Sunday, March 1, 2009

Whither Goes Television News?

There must be something in the air, because I've been reading and hearing a lot about the future of television news. First, this article about the We Media conference. 

Then, a telelecture (I don't know if that's a word, I just made it up - sounds good, doesn't it?) with Bob Benz, formerly of Scripps Interactive, now off into the world of media consulting. The irony of the timing of his lecture was not lost: a former employee of the Rocky Mountain News, he was speaking to us on the day of its closing. And he also pointed out the three newspapers he worked for in his career have all closed. 


According to Benz, some folks in the cable world blamed the newspapers for their own demise: giving away content for free, not coming up with innovative ways to change how advertising reaches readers and thus pay for reporting. To him, newspapers are merely augurs of things to come for cable. The model is based on advertising, just as newspapers. And the technology is available for people to carve out the ads, or watch online, just about any kind of viewing that doesn't involve advertising. 


He's certainly not alone. The We Media conference last week in Miami had all the big guns out, like CNN, thinking about what's next. The major theme: embrace social media.  Embrace "the future". This was Benz's theme as well. I can't remember if he said this, or if someone I was talking to said it, but stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The technology does not fit the financial model of running a business, not just media but in other sectors as well. This is a theme in "The Long Tail", coined by Chris Anderson in an article he wrote, and later developed into a book. Benz talked about it too in his lecture (actually, it's a phrase that gets bandied about quite a bit in the circles I travel in, but it may just be the company I keep.)


Lots of great examples going on out there. The Daily Show's website has got to be generating some kind of revenue. Their video ads are short and savvy - I couldn't believe it when I was actually humming the AT&T tune - they got me! I'm sure the revenues still dwarf in comparison to what it earns through the ads, but the crazy thing is, Jon Stewart just might be able to go completely on his own and support the production of the program through targeted ads delivered not only online but across mobile platforms as well. As Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame has demonstrated, wealth is generated by a company's ability to collect information about its users, and the Daily Show has an audience people are trying to reach. 

We cling to the advertising model because it's proven to generate the most profit which in turn is used to create content. And as long as we buy stuff (which we will, goddamit we're Americans!) we're going to need to know about it. But how We the Consumer go about it is what the news industry is still struggling to find out. 

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