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The techification of entertainment (and why it needs to reverse)

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Photo: Logan Moreno Gutierrez

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Entertainment today is almost inseparable from streaming – for better and for worse. The tech infrastructure that underpins today’s entertainment industry has had a huge impact not only on how content is delivered, but who consumes it, how, and why. It impacts what consumers spend money on and how much. It has changed the very cultural value of entertainment, to the point where what once was considered ‘art’ is now often merely labeled as ‘content’. 

The effects are not to be underestimated, especially as streaming has arguably peaked and entertainment companies across the board are looking for ways to monetise fandom outside of streaming-dominated consumption

Yet the heart of this issue is the value of entertainment itself in the minds of its audiences. 

Algorithmic discovery has personalised music to the point of individual taste, and delivers so much of it that most listening now happens entirely in the background. While music has always had a background role – from cafe ambiance to car ride soundtracks – its shift to the background of culture is notable. There are few new genre-focused scenes that incorporate lifestyle and values. Instead, broader scenes merely incorporate music genres by association. Moreover, algorithmic preferences for shorter songs, sped-up versions, and the ability to sync to short-form video have become huge drivers in what gets created and what becomes successful. 

Video has a more complicated version of the same problem. Algorithms and safe bets have led to a bifurcation of increasingly expensive dramatic productions (largely remakes and sequels) on the one side and cheap reality-type shows on the other. Both compete for views based on clickability and merchandising, rather than creative merit. In the 1970s, Star Wars was not expected to be successful by anyone – even George Lucas himself – yet Fox still greenlit, funded, and released it in cinemas to runaway success. In today’s world, it would have to go viral as an independent YouTube production first, only to eventually be picked up by the likes of Amazon for a higher-budget remake. 

The entertainment industry has hit a tech-driven existential crossroads. 

Having been ‘empowered’ by digital platforms and more data than anyone knows what to do with, what once was the purview of artists and creatives has become a content machine driven by algorithms, ad dollars, and the preferences of product and marketing teams. By the time briefs are handed by big studios to scriptwriters and directors, they are often so rigidly detailed there is little creative freedom left to them. This same issue has driven music artists away from traditional label agreements in droves, instead seeking bespoke, independent arrangements that give them creative control. Format has always influenced creative output (e.g., vinyl’s 12 songs to an album) but it has now become the be-all and end-all of success. There is almost no way or inclination for executives to push a modern-day, mold-breaking Bohemian Rhapsody equivalent when algorithms now dominate so much of the process. 

For an industry built on the value of creativity expressed through art forms, the devaluation of creativity should be concerning. 

Entertainment works as an industry because art has cultural value. However, today’s industry is almost entirely focused on the tech side of delivery, data, and corporate-level profit derived from bulk views via subscription rather than individual successes. By trying so hard to cut through the noise to reach and monetise potential fans, it has lost sight of what goes into making anything actually worth it to do so. Look no further than the tension between video executives worried that not enough people are going to the cinema and the comments sections of upcoming film trailers on YouTube, where the most prominent comments are iterations of “what a great year to go outside”.

These companies no longer have a monopoly on creativity, as the tools to create are now available to anyone, anywhere. A quarter of consumers know how to play the guitar, and nearly a fifth play another kind of instrument or sing, while slightly more than a tenth upload their own music to platforms like SoundCloud (source: MIDiA Research consumer survey). The ability to find audiences is not limited to the bottlenecks of scouts and studio backing, but rather, whether a creator can publish the right post at the right time on the right social platform. 

Video does not face the same level of individual competition, but it is not immune. Reels, Shorts, and TikTok vie for time, and independent YouTube productions can be just as big as official TV shows. A video on MrBeast’s YouTube channel can cost as much to make as an episode in the early seasons of Game of Thrones. His upcoming show on Amazon Prime Video is not only a test of whether video streaming can successfully adopt social video stars, but whether he – as a hugely successful video producer in his own right – prefers the environment of a big studio like Amazon, or his independence on YouTube. 

In short, if the industry will not support artists, turning instead to technology solutions to replace them where it can, those creators will find their own way… and audiences will follow. 

What the industry needs is not just new ways to harvest fandom, but ways of actually supporting the creation of art that has the potential to be long-lasting, meaningful, and unique. That, not the latest trend on TikTok, is where the value of art – and therefore entertainment – truly lies. 

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Robert Olhsson
I have been thinking this for a long time!