Understanding the media industry’s brave new worlds

A dark Sci-fi landscape of mountains on an unknown world with two moons on a night horizon symbolises brave new worlds.
A dark Sci-fi landscape of mountains on an unknown world with two moons on a night horizon symbolises brave new worlds.

‘Like one of the outer moons of our solar system; exotic, constantly evolving, febrile, white hot, relentlessly volcanic…’ The National Film and Television School’s Alex Connock outlines the importance of understanding today’s media landscape and developing confidence in all of its commercial forms

Question: What do Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, Fortnite and Netflix all have in common? Answer: none of them even existed in the year 2000. 

Go back a couple more years and you can add Amazon (founded in 1994, at the very start of the internet) and Google (1998) to that list. What this means is that many of the companies that determine the rhythm and the content of our daily lives are extraordinarily new. That’s indicative of a media landscape, a content footprint across all our lives, that has been in a state of constant agitation. In fact, the media business is like one of the outer moons of our solar system; exotic, constantly evolving, febrile, white hot, relentlessly volcanic… and a place you definitely want to go.

‘No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world,’ said comedian, Robin Williams, which is why media is the industry of which everyone knows the products (shows and songs) and everyone has an opinion. That makes it a joy to be in. Content spending in 2020 (a Covid year, by the way) was $149 billion USD in the US, growing at a staggering 16% year on year. Meanwhile, in Asia it was growing even faster in the same year, at 19%, and in Africa, at 46%. This means that, over time, the content creation industry is getting bigger, less west-centric, and more imaginatively global. 

From screen and audio to social media: how media has changed

Segment the media business down into its constituent categories – and you can see how radical the changes have been, and how challenging it is to fully own the space. 

Screen has seen the invention of streaming platforms to supplant the pre-eminence of the broadcast powerhouses like CBS or ITV which had defined the latter part of the 20th century, and radically upend their business models. Now, AI (specifically, machine learning) layered onto home screen platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon or Disney +, provide personalisation to user tastes at a globalised, but individual, level. The shows you are served, and the order in which you are served them, is completely unique. YouTubehas come out of nowhere to become the principle media channel for many young peoples’ lives. Meanwhile, the production technologies of video games, like Fortnite, are lending the ability to create whole new worlds in virtual studios to shows like The Mandalorian. Finally, the cinema itself has been in decline in the west (although not in China).

Audio has changed just as much. Chris Martin from Coldplay said: ‘No one really knows where songs come from’, but those involved in making them do need to know where the money comes from. Artists used to make their money from record and CD sales. Then came downloads, illegal at first, which decimated record company incomes and put the whole business model of music in jeopardy. Streamers, specifically Spotify, provided a new hope of firm revenues, but artists and record companies remain locked in alternative interpretations of who is due what.  Meanwhile, radio has been edged out by the breakthrough model of podcasting. 

In the 20th century, humanity made it to the moon – but it didn’t invent social media.  That took until the early 21st century, but now (in the west, that is) Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn and other platforms are the pre-eminent media businesses in every respect except that they don’t consider themselves media businesses, because they don’t want to accept editorial responsibility for the content that is uploaded. Their production model is radically new in that it is outsourced to users. Their revenue model is driven by the personalisation and AI algorithms that make digital marketing the most powerful business tool of the era. And this is only the beginning of an era in which computer vision (another form of AI) will radically shift how we choose and interface with our entertainment.

Then there are video games – arguably the biggest and fastest-growing media sector on earth right now. One company, Riot Games, which makes League of Legends, has more than 400 job vacancies at the time of writing, such is the speed of its growth and demand for talent. There are e-sports teams and leagues too, each hungry for skilled workers. There are also business tools, like Substack, driving monetisation into blogging, hitherto a business for the penniless. And then there are traditional segments like book publishing (a sector whose demise was called way too early and which is now showing strong growth) theatre, events, festivals, music touring (Ed Sheeran, earned $700m USD on his last tour) commercials, documentaries… Oh, and sports. The soccer (football) teams, Barcelona and Manchester United, are media businesses, and best understood as such. 

Specialist skills required to thrive

Put simply, the media is of a greater breadth and scale than at any time in history.  This creative sector requires specialist skills and knowledge that can help you thrive in the industries within. As it’s primarily a gig economy with short-term, contract-driven employment, even cellists and dancers need to know enough about business to thrive. Meanwhile, those who want to design or run businesses, from animation to gaming, need to understand the multiple, complex models which drive them. Many of the text books that would tell you how to do that are so far out of date they still talk about TV advertising oligopolies and CDs. A better perspective would be that of writer, Charlie Fink, on the coming impact of augmented reality: ‘The world is about to be painted with data’.

The skills you need now, in the 2020s, are quite precise. You need to understand digital marketing – because that’s what drives sales from Broadway producers to an organic Instagrammer. You need to understand the drivers of idea creation, and how to copyright and sell those ideas – whether they are TV formats like the smash-hit US show Survivor (now in its 21st year) or the Korean megahit The Masked Singer. You need to understand accounting and finance, from the cash flow behind a streaming hit, like Chernobyl or Money Heist, to the monetisation technologies that will work in metaverse gaming concepts. You need to know how to deal with an agent, how to present a business plan, how to organise production of merchandising around your children’s animation, or how to sell advertising for a podcast. These days, even restaurants are media businesses: they make shows for Netflix and Apple TV.

Everyone in the media needs to know their worth and make sure they get paid.  ‘Chaplin’s no negotiator,’ said studio boss Sam Goldwyn of the notoriously business like silent movie star. ‘He just knows he can’t take anything less.’

There is an opportunity in business education to make sure graduates go out into the market knowing not to take anything less. Our specialist MA in Creative Business at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) maps the landscape by introducing students to a range and depth of media guests that would be impossible for a generalist education. It allows aspirant businesspeople to work with animators on product development, to deep-dive into a media sector – from the contemporary horror films of Jordan Peele and specialist Instagram commercials production for e-commerce to developing a business plan and pitching it to venture capitalists specialised in the industry. 

At the end of that, graduates emerge with an understanding of the media and a confidence in all of its commercial forms, such that they can specialise in one field, but have an informed perspective on all the others. Screenwriter, William Goldman famously wrote: ‘In Hollywood, no one knows anything.’ Only someone with proper inside knowledge could say something that smart.

Alex Connock is Head of Department of the Creative Business MA at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, UK.

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