Mad Men Really Did Move West

Silicon Valley new capital of content

The world of media content is radically shifting. Rather than centered in New York like the days of Mad Men, the new capital of content—and equally important, access to content—is Silicon Valley. As Joe Hyrkin notes in Recode, “Northern California media companies now reach two billion people every day, taking billions of dollars in advertising revenue from the East Coast media conglomerates.” Silicon Valley is “becoming known as the capital of media transformation – reshaping the way content is distributed and how it is consumed.”

So what happened? Did everyone just follow Don Draper west? Not quite.

It’s a story about the internet and the sweeping ways that ever-faster broadband is reshaping how consumers access video and content of all types on electronic platforms. As Hyrkin writes, the changes in the way content is distributed are profound, at both the macro and micro levels.

Silicon Valley-based companies and services like Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, and companies developing artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies, are dramatically changing the mechanisms for content distribution. Each of us now has the ability to share a well-written and researched story with our networks—either socially, on a website or an online magazine platform for wide distribution, one-to-many and many-to-one. In fact, many old-school publishers are rethinking their media strategy altogether, given that there is no longer an assumed circulation.

In short, each of us now produces and shares content. Sometimes that content is original (your neighbor’s cat video); sometimes it’s owned by others (Comcast NBCUniversal’s video on YouTube of an opening monologue from Saturday Night Live). At the macro level, the big content owners are having to adjust rapidly to a world in which “content” means far, far more than what was produced by a few big studios, TV networks, and major magazine publishers. Netflix emerged as a major player just a few years ago, and now it’s the talk of the office watercooler every time a new show appears. Amazon Video, Google, Facebook, popular websites and blogs—they’re all major content distributors. And access to that content—not least for the purposes of selling advertising—is key to monetizing it, both for content owners and for advertisers themselves.

It would be enough to drive Don Draper to drink, which may be one excellent reason why the companies of Silicon Valley focus on wellness and juice bars rather than the other kind. This new world is incredibly complex and constantly shifting—a sure sign of innovation and of ferment. When anyone can produce content, anyone can come up with the next hit, the next viral video, the next new platform. And as Hyrkin points out, “They can leverage the access made available by the Silicon Valley-centered distribution services to have larger circulation than their more established competitors, who continue to rely on survey-based circulation numbers of dwindling subscribers.” And they don’t have to make the trek to Madison Avenue when millions of content viewers are a few clicks away. Silicon Valley companies provide the platform for access; everyone provides the content; and the increasingly disparate market of consumers picks the winners. It’s good for everyone, save perhaps the old-style media conglomerates who have lost their virtual stranglehold on access to what people most want to see and hear.

New Yorkers get it, too. A New York Times opinion piece noted that the real monopolies, particularly in content distribution and online advertising, exist with companies like Google and Facebook, which make “huge net profit margins because they dominate the content made available on the web while making very little of it themselves.” Companies like Facebook want to keep readers on the site rather than sending them to external pages, where Facebook cannot receive the associated advertising revenue. This is a major change in content distribution and one that will test the revenue streams of many content providers.

The first season of Mad Men was in 2007, the year the iPhone appeared to revolutionize how we view content. The idea of New York as the center of the content universe, as in the 60s, was dated even then; now, it has truly been surpassed by the fast-growing stars of Silicon Valley.

It may still be true that “there’s no business like show business,” in terms of the joy and excitement of Broadway and Hollywood. But when thinking about “media” and “content," the focus now is on Silicon Valley. It brings to mind that old Hollywood saying...“Get me rewrite!”

Rick Boucher was a member of the U.S. House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and head of the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin.