Friday, December 12, 2008

On a Subscription-Based Web

Originally posted by me at The New Digital Cinema group on Facebook:

All pr0n aside, subscription-based web sites have been all but dead for quite some time now... Their passing isn't a result of the recent economic downturn. Content providers learned a while back that the subscription model doesn't work-- or at least didn't work while there/are were plenty of comparable ad-supported alternatives available.

Salon tried a subscription model for a year. The New York Times held out longer. But both of these and many more have torn out the toll booths between users and content.

There are very few audiences who are willing to pay directly, possibly because we've gotten so used to broadcast TV's long ad-based availability. (Those of you who remember the Beeb's Big-Brotheresque monitoring vans rolling by, with subsequent fines being levied may be exempt from this mindset.)

Then again, you might think that paid services like cable and satellite television would have cured us of this sense of entitlement. But we have to consider that cable and satellite are probably more often considered to be semi-agnostic delivery services rather than content providers, since they bundle such a large [sic] selection of networks and services. While a few networks are found exclusively on one provider or another, the majority are available on all.

This may be a clue to a viable future model; large numbers of sites banding together under a single subscription price. In the near-term, lots of general-interest, or financial or sports sites bundled into separate subscription packages. Later (or maybe sooner than later) more consolidation could take place, with variety packages offered, much like the collection of networks and channels provided with basic cable.

Much as Philip was saying, porn producers are already there, offering several sites for a single price -- or so their bot-net spammers tell me.

All this bundling would be a throwback to the days when services like AOL, WebTV, Prodigy, @home, et. al. provided connectivity and content. But users of Der Intertuben are more sophisticated now, and prefer a neutral ISP, along with access to anything and everything. And look where users have left those services...

Because of this, bundles that are limited in scope by media conglomerate ownership might not be as appealing; we're used to cable and satellite delivering a variety of networks owned by a variety of parent companies (Viacom notwithstanding).

ISPs on the other hand, could provide neutrality, but still offer special co-branded packages of bundled content. Some do today, but the content seems to be delivered by B-grade providers, or limited deals with individual media giants, or their own in-house operations that pale in comparison to third-party offerings. These packages are no more than perqs, rather than real attempts at providing a serious selection of content.

I think one of the keys to profitability might a tiered service, with some ad-supported content available to all users, and premium content available only to subscribers. But only if those subscribers are able to access premium content on many different sites with that one subscription.

Naturally, this could also encourage producers to improve their game, in order to create a real difference between free-access content and the paid stuff.

So... maybe a second generation of bundled content providers would understand that they may not be able to filter and control everything a subscriber sees and hears... but that they can still make a buck if they can play nice with others, and provide enough premium content at a price users are willing to pay.

If consumers can have a net-neutral ISP and access to the whole Width of the Wide World 'O Web, while also getting one or more packages of varied, high-quality premium content, across multiple sites and from multiple providers, the subscription model might actually work for everybody.

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