Jon Fine is one of the aces of contemporary journalism. He writes the Medic Centric column for BusinessWeek. He grasps culture. He grasps commerce. He has made himself a careful student on the extraordinary changes now upon us.
In an article in the summer, he observed an interesting paradox in the TV biz. Viewership continues to fall, but ad dollars remain in place.
A digitized world has crushed the music industry and is now crushing just about every other medium, too. But at least when it comes to the hearts and dollars of advertisers, TV remains the tallest tree in the forest. Like a semi-bright child fixated on one idea, I wandered the mid-May upfronts week and buttonholed everyone I could with variations on a single question: When do falling ratings finally make advertisers flee? That is, at what point does all of this—insert a gesture toward a glitzy onstage spectacle or a crowded, hangar-sized party space—end? The unanimous answer: Some day. Just not now.
We might explain this paradox as the work of the dead hand of competence. TV advertising is what advertiser knew how to do. It's what big brands have always done. Carry on fiddling.
But this seems to be unlikely. Every big agency has a new media play. Every big brand has experimented by this time with new media properties. Everyone has a clear grasp of the alternatives to TV.
The other more interesting possibility is that, in a fragmented universe, TV advertising remains the "big tent," even when filled with dramatically fewer people. There has to be something wrong with the economics of spending the same number of ad dollars on fewer people, but perhaps any majority position is better than having to pursue those minority audiences. (To use a 80s metaphor, all ships have dropped with the tide, but the biggest ships are still the biggest ships, and there is something unproportional about this advantage.)
And this suggests that the way we calculate value is beginning to change.
Fine, Jon. 2008. Don't Touch That Dial. Businessweek. June 2, 2008, p. 90.