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Are we entering a post-exclusive age?

Being first just doesn’t have the same appeal it once did.

New Statesman
The first edition of the Sun on Sunday boasted 12 "exclusives". Photograph: Getty Images.

What’s the value in exclusivity? When the Sun launched its Sunday edition recently, it boasted 12 "exclusives" in its first edition, so they must think it’s pretty important.

Its big sister paper, the Sunday Times, had a wonderful exclusive piece of investigative journalism the other week, in which former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas was filmed apparently offering access to the Prime Minister in return for donations.

The exclusive made huge ripples. But how many people rushed out to the newsagent to buy the Sunday Times itself? Due to the Times and Sunday Times paywall – another form of exclusivity – ordinary curious punters couldn’t flock to the website to read about it, either. But it didn’t take more than an hour or so for the first versions of the story to appear on unpaywalled, unrestricted, free-to-see news websites and aggregators.

Once the story was out, it was out. It wasn’t exclusive any longer. If you’d already bought a Sunday paper, and were using that Sunday paper as a way of hoping to get exclusive stories, you might be slightly peeved; but Sunday papers are about so much more than news, and besides, any self-respecting news junkie would catch up online or via TV news channels soon enough. That way they could get the analysis of the fast-moving story as it progressed throughout the day, including the reaction to it. There was no need to buy the Sunday Times.

The Sunday Times followed it up with a less successful "exclusive" the week after, held back from the first week’s bombshell, in which Cruddas said Tories needed to be seen to be fighting for the Union even if they didn’t particularly agree with it. That story just didn’t have the same appeal. It was exclusive, yes, but what did it reveal? Something people probably suspected anyway. It was just a politician giving an opinion. It wasn’t big news.

All of which leaves you wondering what, exactly, exclusivity gave the Sunday Times with that story. They were first to the news, yes, and their little logo appeared on the grainy footage released to TV news companies, so it was a successful marketing exercise. But beyond that, what did it achieve? We are in a place now where exclusivity doesn’t work. There are a hundred and one workarounds if you really want to see something that’s being kept from you.

Take sport, for example. There was a time when live action of Premier League matches took place in a secure gated community – you either had to buy a Sky subscription, or you missed out, and would have to wait for the BBC highlights at a later date. But that restriction simply doesn’t exist nowadays. It takes about half a minute online to find live Premier League football, Test match cricket, Formula One (half of which is now ‘exclusive’ on Sky) or whatever you want to watch.

The Premier League hasn’t quite caught up. You can’t even see video highlights of goals from last night’s games, for example, not even on the league’s own website. Someone, somewhere probably has ‘exclusive’ rights and you’re supposed to care. Do fans care? No. They can find the goals if they want to watch them; the exclusivity means nothing.

Sky TV has the exclusive Sky Atlantic, a channel where dramas that get rave reviews are watched by nobody. Despite the Guardian devoting at least forty-three articles to Mad Men every day last month, a grand total of 47,000 hearty souls watched the first episode when it aired.

At least, 47,000 people did the right thing, paid their Sky subs, waited nicely on the carpet with their legs crossed, and then got shown the programme. They were rewarded with some actual 1960s commercials during the ad breaks to immerse themselves completely in the experience, and they could tell themselves it was all in sparkling HD, but was it really worth it?

There were probably thousands of others who just waited a couple of days for the programme to become available and watched it in the comfort of their own homes. Was it in crystal-clear HD with the funny little 60s adverts to make you feel even more rewarded for having watched it? Not always. Does that matter? Not to everyone.

Perhaps we’re entering a post-exclusive age, in which broadcasters know you can watch their pay-to-air stuff for nothing, but will try to lure you with the promise of HD and extra goodies. I don’t see how exclusives can be made to work for newspapers as anything other than a marketing tool, but perhaps that’s where we’ve come to: news is being used as a loss leader to bring customers in for the unique feature content. Being first just doesn’t have the same appeal it once did.

Tags:The Sun