TV News in a Postmodern World

The Demographic Candle

by Terry L. Heaton
In Barbara Ehrenreich's fascinating book on working class life, Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, she takes a potshot at her own class. "We always have a plan or at least a to-do list; we like to know that everything has been anticipated, that our lives are, in a sense, pre-lived." How true this is for those who have it made. The paradox of prosperity is that discontent increases with opportunities for acting on it. You don't worry about losing something if you don't have anything to lose.

Ms Ehrenreich's statement is also a mantra, of sorts, for the business world. The "pre-lived" business life is built on an everything-is-anticipated, command-and-control paradigm. It creates spending budgets based on revenue projections required, not to run the company, but to keep shareholders happy. This strains everybody below, because the job really isn't about the job; it's about serving the owners who, it turns out, really aren't the managers, executive staff or the Board of Directors. This model has served free enterprise well, but it guts industries that draw lifeblood from the wellspring of creativity.

Creativity lives in today, and that's hard to do when you're consumed with tomorrow.

The entertainment industry is a good example. Risk-taking is long gone, replaced by "what works" in terms of repeatable cash flow. And so every CD sounds the same, every movie seems the same, and only pre-determined bestsellers are published. The arts no longer reflect the culture; rather, the arts reflect the artists' needs to make money for their owners. Yes, owners. Rationality has taken creativity's place, and the result is a homogenous mass of sights and sounds.

Television has not escaped the steamroller. "What works" is repeated at all levels of programming, and every newscast looks the same. Television has placed its ability to innovate on the altar of the pre-lived life. The business isn't even at a crossroads anymore. We passed that a long time ago. We're already far down the road on the wrong path.

An essential part of living the pre-lived business life is that you dare not get into a conversation with your customers. The rationale is that you just don't have time. After all, if your nose isn't against the grindstone, somebody else will get the grain made before you do. And somehow, that translates into a fate worse than death; so all energy is devoted to the task at hand.

For television, the decision not to listen to viewers and potential viewers has been a disaster. Broadcast companies spend a fortune regularly on research and come away with a sense that they have, indeed, been conversing with viewers. This is a false assumption for several reasons. One, we talk to them, but we don't listen. Two, television research is generally limited to people watching TV or, more often, a certain group of people watching TV. News research, for example, talks to news consumers. It's an echo chamber that is a net liability in a shrinking universe. Finally, significant, albeit critical things people say are dismissed with logic such as:

  • "That's not our target demo."
  • "We can't do anything about that anyway."
  • "Don't worry, that's an extremely small group."
  • "They're just a bunch of weirdoes."
  • "That can't possibly reflect the majority."
So here we are down the wrong path, and we're looking around and wondering what happened? The fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves. Having dismissed important messages that our viewers were clearly sending, the ground beneath our feet is shaking and beginning to crumble.

These messages have come from opposite ends of the demographics spectrum. The result is an industry that resembles a candle burning from both ends. Both sides will meet soon, and all we'll be left with is a smoldering wick. Here's why.

The pre-lived business life requires maximum revenue to produce maximum dividends all of the time. It's the only way to hedge against tomorrow. The communications industry has determined that, for television, this means ad revenue from sponsors targeting a youthful audience. Hence, programming — and to a large extent the news — has slowly and deftly evolved to appeal to a younger crowd. The number of the young demos attracted determined "what worked." And when something did "work," it was duplicated ad nauseum.

The result is that older people — those people who grew up with the industry and were loyal through and through — have given up on television. They've been telling us all along that they didn't like the youthful tilt in programming. Too much sex. Too much violence. Too many low-life reality programs. Too many insults to intelligence. Bring back the good dramas and comedies. Over and over, we've heard this. And now these people find contentment with HGTV, The Food Network, and other specialty cable channels.

So the plus-fifty crowd is one end of the burning candle.

At the opposite end is the very group that TV is trying to reach for their advertisers, the 18-49 year olds. And what's happening there? Disruptive innovations are moving them to other technologies in droves. For them, watching TV includes playing video games and watching DVDs. Digital recorders allow them to be their own programmers AND skip the commercials. Then there's this little thing called the Internet.

In their groundbreaking and ongoing study on the Web's impact on culture, the UCLA Center for Communications Policy found that the time Internet users spend online (11.8 hours a week on average) comes from their television viewing time, that this is more pronounced with young people and experienced users, and that the fastest growing segment of the Web — broadband — accelerates the switch. This move away from television and to the Internet will only accelerate as Web users become more experienced.

For Postmodern young people, ownership of time is a serious matter. Young people work a lot of hours to afford the things they want and feel they deserve, so the value of the digital video recorder (TiVo) technology is not so much one of coolness as it is practicality. If you can skip commercials, that's a full hour of prime time gained.

Another factor that many broadcast executives miss is that this 18-49 age group is remarkably media savvy. They've been bombarded with messages since they were toddlers, and they're not ignorant of what's really going on. They recognize how things work and view programming decisions and advertising that targets them as insincere and manipulative. When combined with technologies that offer entertainment alternatives, their choice is obvious.

So the candle burns at both ends.

One of the people watching all of this is Tim Hanlon, Senior Vice President and Director of Emerging Contacts for Starcom Worldwide. His voice represents the people who pay the bills for TV, the advertisers. Despite the challenges facing television, Hanlon is bullish on the future and an evangelist for change. He's become somewhat of a lightning rod on behalf of the advertising industry, a voice unafraid to call a spade a spade. "The sampling methodology of TV is not keeping up with developments," he told a conference in Florida recently. "A more data-centric view is required. TV today is less about watching TV than it is about consuming video in many different environments."

These are important words for broadcasters to understand. The cable industry is developing their own audience measurement tools, because, as Hanlon says, "They know there's gold in them thar set-top boxes." Advertisers are shifting millions of dollars to the Internet, because they're beginning to understand the medium and its ability to deliver targeted audiences.

Television long ago gave up ruling the roost, and the industry needs to accept that it is now just a part of a much bigger multimedia reality. When it does, television will discover that it has options far beyond what it believes. To fully utilize the creativity at its disposal, however, television has to give up — at least for a season — its addiction to the pre-lived life. Innovation is the keyword for the next few years, and fresh air demands freedom.

And nowhere is this truer than with television news. The candle is burning at both ends on the local level too, and local news needs innovation badly. And the sad part here is that there are so many wonderful options available to bring video news to local consumers via New Media outlets, yet the industry sits defiantly in a 20th century rut. In order for local news to participate in the revolution underway, it has to stop seeing itself behind a podium in front of thousands of attentive and adoring fans. Every tool that technology has to offer — from broadband video to RSS readers to mobile phones — can be used to communicate local news to local people, and it's high time stations got into it with vigor. Moreover, there has never been a time like this where it was possible to actually include everyday people in the news mix, and that ought to stir creative juices instead of stifling them.

The barrier to stepping into the new world is only fear, one that's based in the illusion of control offered by the pre-lived life. There are no guarantees in life, not even those we used to mistakenly take for granted in the days of double-digit growth.

This is the most amazing time in communications history. Television has the means and the creative people to be competitive in a multimedia environment, but first it has to get into the game. I'm waiting to hear of the broadcasting CEO who stands before shareholders and says, "No more running! It's time to invest instead of retreat!"