How do we make money from content that people want free?

The great and the good of the film industry gathered at the annual conference of the British Screen Advisory Council this month to debate a subject concerning most of us at the moment: meeting consumer demand in the digital age.

How do we make money from content that people want free?
How do we make money from content that people want free?

I don't know if it's any comfort to the rest of us, but the council was concerned with a fairly common issue. The consumer wants content for free and the internet allows the consumer to access lots of content for free, so what on earth are we all going to do about it?

There are lessons to be learned from the film industry's debates that can be transferred to other media. One of the major questions is how we can generate revenue from content that the consumer prefers to pay nothing for.

Have I missed something? Has it suddenly been announced that it has become okay for consumers to take stuff for free that they're supposed to be paying for?

Piracy is a terrible problem in the entertainment industry. Stealing creative content should not be allowed to seem as commonplace as, say, finding the office biro in your handbag at the weekend (by the way, please can you put those biros back).

The fact that everyone else does it doesn't make piracy acceptable. Actually, it seems that one answer to this problem is to point out to people that they are stealing, which solves the majority of the offences.

One speaker's solution to the problem of repeat offenders is to turn pirates into affiliates: Time Warner's managing director of public policy talked about encouraging people to pay for content by allowing them to sell it on.

Another way of solving the content funding conundrum is to reorganise traditional revenue streams to allow consumers to pay for what they value, rather than what you want to charge them for.

Switching to the music industry, the Performing Rights Society reported this month that the value of live music overtook the value of recorded music in 2008.

This may require a painful readjustment of revenue streams from content generators, but it is an interesting model to consider. Might a future revenue stream for magazines come from ticket sales from a live tour featuring their best columnists and writers? And could we still see a Rovers Return franchise on every major high street (a bit of a fantasy of mine)?

One thing is for sure. Simply creating more advertising opportunities on content is no universal panacea for the gap between what producers would like to charge for their product and what consumers are prepared to pay.

Not in this market, anyway.

Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom sue.unerman@haymarket.com

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