There are many challenges ahead for producers, consumers and regulators of Australian media. Perhaps the biggest challenge is to understand that, along with new media, we now have a new media audience - an increasingly different social formation, often eluding efforts to contain its actions within profitable corporate pathways.
The environment in which the pleasurable businesses of the media conduct themselves today, and their relations with possible audiences, continue to be affected by the dramatic alterations that the Internet brings to our daily lives. The Internet is variously a diversion from, supplement to, or even replacement for more traditional media forms and functions. These effects now are emphasised and also changed as advanced data networks, handsets and product offerings emerge in the mobile communications sector of media development.
Traditional media are also responding to the changes in media ownership laws but these changes are, themselves, a result of government attempts to account for the interface between old and new media forms. Controversies over content (think of the turkey slapping incident on Big Brother and happy slapping on YouTube.com) usually seem to be controversial when they cross the line from online digital transmission to widespread popular consumption on mainstream news services.
Traditional media, however, remain predominant in our popular and professional cultural lives. True, blogs will be important come the election, but the formal debate will still be a television event, and talk back radio provides the arena for the real struggle for voters’ hearts and minds. Top-rating television programs such as Biggest Loser, Dancing with the Stars and 60 Minutes still serve to create a collective “Australian” television audience in the millions whose attention generates the most important financial returns for the networks as well as a shared (if contested) sense of cultural identity.
Online classified advertisements may prove significant, but they are generated from within the traditional print media system and continue to play second fiddle to the newspapers whose existence they permit. Telstra and the NRL may be battling about rugby league video highlights, but when the free-to-air television broadcast of sport leaks away to Foxtel, questions are asked in Parliament and it is front page news.
And yet … the world has changed. Many television programs can only be produced because of the revenue generated by viewer interactions through telephone or SMS voting. A generation of younger media consumers understands the world first and foremost through the connections made, and broken, through chat and public profiling via services such as MySpace. News services extract surplus value from the costly business of journalism through repackaging and representation on the Internet and, more profitably, through mobile phones.
Games based on films generate more revenue than the films themselves. The music industry now depends on the transmission of songs via network media, either in their own right or as ring tunes for phones. And one of the most central debates in public policy concerns the provision of telecommunications infrastructure suitable for an advanced nation in the early years of a new century.
The process of shaping and developing this new landscape of media in Australia, with its unevenly blended mix of traditional and emerging forms and services, largely rests in the hands of a few very powerful and influential private corporations. Government, driven by market-oriented, individualist ideology, plays only a limited role, except insofar as acting as proxy for those interests.
Of course, those corporate interests are characterised by government as constrained by the necessity, within a very free market, of meeting consumer needs and desires. As a result, the government - acting on behalf of consumers (and indeed constituting the nation’s citizens as consumers) - can in its own terms “act” for Australians by enabling corporate competition.
What’s best for the nation is, then, equivalent to that which can profitably be delivered. But, as evidenced by the radically different developmental trajectories in this country of, on the one hand, subscription television and on the other, the Internet, the very technologies which media corporations are now most engaged with do not easily lend themselves to corporatised control and profitable exploitation.
In the absence of strong government, and with traditional media and communications companies in Australia still grounded in the past, it is the consumers who matter. Consumers - those targets of business and political spin -might well prove the strongest force for determining the future because they have accommodated the changes inherent in networked online media faster than anyone.
The real impact of the Internet has been to create a new media audience, with three key characteristics. These characteristics appear only poorly understood by some in government and “big media”; others deliberately attempt to limit their impact so as to control the Internet’s transformation of daily mediated life.