almost no other option to reach their audience besides these massive monopolies with no incentive to pay a fair rate for an obscure show with little chance to catch on. The production of content on YouTube is similar. YouTube, through manipulating their search algorithms, recommendation, or outright banning possesses the power to control the voices on their platform. YouTube’s incentives is to funnel viewers towards massive corporate entities with proven viewership’s and huge advertising budgets. It is accurate to summarize this overall trend by saying that YouTube is becoming Netflix and Netflix is becoming Cable. This trend is also observable with the growth of major news corporations on other platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and others that used to be separate from these massive household names.
One obvious but flawed argument against the idea that, as of late, independent voices are being stifled as opposed to amplified, is a comparison of now to times before the internet. “Be happy that you can make or watch a YouTube video at all” a naysayer might suggest. The flaw in this argument lies in misconceptions about the previous media landscape and its level of corporatization. When what is now classified as traditional media was new and emergent there were few corporate monopolies with enough weight to impact the entire industries. Local newspapers were not owned by conglomerates located in urban hubs and so an aspiring writer could more easily gain access to them in order to put forth his ideas, as opposed to a newspaper today. Maybe there were only three channels on TV for a time, but that was when most people did not even own TVs. This argument may have enough merit to suggest the levels of alternative media in each respective time is no less today than before the internet. But the prevailing sentiment, among both media professionals and indeed the American public, seems to be that some massive shift towards independent content production is occurring. I believe that this is incorrect and that levels of alternative media production are at most equal to what they had been.
The trend away from cable and towards digital is undeniable and will likely continue. The recent developments with Covid-19 might accelerate this trend and will likely lead to increased media viewership rates for the foreseeable future. But the future of what I have defined as truly alternative media is very much up in the air. There is little reason to think that YouTube will change its ways, allow independent streamers a higher portion of their fans donations, and recommend their videos over financially backed channels. Netflix will not start taking gambles on smaller shows when they can continue to renew The Office and stay profitable. Facebook still won’t want you to see your crazy Uncle’s flat earth theory, and so you won’t see it. However there is the possibility that new platforms and services may begin to emerge. Streamers or smaller scale film studios may risk giving their rights to places with smaller or more niche audiences if they are given better rates. Streaming websites such as Twitch show an emerging profitable example of this. Your Uncle might realize Facebook is hiding his posts and so start his own blog. If the earth does turn out to be flat he will receive massive traffic that Facebook will be missing out on.
The most likely scenario is that independent content production shrinks in the short term but sees a renaissance at some point in the future. For those of us wise enough to differentiate between media production and it’s delivery this trend will prove interesting to track, as it has potential for huge cultural impacts across our society.
Important factors to consider when looking at this trend is population demographics, the contrast between traditional and alternative media, and global trends that impact behavior.