Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Broken Up

Way back in the day, when I was in college, I took a media criticism class. You encounter some crazy stuff in media criticism. There are some folks who think every ad you see contains veiled sexual allusions. Another set of crazies think that all media is designed to protect the bourgeoisie from the workers of the world (Yes, there are Marxist media critics).

But one book we read in that class wasn't nuts. It was by Joseph Turow and titled Breaking Up America.

Bear in mind that, in 2000, there was no YouTube. Streaming video was something you watched on a clunky player called RealPlayer. There were no iPods. You still - GASP - had to use CDs, unless you were using Napster or the more covert Scour Media Agent to download one 128 kbps mp3 at a time which you only - ONLY - played through Winamp. There wasn't a Blogger yet. The Internet, as wonderful as it was, was barely showing its true power.

With that context in mind, understand how Breaking Up America worked. The premise was pretty simple: American media had reached a point where it was simply more profitable to narrow-target audiences and charge advertisers a premium to reach a smaller, but more focused audience.

What I mean is... say you are Tampax. You want to advertise tampons. In the old media world, before wide acceptance of cable/satellite TV, you bought ads during time slots you know women were watching, but you probably bought ads when a lot of people you didn't care about reaching (read: men) were watching. So, you might reach 2 million viewers... but if 40% of them are men, that's not a great value for your ad dollar.

Media proliferation changed that. Suddenly, there were TV networks only for women. This complemented magazines only for women. The audience for those media outlets might be smaller (no men watching/reading) but nearly 100% of consumers of those outlets fell into the target audience. This was a better ad buy. And for the media outlet, it was a great boon. They could jack ad rates to know they had the right audience.

But this led media outlets to realize that it wasn't just in their interests to attract the right audience. It was also advantageous for all of them to repel people who weren't the target audience.

Breaking Up America noted that if you looked at a magazine rack, or the commercials on a cable channel, you would likely either be drawn in or turned off by what you saw. Exactly how the channel wants it to be.

In a business sense, this is perfect. Advertisers will pay more to reach a concentrated audience of viewers/readers.

Now, this is important: with the exception of PBS, NPR and a very small selection of magazines (Consumer Reports for instance), every media outlet you use is dependent on ad dollars. That includes "news" channels. Keep that in mind.

Say what you will about Fox News Channel... they have successfully taken the "fragmentation" model of media success to new heights. They can say "Fair and Balanced" all they want, but be serious for a moment: Fair and Balanced in today's media market is bad business. From a business standpoint, it makes much more sense to be super conservative (or liberal) because you can repel all the viewers you don't want. And charge advertisers more.

I see Fox News every day. I'm not going to talk about what they say. I'm going to talk about the ads I see on there. The Weekly Standard sells subscriptions. Some company is selling "emergency radios" that will no doubt work when your area loses power in a terrorist attack. PACs run right-leaning ads seemingly every commercial break. You think left-wingers want to see all that? Hail no.

And, as a result, Fox is able to reap monetary benefits. CNN, MSNBC... they do the same thing to different degrees. MSNBC on the left, CNN trying (I'm being serious) to play the middle.

There is no incentive for any of these networks to do otherwise. As Mark Bowden points out in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, there is no longer a "disinterested" journalistic voice. And while Bowden doesn't say this, it's mainly because there's no money in disinterested, objective news reporting. After all, once someone tells you what happened, you don't need to tune in for anything else. Punditry, where on-air hosts lambaste new policy or people, is much better at retaining an audience.

Again, this is all good business. But, I am becoming more and more convinced that, at least in politics, it's not helping either side of any debate. It's selling pundit books. It's getting news nets ad money. It's letting bloggers "participate in democracy" by nets picking up blogger reports and reporting that as news.

But it isn't doing one important thing: building any manner of true consensus. We're fast approaching the point where the politically aware are more interested in winning than building policy on... anything. Find me a cable news channel that says "Well, this bill spends way too much money and might raise taxes and that is awful. But suchandsuch is a big problem and we need to find a real way to address this" or "This bill doesn't do enough to help people and we think it sucks, but the truth is progress comes in baby steps and the opposition has valid points."

I'll wait.


Oh, you couldn't find that? Not surprised.

With more and more technology enabling us to make individual decisions about the media we consume - from the shows we watch to the music we listen to - we run the risk of forgetting that other people's choices may be just as valid. We surround ourselves with messages and entertainment that reinforces our own beliefs rather than truly trying to empathize with someone different. I hate Nickelback, but you know... tons of people love them. Their (awful) music moves people. And I may not ever let them on my iPod but that doesn't mean Nickelback should be banished from the airwaves. And the same goes for political policy.

If we do not find a way to go beyond our individual media "comfort zones" we're doomed., locked inside individual worlds where every other person doesn't see eye-to-eye with you. I don't mean watch something you disagree with to bitch about it. I mean talk to your friends who disagree. Learn why they feel the way they do. read articles they want you to see. And then... consider them. And, if you really want to save the world, have real discussions about your views and figure out how you can live with each other each getting something, each giving something.


Sarah said...

This is a really good post. You have such a great understanding of the workings of media and advertising (duh, with your career) and you're right. Forget which way a person leans socially or politically, we should all remember that everything we're watching and reading is being craftily planned. Nothing is really fair and balanced when ad dollars are involved. Every tv show, every news show, every book, song and story has a targeted audience.

I read an article recently that said that although we're more connected than ever, we are listening and talking much less. Stephen King wrote in a recent EW column about how close we are to losing books and other sources of entertainment. It's a very weird time out there.

Stephanie said...

Nicely put, Jay. If only more people were taking time to think carefully about what we read, hear, and watch...and then taking the time to talk about it with each other.