So the Times paywall, we are told, is a great success, or at least less of a disaster than some might have predicted. The problem is that, until one of its broadsheet competitors does something similar, there’s no sensible way to make a comparison. What most people agree on is that as newspapers become online entities with optional dead-tree add-ons, they can’t survive on income from advertising sales alone.
Part of the problem for media producers is that the move online has coincided with an increased sophistication and cynicism on the part of users towards advertising in all its forms. If we’re to be sold to, we want our intelligence flattered a little; and yet the form of online ad that’s most likely to grab our attention is the most irritating and patronising. Would you buy a car or a coat or an ice-cream if you associated it with the digital equivalent of an annoying insect that buzzes around as you try to read or watch or listen or shoot zombies or masturbate? Buy an Audi, because when your cursor goes too far to the right-hand side of your screen, the word “AUDI” jumps out at you! OK, maybe not.
Of course, if the Times’s subscription model really works out, they’ll be able to ditch those annoying ads, won’t they? Won’t they? Well, not if Thorne, on Sky 1 (another News Corp entity of course) is anything to go by. Punters may pay the Murdoch shilling for this pretty effective thriller; but they also have to suffer clunkingly intrusive product placement for Illy coffee and Apple computers. And it’s the same problem as with the online ads: if you don’t notice them, they’ve failed; if you do notice them, you start to associate the coffee and the laptops with having your quality time with David Morrissey ruined, and you buy Kenco or Dell instead. It’s a form of metafiction, except that it doesn’t just draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that Thorne is a drama, and the people throwing tantrums on screen are in reality actors; it also reminds you that the whole process is also a commercial entity. First of all, your suspension of disbelief is punctured, and then you’re expected to pay for the pin.
Even weirder is the moment when Jack Shepherd, as Thorne’s widowed dad, suddenly declares for no particular reason, “I’ve got Sky now, thank God.” Which is a bit like preaching to the converted, and at the same time telling them that God doesn’t exist.
PS: More on the paywall thing, from Emily Bell.