21/30: On Media

The downfall of traditional media is an exciting narrative to be a part of, but this is not the death march of that system.

This is the twenty-first of thirty days of stories.

No matter where you look, it seems like the media is in trouble.

For the first time ever, more homes in America have Netflix subscriptions than cable television. Production companies are increasingly willing to work alongside digital platforms as opposed to cable outlets, with A Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods being two of the more popular recent examples.

Beleaguered local newspaper The Chronicle Herald has had its employees on strike for over 500 days, at a time when more and more publishers are content to offer digital subscriptions to paywall-locked stories, if they don’t have applications to support their brands.

Most radio stations and television channels are owned by a small handful of companies, which is a practice that is equally true locally as it is on a multi-million-dollar scale. In Canada, the vast majority of channels are owned by either Bell Media or Shaw, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation remaining one of the last few independent beacons.

None of this is good news for any platform, but traditional media is not going to die off anytime soon.

A few months ago, I met with Joel Kelly for a coffee, and he shared a theory with me: that mass media will always win out over targeted advertising due to its sheer scope and endless possibilities.

The premise is that if you target a specific group, you miss out on everyone not in that group who may still be interested in that product or service, which is certainly a compelling argument.

Much as we like to speculate and believe we understand purchase behaviour, we don’t and we can’t. No matter how thorough a data set is, every individual person is far more complex than a series of 1s and 0s.

Joel well may be right; even if there is an exhaustion associated with mass media, even if no one will admit to paying any attention to something like a billboard, it’s not going to go away overnight.

Take a moment and think of all the sneaky ways brands try to get you to buy their products already, in an extremely non-targeted way — through product placement and celebrity endorsements (of which influencer marketing is more or less an extension of).

If a brand launched an advertisement for a new line of flamethrowers that starred Katy Perry, how long do you think it would take before the first fire department was called?

A big part of its staying power is that the media is more or less impervious to trends. I’m sure you remember half-a-decade ago when 3D everything was going to be the future, and that fad died off pretty quickly (though strangely enough, not at the movies; it’s just another pretence to jack up the price).

We could all wake up tomorrow and an emergent technology like augmented reality could have literally changed the world, and traditional media institutions would just keep moving along as they always have.

Look at it this way, if you prefer: radio didn’t kill print, television didn’t kill radio, and social media didn’t kill television. All of these platforms were created to fill a niche that the previous ones didn’t, but they all exist now in a somewhat-harmonious balance.

No one could have predicted what today would be like twenty years ago, and while traditional media is certainly facing some challenges, you never know what could happen to bring it back into people’s good graces. It’s managed to persevere this far; who is to say it can’t do it again?

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