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Every business is show business

Dr Alex Connock is the new Professor of Practice in the Business School, in Media and Artificial Intelligence. He argues that changes like streaming and the Metaverse matter not just for TV viewers and video gamers – but for all businesses and their storytelling objectives.

12 January 2022

When Albert Einstein said: “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” he probably wasn’t describing the lightning-speed, global proliferation of trampolining dog videos.

But absurdist home videos both exemplified, and at times actually drove, the past quarter-century of media change, from entertainment TV to YouTube, from TikTok to the coming, always-on, virtual Metaverse – not yet on stream, yet already forecast by Bloomberg to generate $800 billion in global revenue by 2025.

This boom in communication technology has not just powered entertainment. It has turned all companies, in whatever industry, into media firms.

It means everyone in business – restauranteurs, livestock carers, delivery firms, countries, you name it – now needs storytelling skills, including video producing. To update the iconic 1946 Irving Berlin song, now there’s no business unlike showbusiness.

This is a brief story of how it happened and what it means for your business career.

You’ve Been Framed

In the entertainment industry, until about 1992, TV producing was just for professionals; unionised teams, each member a singular trade: lights, camera, acting. A minimum price for any production (probably at least £10,000) meant most companies shot nothing. It was unthinkable that a local plumbing firm would shoot a TV advert.

Then the revolution was televised by affordable, consumer video cameras from Japanese makers Sony and Panasonic.  Videos removed processing costs, upped home movies to broadcast quality and fuelled a boom in self-shot film of skateboard accidents and Dads diveboming into flimsy pop-up swimming pools. Trivial in subject matter, the tsunami of home video would usher existential change for entertainment.

Home videos were collected offline. People mailed them in. Tape was edited, monetised via TV advertising by ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos then (literally) posted across the Atlantic, via the UK’s You’ve Been Framed and a host of editions in other countries. A good clip paid the user $250, but made many times that for the channels by the time it had been played a hundred times in 50 countries. It was the quintessential lesson in the financial acumen of a rights buy-out. (Note, market giant Blockbuster Video refused to buy another other offline film-mailing business in 2000. A decade later, Blockbuster went bankrupt.  Now Netflix has near $300 billion in enterprise value.)

Try Not To Gasp

Picking up the home video story at the point where camera phones arrived, Facebook quickly adopted user-fail clips, algorithmically adrenalising the growth of channels like LadBible (now itself a £300m company with over 120m global users).  Channels disintermediated expensive TV producers and advertising agencies, bought the clips direct, took them global with viral expertise and targeted promotion, and cashed in with programmatic advertising, on the ‘Try Not to Laugh When You See This Cat‘ format.

In parallel came YouTube. There, the creators disintermediated even the aggregators, creating and managing their own, personal channel brands.  They took around half the programmatic advertising direct from Google (some make easily $100,000 per month) exploited the rabbit-hole algorithmic targeting of the built-in machine learning to grow audiences, and professionalised the output with drones and 4k phones.

What they lacked in brand safety, they made up in taut audience segmentation, driving digital advertising towards its current 65+% of the global total, and smashing commercial TV advertising growth, probably forever. TikTok short-form videos then disintermediated even YouTube, creators became their own media sales agencies offering brand integration services, Instagram posts became directly shoppable eCommerce sites and the cycle rolled on. The one constant: relentless change.

We are Now All in Show Business

Companies, even really big ones like Ben & Jerry’s, or even its parent company Unilever, became creators too. As did charities.

Just as every individual became a TV producer when they could pick up their home video camera, now in the same way, most major companies, from airlines to aggregates, went into media too. As Oscar Wilde said: “My own business bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”

They will have a sophisticated website, a Facebook page with targetted B2C advertising strategies, direct to consumer YouTube explainer videos and Linkedin B2B engagement content.  Supermarkets (look at Waitrose) have big media creation operations and channels, as do defence contractors, IT companies, local councils, hedge funds.  Major UK eCommerce companies like Gymshark, BooHoo or THG have studios employing dozens of creators to get their message out via social channels, disintermediating ad agencies exactly as YouTube creators did a decade ago.

In fact any business that graduates from Exeter will go to, whatever its trade, will also be a media company. And so the rolling revolutions in media affecting companies within the industry, are affecting companies outside too.

Computer vision

It’s not stopping there, because change is amping up again in the media industry of the 2020s – this time with Artificial Intelligence – and again that will fertilise other trades.

AI academic Andrew Ng at Stanford University said: “AI is the new electricity,” a commodity of universal availability and significance.  In media production, AI gives everyone tools for creation (any given photo you take on your iPhone goes through many layers of machine learning) in transcription (tools like Otter), picture recognition, algorithmic distribution, script selection and more. Natural language processing tools like GPT3 mean machines can write articles and even books in a given style.  Computer vision means the editor of shows like the Real Housewives of Cheshire could simply tell the machine to “put in a shot of her frowning.”

In fact, creation is going further. Two Oxford academics on the ethics of AI describe the following near future: Classics will be divided between those written only by humans and those written collaboratively, by humans and some software, or maybe just by software. It may be necessary to update the rules for the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in literature.” (Floridi & Chiriatti, 2020)

All this is useful not just to media people, but to anyone with a market, an audience and a business, from anaesthetists to zoologists.  In fact, work done in AI-driven gesture recognition powers the BBC programme Springwatch.

The Metaverse, always on, globally replicating of the real world, will not only be a real-time gaming network like Fortnite, perhaps its closest current iteration. It will also be the place you can have a meeting with your cement supplier on Tuesday.

Whether we like watching viral videos or not, media is a place we all need to understand.


Dr Alex Connock is Professor of Practice in Media and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Exeter Business School.

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