Distance Learning

In 1604 and into 1605, London was ravaged by Plague, forcing much of the city into what today we would call lockdown: Many types of public gatherings were banned, theaters were shuttered, and houses that had been touched by the disease were marked with red crosses and the occupants told to stay indoors.

William Shakespeare used his forced downtime to write “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

Some 60-odd years later, during another outbreak of Plague, Isaac Newton worked out the laws of motion and invented the calculus while self-isolating away from London.

Hoping for another Newton or Shakespeare to emerge from the current Covid-19 pandemic might be setting expectations a bit high. But with virtually the entire media and entertainment industry mothballed until further notice, it’s not out of the question that the extended downtime and forced isolation could become an important, if unwanted, engine of innovation, leaving a changed business in its wake.

The most immediate impact of the current calamity is being felt by the live and location-based entertainment sectors: Concerts and music festivals have been cancelled or postponed; movie houses and Broadway theaters have gone dark; theme parks have been shuttered.

Billions of dollars are likely to be lost before it’s all done and much of that lost business is not likely to be recovered.

The longer term impact, however, could be felt in less visible ways.

The entertainment industries rely heavily on a nearly year-round circuit of industry fairs, festivals and markets to transact crucial licensing and content-acquisition business to keep distribution pipelines full. They also provide important showcases for creators hoping to get their works picked up for distribution.

For all the dramatic transformations wrought to the media industries by digital technology, in other words, a lot of important business still gets conducted face-to-face, in large industry gatherings. With many of those fairs and festivals now being cancelled or postponed due to fears of spreading Covid-19, that part of the business is also undergoing significant disruption.

The London Book Fair that isn’t happening this month, for instance, is normally an important marketplace for translation and other subsidiary publishing rights. Without it, many fall catalogs will will have holes.

The now cancelled MipTV conference would have been a premiere international marketplace for TV and streaming rights.

The SXSW festival that was supposed to happen this week but won’t is an important showcase for many independent filmmakers who are now scrambling to find other platforms and venues to screen their work before influential audiences.

There isn’t much that can be done about the loss of business in the live entertainment sector. Activities that depend on or encourage large social gatherings cannot easily be re-engineered to comply with social distancing practices or mandates.

Other aspects of the business, however, such as business-to-business interactions and transactions, are more susceptive to innovation, and a prolonged disruption to that activity could prove a catalyst.

Crisis management

The idea that disruption wrought by crisis could spur business-process innovation, in fact, has recent precedent. Economists have noted that the financial crisis of 2008-9, and the Great Recession that followed, served to accelerate the existing trend toward process-automation in many businesses.

As companies shed key employees, they were forced to find or develop other ways of maintaining critical processes and systems, and automation proved to be one of those methods. As the economy recovered, and businesses returned to growth, many found they could do what they had done before more efficiently and at lower cost via automation.

At a conference earlier this month (ironically enough), founder and CEO of BCMstrategy, Barbara Matthews, suggested something similar could be in store in the wake of Covid-19.

“The virus crisisis likely to accelerate the decades-old shift towards process automation,” she said. “Key vulnerabilities associated with the loss of significant staff will likely create incentives for business leaders to shift rapidly towards remote-working platforms and process automation initiatives.”

One reason Concurrent Media and our colleagues at Digital Media Wire started the RightsTech Project four years ago was to bring attention to the need for process innovation in the management and licensing of media rights.

We saw that need as born not of crisis but of historical under-investment in the business-to-business layer of the media value chain relative to the huge technological and financial investment in the consumer-facing consumption and creator-facing production ends of the pipeline.

Many long-standing media industry practices and organizational structures for the management and licensing of rights have remained largely untouched by the digital revolution that has transformed the rest of the business.

Many of those practices are slow, expensive, and worst of all do not scale to a degree commensurate with how the distribution of content scales today. That disconnect, in fact — the difficulty or inability to license content usage rights quickly and at scale — is the source of many of the conflicts that arisen over the years between rights owners and technology developers and users.

The current disruption of many of those long-standing industry practices at the hands of the novel coronavirus could force media companies to think seriously about new and ultimately more efficient ways to conduct business, not only to get through the current crisis but to finally bridge the “analog gap” in the middle of the media value chain.