Randall Stross, in a Times article, wonders who will pay for TV now that ad-skipping DVRs and on-demand broadband video have destroyed TV’s mass media advertising model. I wonder whether late 20th-century TV content production will follow the same path as early 20th-century transatlantic ocean travel, milk delivery, and buggy whip manufacturing — marginalized or completely displaced by new technologies.

If the digital generation is content to entertain themselves with amateur (i.e. user-generated) video on YouTube, why should there be a business around expensively produced video content? The economics of mass media advertising that supported the TV content production and distribution business have ceased to function, destroyed by technology that has reduced the cost of production and distribution to near zero, making the old economics untenable.

I’ll return to my favorite George Will quote:

In the late 1850s, American cotton was king, feeding the mills of England, but on a tonnage basis, America’s second largest export was…ice. Blocks of it were sawed from New England’s ponds and shipped, insulated under sawdust, to warm climes as distant as Calcutta. People probably thought that would go on forever. Nothing does.

TV studios and networks assumed that their business would last forever. But nothing does.

The real question is not who will pay for TV — it’s whether anyone will pay for the creation of any content?

What if dollars have no place in the new economics of content?

In a WSJ cyber-dialogue with Vint Cerg, Esther Dyson was channeling Michael Goldhaber and managed to crystalize for me (finally) the key insight of media 2.0:

…attention has its own intrinsic value, independent of money. People go on the Web in search of attention; they don’t want to give it as much as get it.

This is a blazing, head-spinning insight.

In media 1.0, brands paid for the attention that media companies gathered by offering people news and entertainment (e.g. TV) in exchange for their attention. In media 2.0, people are more likely to give their attention in exchange for OTHER PEOPLE’S ATTENTION.

This is why MySpace can’t effectively monetize its 70 million users through advertising — people use MySpace not to GIVE their attention to something that is entertaining or informative (which could thus be sold to advertisers) but rather to GET attention from other users. Why is it so appealing to MySpace users to be able to post messages publicly on other users’ sites? Because they can GET attention as a function of GIVING it.

This make perfect sense in a world of participatory media — the value flow has reversed itself. MySpace can’t sell attention to advertisers because the site itself HAS NONE. Nobody pays attention to MySpace — users pay attention to each other, and compete for each other’s attention — it’s as if the site itself doesn’t exist.

You see the same phenomenon in blogging — blogging is not a business in the traditional sense because most people do it for the attention, not because they believe there’s any financial reward.

What if the economics of media in the 21st century begin to look like the economics of poetry in the 20th century? — Lot’s of people do it for their own personal gratification, but nobody makes any money from it.