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3 Senators plus Obama rip media mergers

media mergers

Merging Media, a collage by Douglas Millison

Here’s a story that Corporate Media would rather you didn’t read, hear or see. Three U.S. senators have asked the General Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress, to investigate how media mergers affect public discourse.

The letter from Democrator senators Dorgan, Leahy and Kohl is in reaction to a decision by the five-member Federal Commission which voted 3-2 in December to allow media companies to own television stations and newspapers in the same town. Until now federal rules designed to promote open access to “the public airwaves” have limited so-called cross-ownership of broadcast media by print news empires.

The FCC tried to lift the same rule in 2003 but its decision was reversed by a series of congressional and finally court actions. Now Corporate Media is back. It has convinced the FCC that competition from the Internet puts plenty of voices into the public domain. The FCC majority has accepted the Corporate Media argument that merging print and broadcast is the best way to protect the news-gathering muscle that is being lost as newspapers lays off staff to compensate for declining advertising revenues.

Presidential candidate Barak Obama criticized media consolidation in response to a question at a campaign stop in Oregon last week — but I only learned of his unreported remarks by finding a letter critical of the media blackout on the topic.

Actually blackout is the wrong term. I have reported on this. Now so do you. So has MediaPost, Broadcast & Cable, FMQB, TVTechnology and other trade publications aimed at media folks.

It’s just that nobody has told the public.

All a Twitter?

I am not an early adopter of technologies but I have many friends and professional associates who fit that description and they have made me aware of the Twitter service that allows one to blast out 140 character messages to anyone who follows your address. I once signed up for Twitter but have yet to twitt or tweet (naturally there is a question of the proper phraseology).

This week the company behind this telegraphic service nailed down a $15 million second round of financing to make a total of $20 million invested with an $80 million valuation. As Paid Content’s Joseph Weisenthal writes:

Pretty much every discussion about Twitter has to revolve around (at least) one of three things: reliability, mainstream adoption and business model. The new round comes amidst a particularly bad stretch at the company, which has been suffering blackouts on a daily basis as of late.

Oh, so Twitter is flaky (even though it saved that student from jail); it is a big “Huh?” for most folks (survey says even young folks prefer email for business) and it has no apparent money-making mechanism. What prevents me from learning this new technique for cramming 140 characters of non sequential remarks into a mind that is already cluttered? An unfamiliarity with the technology and the lack of time to learn.

My buddy Tim Bishop eliminated the first excuse when he emailed me the list of training aids that I will append below, in case you are similarly roadblocked. Now it’s up to me to find the time.

Tim’s Twitter Tips:

Better consumtion through technology?

 Cisco blog touts 1960s TV show!

Our most powerful modern myth is the notion of “progress” as defined by an every-expanding galaxy of consumer choices provided by that bubbling caudlron of double-double toil and trouble that is the global economy. And consumption is of course tightly tethered to advertising and branding, which are the mother’s milk of media, making the whole question of how to goose sales an issue of survival for us “content creators” whose works are the flypaper that Big Consumption uses to attract and retain ears and eyeballs.

So I was particularly amused to see TNS, one of the world’s leading advertising firms, summarize a report on a survey that asked consumers in Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the UK and US how they expect technology will change the nature of shopping in stores in the future. The summary says:

A confident 73% of shoppers globally say they expect to be using interactive touch screens in dressing rooms to communicate with sales assistants by 2015, while half or more expect that 3D body scanning and interactive dressing room mirrors will eliminate the stresses of trying on that new outfit. 

Really? Will these 3-D programs also make you look just a wee bit slimmer? Or will a soothing mechanical voice of a gender appropriate to your shopper profile — hot or husky depending on your orientation – tell you that the outfit looks great on you? And will you be able to believe it?

The TNS summary offers no details regarding methodology which is OK given that it is a free teaser circulated to draw attention to what is presumably a costly and thorough analysis that global retail brands will buy and take seriously. We are not those people and so we can amuse outrselves by thinking how the future never really turns out to be like the predictions. The future almost always manages to catch us by surprise.

The cartoon above is, for instance, shows a character from the 1962 TV show, the Jetsons, talking into a videophone. A Cisco blog used that image in October to talk about a new telepresence technology. But after 40 plus years ordinary folks can now get telepresence of a sort for little more cost than access to a camera-carrying PC with Interent access. Longer lead times than expected but broader impact when it arrives. That’s my sense of how technology affects the future.

Newspaper ad declines, job cuts continue

Bleak financial reports from some of the nation’s leading publicly traded newspaper corporations reveal that print advertising is eroding faster than news websites gained online revenues. Job cuts continue.

  • At the New York Times Company, online revenues grew nearly 26 percent but overall advertising income fell 5.1 percent. (earninngs release)
  • At Gannett Corp. year-over-year advertising revenues fell 10.4 percent (earnings release). Reuters reports that Gannett is offering buyouts to reporters over 55 years of age with 15 years inside the company at suburban New Jersey papers:the Asbury Park Press, the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, The Daily Journal in Vineland, the East Brunswick Home News Tribune and the Courier News in Bridgewater. The target is 166 buyouts.
  • The Seattle Times said it cut its staff by 125 positions last week, bringing corporate headcount to about 1,720. There were 73 layoffs and 51 buyouts. Of those cuts, 34 were in the newsroom (19 buyout, 15 layoff) ( I am mystified as to what happened to the 52nd individual who was neither laid off nor bought out, but I assume that summary execution is prohibited by state statute is not federal law.

Blogged on my (your-product-here) PC

I must be a bit bonkers over product placement. The term describes how broadcasters drop branded items, as if serendipitously, in entertainment media. Of course this is advertising in disguise and I have been an aficionado of this guerrilla marketing tactic ever since I saw the thoroughly silly movie called, “And God Spoke,” in which the makers of a Biblical epic inject a soft-drink commercial into the movie because that was the only sponsor willing to fund the project.

The film is fun if you have the time to watch it. Meanwhile, the Center for Media Research reposted Nielsen data showing that product placements rose 39 percent in network television in Q1 2008 but fell in cable television. As I noted yesterday network advertising has been off sharply while cable ads have risen. So the hard-up networks are pimping whatever they can. “There were 117,976 brand occurrences on cable and broadcast networks in the first three months of the year,” the Center reported.

Here is the Center for Media Research report on 2006 product placement which was even then growing 40 percent. So the current gains continue a trend. That report said:

“product placement spending surged 42.2% to $2.21 billion in 2005 with double-digit growth expected to continue in 2006 and beyond. Product placement spending in TV, film and other media is expected to climb another 38.8% to $3.07 billion in 2006.”

Finally here below please find my summary of aesthete and critic David Hadju‘s remarks on product placement. One thing in my notes from his talk (at a Columbia University J-school alumni event) was this: circus owner P.T. Barnum used products in his big tent shows and found that circus goers were amused that he had done so. Apparently, Hadju said, the public is tickled that entertainers pluck items out of their lives and drop them into media. Here are Hadju’s previously-published remarks taken from a lengthy blog posting mocking the “religion” of journalism:

I decided to expand my horizons at a lecture from aesthete and critic David Hadju. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t deliver some news I could use. Hajdu talked about the notion of product placement throughout history. Seems like ever since Homer entertainers sucked up to the rich and powerful, a practice that continued up through the Renaissance when painters PhotoShopped their patrons’ faces into artworks. Hadju said this practice stopped during the modern industrial era ((which corresponds with the rise of democracy, n’est-pas?) during which time the “starving artist” made integrity the cornerstone of art. Nowadays, Hajdu said, culture is going to back to this suck-up future, as evidenced by the placement of Tequila references in a Broadway remake of Sweet Charity. So I’m thinking, is this Aristocracy 2.0?, so I ask Hadju something like: Does this mean we’re returning to a he-who-pays-the-piper-calls-the-tune paradigm? And he says something like: Yes. Which I find very useful because it dovetails with an essay from techno-seer Kevin Kelly who recently wrote the New Age Guide to Sucking Up As a Business Model. (Memo to self: work on this ingratiating thing.)

Senate to Big Media: don’t touch that dial reports that the U.S. Senate voted Thursday to overturn a Federal Communications Commission decision that would let media companies own newspapers and television station in the same cities. The FCC decided to lift the so-called cross ownership rules in December to permit further consolidation on the argument that old media needed to get bigger to fight off the Internet — as clearly worked for the dinosaurs.

The House has yet to act on its version of the resolution and the White House has threatened a veto, Free Press says. So the FCC action allowing greater media consolidation is still on track and the burden is on opponents to derail their administrative edict.

This battle is a repeat of one fought in 2003 when the FCC previously voted to relax cross ownership rules. According to Wikipedia:

The decision by the FCC was overturned by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in the decision Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC in June, 2004. The Majority ruled 2-1 against the FCC and ordered the Commission to reconfigure how it justified raising ownership limits. The Supreme Court later turned down an appeal, so the ruling stands.[5]

Last December the FCC again voted to lift the cross ownership rules, setting off the process now underway. FreePress concluded its report on Thursday’s Senate vote saying “At this watershed moment, public outrage against Big Media has reached a breaking point.”

We shall see.

For advertising, niche rules, mass drools

I continue to be impressed with the signals that favor specialty media over mass or homogeneous media. For instance I only recently noticed the TNS Media Intelligence U.S. advertising summary for 2007. Overall the U.S. advertising market was flat with a 0.2 rounding error increase over the 2006 figures to bring the total spending  to $148.99 billion last year.

But niche media posted respectable increases: the Internet rose 15.9% to $11.31 billion; consumer magazines, the most web-like old medium, rose 7% to $24.43; even cable outpaced the GDP to rise 6.5 percent to $17.84 billion.

Down were the homogenizing media: network TV off 2 percent to $22.43 billion; spot TV down 10.2 percent to $15.59 billion; syndicated TV off 1.5% to $4.17 billion; local newspapers down 5.6 percent to $22.66 billion (how long before surpassed by Net?); and radio fell 3.5 percent to $10.69 billion.

I saved outdoor advertising for last. It rose 4.9 percent to $4.17 billion. Why? Not for its niche appeal but I would guess because of a general lessening of faith in the traditional advertising media. My guess is that outdoor benefits from advertiser confusion over how best to reach the busy consumer — catch them in a car staring out the window. Otherwise the winners allow for greater targeting and specificity and the losers are the unfocused aggregators of eyeballs.