Back in July, Time magazine started charging for access to its Website. The New York Times is implementing a version of walled access. The Wall Street Journal has long been off-limits to those without a subscription. (With some exceptions.)
Does information no longer want to be free? Is the end of unlimited access on the Web upon us?
Perhaps. More likely, a blended model will emerge, with some materials being available for free and others being paid for. That model has been working well for television for decades.
The Television Model
Broadcast TV is free. You only pay your cable/satellite company so you can avoid the hassle of fiddling with an antenna on your roof. (And to avoid the medical and other costs of a year in traction when you fall off your roof.)
And cable TV is paid, of course. You get a bundle of channels for a package price. Some channels you want, others you don’t. And there’s even a third tier of access, for very specialized content of great importance: things like NFL Sunday Ticket, where you can see every NFL game every weekend, or a pay-per-view Abba concert aren’t of interest to casual viewers, but rabid fans are willing to pay a premium for access not otherwise available.
Where the Web is Headed
That’s the direction the web is going. Some content will be free, other content will be paid, and the audiences for both will be happy. (More importantly, we’ll have reached an equilibrium where content producers are being paid for their work. There may be some permanently disruptive changes, but the current state of content being consumed for free just isn’t sustainable.)
It will be interesting to see if aggregators – like the cable companies in TV today – sprout up to provide bundled access, presumably at a discount to what you’d pay for individual programs, or if we’ll have to manage our subscriptions to various content “channels” separately. I say channels because we won’t be accessing the info and entertainment we’re paying for just through our Web browsers. It will be available through smartphone apps and Kindle/iPad/Nook-style readers, etc.
The combination of paid and advertising-supported content and the increase in ad-supported content means, of course, more online advertising. It will be interesting to see what sort of advertising models become popular and how the technology for wrapping advertising around content develop.
The advertising industry is already realizing that the less invasive, the better, but metrics and measurability have to improve further for that push to continue. (Actually, the metrics and measurability are there; it’s more a matter of advertisers and their agencies becoming more comfortable with what their measuring and what their goals are. Yes, we can count clicks on a Web banner, but how does that help us measure the ad’s effectiveness if the goal is brand building, a la Super Bowl-style spots.
Net Effect for Online Audiences
In the end, this is all good for most online viewers. Advertisers will demand higher quality, as will any audience being asked to pay for access. Low-quality content gets pushed to the margins. That might mean a disenfranchising of smaller producers, like unsigned bands who can’t make a Hollywood-type music video, as was common in the heyday of the record labels, but it might also mean a profusion of very specialized channels. Not the “57 Channels and Nothing On” that Bruce Springsteen lamented, but 10s of thousands of channels, and I’m going to pick the ones that interest me.