The Slow But Certain Collapse of the Mass Market

castletowerTelevision stands alone as the last bastion of the industry known as mass marketing. Like an ancient castle or a new world fort, it sits above the chaos of the wilderness and, especially, the savagery surrounding it, while maintaining the order inside for its residents. It’s a symbol of protection to its owners and operators, but even television cannot withstand forever the revolt taking place beyond its towers and stations. And make no mistake, just as the information age is blowing past the industrial age, so is the data-driven, individualized pulling of the Internet and its denizens blowing past the one-to-many experience of TV. The 21st Century is a dangerous time for any layer of Modernism’s status quo, the wreckage of which is easily recognized by those with eyes to see.

“Mass Marketing,” according to Wikipedia:

Mass marketing is a market coverage strategy in which a firm decides to ignore market segment differences and appeal to the whole market with one offer or one strategy. The idea is to broadcast a message that will reach the largest number of people possible. Traditionally mass marketing has focused on radio, television and newspapers as the media used to reach this broad audience. By reaching the largest audience possible, exposure to the product is maximized. In theory this would directly correlate with a larger number of sales or buys into the product.

Mass marketing is the opposite to Niche marketing as it focuses on high sales and low prices. Mass Marketing aims to provide products and services that will appeal to the whole market. Niche marketing targets a very specific segment of market for example specialized services or goods with few or no competitors.

Programmatic Buying-SellingThere’s a movement underway in the television industry to shift from straight mass marketing to a distant cousin, one that resembles the data-rich world of the Internet and its practices. It’s called “programmatic” buying, and it heralds a new world for (mostly) big brand advertisers. It’s pretty complicated, but in a nutshell, advertisers bid on targeted inventory – the ideal being in real time – which provides better results for advertisers and higher rates for the owners of the inventory. New data from Yahoo’s BrightRoll suggests real growth in the digital concept, although the numbers here include all forms of programmatic. However, here’s the money quote for TV from a MediaPost blog entry:

”Interestingly, 27% of respondents said they expect “programmatic TV” to be the ad category that sees that largest increase in digital media spend in 2015, tied with mobile display and ahead of desktop display, social and search.”

This is indeed spectacular technology, but it completely by-passes the reality that the people formerly known as the audience – a phrase originally coined by Jay Rosen – aren’t participating anymore. It’s like forming a terrific band and playing to empty stadiums. It is surely astonishing that “industry experts” continue to behave this way.

None of these experts and practitioners is paying any attention whatsoever to the culture itself and what’s taking place within it. This is why the likelihood of failure is so high. Having finally found freedom from the bombardment of marketing messages overwhelming their lives, the people have bolted, and they’re not coming back. So it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about “programmatic” or “niche marketing” or whatever label you wish to pick. The bottom line is that the people are refusing to play the game anymore.

Publishers, agencies, advertisers and other people – mass marketers – are on a slippery slope already, and those who wish to make it more “efficient” are in for a major shock.

law-orderI have written many times of my own research into the evolving TV program length brought about by corporate greed. Who is going to admit that they’ve shot themselves in the foot by expanding commercial break lengths for their own selfish gain? In 1990, when the Law & Order franchise began, the average program length was 48 minutes. By 2007, the average program length had shrunk to roughly 43 minutes. In the course of its 20-year run, NBC and its local affiliates had increased the length of commercial breaks in that program by 5 minutes, 10 more 30-second spots added, and, in an arrogance so breathtakingly astonishing that it defies commentary, figured nobody would notice or care. Perhaps it was more like viewers didn’t have any choice, so objections were meaningless. It didn’t stop there either. If you can get away with this in one program, you can do so in every show. Everybody followed suit until today, we find that a full one-third plus (it depends on the network) of prime time is dedicated to marketing. This is where a business model based on tolerance runs smack dab into a wall. And now we think that programmatic is going to make those people even richer? OMG, as they say in the social media world.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported, many cable networks are speeding up programs in order to increase the number of ads. There are some remarkable quotes in this article (subscription required), including:

“It is a way to keep the revenue from going down as much as the ratings,” a top executive at one major cable programmer (who chose to remain nameless) told the Journal. “The only way we can do it is to double down and stretch the unit load a little more.”

jefferySo along comes TiVo, which led to cable and satellite companies providing custom DVRs, which led to the ultimate convenience, The Hopper by Dish. It lets you skip the ads even during the recording process. When you talk with people who use these things, it’s as much about the time waste of the ads as it is the annoyance. It’s about that 60 minutes in prime time. People want it back, and so their attention has already moved elsewhere. And guess what? It’s not coming back, ever. Silicon Valley and others have caught on, and now we have Netflix, Amazon, Sling, Vimeo, Hulu, YouTube, and a whole host of others. Cord cutting is an exploding concept, especially with young people. The New York Post published a fascinating article about this recently: Millennials ditching their TV sets at a record rate. Do we pay attention? No. We’re experimenting with programmatic buys to better target viewers and make more cash.

Folks, can’t you see it’s too late? Oh sure, there’s still plenty of meat on the bone, but don’t be surprised if it’s stripped clean seemingly overnight. Mass Marketing is drying up, in part, because people can’t say “no” to ever-increasing profits. The Internet isn’t killing TV; it’s being put to death by its own hand.

Citing $300 phone bills, an anonymous commenter in a recent TVNewsCheck article about programmatic, challenged me, “I wouldn’t bet against “free over-the-air.” Wow! This completely misses the point that consumers are more than willing to pay such bills to escape the aerial bombardment that comes with “free over-the-air.” There is no such thing as free anyway; not really. The cost to consumers is that 60 minutes. So it ain’t “free.” Time, if you haven’t noticed, is the new currency. Moreover, with $2-dollar per subscriber retransmission fees, consumers are already paying for the right to view that “free over-the-air” signal. What about ATSC 3.0 you ask? Does anybody really believe that every consumer in America is going to purchase a new piece of equipment (ATSC 3.0 won’t be backwards compatible) just to get back inside somebody’s else’s walled garden? Even the Superbowl can’t produce that magic trick.

Broadcast television is among the most consumer-unfriendly businesses in the universe. Using airwaves licensed to us by the government to “serve the public interest,” we have abandoned that in the name of profit. I’m not against profit; what I object to is the greed. And they’re not the same thing. We boast that we’re a key link in the chain of entertainment, but that’s not really our business. We’re in the advertising business, not entertainment.

If we’re not in the advertising business, why do we block programming with weather crawls and warnings but not during the commercials? If we’re in the entertainment business, why do we stomp all over the eyeballs of viewers by bombarding them with 60 minutes plus of marketing in Prime Time? Our viewers are not our clients, for if they were, we would treat them differently. If we’re not in the advertising business, why do we maintain the assumption that we can get away with anything we want and that the ad industry’s reactions to us matter more than the viewers’ reactions? If we’re not in the ad business, why are we so obsessed with (and spend money on researching) what “works” in terms of entrapping viewers? What “works” is always defined as what works for the advertiser. And, finally, if we’re not in the advertising business, why would we squeeze programs in order to insert more ads?

Our own corporate greed has been fully on display for all to witness, and the time has long passed when we can get away with it. TV stations were money trees at one time but no longer. We stay profitable, because we’re able to charge cable companies enormous retransmission fees, when “retransmission” is actually a fraudulent term. Nothing is “transmitted” via cable; it comes down a wire. Soon it will be broadband, and there will come a point when the networks say “we’ve decided it’s best for us to go straight to the consumer.” At that point, the money tree will go dormant and then collapse into the dirt and dust pile of history, with only scavengers left to recycle the rotting parts until all that’s left are the bones. And the big losers won’t be the shareholders. That’s the real sad part of all this. The big losers will be the people we once believed we were serving. Turns out that was just blue smoke and mirrors designed to disguise the deforestation practices taking place behind it.

And then there’s this stunning and shocking quote from Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger via The Street in response to CBS boss Les Moonves’ digital strategy:

“We believe networks need to wean themselves off of SVOD (subscription video on demand) licensing, which we believe is the primary driver of the demise of ad-supported video consumption,” Juenger said in an investor note…

“But instead of helping the content owners out of their prisoners’ dilemma (emphasis mine), the CBS announcements just reinforce why everyone feels they might as well keep trading dollars for pennies and putting their valuable content on SVOD. Nobody else is going to stop. You might as well sell what you can and take what you can get. At least you get the pennies.”

“Prisoners’ dilemma” is a karmic and profound metaphor for what the very people he represents have been doing to consumers for decades. His thought is wishful thinking at best, but the reason Mr. Juenger can even conjure up such a dream is that he pays no regard whatsoever to the real disruptors in the industry – that would be a culture sick to death of being treated like a mass for any slick manipulator who shows up with a budget. It’s over, people. We’re like the people running the whale oil business (they were in the lighting business, among others) who discovered how electricity could make shipboard and whale processing life easier, while ignoring the greater matter at hand.

The very beginning, therefore, of discussing what to do is with the people searching for entertainment and information. It’s more likely, however, that fire sales and abandoning ship will be the actual outcome.