I attended the Advertising Research Foundation meetings today and had a chance to listen to Jeff Bewkes as interviewed on stage by Guy Garcia.
Bewkes is now the CEO of Time Warner, but his remarks were devoted especially to his days at HBO. And well he should. Over the course of 10 years, Bewkes and his colleague Chris Albrecht changed TV extraordinarily. They changed a lot of American cutlure in the process.
So when Bewkes began talking about the HBO program The Wire, I leaned in. As did everyone in the audience of 300 people. The oracle was about to speak.
Two things struck me. It sounded as if Bewkes was saying that HBO quite deliberately broke with the rules of mass media. Traditionally, TV shows have proceeded extensively. They seek a nice broad proposition in the hopes of attracting as large an audience as possible. The Wire seemed to proceed intensively. It traded away lots of viewers for a more vivid, visceral relationship with a smaller audience.
Normally, this would look like self indulgence and a kind of ratings suicide, except that something in the world had changed. There was now a new kind of viewer, more mobile, more questing, more prepared to find a show wherever it was and then patient enough to let it build a connection. In this sense, one of the necessary conditions of the rise of HBO was the rise of a new audience out there. Whether anyone at HBO was reading Henry Jenkins was not made clear over the course of the interview, but I must assume someone was.
But then a second, more seditious thought occurred to me. And this was not proposed by Mr. Bewkes, and no one should blame him for my moment of delirium. I thought to myself: listen (I have to get my own attention somehow), this new, more mobile, more literate viewer holds a more revolutionary promise. If and when most viewers are active and engaged in this way, wouldn’t this spell the end of influence?
Here’s what I was thinking. As and when viewers become more free wheeling, more curious, more prepared to stop in at obscure places and to bear with difficult shows, the "early influencer" matters less and less. Viewers will be possessed of the ability to find their own shows and make their own choices. They will not look to others to identify and vet shows for them. Every viewer, or at least more viewer, would act as "masterless" men and women, making their viewing choices by their own lights.
And this would mark an interesting development in the world of media and marketing. After World War II, the assumption was that in an era of mass media, it was really enough to fill the advertising and production cannons and eventually our messages and show would find their audience. We might emulate those above us in the status hierarchy, but really the very point of the era of mass media was that it was now possible for Hollywood and marketers to make direct contact. But as audiences fragmented, it was increasingly necessary to have some viewers leading other viewers. Someone to play the role of the early adopter. Hence the work of Gladwell and the buzz students. Hence all that talk of activating chains of influence. Early adopters were now key to the viewing community, and increasingly key to the advertising research community.
But this is perhaps a temporary condition. As viewers get better and better, influencers matter less and less. In a weird way, we will return to the world of mass marketing. Not because there are fewer, louder media, but because they viewer is so mobile, so charged with his or her own taste, so motivated by his or her interest in what TV has to offer, that the only person most viewers will be listening to is themselves.
It’s just a thought, really.
Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle. It was reposted on December 26, 2010.