This year exists in the middle of an era of the most extreme mass media confusion in the history of mankind. That is mainly because trying to analyse the consequences of current media strategies is almost impossible.
For starters, media watchers, analysts and so-called gurus the world over insist on two things with such conviction that they are not so much predictions but rather slam-dunked fact.
Their first insistence is that newspapers are dying. To an extent they are right because a lot of newspapers, a lot of famous, long-established newspapers, are already dead and buried.
The newspaper death-watchers seem to make a lot of sense. The very notion is ludicrous: cutting down forests and laboriously creating expensive paper, then going through the complicated and time-consuming process of transferring photographs and type to rolls of the stuff and finally spending a fortune on trucking, flying and generally lugging bundles around the country just so that consumers can read news that appeared on radio, television and online the day before.
But, just as the world began to join the newspaper industry’s funeral cortège, two very rich and clever people decided to buy newspaper companies.
Warren Buffet, who is not known for throwing his money away, bought 28 newspapers this year. And if that wasn’t mystifying enough, the founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, bought the Washington Post. And local businessman Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers.
The second thing the media gurus have been saying for years, but with a lot more conviction this year, is that the 30-second television commercial is as dead as a dodo.
In fact, research shows that in the United States the number of TV viewers who completely ignore commercials breaks stands at 82% while in Europe, this figure is just a shade above 70%. In South Africa, however, I believe that viewership of TV commercial breaks among the lower LSM groups is high, but lessens as one goes up the LSM scale, with the top echelon probably being on par with Europe.
The problem is that in just about every country in the world marketers are continuing to invest in the good old 30-second commercial as though there was no tomorrow. That is, those marketers who themselves own personal video recorders (PVRs) and tell their friends that they don’t watch live TV and simply zap through the commercial breaks as quickly as the best of us.
So, what on earth is going on? Is there any logic at all to these two very contrary phenomena?
Well, when it comes to newspapers, my guess is that maybe Buffet and Bezos have not seen newspapers for what they are now, but what they can be in the future. Both of them, I reckon, realise that one of the most sought-after commodities on the face of the planet in years to come will be clear, quality, understandable information: the stuff that the same death-watch brigade calls ‘content’.
If I have to look at some of our South African newspapers right now I do not see any value in their quest to continue cutting down trees and producing old news. Their value, in my opinion, lies in their brand reputations and newsrooms.
In the future, when pieces of paper with news on them are dead and buried, great newspapers will continue to flourish as go-to, demand-fed, online resources for news, information, specialist opinion and advertising.
Maybe Bezos and Buffet see a future where consumers will use technology to ‘demand’ what they want and the successful suppliers of those demands will be well-organised, up-to-date and comprehensive resources to which all those little request spiders from consumers will end up.
All of which makes me wonder why South Africa’s Times Media Group has decided to cut back on the editorial staff at Business Day.
How on earth will Business Day, one of South Africa’s leading information resource centres for business and finance, continue to be attractive when the very people who are supplying the service are being axed?
Now, on to the good old 30-second commercial: this should be dead, quite frankly. And the simple reason it is not is because there is too much money to be made.
The people who produce commercials make lots of money doing so. The people who place TV commercials make a lot of money. And, of course, the TV stations make a lot of money.
With that formidable trio all working together, it is no surprise that gullible clients are hoodwinked into outdated television advertising campaigns that have no value except to give the boss a warm feeling and his wife something to talk to her friends about at lunch.
A simple and even superficial look at the way in which consumers are going to access video material in future shows quite clearly that the notion of commercial breaks is obsolete.
What will happen is that consumers will demand commercial information and those companies that made use of TV commercials in the past will have to have search engine optimisation-driven resource bases that can provide whatever information the consumer wants and to varying degrees of depth.
In my opinion, when real broadband starts arriving in South Africa and becomes cheaper and more accessible, the paradigm that is conventional mass media advertising will shift massively.
So, what else happened in 2013? Well, Naspers continued to make a lot of money, not out of newspapers, but subscription TV and e-commerce. This should have given an inkling to all the other media owners about where the future lies.
The Africa News Network 7 (ANN7) TV channel launched amid quite spectacular derision from all and sundry. SABC launched a 24-hour news channel reminiscent of the kind of stuff one would watch in the old Soviet Union in the 1970s.
A new SABC board was appointed, this time made up entirely of ANC cadres and chaired by another ANC cadre, which means the corporation continues its decline into mediocrity and pathetic propaganda. Just when we thought we wouldn’t see another resignation, new board member Noluthando Gosa resigned a few weeks ago.
The next few years of mass media in South Africa, and the world for that matter, are going to be fascinating. And as someone who is an advisor on roughly half a billion rands’ worth of advertising a year, I am really hoping that the mass media will wake up and start giving me something of value instead of all those really tired and empty promises.
Chris Moerdyk is a marketing and media analyst and advisor. Follow him on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
This story was first published in the December 2013 issue of The Media magazine.