In a recent article in the New Yorker, "Only the Fast Survive," Andrew Grove, the founder of Intel, talks about the "unknown and unknowable market" of technology devices. The tools that we use to make our work are constantly in flux, their future unreadable even for the likes of Grove. Indeed, in the past five years both film and video productions and programming have been fundamentally transformed.
The catalyst for this change has been the digitization of the video signal. Just as vinyl LPs gave way to digital compact disks in the 1980s, in the 1990s information converted to digital bits, the 0's and 1's that are the language of computers. Compression technology squeezes vast stores of data into the bits necessary to travel over air, wire and cable. Local telephone companies, cable television operators, direct-satellite broadcasters, cellular phone companies, and even water and gas utilities are battling to be digital highways into homes, schools, and offices. The Internet promises universal, global connectivity. A projected 500 interactive supercable systems will offer the public tremendous libraries of information. The behemoths, who own most of it, TCI, Microsoft, Disney/ABC, GE/NBC, Time Warner, and News Corp have found it essential to partner (with each other) because the technology is changing so rapidly that no one can be sure which technology or which business will be ascendant.
While changing technologies have called for media arts organization like Bay Area Video Coalition to retool, a tightening federal budget and escalating social service needs have put pressure on arts organizations to compete for charitable dollars. At the same time, government funding of the arts has been under political pressure by vocal politicians. Media arts, because it is a powerful medium that can reach so many, has specifically become a political target.
Where does all of this leave the independent producer and media arts centers as we cross the millennium? Escalating operating costs and increased competition for private sector dollars compel nonprofits and independents to concentrate on cost efficiency and self sufficiency. Still, opportunities are opening up through new technologies, and, more importantly, through increasing awareness of the need for and recognition of independent programming. We will see a wide range of new markets as the world becomes increasingly digitized.
As we become more networked, digitized, and globalized, the stakes will only get higher. If our attempts to break into cable and home video are any lesson at all, we will be pressing even harder for resources and a place in the new digital marketplace. It is not surprising that those on the commercial side have found a safety net in forming partnerships. The stronger the web of relationships among media arts facilities, festivals, distributors and exhibitors, the more successful our chance to penetrate the marketplace. Strengthened alliances and shared economies will protect the independent, who can be anything but in a perpetually brave new world.
Sally Jo Fifer is the Executive Director of Bay Area Video Coalition.
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