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Does Higher Ed Fit the Narrative of 'Streaming, Sharing, Stealing'?

Lessons from the (other?) creative industries.

February 20, 2017
 
 

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang

Published in August of 2016.

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing is all about how digital platforms, abundant bandwidth, ubiquitous screens, and big data have upended the traditional business models of the creative economy.  

The creative industries include film, television, publishing, and music. Up until recently, these industries have been dominated by a small number of incumbents.  The large movie studios, record companies, TV networks, and book publishers were able to maintain their dominance for decades.  Their business models were built on controlling both the product, as well as the distribution channels in which audiences accessed their content.  

Today, a new set of players - from Facebook to Apple to Amazon to Netflix - are challenging the traditional power of the creative industry incumbents.

One example of this shift explored in Streaming, Sharing, Stealing is how Netflix is changing the economics of TV.  In 2017 Netflix will spend $6 billion on original content. 

Netflix’s can make these investments in original content for two reasons.  

First, the company has an enormous amount of data on its subscribers - and can use these data to make predictions about the success of their shows.  Netflix knew from its data that there was likely to be a strong demand for a David Fincher show starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and was willing to order an entire season without first making a pilot episode.  

The second reason that Netflix was able to bet $100 million on two 13 episode seasons of House of Cards without testing the appeal of the show in a pilot is Netflix’s subscription model.  The incumbent networks make their money by selling advertising, and therefore they must appeal to a broad range of viewer tastes.  Netflix only needs to appeal to a narrow range of tastes, as the Netflix bundle is large enough to drive subscriptions from a diverse audience. 

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing is full of stories that are similar to the impact of House of Cards.  Smith and Telang are persuasive in their contention that traditional creative content companies will be in trouble unless they can find a way to shift their business models and corporate cultures to play in the age of big data and ubiquitous screens.  

What these Carnegie Mellon professors don’t address is the question: is higher ed a creative industry?  

What do you think?

Does the higher education resemble the movie, TV, and publishing businesses?

The reflexive answer is - hell no.  We are not in the entertainment business.  In fact, we get in trouble if we go anywhere near the world of edutainment.  We believe that we are in the opportunity and discovery business.  We credential and we create knowledge.  Our purpose is a social one.  We are mission driven.  We exist outside of the immediate demands of the market or the dictates of fashion.  

Fair enough.

But still - we in higher ed have some things in common with the creative industries.

We are dependent on the willingness of someone to pay for what we offer.  We are in the experience business as much as we are in the credentialing or discovery businesses. And like the incumbent creative businesses, for a very long-time we’ve controlled both the creation of our product (teaching, credentials, research, etc.) and the distribution platforms in which our product was accessed (our physical and sometime virtual campuses). 

Incumbent higher education, like incumbent movie studios and TV networks and publishers, has historically depended on scarcity for our business model to work.  Scarcity of credits.  Scarcity of credentials.  Scarcity of education.

Can we imagine a different model of credentialing and education - one that leverages abundant bandwidth and ubiquitous screens - that might eliminate the scarcities in which our institutions depend?

Can we come up with scenarios where new players, or entrepreneurial incumbents with an appetite for risk taking and a culture of innovation, could leverage big data to offer a superior postsecondary product?

Now that would make a great story.

I highly recommend that you read Streaming, Sharing, Stealing - and then let us know if you think if this superb book has anything to teach those of us who make our living working in the business of higher education.

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