Saturday, March 7, 2009

IT'S A SHORT FORM WORLD AFTER ALL


My eight-year-old son recently asked me when I started seeing in color. We were watching a black and white TV show on cable and had been talking about what some of my favorite shows were when I was growing up. This wasn’t my first close encounter with my children’s incredulity at my media shortcomings. Past incidents have included their disbelief that I grew up without videotape and DVDs. Vinyl recordings were also a revelation when I pulled some albums from my secret stash out of the garage and gently placed them on the altar of a new turntable.

Artifactual media can be a curio if not hold a talismanic power over newcomers. Sometimes new generations are beaten into submission through accidents of discovery or inter-generational wars of attrition. A major victory in my personal campaign in support of archaic media occurred last week when my teenager asked for advice on how to properly handle her new vinyl acquisition—an MGMT record. It was almost a cultural breakthrough until it was marred when I had to transfer the record to a digital file because my son had used my new record player to do some scratching—only without the benefit of having a disc on the turntable, thus shredding another hard-to-find needle and rubber platon.

When generational media worlds collide, minds are blown. In my case, I was captivated by my son’s perspective that before the advent of color televisions and what NBC called “living color”, we would all obviously only be seeing the world in black and white. Looking at the Wall Street quants maze of arcane derivatives and other financial instruments, I sometimes wish the world could still be deciphered in black and white. But what is interesting about my son’s comment is that we all seem to take the media we grow up with for granted.

There is now a generation that did not know life without the Internet and mass game changers like the iPhone and Wii. More important it seems than changes in technology and distribution are the generational shifts that change the way consumers use media. It also leads to questions about where the mass market and Main Street have gone and a conversation I had last week with the most brilliant marketer I know.

Fred Seibert is a self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneur” who among other things was largely responsible for branding MTV and currently has several of the top-rated animated TV shows. But, I don’t hold any of that against him especially since these accomplishments don’t always mean that he’s always right—even though visitors to his old office were warned by a large sign that they best leave their opinions outside the door because the person they would find inside was infallible.

Still, like the agent provocateur he is, Fred said, “The methodology to reach the mass market no longer exists.” Now, maybe I’m taking his observation out of context for the sake of this post, so I duly note that his comment originated with respect to the state of the music industry. But, we were also talking about how the television business was bound to follow suit sooner or later.

When I was watching an old episode of “The Honeymooners” on TV Land recently, the difference between the world of the long form, mass market universe of yesteryear and today’s short form, micro media markets was brought into high relief. The scene featuring a typical argument between Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows lasted for almost two minutes without interruption and only used one wide shot. The relationship of early television with stage performances is clear when watching this series as well as other fifties classics like “The Jack Benny Program” and “Amos and Andy”. It’s no accident that live drama like CBS’ “Playhouse 90” made up a lot of 50’s TV fare.

In the 60’s, television scenes got shorter, influenced most likely by the tempo of rock and roll. With the introduction of MTV in the early 80’s, quick cutting and handheld techniques became the order of the day and “scenes” lasted a matter of seconds, serving up music cuts instead of video edits, and in turn, influencing highly stylized, network TV series like “Miami Vice”. Media critic and sci-fi writer, Paul Levinson, has offered a granular look in Digital McLuhan of the dwindling length of scenes for small screen time from earliest television through the 90’s. He also notes that, in a reversal of fortunes that Marshall McLuhan would have appreciated, many movies in the last two decades are remakes of classic TV shows—so many so, in my view, that one wonders how many are left to dredge up in the archives. As Frank Zappa once said to me, “The world will end in nostalgia”.

Last year’s introduction of long form downloads of its primetime hour dramas by ABC displayed a fascinating metric—Nielsen Digital measured that there were some 40 million total downloads. But, the average time viewed was—guess what? Three minutes. The consummation of this sea change movement to short form was realized with the one-second Miller High Life commercial in this year’s Super Bowl. At $3 million per 30-second spot, it was also a relative bargain.

Still, Fox’s American Idol is still reaching what is undeniably a huge mass audience even when compared with the former power of top-rated shows from broadcast TV’s height such as “MASH”, “Cosby” and “Seinfeld”, which characteristically reached scores of millions of TV viewers. According to Entertainment Weekly, last Thursday’s Idol show attracted 21.2 million viewers beating Survivor’s 12 million. If I’m a consumer brand trying to reach a mass market, then even a portion of the total TV universe on any given night still represents a viable methodology compared to the short form universe of the Internet. However, television advertising has never been proven to have a direct correspondence between commercials and purchase. In the television business, it’s all about growing brand awareness. Even so, Short Attention Span Theater has arrived even as just a relatively unmonetized consumer trend. While YouTube’s valuation is $1.5billion, its 2008 revenues were $150million, a paltry sum compared with the $65 billion TV ad business.

Despite this stark earnings contrast, Cynthia Turner reports in that the overall Internet video audience is now 135 million strong. But, a growing share of audience isn’t necessarily market share. It isn’t a question of size that matters, but of how this new online video medium works as discrete from others. Largely as a result of the Obama Inaugural, YouTube was up after a flat December to 5.86 billion video streams in January with over 100m uniques. Paidcontent.org reported a week ago that Yahoo, MySpace, MTV.com, and YouTube are all considering eventual upgrades to HD as a way to keep up with broadcast. But, the question presented by mass media is not a matter of how many streams but where is the mainstream? And what matters is not necessarily how people are watching at any given time, and not even what they are watching, but how and for how long?

Appointment, scheduled viewing was the original standard for broadcast television. Video and cable chipped away at this model, but it was the Internet and personalization that finally did it in. TV is literally background to my daughter’s generation and a complement to other multitasked media input. In the on demand, VOD, PVR, short form universe, video consumption is not tied to time in the same way that hit TV shows once defined an evening when families had to sit down together in front of the pixel campfire to catch their favorite show—or else miss it entirely.

Even though CBS’s March Madness is nearly sold out for online ads, it is unclear how the short form universe is reaching users in a meaningful way. Short form video may have the eventual power of narrowing the focus to very specific demographics. Consumer viewing habits will continue to morph. In a recent piece, Phil Swann asks whether Blockbuster will go away. Maybe, but my answer to Fred’s question is that TV is still the methodology to reach the mass market.

Audience share is transformed with the introduction of every new visual medium. But each medium has its own value proposition and attendant feature set that can vary in differentiation from others with respect to process and content. But movies didn’t replace radio and TV didn’t replace radio—and the Internet didn’t replace TV. The introduction of a new medium doesn’t replace extant forms, but displaces them by defining new audiences as well as cannibalizing old ones—and their power to do so is always based on how they increase value for the consumer.

The bigger question is what impact the generational shift of video consumers who have grown up in the short form universe will have on making the video stream the standard and long form an occasional luxury seen at the movies or as PVR saved fare of five or ten minute shows on future integrated online and offline "broadcast" networks. But in concentrating on the expanding video web, we are looking in the wrong direction. My prediction is that it’s going to be the mobile video web that is the definitive, disruptive platform to watch. Whatever happens, one thing is sure—it’s already a short form world after all and our children will inevitably be faced with tough questions from their own kids who won’t believe them when they roll out their saved iTunes playlists and talk about how cool HD and iPhones were.

2 comments:

Silvanus Slaughter said...

All-encompassing article and eye-opening. My earliest memories were black and white, but my recognition of color definitely preceded color TV's as we were Southern rural people. Then again, I will have to rummage back there and remember my first theatrical film seen as a toddler in color, which was probably "Ben Hur" or "Blue Hawaii", neither great art, but the 'High School Musicals' of their time. I much preferred the black and white world of Marcello and Anita a la "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2" that trickled into town on art movie nights, although I was too young to grasp what they were doing, but the cigarettes, cheekbones,polka dots and Nino Rota music provoked some memory of Paradise and probably hard-wired my musical and sexual circuits.

I learn a lot from your posts. Thanks.

Kevin Stein said...

Silvio, thank you for your comment. Coincidentally, "Ben Hur" was the first movie I ever went to at an old movie palace in New York. I never thought of it before as a kind of "High School Musical" of its time, but then again, you can definitely dance to the Miklos Rosza score and the Chariot Race scene. I envy that your possible early hard wiring of techno-erotic circuits courtesy of Fellini. I guess my problem is that I owe my circuits to "Howdy Doody", "The Three Stooges", and "The Mickey Mouse Club" though probably not in that specific order. It's rewarding that you find use for my posts. I learn a lot from writing them and they're pretty good for wrapping virtual fish...