Today's Media & Digital Distribution

For this week’s commentary, I want to look at digital distribution for various kinds of media and look at some of the advantages as well as disadvantages to this distribution model for those different media types. As broadband speeds increase, distributing media digitally is going to become more popular so it makes sense to take a closer look at it.

What is Digital Distribution

Digital distribution is the latest way that a content maker can get their product to the masses with ease. Digital distribution is being used for music, movies, comics, news, and even commentary. Through digital distribution, a content maker can easily eliminate the need to mass produce product for shipment and can instead have 1 file and people can download it from all over the world. The best example of digital distribution working is Apple’s iTunes Store. Through this store front, Apple has managed to push over 3 billion tracks of music and who knows how many TV shows and movies. Apple designed a working digital distribution system at first with digital rights management software, and is now moving away from DRM in hopes to attract more customers (those with other, non-iPod players) to their store (at least for music anyway).

What are the Advantages

When it comes to distributing media digitally, you have several advantages. The main one, previously mentioned, is that fact that one does not need to mass produce a product, but rather put a single copy on a server someone and allow others to download it. Because there is no need to produce a mass quantity of the product, you can sell the product at a cheaper price because you are not having to 1) produce inventory to sell and 2) store that inventory somewhere until you need it. Sure, you have to store the original copy of the files somewhere and having a backup is essential in any digital distribution model, but that is 2 copies rather than thousands or tens of thousands.

What are the Disadvantages

Digital distribution is not without its own set of disadvantages. For one thing, people want to protect their investment so the need to find a method that deters mass copying of the files is essential. Granted people whom actually pay for the media are going to be less likely to redistribute it abroad, but the problem does exist if only to a small degree. This is why digital rights management was invented. While the idea of protecting the product from mass copying is a good one, you mostly just end up criminalizing the law abiding citizens. The other disadvantage is quality. It is hard to find the perfect mix of quality and file size. The higher the quality, the longer it is going to take to download the file. To do full HD content over digital distribution of a movie, you are talking easily 10 to 20 gigabytes of data. That is almost 10-20 times the size of a movie from iTunes (depending on the movie). That is a lot of data and the broadband capacity in the United States just is not ready to handle that kind of throughput. Sure, the infrastructure exists but that does not mean that the service providers are going to turn it on.

Who Should Adopt Digital Distribution & Why

So who should be using digital distribution? That really is the million dollar question. What market(s) can benefit best from this distribution model? Well, Apple has proven that it works well with music, iTunes is the third biggest music retailer on the internet right now, just behind Amazon. The market that I think can really benefit from a digital distribution model is television. Television is the perfect choice for this kind of online distribution model, because the shows range in length from 22 minutes to 48 minutes (without commercials), you can get the best quality to filesize ratio, and you can stick a 2 minute commercial on the beginning or end of the file.

In fact television has already taken this leap with both iTunes and their own products. For example, NBC allowed you to air a complete episode of Heroes the day after a new episode aired. They also had audio commentary that you could listen to so as to give those that watched the show live when it came on, a reason to go and check out the episode online. The Sci-Fi channel is doing something similar with their shows like, Eureka.

Finally there is movies. While people will say that this kind of distribution could work for full length motion pictures, I tend to disagree. Sure, there is a small market for it. But until broadband speeds get to full 50 megabit a second downloads, this distribution model is not suited for movies. The main reason being that, it is difficult to get a good quality product at a file size that current broadband speeds can grab efficiently.

What Can We Expect

I think that as broadband speeds improve we will see an increase in the quality of the files. Apple has already begun increasing the quality on the music side, doubling the encoded bit rate to 256kbps as opposed to the 128kbps they started with. They also increased the quality of their video files from 320×240 to 640×480 (DVD 4:3 resolution). I think that the next step for music is going to be a lossless compression format, which will be the equivalent of having the audio that was ripped directly from the CD. Video downloads will increase to at least the 720p high definition before too long on television shows. We will have to wait for the broadband speeds to increase to really see a quality increase on full length movie downloads.

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