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5/10/2005
02:13 PM
Mike Elgan
Mike Elgan
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5 Ways The Media Commits Suicide

Box office sales are down, newspaper subscriptions are plummeting, young viewers are abandoning TV, the recording industry is in a slump -- the "old-and-busted" media have responded to the challenge of emerging "new hotness" digital media with spectacular incompetence. And they're paying the price.

John Podhoretz wrote a must-read piece for the New York Post called the "Mass Media Meltdown" in which he lists many of the reasons why traditional media -- TV, movies, radio, newspapers and the music business -- are having a terrible year.

Box office sales are down, newspaper subscriptions are plummeting, young viewers are abandoning TV, the recording industry is in a slump it can't seem to recover from.

I won't rehash Podhoretz's explanations, but would instead like to add a few more.

In a nutshell, much of the fault lies with how the "old-and-busted" media has responded to the challenge of emerging "new hotness" digital media in general, and to blogs and satellite radio in particular.

1. Misunderstanding the Blogosphere -- The mainstream media outlets, particularly the various news media, are obsessed with blogs. But as institutions they seem unable or unwilling to truly understand their appeal -- or to grasp that blogs have already transformed the public. TV news programs and cable shout fests look at blogs and see shallow, slap-dash content laced with profanity and a cavalier attitude. They try as best they can to ape this sensibility, but doing so wrecks their already bad programming. What they don't understand is that blogs are "consumed" in groups. Yes, that's what those links are for. Most individual political blogs are shallow, but taken as a whole (as people do), political blogs are far more nuanced, substantive and intellectually stimulating than anything on TV. The talk shows could compete better with blogs by becoming more substantive, not less.

Meanwhile, blogs deliver ideas and information in a much more "real" way. They tend to be delivered in plain language by people who know they'll be "called" on their baloney. Falsehoods are immediately exposed on other blogs. Incomplete coverage is completed. So when people spend time getting news and opinions from blogs, then return to TV, they find it a strange and alien land. The pancake makeup, hairdos, bizarre body language and vocal intonations and forced, informal chit-chat delivered through a clenched-teeth grimace that passes for a TV smile -- all that suddenly looks like a bunch of crazy people with nothing to say.

2. Underestimating Audience -- The media has decided that their viewers, readers and listeners are idiots who don't know the difference between good content and crap. So they serve up crap because its cheaper and easier to produce. Every sitcom is the same: Find a stand-up comedian and put him in a house with a family. Newspapers are "dumbed down." Talk radio is dominated by right-wing, and now left-wing, propagandists spewing party-line non-sequiturs. Movie studios over-rely on sequels that are almost always worse than the putrid originals. The guiding sensibility is that "perception is reality." Marketing will cure all. Well, in the new world of blogs, it isn't and it won't.

3. Selling Out -- Every year, traditional media find new ways to sell out -- from movie and TV product placements to selling your personal info to spammers to talk show hosts hawking their books during news programs. The advertising exposure and commercialization of media gets worse and worse every year. Sure, over the last few decades, humans have demonstrated a remarkable willingness to accept the increasing volumes of advertising. But blogs and satellite radio have burst that bubble. All that sickens people and drives them to blogs, the Web and satellite radio where -- refreshingly -- not everything is for sale.

4. Hating Creative Types -- Traditional media companies are driven not by visionaries with ideas, but business people with MBAs who fundamentally don't trust creative people -- like writers, for example. So when a TV or movie studio, radio station, newspaper or magazine has a hit on their hands (increasingly rare these days) the execs try to leave it alone. But when the numbers fall, they tend to panic and take control. And what do they do with that control? They reject the new and embrace the old. TV studios these days steal most of their ideas from abroad for sitcoms, reality shows and game shows. Or they copy old formulas. This year alone we'll see a huge number of movie remakes, including "War of the Worlds," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Pink Panther," "The Honeymooners," "The Longest Yard," "The Bad News Bears," "House of Wax," "The Dukes of Hazzard," and "Bewitched." It's a cliche to say that Hollywood has run out of ideas. It's also not quite true. Hollywood has run the people with ideas out of town.

5. Focusing On the Numbers -- In the absence of visionaries in the industry, media execs rely on statistics to guide them. They drive those numbers up with titillation and sensationalism and scandal, but none of that builds loyalty among audiences. Loyal, enthusiastic audiences look on paper exactly like disloyal, apathetic audiences. Only quality, substance and originality builds loyalty. Meanwhile, successful blogs tend to be published by rabid blog consumers with a gut feel about how to do it right.

Traditional media organizations tend to be authoritarian and creationist. Blogs and other Web based media -- and even satellite radio -- are democratic and Darwinian. In the TV business, a small group of executives dictate what is produced -- and how. Programming is conceived and set in motion before the larger audience even sees it. But for blogs, millions of individuals each create their own thing over time in an evolutionary fashion, and the cream rises to the top.

TV studios, movie studios, print media, radio and the music business could all take far more risks, be far more experimental and be far more trusting of the street-level content creators -- and build into their process a way for the best to rise to the top -- instead of clinging to numbers, old methods and top-down control.

But don't hold your breath.

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