SA’s quiet revolution

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Somewhat of a quiet revolution appears to be taking place in South Africa’s media world. Late last year News24 launched their 24-hour interactive news channel 59 on DSTV. It’s not quite a TV channel and not quite a website. In fact it is something in between.

What we are seeing here is the start of something pretty amazing and pretty big. It’s a successful application of what is known as “convergence”.

Convergence hasn’t had good press lately: The now-infamous AOL Time Warner deal — a merger which created the world’s biggest media monster — was sold on this thing called convergence.

On a content level convergence refers to the repackaging and distribution of content on multiple platforms, as technologies combine and blur: For example, televisions that surf the net, or cellphones that e-mail, or PCs that show TV. It’s all becoming the same thing.

The AOL Time Warner deal was staked on the convergence of the internet (AOL) and television (Time Warner). The visionaries hailed the whirlwind marriage between “new media” (takkies and jeans) and “old media” (ties, trousers and sensible shoes).

The theory was that Time Warner music, films and magazines would be pushed to AOL subscribers via the net and in turn AOL would flow down high-speed Time Warner cable networks into homes, carrying movies and music and other multimedia. The sceptics criticised it as “science fiction”. The geeks and the new media savants were beside themselves with prophetic joy.

But it didn’t happen that way. The deal failed to produce the synergies between old and new as prophesised by the geeks. The merged company’s share price plunged a massive 75% and internet darling and chief visionary Steve Case, the founder of AOL, was forced to resign. Who the hell were these cocky uber-geeks who thought they could run an old, successful media empire?

So that’s the context. It’s given convergence a bad name in some quarters. For many it’s an exercise in hyperbole. But convergence may have been down, but it is not out. No way, far from it. Like so many other ventures that typify the early internet: It’s just a case of too much done too quickly and with a disturbing dollop of hype.

Some convergence did occur (and is occurring) at AOL Time Warner — but the complete, converged vision has not yet materialised. But throughout the world, there is evidence of successful media convergence everywhere. Dotboom is dead, but so is dotbomb. If the recent tech stocks surges in the US and South Africa are anything to go by, it’s looking a bit better.

South Africa’s own channel 59 is a particularly good example. It’s sort of a website on TV. It acts as a website, it looks mostly like a website and it is run via the internet to be in sync with News24’s website. It’s a company that has brought together web expertise and technology with that of television and satellite technology to create synergies on a technical and content level in the powerful Naspers group. And the result is truly innovative. Newspaper and web content is being leveraged and repackaged now not only on the web, but on TV too. Who would have thought?

It’s in a medium people are comfortable with, it is easy to operate and has mass appeal. The news is all there on TV at the flick of a button. Unlike the web, every minute you spend reading doesn’t cost money, and you can do it while relaxing in your favourite armchair instead of hunched over a computer in the study.

News24 publisher Cobus Heyl particularly likes it because it means that his readers/viewers are now interacting with the brand not just during office hours (the website) but now in the evening and during the weekends (the TV).

Respected US journalism school The Poynter Institute defines the phenomenon of convergence as “a new voice, a type of journalism not seen before. When one story is published at the same time on multiple platforms, the story has far more reach and impact than that of other stories.”

Other examples of convergence are digital newspapers. These are not quite websites, but not quite newspapers either. Again, it’s something in between. A few South African publications — not many, but a few — have embraced digital newspapers. These digital anomalies are exact replicas of the print newspaper, with same layout, fonts, pictures and adverts intact, but are delivered via the internet and then viewed online or printed out by their readers.

Also, consider this: Probably the most successful examples of convergence, or the repackaging of content between different mediums are South Africa’s Itweb and Moneyweb. The latter has managed to successfully (and overall profitably) take its content to four major mediums: The web, Radio, TV and print.

Now that’s not science fiction.

Matthew Buckland is editor of the Mail & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za

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