Swedish Media in Transition

Description: The Future of mass media is now — in Sweden

Our two sons – aged 25 and 19 — both got WAP telephones a month ago. The Olympic Games were about to start, and they wanted to have latest results immediately–not have to wait for newspapers a day later, or TV or radio with their news briefs once an hour.

WAP stands for Wireless Application Protocol — a way to surf on the net using your cellphone.

It’s no surprise that this happened in Sweden. As unsurprising that as far back as four years ago, my son and all of his high school classmates all had cell phones, or that my eighty-seven year-old mother emails me daily. This is what Sweden has become, the most computerized and wireless country in the world.

What has happened in the area of mobile telephony and Internet has–and will have–far-reaching consequences for the entire media structure in Sweden.

My background in talking about this is that I began some years ago as a journalist, left journalism for a while and devoted myself to business, culture and politics. After that I served for a short time as editor-in-chief for Expressen, Sweden’s largest daily paper. At the time that Inger and I were offered the opportunity to move to New York, I was serving as the Chairman of the Board at Swedish National Radio.

Development in Sweden has moved very quickly and has been fueled by Sweden’s well-known appetite for new technology. As an example, VCR’s and video stores established themselves throughout Sweden more quickly than in the rest of the world.

To understand much of the development that I will describe here, we need also to understand that new technology changes not only how people use and buy things–but also how people live their lives.

I want to point to three current trends:

  • Free News:  Free radio, free TV, free newspapers. It seems unnatural to need to pay for something that is so universally accessible at no cost.
  • Mobile Media: Don’t go to the media, the media will come to you–or can accompany you wherever you are. In the not too distant future, we’ll all be able to watch TV on our Palm Pilots and get news updates and listen to music from all corners of the world on our portable phones.
  • Accessible Media: Everything will always be accessible. Already now, I listen to the Swedish radio news on my computer. I don’t need to tune in at a certain time, I choose when I want to listen. There are always more TV programs on the Internet.

The world is changing–especially for print media. During the past ten years, Swedish newspapers have decreased their circulation by nearly 1 million copies–this in spite of the fact that the population has increased by 350, 000 during the same period.

The history of the Swedish media can be divided into four periods:

  • The era of the daily paper – late 18th century through the 1960’s
    The daily papers grew, became increasingly popular and Sweden became the county with the highest percentage of newspaper readers in the world.
  • The advent of television – 1960’s through late 80’s
    Television impacted print media market, decreasing demand which in turn caused some papers to fold. Swedish Television was nonetheless a state-run monopoly and was as such limited in the extent to which it could affect the formation of public opinion.
  • The demise of state media monoplies – 1989 — mid 90’s
    During 1989, the Swedish state media monopolies began to give way–as did walls and borders in other parts of the world. The Swedish entrepreneur with an American address, Jan Stenbeck, single-handedly sliced open the Swedish state monopolies in television broadcasting and telecommunications. One day, he just began broadcasting TV by satellite from London. Three years later, the first private Swedish TV company was started and most Swedish households can currently choose among seven and eight different Swedish channels and up to 30 foreign channels.
  • Free daily newspapers — late 90’s — present
    During the past 3-4 years, free daily papers have provided the most recent development. Entrepreneur Jan Stenbeck was again the innovator. The newspaper Metro is published five days a week in Stockholm. It is distributed free of charge in Stockholm’s subway stations and is today Stockholm’s largest paper. It keeps a uniformly high quality, but has no editorials or Arts coverage.

Metro now exists in over ten major cities in Europe as well as in Philadelphia. The Metro concept involves standardization of both style and appearance. Everywhere in the world, the paper looks the same: the same editing and publishing programs are used. Of course content is locally based. Metro is planning to expand its empire to an additional three major American cities–which has made New York’s Daily News in anticipation start its own free daily paper, Express.

While certainly, Jan Stenbeck and other media moguls in Sweden have profited by the more recent developments in the media market, the biggest losers have been the print editions of the morning papers–especially in Sweden’s major cities. The local papers still do well, both when it comes to circulation and economy. The evening papers–the tabloids are doing poorly. They had enormous successes during the sixties and seventies. Starting in the seventies, they started to loose their position and currently they’re having serious problems staying afloat. The explanation is simple: the tabloids lived off the fact that they were able to first out with the latest breaking news. That is no longer the case–remember how much is available now from WAP phones. Nor are tabloids best anymore at up-close, heart-wrenching reporting. Television has for many years now been able to dominate that market.

Popular magazines and the like are also being outpowered by television. The biggest winners in the print media market are the new free papers–now three are available in Stockholm–and the trade and business journals.

The broadcast media are still dominated by the public-service corporations, Swedish Television (SVT) and Swedish Radio (SR). Their job is to broadcast non-commercial television and to reach out to a majority of households in Sweden. The private TV and radio stations aren’t spoiled with money, competition is brutal, though the privately owned and publicly offered corporation, TV4 has established itself well and is currently Sweden’s largest single television network.
Competition has also meant that Bonniers, Sweden’s most dominant media owner–is losing money and is being offered stiff competition by both Jan Stenbeck’s various ventures as well as from a number of foreign-owned companies, especially Norwegian Shipsted and Danish Egemont.

In many ways, the future is already here. Much of what media mavens have predicted for the market exists in some form–even if it hasn’t gained wide distribution. Now, since I expect that you want for me to look into my crystal ball and reveal some secrets regarding the future, here are some predictions that I think that I can safely make:

  1. WAP telephones will gain far-reaching distribution.
    This will mean not only that we surf the net, order tickets and do our bank business via mobile phones, it will also mean that the mobile phone will become one of our most reliable sources for news.
  2. The convergence between TV and computers will continue.
    Soon enough be able to do email correspondence on our TV’s and watch TV on our computers. We’ll be able to watch any TV program when and where we want to. We’ll have intelligent TV’s that tracking our consumer patterns and thus knowing our preferences will be able to recommend to us what we should watch. A little window will come up on our TV sets with the following ”Hello, since you subscribe to Yachting World and have seen Titanic maybe you’d like to watch The Perfect Storm…” This is called ”Push Media,” based on the Internet.-based ”push technology”.
  3. TV channels as we now know them will cease to exist.
    All programs will be located in huge searchable media archives. We’ll be able to select both print and broadcast media and put together our own daily papers and our own channels: it’ll be ”Me TV” and ”My Tribune”. Since everything will be located on publicly accessed servers, we’ll be able to order what we want according to our own needs and interests. Broadcasting will die out…”Narrow-casting” is the future.

These developments will certainly have far-reaching consequences. A result of these developments will be that we will in future have fewer and fewer medial meeting places for the masses. I have a hard time believing that the we will in future have presidential debates on television. Based on recent experience, maybe that’s no great loss! Already we have seen that once formidable public magnets, the Olympics and the presidential debates, are attracting fewer viewers than ever before. With our increasing ability to choose media products, we will be both more discriminating and increasingly express our individual interests rather than merely accepting what is offered.

Sweden is unique in this sense. As a nation of early adopters, Sweden has become an experimental laboratory for the future of mass media.

Some find it a future full of promise – some find it frightening. How you see it is your choice. But the future of mass media is now – in Sweden.