The New York Times reports this morning that Major League Baseball will begin charging to listen to baseball games on the net. Although the charge is pretty small–$9.95 for the whole season–it nonetheless marks a change in a medium where folks are generally used to getting content for free.
I bring this up not because I care all that much about listening to baseball games, but because the question of recouping costs and making a profit off of Internet media has been lingering since the inception of streaming media. After buying an expensive computer and paying an additional charge for an ISP, people seem generally unwilling to pay even more to get content, be it video, audio or a web-based magazine like Slate or Salon. I think this tendency has helped keep the Internet playing field a little more level for independents and non-profits than with traditional media because the start-up costs can still be kept low and the lack of profits keeps large corporations from utterly dominating the web (any more than they already do).
However, if paying for content is successful, this might change the field, although it’s tough to say by how much. MLB has a monopoly on baseball games, so there no hope for competition in this market, especially if you live away from your favorite team. If MLB says pay, then you pay if you want to hear a game. But for more diverse, perhaps less unique content, it’s less clear that any one company or group would have a sufficient monopoly to make paying for on-line content make sense. Yet, the music industry is attempting to impose licensing fees on on-line radio stations that essentially attempts to exploit a monopoly over their content, although it’s unclear whether such costs would be passed on to listeners (especially since the broadcasters are fighting this in court).
If it turns out that on-line listeners are willing to pay a small amount for access to unique content and information, then it may be a good thing for indpendents, who may be able to recoup some costs and not operate at a loss. The downside is that a new “digital divide” could be created, separting those who have even more money to buy on-line content from those who just barely have the access to get on-line in the first place. Yet, independents and non-profits might also be able to adopt the fundraising model used by public and community radio stations, asking for voluntary donations and memberships to stay afloat, even though the content is available to all.
In fact, there are some indications that such a system might work. One example is actually not ‘net media, but the Blogger service, which I use to post updates to this website. The Blogger service, which is free, experienced huge growth last year which its meager resources were unable to keep up with, affecting the quality of its service. Instead of instituting a fee, Pyra labs, which runs Blogger, decided to ask users for donations to buy a new server. The call for funds ended up being more successful than Pyra had hoped, indicating that people are willing to help keep a service they value up and running.
Now, Pyra Labs is not yet making a profit, but nonetheless I think this is an example that indicates the ability of non-profit web-based services to be supported by user donations rather than access fees. This is just one instance, but the ability of community radio stations that don’t take corporate underwriting (unlike public radio) to stay afloat using this model does point to possibly hopeful future for non-profit user/community supported media on the web. Only time will tell, although perhaps the ‘net offers a better future for such non-profit enterprise than any other media so far, since it has resisted wholesale commercialization longer than every other electronic mass medium.