“Something is going wrong/ with the singer and the song/ and the music isn’t gentle anymore.”
– Roger Whittaker (1971) Sure the media changes. It’s dynamic. And what was hailed as the hottest at the time, is an unreadable bore today. But that has to do with audience tastes, as they relate to the culture and fashion of the place and time.
Those normal changes are not what’s going wrong. The media is supposed to be all about impartial journalism, attracting audiences and selling the eyeballs and ears to the media. If the audience doesn’t like it, they don’t watch/listen/read, and the advertisers won’t buy ad space. Simple. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But along came “clutter”.
And maybe that’s what’s wrong. There is just so much. Either you come up with something wonderfully creative (and sustain it), or you employ the systems and formulae that allow you to be noticed. Creativity always loses. There is so much media; audiences have so many choices, and the publishers cannot afford to take risks.
Their margins are low, and the audience loyalty they command is precarious. They cannot risk creativity, just in case it is costly and doesn’t work. And most creative efforts simply don’t work.
Those that do (15 percent of them) make so much money that they pay for the debts incurred by the other 85 percent of failures. But if you go for formulae and systems, everything works – only just – but there’s hardly any risk in that. The system always wins.
There are lots of nice pseudo mathematical models that can be applied. This suits the CEOs as they can persuade the shareholders that their investment is based on “media science”. They employ MBA graduates to manage, ad sales people to edit and cheap hacks to write.
Follow the formulae: 600 words for print; four minutes for TV-attention span; only allow hysterical cranks on talk shows; focus on celebs; and the rich. Airbrush everything. There’s also the science of carefully calculating ratings, readership, and listenership to two decimal places. And when they don’t suit the shareholders or the rate cards, you falsify them.
There’s science in falsifying data. Only the amateurs get caught.
And where’s the audience in all this? They don’t seem to be unhappy. They read, watch, listen, phone in, and enter competitions. They seem to like the content. But content is supposed to be a product consumed by people to satisfy emotional needs.
We are bypassing those needs by giving them so much sound-bitten, spin-doctored, sugar-coated repetition that they don’t seem to notice. They keep on buying magazines and pay-TV subscriptions, and think they are carefully selecting what they want. But are they getting what they want?
Of course not. The audience get what they get, and they like it because in all this “choice”, they have no other choice. It’s an Orwellian nightmare of a moulded and controlled society where the media has been caught up in its ever-decreasing vortex of no risk, formulaic and sound-bitten repetition. But, ever-decreasing vortexes always end up disappearing up their own backsides.
This must come to an end. The media must return to a natural world of discerning audience supremacy, integrity and inspiration. The looming economic crisis will probably do it. The rats will go down with the sinking ship, and audiences will save those they like.
Howard Thomas has been working in entertainment and media for 40 years. His experience with TV dates back to the beginning in South Africa. He is now a media business consultant, trainer and specialist in audience psychology.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (September 2008).
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