TV News in a Postmodern World

New Metrics and Principles

by Terry Heaton
On a recent flight from Nashville to Los Angeles, I had the misfortune of sitting near a two year old boy who was traveling with his father. The boy was completely out-of-control and spent most of his waking hours screaming "no" or "mine" and carrying on like he was all that mattered in the universe. This is the curse of a child determined to be the center of attention (or is the curse for those who are nearby?), and it got me to thinking about how all of us who've been a part of mass media have employed similar strategies.

After all, attention in a crowd goes to the one who screams the loudest.

This is a core principle of mass marketing and, of course, one of the reasons people are rushing to get seats at the back of the plane to escape all the screaming. We smile at our cleverness in disguising the screaming, but it's still noise. The triumph of personal technology over mass technology (Glenn Reynolds' marvelous phrase) has given people peace from all the screaming, despite the insistence by the status quo that all it's really done is increase the noise by adding voices to the discussion. That's not true, but I digress.

The failure of mass marketing is occurring on two levels. One, it's just harder to draw a crowd these days, and without a crowd, you have no "mass" into which to cast your messages. Despite empirical and anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the marketing world still insists that old metrics of reach and frequency are the pathway to success, and this is problematic in today's ever-fragmenting media world. Reach and frequency still count, but they share the road with lots of other things.

Today's "attention markets," as Umair Haque calls them, are places like Digg or youTube, user-generated destinations that carry a hip and counterculture flavor, where people go to escape the screaming and do their own thing. Media 1.0 attempts to create their own or assimilate these (or others) will ultimately fail, because they'll drag the screaming along with them.

But if you can bring yourself to back away from the crowd and the noise, you'll find a second significant (and undiscussed) failure of mass marketing. We — those of us who use mass marketing — have been sucked into believing the hype associated with our own screaming. This is perhaps the greater failure of mass marketing, because it's left us vulnerable to circling the wagons around false claims — claims that the people increasingly see through as self-serving and, to be blunt, bullshit.

Consider the television news industry. If you talk to people who don't watch the news anymore, you'll discover that this hype is one of the big reasons people have walked away. We regularly raise the stakes for viewers on some stories to the life or death level, and they know both intellectually and intuitively that it isn't true. But in declaring it so, we fall into the trap of believing our own hype. We convince ourselves that the story lives up to the tease, and that, folks, is very rarely the case.

This isn't just the case with TV news. It's everywhere. We're so awash in hyperbole that the only people really to trust are those we choose to be members of our own postmodern tribes — friends, sometimes family, acquaintances, references from friends, people who've "been there, done that," and others that we encounter in our day-to-day lives. This is the success of the Diggs and the youTubes of the Media 2.0 space, but it's basic postmodernism.

And since they know that our messages tilt towards bullshit, guess what? There's an inherent element of bullshit in our brands, those bastions of faith upon which mass marketing are built. What is branding anyway, except a marketing metaphor borrowed from the cattle industry of centuries gone by. Why "brand" my cattle? So I can find them in a crowd.

"I want my headache to go away," Rishad Tobaccowala of Publicus told the recent OPA Global Forum in London, "I don't want a relationship with Tylenol." This is a significant statement of new media speak, and it strikes at the very heart of mass marketing. For with all the money spent on the Tylenol brand, a great many people today buy plain old acetaminophen, the generic name for the drug.

In fact, the generic drug industry is growing at a double-digit pace. According to Generic Pharmaceutical Association statistics,

  • Generic medicines account for 53% of all prescriptions dispensed in the United States.
  • Of the top five U.S. pharmaceutical companies, based on the number of prescriptions dispensed, four are generic companies.
  • U.S. brand pharmaceutical sales for 2004: $217 billion. U.S. generic pharmaceutical sales: $18.1 billion.

These numbers say nothing about the over-the-counter branded versus generic business.

The success of the generic versus the brand is complex, but there are clearly a couple of factors worth noting that are important to this discussion. One, cost is significant factor in the choice between branded and generic. This concept can be expanded to include other forms of currency as it relates to media, most notably time. Two, one must assume a certain high level of knowledge on the part of drug customers in choosing generics over brands. While there are likely some people who'll stand in the headache remedy aisle of Wal-Mart holding a bottle of Tylenol in one hand and the company's "Equate" generic in the other who'll say, "Nope, it's not the same," the truth is most people know the only difference is in the packaging — the brand.

This is important when we hear over and over again that "the news is all the same," and we hear that because it's true. As Michael Rosenblum so wonderfully puts it regarding television news, "It's a guy with a box over his shoulder."

And so technology is allowing people to escape the screaming, and what's the response for companies that need to do business with running customers? It certainly isn't to scream louder. What's needed is a new metaphor to replace the old one, and new metrics upon which to place value in a world of unbundled media. The value will be there, because access to eyeballs (or eardrums) will always have value. But those eyeballs are scattered, knowledgeable, hip to our ways, and highly suspicious. This requires a completely counterintuitive set of metrics and principles.

In offering the list below, a caveat: this isn't an "all-or-nothing" proposition. Mass marketing and branding and all that goes with it isn't going away completely. There will always be a need for differentiating yourself from your competitors. It's just not the only game in town anymore, and the disruption of avoiding the screaming is something we need to embrace instead of fighting. So how can we restructure value for advertisers and ourselves in the marketplace of conversation?

  1. Respect. This basic rule of life is cited in the Biblical mandate to "give and it shall be given unto you" or "as you wish to be treated, treat others." I cannot possibly overstate the value of this principle in determining the long-term health of any business, media or otherwise. (Points to the business that does away with automatic telephone answering systems first.) We need to find a way to measure this through a combination of other metrics and principles, because its value is utmost in the minds of the running masses.
  2. Genericize. We need the courage to see that even our best "brands" can have baggage, and it usually comes from the hype associated with the brand. Dragging the brand into everything we do, therefore, places unnecessary obstacles in the paths of creatively meeting information and entertainment needs that are out there. We need the willingness to genericize ourselves in some of our work in order to overcome those barriers. We also need a way to measure the effectiveness of the effort.
  3. Fluidity. This is a measurement of our ability to have our products and services read and viewed beyond our control. It's the opposite of the mass marketing notion of stickiness that is so much a part of portalesque web design. If we want people to stay (so that we can make money) we'll do things that will actually push people out the door. So fluidity is a key metric in the Media 2.0 paradigm. Remember, they're running from our screaming.
  4. Influence. Technorati is providing this through measuring inbound links to various information websites. It's a sound method of determining which voices are providing leadership in the conversations that are news these days. The top sites generally belong to traditional media companies, whose role is evolving from final say to conversation starter in the Media 2.0 world. There is nothing artificial about this metric, which is why it has such value.
  5. Trust. Trust networks are like amoebas that move and shift based upon the shifting values and beliefs of the trusters. Built upon the postmodern model of tribes, they're tough to get a handle on, but again Technorati is making an attempt by calculating the changing "favorites" lists of influencers within their universe. This is also a clever way for people to access new thinking within their sphere of interest, and it has great value.
  6. Transparency. In hiding behind our hype, we've painted ourselves into a corner of mystery and intrigue that people increasingly see as suspicious and often hilariously self-serving. We must discipline ourselves to come out into the light and speak in human terms and with a human voice. We also need a way to quantify this, so that value can be assigned.
  7. Credibility and reliability. Based on their adherence to professional codes and traditions, media companies falsely assume they are automatically granted these two sides of the same artificial coin. People don't care about any of this, because media companies have generally hidden behind them instead of living them, and the result is a public that doesn't trust anything we/they say.

    Reliability and credibility, however, are hugely important concepts from which people choose sources, and we need to be open about what they mean, and demonstrate our adherence to the principles day in and day out. The problem with these two ideas, however, is that they cannot exist external to a point-of-view or argument. This was the dream of 19th century journalism reformers who were really after a sterile environment in which to sell advertising. It's nonsense, and people — especially informed people — increasingly see through it.

    That's why, if we're going to claim reliability and credibility, they must be defined beyond some unattainable ideal, which brings us back to the previous principle, transparency.

  8. Listen and Link. These are from the fertile mind of Jeff Jarvis, but I think they're overlooked in terms of real value. If, for example, you have a sponsor who's recognized the value of what you're doing and wants to be associated, there is no reason such a sponsor shouldn't be attached somehow in the referential linking that you do. It doesn't have to be intrusive, but if my link provides you with influence, it is reasonable to suggest that real value is attached to that link. We need ways to do this and measure it.

If the father on that Nashville to L.A. flight had quieted his 2-year old, everybody around him would've been more comfortable, and isn't that what we're all seeking as we look to the future and the Media 2.0 world (and beyond). It isn't about us, about clawing our way to the top regardless of what that does to anybody else. But it isn't about some unrealistic utopian "can't we all just get along" notion either, for the nearby passengers on the plane (myself included) also had a responsibility to a father who was obviously in over his head. We could have made the experience better for him and ourselves.

In his new book, Get Back In The Box, Doug Rushkoff writes, "The internet is not a technological or even a media phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon. And in this sense, interactivity has changed everything." So media success in the new world will largely be measured socially, and one hopes that we all will learn a little more about ourselves and each other in the process.

That would make the flight called life a little better, and who could ask for anything more?