2007: Don't just watch, blog!
Vegging in front of the telly is no longer enough. A generation has got up off the couch and gone to live online instead, creating new identities and stars like Leona and Lily Allen. But with corporations moving in, is the revolution already over?
Sunday 31 December 2006
"For most people," wrote Don DeLillo in his 1985 postmodern masterpiece, White Noise, "there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set." How innocent 1985 seems now. For many people in Britain, in 2006, their TV set, and, indeed, where they lived, made little impact on their existence. Why just watch, when they could digitally do?
I met a girl at a Paolo Nutini gig in Oxford in October who filmed the performance on her videophone, without pause, from the moment Nutini stumbled on to the stage to the moment he rasped his last. She looked delighted. I asked her whether she'd enjoyed her evening. No word of a lie, this was her response: "I got some nice stuff."
For a generation of kids and hipsters in 2006, this was their only imperative - record, record, record. And then upload, and share and blog and contribute. It is for this reason - "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game" - that we are all Time magazine's 2006 person of the year. That's very flattering - thank you, Time - but is it true? Have we all, really, seized the reins?
I didn't care to ask the destination of the Nutini fan's "nice stuff", but a safe bet might have been her MySpace page, or YouTube. These sites - one a social networking site, on which music, video and gossip can be shared, and the second a forum for uploaded video clips - have done more to change the way the world approaches media this year than any others. When YouTube's founders, a couple of laid-back cats from San Francisco called Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, sold their business to Google for $1.65bn (£840m) in October, some commentators thought that Google had paid a little over the odds - but not by much.
By October, YouTube was showing 100 million video clips a day. Many were deeply asinine - "Hey look, Gary ate a Coke can!" - but some had the power to shape entire careers. When George Allen, a Republican shoe-in for re-election to the Senate in the midterm elections, called a member of his Democratic rival's staff (a young man of Indian descent) a "macaca", he lost the race. Because Allen was being filmed. And because, in 2006, if you said something stupid, it was on YouTube in minutes.
For the traditional media - that thing you're holding in your hands - the most exciting aspect of YouTube or MySpace came when these forums showed they could create "stars". Following in the footsteps of the Arctic Monkeys, talented Sheffield indie kids who generated a violent rush of fans around their MySpace page in 2005, came this year's MySpace queen, Lily Allen, who had everyone singing "Smile" before it hit the shops. Guy Goma, meanwhile, won the hearts of the nation as his bungled, impromptu performance on BBC News 24 was displayed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.
You'll have noticed, however, that, while the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen are still with us, Mr Goma has retreated quietly from the public eye. Proof, if it were needed, that man cannot live by web alone. YouTube and MySpace may be the perfect ground on which to plant the seeds of stardom, but every potential star still needs validation by a traditional system. Just like half a century's worth of artists before them, they need the deal.
Allen, indeed, was signed to Parlophone well before she became a MySpace fixture. Her story is symptomatic of the depressing fact that MySpace has lost much of the punk ethic that made it cool in the first place. While the Arctic Monkeys did something canny and revolutionary in 2005 - banning record scouts from their sell-out gigs, and relying on a fanbase maintained by the MySpace phenomenon - 2006 has seen the site's chic eroded.
Heard of a "friend-adder"? That's a device to add friends to your, or your band's, MySpace profile. It's often used by a record company executive, whose sole purpose is to maintain his artist's "online presence".
In many ways, MySpace was over before it began - in June 2005, Rupert Murdoch bought Intermix, the company that created MySpace, and there went the neighbourhood. The links to 20th Century Fox productions and other Murdochalia you find on the site are no mistake.
If you want to see a genuine force for change, look to Wikipedia, the online, not-for-profit encyclopedia that, in 2006, passed the one million mark for English language pages. Entirely created and edited by users, the site has used the "wisdom of crowds" philosophy to ensure its accuracy. Naturally, crowds can be stupid as well as wise, and there are frequent glitches in the truth matrix, but as an idea, and a product, nothing in 2006 has come close to matching Wikipedia for influence. It can only grow in 2007.
Look, too, to the influence of the political blogger - this year's big story for Westminster's media village. In contrast to America, where political bloggers have held huge influence for the past three or so years, it has taken Britain until 2006 to realise the potential of the medium. Only Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes, both right-wing scribblers, have made an impact, but when they shake cages, people now listen. It was, for instance, Guido Fawkes who first named Tracey Temple as John Prescott's squeeze, and it was Fawkes who maintained pressure on Tony Blair from the first moments of the cash-for-honours row.
Dale's scoop about Philip Anschutz and the future of the Millennium Dome, meanwhile, was so juicy, that, when the Daily Mail wanted to put it on their front page, they asked Dale to remove the story from his blog, so that they could claim exclusivity. He refused, because he knew that he was a major player in his own right. In 2006, Fawkes and Dale have, often with little more than a blithe disregard for traditional reporting proprieties, made themselves essential reading. It is not a coincidence that both these men are blogging "in opposition"; when Blair leaves office in 2007, we should look forward to Labour forcing a powerful counter-argument in the political blogosphere.
What to make of podcasting - the downloadable radio-esque shows that media organisations are now very keen on promoting - is anyone's guess. In 2006, we listened to more and more podcasts. Which largely meant that we listened to Ricky Gervais (who saw his series of comedy podcasts for The Guardian downloaded millions of times), Jimmy Carr and Russell Brand. But podcasting created no new stars, merely reinforced some established ones. Indeed, the podcast was just one more outlet for Gervais, Carr, and Brand to entrench their ubiquity - along with the TV programmes, the books, the live performances, the films, the newspaper columns and radio shows.
So don't call it a revolution. If 2006 shows us a general trend, it is that we're all still suckers for a blockbuster. If anything, mainstream tastes in this country have become much more conservative. How else to explain the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, a movie that has taken over a billion dollars worldwide this year and that has just pipped the new Bond film to be Britain's favourite cinema film in 2006?
How else to explain, too, that the stars of British television this year were reality television spins on old formats? Almost 13 million people tuned in to watch the final of ITV's The X Factor. The BBC's Strictly Come Dancing has fared equally well. Deal or No Deal, a brain-numbingly simple game show that has been syndicated into dozens of languages, has, meanwhile, rocketed up the Christmas DVD bestseller lists.
So don't tell me, Time magazine, that we are all your people of the year, because when you said that we had framed the new digital democracy, you weren't talking about my mum. The digital democracy - the girl with her videophone at the Nutini gig - is still a niche constituency, albeit an increasingly influential one. The podcasters are still outnumbered by the people with analogue radios listening to The Archers; the old narratives are still pulling the biggest crowds; and, the odd internet start-up billionaire aside, the old media powers are still the ones making money.
But there has been a shift in vision in 2006 - one that can only redouble in 2007. And, in one sense, it is a democratising tendency. It is that we can get whatever we want, wherever we want. The trend's power became clear to me as I watched, along with a quarter of the nation's population, the old-fashioned heartstrings-fest that was The X Factor live final.
We were told, at the same moment that the winner, Leona, was crowned, that her Christmas single would be available as a download later that night. This ruse was so successful that by the time a physical compact disc hit the record shops, Leona had sold enough copies of her single to be Christmas number one for the next five years. But, more revealing still, we were then guided into a message from the show's sponsor, Nokia, which was promoting its new "Music gets you talking" campaign.
The phone that appeared in the advert was a Nokia 3250 - a device that not only stores up to 750 tracks, but has a 2-megapixel camera for stills and video, internet capacity, and a one-gigabyte memory. It was evidence that we have almost come to a point when phone screens are so advanced, their memory so expanded and their internet sites so user-friendly, that they become our cultural nodes.
In 2007, a desktop computer may start to feel like a blunt instrument indeed. For most people, soon, there will be only one place in the world, and it will fit in their pocket.
After his defection from the BBC, Grade, takes his seat at the head of ITV's board on 8 January, when his priority will be to reverse the broadcaster's fortunes. ITV1 has seen advertising revenues down 12.5 per cent in the past year, and its audience share fall too. ITV has a total programming budget for 2007 of £1bn; Grade's own pay package could top £4m a year.
From 1 January the old Board of Governors makes way for the BBC Trust, to be chaired by Chitra Bharucha until the Government appoints a permanent replacement for the defector Michael Grade. The trust's first task will be to decide which of its long-term plans to shelve if the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, confirms a below-inflation rise in the licence fee.
The Digital Switchover
The great switchover - or analogue switch-off - kicks off in the Border ITV region in 2008, to be completed by 2012. But, to date, just under 30 per cent of UK households have yet to follow the little white logo, right, and go digital, with the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, piling pressure on the BBC by ordering that the £600m switchover subsidy for "vulnerable" homes come from the licence fee.
HD-ready televisions have been a big seller for retailers in 2006 but few owners seem aware that, while their expensive sets are HD-ready, it will be several years until they receive HD images. The BBC has trialled terrestrial HDTV in a limited number of London homes, and hopes all its output will be in high definition by 2010. But until the digital switchover, Freeview has inadequate capacity for a nationwide launch.
Sir Richard Branson
After a merger between ntl:Telewest and Virgin Mobile, the Virgin chief takes the reins at Virgin Media, hoping to shake up the market by offering "quadplay bundles" - single packages providing digital TV, broadband, mobile and home phone services. Sir Richard will be looking for a smoother ride in 2007 after BSkyB scuppered his plans to take over ITV by snapping up nearly a fifth of its shares, and then beat NTL, in which he is the biggest shareholder, to a coveted sponsorship spot on Virgin Radio.
He may have turned 75 in 2006 but Murdoch shows no signs of loosening his grip on a media empire that now includes the 18 per cent stake in ITV. He and son James, chief executive of BSkyB, will be keeping a close eye on the UK's biggest commercial broadcaster. Meanwhile, BSkyB hopes the sponsorship deal with Virgin Radio's breakfast show will help promote Sky+, its broadband service and its TV programming, including Lost.
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