Mass marketing when there is no mass

CBS’s long-running hit “Survivor” posted its worst fall première ratings ever last Thursday, barely beating a rerun of CSI for the top spot of the night. According to Wayne Friedman at MediaDailyNews, the show had a “4.9 rating among 18–49 viewers, almost a rating point and half less than the show did with a 6.3 a year ago; and nearly a full rating point off its 5.8 rating of this past spring’s première edition.”

This surprised me, not because of the numbers, but because I wasn’t aware that Survivor was debuting last week, and I think this, more than anything else, states the ultimately conundrum for those who live in the mass marketing world. For those who use the mass need the mass to promote their wares, and what happens when the mass breaks apart?

The networks are running spots for their shows on other channels and in other places, but those spots cost money — real or otherwise — and that eliminates the competitive advantage of owning your own television network. The only time I watch network television anymore is sports, and I flip to other sports programming during commercial breaks. Hence, I’m not exposed to their promos, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Folks, this is serious stuff, and it just can’t go on much longer. In Friedman’s report, he notes that with ratings plummeting, CPM ad rates are skyrocketing. Ad inventory is tight, because the nets have to run make-goods based on up-front obligations. It’s not a pretty scene.

Mass marketing needs mass, and when that disappears, there’s no amount of multi-platform distribution that will make up the difference. We are in a new world, and television is trapped in that awful spot of trying to reinvent itself while continuing to milk the mass market cow for as long as they can.

The servant who thought he was king

Good grief, is there a better symbol of tradition’s death grip on the past than Dan Rather? With his $70 million lawsuit against his former employer, Rather is not only making a fool of himself and his vaunted career, he’s actually accelerating the demise of that which he claims to defend — journalistic integrity and the institution of professional journalism.

Countless media observers (including Howard Kurtz, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, and Dan Gillmor) have shared their expertise and concluded that this suit attempts to reframe the entire sad saga of Rathergate in the way that Rather wishes to be remembered, the facts be damned. If you haven’t already done so, go read their analyses.

I want to take a few moments this morning to offer a slightly different take, that Rather’s suit is all about his reputation within a closed, institutional community that really no longer exists. Rather wants to be remembered as a soldier fighting the good fight, but with whom does he wish the record be set straight, if not the family in which he once held patriarch status? As such, his action ignores those who the institution has always ignored (to its detriment), the general public. Like a giant boil on the face of professional journalism, Rather isn’t content to let it heal, choosing instead to squeeze it all over the mirror that represents the public in the false hope that a little Windex will take care of the mess later on.

Meanwhile, the contemporary professional journalism community is fighting for its life with that same public, so it will not and cannot embrace Rather’s ambition. 2004 was a very long time ago in the evolution of the press. We’ve all turned the page, but time has stood still for poor Dan. As a result, he thinks his war is with CBS, but the rejection of his actions has gone far beyond. The institution that Rather thinks still exists is increasingly turning away from the well-worn road to the tar pits, and the louder he screams about the unfairness of his treatment, the more everybody recognizes the path that he’s chosen.

The irony, of course, is that Rather wants a jury drawn from the people formerly known as the audience to exonerate him with the group that pulled him from the throne. CBS, which is certainly representative of contemporary professional journalism, will settle this suit — not because anybody there actually believes they’d lose the case — but because they know what a trial would do to journalism’s already strained relationship with the public. Dan doesn’t care what kind of fool he makes of himself, but CBS — and all of professional journalism — does.

And so the unintended consequence of Dan Rather suing CBS to get his reputation “back” is that it focuses attention on the self-centered nature of a once-proud institution, one that lost its way in the lust for significance within a culture it was supposed to serve.

This is not the kind of attention the professional press needs right now.

Can’t miss prediction

The next reality show will be about paparazzi. They’re rapidly morphing into the newest “stars” of pop culture. Anybody want to wager?

Don’t hate me for this

…but does anybody else see the humor in NBC hiring a guy named Death to run their digital entertainment division?

I’m just sayin.…

NBCU FUBAR

Is there a media company on the planet with less focus than NBCU? Their overarching strategy must be, “Throw everything we’ve got at the walls and see what sticks!” Meanwhile, the disruption continues unimpeded, because none of what they’re tossing around has a damned thing to do with it.

The latest from the people who brought you ClownCo (aka hulu.com) is to offer free, advertising-included downloads of their top programs that will, should you choose to accept, self-destruct after a week. You can’t fast-forward through the ads, and you need a special player for the videos.

Please tell me how this washes with the strategy of selling the same programs for $3.99 at hulu.com? Moreover, what makes these people think that viewers will flock to the NBC.com website to view these programs on their computers. Call me a nut, but most people into time-shifting do so with their handy little DVRs, which allow them the fast-forwarding option.

How does NewsCorp — their Hulu partner — feel about this, I wonder.

A New York Times article on the new service includes a fair bit of skepticism, too.

Chris Crotty, an analyst for iSuppli, an independent firm that specializes in analysis of new electronic media, said of the NBC move, “I think it’s a stretch.” He argued that consumers have shown they are extremely happy with the iTunes service and that it would not be attractive to consumers to have to range far and wide over a number of services to find the programs they want to download.

“It’s not just a shift from a supermarket to a mom-and-pop story, it’s a shift to one store that only sells bread, another store that only sells dairy products. The consumers have decided they want to get their content from iTunes.”

Mr. Crotty said NBC had come across to consumers as “highly greedy” in its dispute with Apple. Apple reported that NBC was insisting it raise the price of some downloads on NBC shows to $4.99 from the $1.99 iTunes charges for all programs.

The Times story also quotes Jeff Gaspin, the president of the NBC Universal Television Group as saying, “piracy was and is our No. 1 priority.” Um. Shouldn’t your audience be priority number one? This falls in line with the quote of the week below about how it’s always bad business if you treat your customers as thieves going in.

But the real problem with this is that it forces people (again) to come to the NBC site in order to access the programs. This is what all legacy broadcast companies want, and every time one of these companies forces this issue, all of Silicon Valley smiles, because THEY KNOW that this is contrary to what’s driving online business success.

Prediction: Some valley start-up will create a portal for these types of downloads, because the networks and studios are too prideful to do it themselves (see my essay below).

Creating Spectrum Within Spectrum

Here’s the latest in my ongoing series of essays, TV News in a Postmodern World, Creating Spectrum Within Spectrum.

As media companies struggle with disruptive innovations eating away at the foundation of their business model, they’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at trying to sustain the unsustainable. One solution would be to transfer the world or worlds in which they now compete to the Web as a whole, instead of trying to compete for attention in a world of unlimited reach and range.

I flew over Philadelphia on Tuesday, a city — like others — that has all of its sports arenas in the same location. Each shares the parking space, and freeway access can sustain the traffic required for such big crowds, all of which makes it very convenient for sports fans. There are many examples of this in “real” life, so why can’t we see that this might also be smart online?

Why? Because it would mean competitors cooperating to create the location.

Ain’t gonna happen? Never say never.