The Demise of an Informed Citizenry

Last week’s decision by publisher Tina Brown to cease the print publication of Newsweek took very few industry observers by surprise. After all, the venerable news magazine had lost approximately half of its readership during the past five years, and had been struggling to regain the public’s attention through a variety of controversial tactics, such as oddly sensational cover photography.

So will the closure of the news service lead to a shortage of news providers? According to some industry experts, the answer is “no.” After all, there are still television and radio newscasts, specialty news publications, daily newspapers, and the far more venerable Time magazine. Furthermore, as the conventional wisdom stipulates, many people are now obtaining their news through Twitter and other online sources.

The audience levels of most traditional general news resources, though, are (like Newsweek’s subscriber base) rapidly yielding market share to online competitors. And though services like Twitter are becoming more prevalent, it is reasonable to ask whether services that compress reports into 140 character postings can ever take the place of magazines that publish detailed investigative news stories.

If the answer is “no,” then it may be appropriate to wonder whether the demise of Newsweek and other traditional news outlets is heralding the end of an era of an informed citizenry in the United States.

The Golden Age?

It is always tempting to glance back, wistfully, at a previous period of time and declare it to be a “golden era.” That’s because our memories have a way of accentuating the positive aspects of our past, but obscuring the troubling characteristics of prior times.

Wikipedia, for instance, defines the “golden age” of baseball as the decades of the 1920s through the 1950s. And the designation is understandable; after all, legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays all played during this period.

Nevertheless, this so-called “golden age” also encompassed the Great Depression, an era when financially strapped teams forced players to serve as their own managers and coaches because the clubs couldn’t afford to hire supervisory staff. And throughout this period of time, African American ballplayers were either banned from the sport entirely, or were savagely abused because of their ethnicity.

A golden age that, in reality, wasn’t very golden … is that how we should perceive the twentieth century of news and information as well? Or does the demise of a print publication like Newsweek truly spell the end of a more favorable time?

News, Then and Now

Although advocates of the internet claim that the medium has made information ubiquitous, news of the world was easily obtained half a century ago as well. Most major American cities were served by multiple newspaper publications that issued “update” editions two or more times each day. And all of the major television networks broadcast full documentaries during the “prime time” evening periods.

Time began printing its weekly news magazine in 1923, and Newsweek was launched precisely one decade later. These publications, as well as smaller competitors like the U.S. News and World Report, were sold through 24 hour news stands, direct mail subscriptions, and a multitude of supplemental distribution methods.

Today, of course, print newspapers are fading from the scene. Television documentary series, such as CBS’s groundbreaking See It Now with Edward R Murrow, have been replaced by reality entertainment shows. And more than half of the audience for the national evening newscasts by CBS, NBC, and ABC have been lost during the past thirty years.

The plight of these traditional news outlets would not worry public advocates if citizens are simply gravitating to alternative sources of news. But are they indeed doing so? Or, alternatively, are they actually becoming less informed over time?

The BBC vs. Twitter

Interestingly, earlier this year, the British broadcasting giant BBC acknowledged Twitter’s presence as a rival “breaking new” organization by forbidding its reporters from posting information on the web-based service before filing their reports in BBC news rooms.

Apparently, their reporters had been “tweeting” brief notifications about breaking stories before sending the same information to their own editors! Such practices do lend credence to the presumption that Twitter has emerged as a replacement news service that is filling the void left by traditional news outlets.

Far fewer citizens, though, are following CBS News on Twitter than were watching the television newscasts thirty years ago. CBS’s current television audience usually approximates six million viewers, an amount that has fallen by more than six million during the past thirty years.

Today, there are slightly more than two million individuals who are following CBS News on Twitter. So what happened to the other four million individuals who once watched Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather every night?

It is, perhaps, possible that they have chosen to follow a different news service on Twitter. A more worrisome possibility, though, is that they are no longer bothering to remain informed about current events at all.

Fracking: A Metaphor of Decline

“We’re in decline.”

It was a dramatic statement by an American political leader, one unvarnished by politically correct posturing or knee-jerk optimism. And it was verbalized by one of the most respected public figures in the United States.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered the comment during an interview in which he also opined that Republican icon Ronald Reagan (as well as his own father, President George H.W. Bush) would struggle to find a role within today’s Republican party. Although the political pundits focused on his opinion regarding Reagan, others were struck by his prognosis of the nation’s fiscal health.

Meanwhile, television viewers who were searching for tales of America’s economic prowess discovered the resurrection of a classic show about the world of American business. New episodes of Dallas, the oil industry saga that was broadcast on the CBS television network from 1978 to 1991, suddenly reappeared on TNT cable television with actors Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and Linda Gray reprising their original roles as JR, Bobby, and Sue Ellen Ewing.

34 Years Later

Fans of the original television show engaged in extended online discussions about how the three original characters have changed during the 34 years that have elapsed since the program’s initial premiere. Likewise, we can discuss the evolution of the show’s underlying assumptions about the American economy to observe how our society has evolved as well.

For instance, the original Ewing Oil of 1978 was a family owned firm that focused primarily on developing land-based energy projects in the United States. Ewing family funds were also invested in Texas based ranching, farming, and media operations, thereby maintaining a domestic focus and avoiding any foreign entanglements.

Were there any exceptions to this unified American perspective? During the third season, JR Ewing did briefly invest $200 million in an Asian oil operation. But the diversion did not last long because local government regulators nationalized the energy fields, though only after the crafty JR obtained insider information about the impending nationalization and unloaded Ewing’s ownership interest on his unsuspecting business rivals!

In the contemporary version of the series, however, there is no such emphasis on domestic American business strategies. Christopher Ewing’s primary focus, in fact, is a methane gas operation off the coast of China. And John Ross Ewing’s efforts to develop fracking operations on the land under the family’s Southfork ranch is considered an environmental degradation by his extended family.

From Southfork to the Southern Tier

This very fracking controversy, of course, is currently playing out across the United States. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, for example, recently restricted the controversial production activity to the economically depressed Southern Tier of the Empire State after deciding initially to permit the technique on a statewide basis.

His recent restrictive decision satisfied no one. Critics of fracking predicted that the technique would pollute the state’s water supply, while proponents retorted that a geographically narrow production region would deter energy companies from making economically profitable investments.

Was Cuomo’s decision reflective of a state in decline? Some might opine that a state in a position of ascendancy would legalize fracking and then search energetically for technological solutions to its complications; others might opine that an ascendant society would prohibit the practice and then search energetically for replacement sources of energy. Cuomo’s compromise solution, regrettably, does not appear to match either profile.

The Metaphor of Fractures

Interestingly, John Ross Ewing’s focus on fracking activities may well serve as a metaphor for the challenges that face American society. Fracking itself is a process whereby pressurized fluids are blasted into deep underground rock formations, fracturing the earth and thus freeing the energy deposits from the soil.

In a sense, the Ewing family of Dallas has been fractured throughout its 34 year history in the world of television. And the television audience itself has grown increasingly fractured during the past three or four decades as well. Although it was possible for the iconic “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger episode of the third season of the original show to attract an estimated 41.5 million households, the subsequent splintering of the American public among hundreds of cable and web based television shows makes such a unified television audience impossible today.

In a sense, the fragmentation of the contemporary American television audience reflects the type of social fracturing that Jeb Bush had in mind when he described the United States as a nation in decline. The same centrifugal social forces that are pulling American television viewers into segregated networks and shows are likewise isolating them into disparate political cliques, making compromise unlikely and political agreements impossible.

The result? Most critics have expressed doubt that the contemporary version of Dallas will be able to find its legs and ascend to the top of the television world. Likewise, there are many skeptics who are expressing doubt that American society will be able to reach consensus on its most pressing challenges and reverse its trajectory of decline.

The Decline of Television: Farewell, Soap Operas!

Mark your calendars! We may only be eleven years beyond the turn of the millennium, but media pundits are already referring to April 29 as the date of the wedding of the century for Prince William of Britain and his bride Catherine Middleton. The ceremonies will be televised globally; two billion people are expected to watch the event.

Of course, the wedding of William’s parents Charles and Diana was similarly promoted as the wedding of the century as well, albeit of the 20th century. In fact, weddings of the century have occurred quite frequently throughout the years. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, married Edith Galt while serving as the President of the United States in 1915. John F. Kennedy’s marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier created quite a stir in 1953, as did Hollywood legend Grace Kelly’s nuptial event with Prince Rainier of Monaco three years later. And just last year, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea’s marriage to Marc Mezvinsky was deemed by many to be the wedding of the century.

Back in 1981, though, the widely proclaimed wedding event of the century in the United States involved a pair of fictional characters from the soap opera General HospitalLuke and Laura’s wedding episode featured a special appearance by Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor and attracted nearly 30 million viewers; it was later recognized as one of the 100 Best Television Shows by Time magazine.

We are not likely to witness any future weddings of the century from the world of soap operas, though. Last week’s announcement of ABC’s cancellation of All My Children and One Life to Live left American television with only four remaining such shows spread across the three major networks, with many media experts predicting the imminent demise of the genre.

Radio Days

The soap opera format was more than just a dominant form of day time entertainment for many decades. In fact, it actually predated the establishment of commercial television, and it served as a foundation on which the medium established its credibility.

The venerable soap Guiding Light, for instance, initially launched as a dramatic series on the CBS radio network in 1937, and was shifted to the fledgling CBS television network in 1952 to help attract the mainstream audience. It aired until 2009, making the 72 year show (as Wikipedia eloquently describes it) the longest story ever told in a broadcast medium.

Back in 1952, of course, there was no guarantee that television would become a socially acceptable and culturally entrenched form of entertainment. The earliest mass purchasers of television sets were saloon owners, who viewed the medium as an attraction for keeping customers glued to their bar stools during the evening hours. That’s why Milton Berle, a vaudeville star with a notoriously bawdy reputation, became commercial television’s first major star, one who signed a mammoth thirty year contract in 1951.

Entering The Mainstream

Nevertheless, mainstream television programming began to emerge in 1951 and 1952 with the introduction of NBC’s Today show during the morning hours, and with the premieres of CBS’s I Love Lucy and NBC’s Dragnet in the evening. But what would fill the afternoon hours on television, a time when housewives would take breaks from their chores before greeting the buses that carried their children home from school?

Enter the soap opera, a genre named after the Proctor & Gamble household cleaning products that were peddled during the commercial breaks. With the introduction of CBS’s Search for Tomorrow in late 1951, and the transfer of the CBS radio network’s Guiding Light to television a few months later, the foundation of the visual broadcast medium was secured.

Time and Money

For half a century, the genre of the soap opera continued to dominate the weekday hours of broadcast television. And in a sense, the popularity of the multi-episodic dramatic format has never waned; it still provides the foundation for such contemporary television series as The SopranosDesperate Housewives, and Mad Men.

So what is killing this classic format as a weekday television staple? To put it simply, the genre is being slain by the combined forces of time and money. Household economic pressures have driven housewives out of their living rooms and into the work force, while American cultural standards have evolved to accommodate them. Meanwhile, the emergence of the internet as a mass medium of entertainment has placed extreme fiscal pressure on the traditional television model, driving networks away from costly dramatic programming and towards inexpensive talk, reality, and game shows.

Will the soap opera ever rise again, perhaps in a briefer, cheaper form? Foreign television networks are finding success at the moment with limited-run series called telenovas, featuring simple dramatic plots with soap opera themes that extend across a relatively small number of episodes. And these series often feature extravagant weddings as well, though none quite as grandiose as the real one starring William and Kate next week!

And The Winner Is … Network Television!

Congratulations to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman in history to win an Academy Award for Best Director! From race car driver Danica Patrick to high school football coach Natalie Randolph, and now to Ms. Bigelow, American women have repeatedly shattered glass ceilings during the past two years.

But did you actually watch ABC’s televised network coverage of Kathryn’s historic acceptance speech? Conventional wisdom would predict that you didn’t bother to do so. Instead, you might have learned about her victory through some new media channel.

Readers are turning away from newspapers, for instance, and are using RSS feeds to focus on narrow self-defined topics. And viewers are ignoring the prime time schedules of their favorite networks, instead opting to watch specific episodes that appeal to them on web sites like Hulu, as well as niche cable channels like Food Network.

Conventional Wisdom Beware!

This is indeed the conventional wisdom … but is it true? Are new media outlets truly replacing traditional forms of communication?

Let’s consider the newspaper industry. On the one hand, circulation statistics have been falling for years, and papers in cities as large as Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle have indeed folded. But have you noticed some promising developments at the New York Times? Its web site is now attracting more than 20 million unique visitors each month, and it has publicly announced plans to start charging for access next year.

Furthermore, it has created a global online edition for international readers, and it is developing a special multimedia edition for Apple’s new iPad device. These initiatives are helping the Times reach readers who never could have subscribed to traditional delivery services.

And strangely enough, live network television events from the Super Bowl to the Olympics to the Academy Awards have all recently enjoyed surges in viewership levels. Public interest in these events has reached such heights, in fact, that ABC’s parent company Disney successfully wrestled better contractual terms from cable provider Cablevision by threatening to black out ABC’s live Oscar broadcast on that cable service. Viewers actually missed the first fourteen minutes of the Awards telecast before Cablevision relented and ABC restored the transmission.

So a venerable media company like Disney actually used consumer demand for traditional network television coverage of a decades old Hollywood awards show to help it negotiate a better deal with a cable television provider! How could this have occurred when conventional wisdom is stating that demand for traditional media is waning?

Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

Disney itself has a long history of supporting traditional entertainment media outlets at times when competitors and customers appear to have abandoned them. In the early 1990s, for instance, it committed to renovating New York City’s historic New Amsterdam Theater, which was built in 1903 and later served as the home of the famed vaudeville variety show Ziegfield Follies.

At the time, many commentators were astonished by Disney’s desire to commit corporate funds to the restoration of a decrepit relic of a bygone theatrical age, located on the seedy side of 42nd Street. But Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner believed that audiences would always be drawn to engaging stories presented in traditional mass media outlets, and thus spotted a business opportunity in an ancient format that first engaged audiences several millennia ago, i.e. live theater. And today, global tourists come and meet those dancing feet at live theaters throughout 42nd Street and Times Square.

Likewise, a few months ago, Disney again astonished commentators by releasing an animated film called The Princess and the Frog, utilizing the obsolete two dimensional hand drawn technology that they first employed for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Although Disney itself discontinued that technology and committed to computer graphics animation when it bought Pixar in 2006, Disney’s now-CEO Robert Iger (like Eisner before him) believes that audiences would always be drawn to compelling tales in traditional formats; he thus resurrected Disney’s fabled hand drawn animation unit. And his instincts were proven correct when The Princess and the Frog soared to the top of the box office listings during the peak holiday season.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Of course, it is important to note that Disney is also extremely active in the world of new media. For instance, its ESPN family of cable television networks dominates the fields of sports news and entertainment. Likewise, its virtual reality web services – like Club Penguin, for instance – are competing ferociously in the race to develop the next generation of interactive online social media services.

But for each pair of steps that Disney takes forward into the future of media news and entertainment, it takes a step back into the media outlets of the past, reflecting its belief that audiences will continue to desire both types of services. That’s why you might have joined millions of other Americans to watch Kathryn Bigelow accept her Oscar last week, and why the conventional wisdom about the demise of traditional media outlets is proving to be premature.

Network Television: End of an Era?

Television viewers throughout the New York City metropolitan region sighed with relief on New Year’s Day, when the FOX television network belatedly reached an agreement with Time Warner Cable (TWC) to continue broadcasting to TWC customers throughout 2010.

College football fans who subscribed to TWC rejoiced; they could watch FOX’s Sugar Bowl broadcast after all! And fans of American Idol could look forward to another year of watching Simon Cowell singing the praises of talented performers, and hurling epithets at the talentless ones.

A different negotiation involving TWC, though, may ultimately signal the end of an era of network television. In addition, NBC’s ongoing negotiations with a pair of its brightest stars are portending the end of an era as well.

Blaming Ken Lowe

Apparently, at the same time that TWC’s contract with FOX was expiring on New Year’s Eve, its contracts to broadcast the Food Network (FN) and Home & Garden Television (HGTV) were expiring as well. In fact, TWC needed to freeze the clock to complete its contract negotiations with Scripps Networks, the owner of FN and HGTV.

Freeze the clock? Is that a metaphor for our chilly winter weather? No, it’s actually an expression that negotiators use when they keep working together – even though their contract has technically expired – because they believe that they’ll soon finalize a contract extension. In this case, TWC and Scripps agreed to continue televising Food Network and Home & Garden to TWC’s audience through the wee morning hours of New Year’s Day because they knew that they’d soon reach an agreement; in addition, TWC and FOX had agreed to do so as well.

However, another cable television provider – Cablevision, which services the hugely lucrative New York City media market – was also negotiating with Scripps to renew its FN and HGTV broadcasting contracts for 2010.  Unfortunately for Cablevision’s viewers, their negotiations collapsed in a series of angry recriminations; thus, as of New Year’s Day, Cablevision’s subscribers are no longer able to enjoy those two networks.

Amazingly, senior executives at Scripps and Cablevision continue to blast away at each other with public denunciations. Scripps, for instance, has established temporary web sites where Cablevision customers can log complaints about their loss of FN and HGTV. And Cablevision has retaliated by publicly encouraging its subscribers to contact Scripps’ CEO Ken Lowe to blame him for their loss.

Leno or O’Brien?

Meanwhile, at the NBC television network, negotiations are now becoming contentious about the future of its venerable Tonight Show. Last year, NBC decided to move its highly successful veteran host Jay Leno to the 10:00 pm time slot to replace costly traditional programming with a new and relatively inexpensive prime time talk show. It then decided to give the Tonight Show (and its 11:35 pm time slot) to Conan O’Brien, a less experienced host who appeals to a younger generation.

Unfortunately for NBC, Leno’s new talk show is attracting far fewer viewers than the traditional programming that it replaced at 10:00 pm. In addition, O’Brien’s new Tonight Show is attracting far fewer viewers than Leno’s original Tonight Show at 11:35 pm. Furthermore, local television stations are angry because their 11:00 pm news reports, sandwiched between the new Leno and O’Brien shows, are losing viewers as well.

NBC has now asked Leno to host the first half hour of the Tonight Show’s traditional 11:35 time slot, and O’Brien to accept a de facto demotion and host a different show after midnight. That would permit NBC to restore traditional prime time programming at 10:00 pm, but O’Brien and Leno have begun hinting that they might prefer to abandon NBC for different networks. Goodbye NBC, hello FOX and CBS!

Goodbye, Network Television

So where do these events leave the network television industry?  It appears that large numbers of cable television viewers in New York City must now accept that network staples like FOX, the Food Network, and Home & Garden can be dropped at any time. And viewers of NBC’s Tonight Show, a show that has anchored broadcast television’s midnight hour since 1954 and that made Johnny Carson a cultural icon, might now be torn in half and split between two competing hosts.

So what is the future of television program delivery? If viewers can no longer rely on TWC and Cablevision to transmit a full array of network programs, whom can they turn to?

Time will tell, of course … but don’t be surprised if Apple revolutionizes the television business in the manner that its iPod product line and iTunes service upended the music business. After all, its upcoming Tablet computer is rumored to be capable of broadcasting live television signals, and Steve Jobs has reportedly discussed the development of a retail television transmission service with Disney, CBS, and others for $30 per month.

In other words, the future of television might well look like a cross between a MacBook and an iPhone.