Archive for May, 2009
The technology is more sophisticated today but the drive to force content onto people is the same as it’s ever been. Today we have out-of-home video that turns bus riders and grocery shoppers into a captive audience; in the 1930s we had cardboard cutouts of famous people with phonograph players behind them that barked sales pitches to passersby. Today we have “indoor billboards” (a euphemism for restroom ads) that use rear-projection to turn mirrors into ad screens; in the 1930s we had the same thing except advertisers left the restrooms alone and placed their phony mirrors in hotel and other lobbies.
These fun factoids are presented to us by Ad Lab, which took a look at issues of Modern Mechanix magazine from the 1930s to see what was happening in the world of advertising then.
It’s safe to say that, for as long as we’ve had advertising, we’ve had captive-audience advertising. Pushing your message out to people who haven’t asked for it and who can’t escape it without high opportunity cost to themselves is no doubt the Holy Grail of advertisers because it provides assurance that their message is reaching eyeballs or eardrums.
Because of its invasiveness, captive-audience media has always walked a fine line between what’s acceptable and what’s an invasion of people’s right to privacy and quiet. You can see this tightrope when you look at two U.S. Supreme Court decisions from the late 1940s and early 1950s that rule on captive-audience media. In the earlier case, the court sided with a city on outlawing audio trucks that push out content to pedestrians. Allowing anyone with a loudspeaker to drive around town, broadcasting content, sets up an untenable living environment, the court said.
But then, in the later case, the court sided with the operator of a commuter train that broadcast commercial radio to passengers. The court said passengers had given their tacit permission to be made subject to the content by riding the train voluntarily.
The latter case provoked sharp dissent, and among the points made in the dissent is that, for some riders, the commuter train is the only practical transportation into town, so to say passengers have given their tacit permission to be made captive to the content is disingenuous and certainly a narrow interpretation of the constitutional concept of liberty.
In any case, what we have today is increasingly sophisticated technology that makes captive-audience media too tempting to pass up for any company or organization that’s desperate to break through today’s media noise and get their message heard. Thus, what was once novel—talking cut-outs and rear-projection mirrors—is now becoming all too familiar as we sit through commercials at the movie theater and have audio and video content pushed out at us at the checkout line at stores, in the lobbies of offices and hotels, on street corners, and in every form of public transit.
Thanks to a post by Digital Signage News writer Bill Gerba for publicizing the Ad Lab piece.
After years of talk and experimentation airlines are set to launch in-flight wi-fi. AirTran expects to have virtually all of its planes wi-fi enabled by this summer, and the other airlines, including giants like American and Delta, are following close on its heels.
From a bottom-line perspective, adding wi-fi makes sense for the airlines. The plan is to charge for individual access, so passengers who want to talk on their cell phone, access the Internet, or check their e-mail will pay for the privilege, probably around $12, in line with what hotels charge for one-day in-room access.
That new revenue stream is sorely needed by an airline industry that’s been ailing financially for years. And from a consumer perspective, the service is what you’d expect in 2009, when so much of what we do every day is online. For some professionals and entrepreneurs, their entire work world is online, so being able to stay in connection with their work while in-flight is not a small matter.
Yet despite all this a surprising number of people have a decidedly mixed view on whether adding wi-fi is a good thing. “Can’t I just disconnect for a few minutes each day? Is that really too much to ask? Those short periods of peace during travel-time are precious to me, and I’m not ready to give them up just yet,” says tech writer Al Sacco in a column he wrote last year.
Michal Gentle, an IT consultant, says much the same thing. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my laptop, my Blackberry, and my mobile phone. But in the right place, which is not on planes.”
It’s safe to say that Sacco and Gentle are as far from luddites as people can be. They’re technology professionals who live and breathe connectivity, and yet in their remarks they express a recognition that all media all the time can sometimes subtract from rather than add to our quality of life.
At the end of his piece, Sacco polled his readers and the results were surprising. Fifty-five percent—a majority—said they prefer either no in-flight wi-fi or only in designated areas or otherwise regulated. Forty-five percent gave in-flight wi-fi an unequivocal yes.
The poll only involved 145 people, too small to make anything of it. But what’s interesting is that, as an IT trade publication writer, Sacco’s readers are a technology-fused group who you’d expect to see Shangri-la on the other side of wi-fi connectivity.
From the point of view of this blog, which is critical of captive-audience media, in-flight wi-fi is not a bad thing because it’s passenger-driven. Those who want access can have it, and those who don’t won’t have it foisted upon them. From this point of view, it represents an improvement over the compulsory TV that so many flights have today.
Yet even though it’s choice-based we can expect the annoyance factor to be high. Few people like to be forced to listen to other people’s cell phone conversations, and you can be sure that compulsive talkers will be filling up their flight time with cell phone conversations. If you don’t care for intrusive cell-phone conversations in restaurants, imagine being held captive to a compulsive talker on a six-hour flight across the country.
And for passengers who want to relax or sleep, having the person seated next to you watching video on his laptop will not make for ideal conditions. Not only are ear buds notorious for leaking audio, but it’s difficult to ignore the light and movement from the screen.
These won’t be new annoyances. Many passengers already watch video on their laptops in flight. What the introduction of in-flight wi-fi will do is simply increase the number of people engaged with audio and video media. So, airlines aren’t creating a problem so much as compounding an existing one.
It was only a matter of time before airlines joined the connected world. We all knew it was coming. Now that it’s finally here, we can tick off the loss of yet one more place where it wasn’t all media all the time. There aren’t very many of these places left.
Fifty-nine years after it started counting TV audiences, Nielsen has recorded a dubious milestone. Household TVs are on for eight hours and 27 minutes a day, the highest ever.
This news tidbit is brought to us by the Center for Screen-Time Awareness, the organization that launched TV Turnoff Week many years ago.
The group has recently launched an effort, called Screens A to Z, in which it will survey and then talk about the extent to which TVs are penetrating the environment outside the home. For anyone who cares about the character of our common spaces, this is a welcomed move.
It’s starting with airport TV. You can send a letter to CNN, the big airport-TV network, or to airport administrators, to let them know not everyone wants to be force-fed TV, which by its nature is an intrusive medium.
The group is also compiling a database of airports with TVs and those without. That’s a valuable service. Give the group a call if you have information on an airport you’d like to add.
It takes an effort like this one by the Center for Screen-Time Awareness to heighten people’s awareness of how broadly TV has penetrated outside the home and to start to give voice to people who are opposed to being made captive to TV in public places.
How do you quantify the death of print media? One way is to use data just released from the Newspaper Association of America that newspapers lost more than $18 billion in the last three years.
The easy explanation for all this red ink is that newspapers got the Internet wrong. But there’s another way to look at it. Print media in general and newspapers in particular are looking like the last remnants of what we might call “pull” media. These are media that depend on their ability to pull in their audience with compelling content. If they can’t pull in audiences, advertisers go elsewhere, their bottom line goes south, and they go into a death spiral.
Captive-audience media companies, by contrast, are actually growing during these very difficult economic times. Indeed, companies operating in this media are experiencing the opposite of a death spiral; they’re in a virtuous cycle of revenue growth that leads to platform growth that leads to more revenue growth.
Why the difference in economic fortunes of these two types of media?
The easy answer is that captive-audience media is largely screen and audio media. In a world in which people are giving up the reading habit, screen and audio media is the preferred media choice because it places little demand on its audience.
But this explanation might be too simplistic. After all, network television, the grandfather of screen and audio media, is having its own troubles. Although it’s holding its own in the revenue wars, it’s no longer king of the mountain.
Rather, the explanation might lay in the fact that captive-audience media is “push” media, the very opposite of the “pull” quality of newspapers and other types of traditional print media.
“Push” media doesn’t need to pull in its audience with compelling content. By its very nature it pushes its content out to an audience whether that audience wants it or not. Its advertisers are thus assured of reaching a certain number of eyeballs.
This is a great situation for the media companies and for the advertisers. But what about the audience?
To be sure, captive-audience companies release poll after poll showing how much people like to be entertained while they’re out and about: filling their tank with gas, waiting to buy groceries, riding in a train, waiting at a bus stop, riding in an elevator. Thus, TVs in these settings are a net plus.
In a sense, captive-audience companies must have something that looks like authoritative research to support what they’re doing because if most people took offense at being force fed media, than advertisers would pull out because what advertiser wants to risk its brand equity by intruding on people?
That’s what happened to Channel One, the commercial in-school compulsory TV network. The company is still around and is even gearing up for a big push on a Web TV series it’s developing, but a few years ago the company was struggling and had to find a new owner because parents and organizations such as Commercial Alert succeeded in shaming advertisers into pulling their support for the company on the grounds that it’s wrong to force children, in a legally mandated public school setting, to watch commercial TV.
But an argument can be made that captive-audience companies are using their polls as a Trojan horse and that the entertainment element to their content serves much the same purpose as mosquito “anesthetic.”
The way a mosquito operates is by injecting its hosts with an anesthetic-like compound just before it sucks blood. It’s because of the anesthetic-like effect of the compound that in so many cases we don’t know we were bit until after the mosquito has already had its meal.
Captive-audience media works in the same way. As an uninvited guest, it needs to preempt any offense we might take by numbing us with entertainment. With the host sufficiently softened up, the path is paved for the advertiser.
In a world in which captive-audience media is rare, it’s hardly worth taking offense at this. Both the entertainment and the advertising are inoffensive. The intrusion is minimal.
That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952 decided a captive-audience case in favor of the captors rather than the captives. The case involved piped-in commercial radio on a commuter train. The court ruled that most people didn’t mind and that by voluntarily riding the bus people gave their tacit consent.
The case wasn’t without controversy and two justices took grave issue with the decision.
But it’s worth asking whether people would be so quick to give a thumb’s up to being made captive to unwanted media if the question wasn’t whether they liked the TVs on the gas pumps or in the grocery store, but whether they wanted to live in a world in which much of the places they conduct the business of their lives is characterized by captive-audience media.
Asking a pedestrian whether one person’s second-hand smoke is bothering her is different than asking her if she’d like to live in a world in which much of the environment in which she spends her time is characterized by second-hand smoke.
The possibility of open-ended captive-audience media was clearly on the minds of the Supreme Court a few years before the commuter-train case when it voted against the captors and in favor of the captives in a case involving an audio truck. The court looked at whether a town was within its rights to prohibit a man from blasting a message from a loudspeaker on his truck while he drove around.
Here the court made clear that allowing such a practice could lead to intolerable living conditions for people, because the door would be open for anyone to drive around and impose one’s content on people without their permission.
“Unrestrained use throughout a municipality of all sound amplifying devices would be intolerable,” the court said. “The unwilling listener is not like the passer-by who may be offered a pamphlet in the street but cannot be made to take it. In his home or on the street, he is practically helpless to escape this interference with his privacy by loudspeakers.”
Clearly, private businesses are free to hold their customers captive to unasked-for media if they want.
But with captive-audience media on the front end of a growth cycle and traditional “pull” media in the opening throes of a death spiral, it’s clear we’re staring into a future in which more of our places will be characterized by captive-audience media. “Pull” media cannot compete with that, so we can expect traditional media providers, as a survival tactic, to take on more of the characteristics of their “push” media competitors.
At some point, no amount of numbing by entertainment will be able to disguise the fact that the horse is within the gate, its door open, and our firewall breached.
This is the first in a periodic look at what captive-audience media is all about, why its growth is generating intense opposition from many people, and what positive alternatives to it are available.
Captive-audience media is any type of media that doesn’t allow the audience to choose whether or not to consume it, leaving those who don’t want to consume it with only a negative choice: either try to tune it out (which many people are unable to do) or leave, a response that comes with high opportunity costs.
Thus, TV and audio on public buses, trains, or subways are captive-audience media because the content is pushed out to riders regardless of what they want. Riders are using these transit systems as a tool to get to where they want to go, not to consume media, so by being force-fed media, riders are made to pay what amounts to a rider tax on these publicly subsidized systems; the requirement that you consume this media becomes part of the cost of using the transit services.
By way of differentiation, print media, including ads on trains and buses, are not captive-audience media because theirs is “pull” rather than “push” content. That is to say, the content is not pushed out to its audience; rather, it’s passive and must pull in its audience before it can be consumed.
In the relationship between print media and readers, it’s the readers who are in control because they choose whether or not to consume the content. In captive-audience media, the relationship between audience and content is flipped on its head. The media is in control because the content washes down on its audience without regard to what the audience wants.
Thus, TV and audio in private settings like office and hotel lobbies, elevators, taxis, stores, restaurants, gyms, and coin laundries are also captive-audience media. The fact that the media are in private rather than public settings doesn’t change their captive-audience character, although it does serve as a limiting factor in what critics can do about it.
Private businesses can shape their environments in any way they want within the limitations of the law. If they choose to make audience captivity part of the defining character of their consumer interface, that’s their right. Critics of captivity really only have one option and that’s not to patronize the business. Critics have more options when it comes to audience captivity on trains, buses, and subways, because as public assets, these systems should be content-neutral, and critics have a legitimate claim that audience captivity doesn’t serve the public interest and is privileging one class of people (those who don’t mind being made captive to the media) over another (those who do).
Stepping back a bit, it’s worth observing that the private sector does itself no favor by alienating a portion of its consumer base by making them captives to unwanted media. Because of its intrusive nature, TV and audio media, when it’s not wanted, can trigger intense negative feelings in people. It’s not uncommon for people who’ve been made captive to unwanted media to react angrily, a response that leaves them feeling alienated and motivated to reach out to others with the suggestion that they not patronize the business.
Stepping back even more, it’s worth considering at what point private businesses must be treated as a public utility and thus held to the same standard as the public sector. If a community can’t function without cars, then all the gas stations within that community in the aggregate have the character of a public utility, even though the gas stations themselves are individually owned private businesses. If the gas pumps at all of the gas stations have TVs, then the right of people to choose to pump their gas in a station without TVs is taken away from them. At this point, people are compelled to consume the media because the opportunity cost to choose otherwise becomes intolerably high; their only choice is not to drive, an unrealistic option in a community in which its functioning depends on cars.
The idea that one would stop driving rather than be forced to consume TV at gas pumps is absurd, but as TV becomes ubiquitous throughout the community, the opportunity for people to choose their media disappears. And then the idea that someone would act in extreme ways becomes less absurd.
When you think about it, it doesn’t take much to blanket our world with unwanted “push” media. Although the world is large, the sphere in which we live out much of our lives is small. It only takes the introduction of captive-audience media in a few places—the street corner we pass every day, the train in which we ride to work, the grocery store in which we shop for food, the gas station at which we fill up our car, the bank at which we do our business, the elevator we take to get to our office, and the restaturants at which we like to eat—for us to become captive in much of our world.
Indeed, marketers are well aware of this and it’s for this reason the idea of what some call “life-pattern marketing” has caught the attention of those who are involved in captive-audience media. In life-pattern marketing, audience captivity is deployed to make marketing messages ubiquitous in the places at which people spend their day.
In a sense, we already live in a world of life-pattern marketing; ads are already ubiquitous throughout the environment in which we live out our lives. But this historically has involved print media, which, because it’s “pull” media, is unobtrusive. We can choose not to consume it. What’s changing is that the dominant media going forward is TV and audio media, which are “push” media that take that choice away from us.
The U.S. Supreme Court has more or less weighed in on the issue of captive-audience media and its conclusion has been—inconclusive.
A case in 1952 involving captive-audience media on a commuter train system was decided in favor of the captors rather than the captives, although it came with a key abstention and an even more key dissent. In a nutshell, the court said most riders don’t object to being made captive, so that makes it okay.
A few years before that, though, the court took the opposite position in a case involving an audio truck. The driver was driving around town broadcasting audio from a loudspeaker on his truck and this was unreasonable, the court concluded. People out and about shouldn’t be made captive to “loud and raucous” noise from this truck.
What’s important with the commuter-train case is the environment in which the idea of audience captivity was considered. In the world of 1952, few people would imagine the world we face in 2009. In 1952 there were no TVs on street corners, at bus stops, on subways, trains, and buses, in taxis, on elevators, on billboards, and in lobbies, stores, hospitals, restaurants, gyms, and coin laundries. To assess the nature of audience captivity in 1952 is to assess the nature of second-hand smoke in 1752, an absurd idea.
And yet today we face a future in which much of the environment in which we conduct the business of our lives will be characterized by captive-audience media. Why? Because of a decision made 57 years ago, before TV had even started showing up in most people’s livingrooms.
It’s worth considering if people polled in 1952 about the acceptability of audience captivity would say it was okay if the question was framed to ask whether they wanted to live in a world where audience captivity is the rule rather than the exception. It’s reasonable to think many people would say no.
In any case, there was at least one person in 1952 who saw what the future holds. Shortly after the case was decided, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “The Murderer” about a man who was driven to the edge of sanity by ubiquitious “push” media in his world. Music playing from loudspeakers, personal music (think iPods without the earbuds) playing without restraint, and TV everywhere drove the man to distraction. His response was to destroy the devices whenever he came upon them. That was a crime, so he was arrested and confined to an institution—a place he was glad to spend his days, because it was one of the few places remaining that were free of intrusive media.
President Obama’s impassioned plea for people on different sides of the abortion debate to treat each other with “open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words” despite their differences applies in any case where people vehemently disagree with one another. And that includes the differences people feel about today’s media-saturated world.
On the one hand are those who say the visual and audio noise of media is simply the character of the world today and that those who fight against it are trying to impose unreasonable restrictions on freedom. On the other side are those who challenge the right of others to impose their visual and audio noise on others without permission and depriving people of their right to quiet.
What’s remarkable is the amount of heat rather than light that’s generated in arguments over media noise, but perhaps such heat shouldn’t be surprising. After all, few conflicts provoke greater outrage among people than noise, and the differences we have over media noise is an extension of our differences over noise.
When an article ran in a Florida newspaper a couple of years ago about increasing noise from boom cars and backyard speakers, some commentators blasted people’s concern over noise and heaped ridicule on them.
“Puh LEEEEZ,” one person wrote. ‘“Audible litter”? …. That’s OPTIcal litter.If you have “malicious noise makers” around you CALL THE SHERIFF. Everything in the world that MOVES makes a sound, EVERYTHING … and some of the sounds are in frequencies you can’t even hear. They are there just the same. They are sound, they have exactly the same mechanism and, hence exactly the same potential to give you the Slobberin’ Heebeejeebees.”
On the other side, it’s not uncommon to see remarks like this one, which came in response to an article on TV in a grocery store checkout line:
“This [in-store TV] just ratchets up an already extremely obnoxious practice of stores — the in-store music service. I neither need nor want those despicable oldies blaring at me through tinny speakers while I shop. And just as you’re finally getting into it and the song is reaching its climax it gets faded out and an obnoxious ad comes on.”
These two comments are mild and civil compared to much of what passes for discourse on the topic of noise, and unfortunately, with the breadth and depth of media noise set to expand in the years to come, as “push” media replaces “pull” media as the dominant form of media, the discord is only going to grow. As we see TV and audio speakers penetrating more and more of our common spaces (street corners, billboards, buses, trains, subways, bus stops, taxis, elevators, office lobbies, hospital waiting rooms, gyms, coin laundries, restaurants), more people will start taking issue with media noise while many people will continue to take issue with people who take issue with it.
For that reason, the time to start finding middle ground is now, and the only way to do that is if we first start recognizing each side’s claim as legitimate even though the two sides differ fundamentally.
The Consumer Electronics Association probably isn’t staffed with poets, but it certainly seems to be reaching for poetry when it describes the bliss that awaits us if we install TV in our backyards.
“Imagine filling the patio or backyard with music for summertime cookouts, watching sports on a high-definition flat panel while lounging in the pool or inviting the neighbors over for outdoor movie night on the 100” outdoor home theater screen in the backyard. It’s not only possible, it’s probably more affordable than you think.”
It certainly sounds like TV in our backyards is as American as apple pie. After all, a man’s home is his castle, and what activity would be more king-like than kicking back with a cold one while watching the game in the fresh air?
But TV noise—both audio noise and visual noise—doesn’t respect property lines. I might be living life large when I watch my TV in the comfort of my backyard, but I’m not showing much respect for my neighbors. Unless I live on a property with a few acres between us, if I choose to watch TV or even listen to my favorite talk radio show while I’m outside (CEA wants us to install outdoor speakers, too), then I’m making a choice that affects my neighbors as well as me.
Do people have a right to enjoy their own properties the way they please? Of course they do. If my neighbor is annoyed by my watching TV in my backyard, then he’s free to let me know and we’ll see if we can work something out.
If only life were that simple. Few conflicts are more nasty than neighbor conflicts, and the vast majority of neighbor conflicts are over noise.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. My neighbor no doubt feels he’s as entitled to enjoy his property in peace and quiet as I feel I’m entitled to watch TV in my backyard.
Now here comes CEA reaching deep to find the poetry to describe the domestic tranquility of outdoor audio and visual entertainment. But what it has really found is yet another reason for neighbors to get hot under the collar at each.
A 30-second TV ad pops up while you’re navigating from one Web page to another.
A marketing company is launching this type of online ad format and has gathered up advertisers to be among the first to use it. If this ad format catches on, your online user experience will be very different tomorrow from what it is today.
Here’s what will happen: as you click on a link while searching for an article on a Web site, a TV spot pops up. It’ll be 15 seconds or 30 seconds. You’re thus confronted with a choice: wait out the ad so you can get to your page or abandon your search.
Each of us has our own level of tolerance for intrusive ads but the “push” element to this type of ad format is something many people will surely find troubling.
In this blog we like to characterize content as either “push” or “pull” content. A print ad is “pull” content because it’s the reader who chooses whether or not to consume the content. Thus the content has to be strong enough to pull the reader into it. A video ad that’s triggered when you navigate to a Web page is “push” content” because it doesn’t let the user decide whether or not to consume the content; rather, it pushes the content out without regard to the user’s preference. It doesn’t have to be compelling to pull in the user because the user is never given the opportunity to exercise choice in the matter.
There is lots of “push” content in today’s world and it’s increasing at a rapid pace. The TV playing in the checkout line of a grocery store is push content, because shoppers are not given the opportunity to decide whether they want to watch the TV; it’s just foisted upon them. So, shoppers that don’t want to watch the content have only two choices, both of them negative: try to tune out the content, which is not easy for many people and impossible for some, or leave. That means abandoning the effort they’ve already made to get to the checkout line.
For good reason, few people are willing to abandon their effort because the opportunity cost is too high. Thus you have a classic captive-audience situation, and you’ve essentially been taken advantage of by captive-audience marketers.
TV ads between Web pages are particularly intrusive because navigating through Web pages is a user-directed activity. The user is in the driver’s seat and is using the Internet as a tool. That tool is in effect wrenched from our grip because our ability to direct our search has been taken away from us. It would be like someone grabbing the controls of our car while we’re driving to the gas station and forcing us to go through a fast-food restaurant on our way.
No one would allow our car to be taken out of our control like that, so why would we tolerate someone intercepting our self-directed Web search in the same way?
There have been several surveys conducted over the past few years showing that people will abandon a Web site rather than be subjected to intrusive ads. In one survey, conducted about a year a go, 73 percent of users said they’ve abandoned a site rather than tolerate intrusive ads, and that figure rises to almost 85 percent among younger users.
No doubt marketing companies can trot out just as many surveys finding that users like intrusive ads, or that don’t find “push” ads intrusive. As we’ve talked about many times in this blog, developing surveys that find in favor of your position is a time-honored art and so we know that for every survey that comes out against intrusive ads, marketers will trot out an equal number of surveys that come out in their favor. We really can learn nothing from surveys other than that somewhere, and some time, some people had a meeting and decided they needed a survey to support their position.
We include the anti-Web ad survey here just to show marketers that their surveys showing people like “push” advertising aren’t the onely surveys around.
Let’s go with our gut. TV ads that pop up between Web pages are another form of captive-audience media. Visitors to Web sites who don’t appreciate being made a captive audience will probably go elsewhere, at whatever cost to them that entails.
Reduce the media hype and improve children’s understanding of media were among the recommendations the Knight Commission has received on ways to ensure the health of democracy in a post-newspaper world.
The commission, which has been developing its report on media and civic engagement for several months, received about 1,000 comments and has made them available on its Web site.
What’s clear among the hundreds of thoughtful remarks is that the media today go overboard on the sensational and the fluff to grab eyeballs, a practice that comes at the expense of the solid news reporting that people need to stay engaged. As one person said, “newspapers, radio, tv…[have become] hyper over the insignificant while publicizing little of importance.”
From an audience captivity standpoint, the comment hits the nail on the head. The drive by the media to play up insignificant events at the expense of what’s important is the inevitable outcome of a media culture that has stopped trying to pull in people with content that respects its audience and instead takes a push strategy in which content is pushed out solely for the purpose of carpet bombing people with ads. Meanwhile, the only audiences the media are trying to pull in are advertisers. Thus, the interest of media providers isn’t in informing people with hard news but in softening them up with triviata.
Education is another recurring theme, and it’s interesting how the issues of hype and education intersect. If care isn’t taken to ensure children come to appreciate the differences between important, objective information and the sensation-filled fluff that we get so much of today, then as they grow into adults our children are unlikely to hold media providers accountable for the triviata that has sucked the oxygen out of the news business.
As one person put it, “What needs to be strengthened are our schools so that citizens are taugth to look for and analyze information for quality, bias, and truthfulness.”
Yet the same push strategy that characterizes our media today is also a well-entrenched part of the school environment. We only need to look at Channel One and Bus Radio, which reach millions of school children every day. Here our schools have given their institutional stamp of approval to the very kind of commercial-driven fluff that’s killing the news business. By having compromised themselves in this way, how can we now expect schools to play a constructive role in making children discerning information consumers?
The Knight Commission is providing a commendable service by opening up its research process in the way it has. The report is slated for release later this year.
Here’s a paradox: Not a whole lot of people seem to seek out pre-movie commercials, yet at a time when traditional media companies are bleeding red ink and wondering if it’s time to rethink their business model, a company that provides pre-movie commercials is doing just fine, thank you.
The company a few days ago released performance figures and while it said it expects the second quarter to be tough—we’re in a recession, after all—it posted a tidy double-digit revenue percentage increase in the first quarter. Good for it.
Meanwhile newspapers are either going under or on the verge of going under, despite the fact that many of them are genuinely beloved by their readers and are even seeing readership go up when online readers are added in.
What’s going on? The easy answer is that newspapers got the Internet wrong and now they’re paying the price for it.
But what’s also clear is that the success of captive-audience media like pre-movie advertising is only superficially tied to what people want because the customers of these companies are the advertisers, not the people onto whom the content is forced.
What captive-audience companies offer to advertisers are highly targeted and highly measurable eyeballs: if 10,000 tickets were sold for the action-adventure movie at which your ad ran, then you as an advertiser have a good idea of what you got for your money.
De-coupled from accountability to the people onto whom the content is forced, the captive-audience media industry is poised to grow as long as it can put its platforms in as many settings as possible in which people can’t escape without cost to themselves: elevators, buses, trains, taxis, street corners, stores, building lobbies—the list is a long one.
To give successful captive-audience companies their due, they seek to make their content entertaining and relevant to their target audiences, and there’s no reason to question the accurancy of the surveys they design and pay for that show people like their content.
Yet, because theirs is a push rather than a pull strategy, the fundamental nature of their business model is in the service of the advertiser. The advertiser, they do have to pull in, so they design their platform, for them; the audience, they don’t have to pull in, because it’s the audience that’s on the receiving end of the push strategy.
Whether people want the content doesn’t have to factor into their equation as long as people accept it as something they have no say over, as if it’s an inevitable part of our media-saturated landscape now.
As one media executive said in a trade magazine article on how much people like having TVs in restaurants, “In today’s world, everyone’s conditioned to see digital media.”
Yet it’s worth pausing to think about the trajectories of these two trends. Media that’s accountable to its audience is going down in flames; media that’s accountable to its advertisers is in the early stages of its growth cycle.
One guess what our media environment will look like 10 years down the road.