Blade Runner’s lessons for legacy media

Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles, 2019 [Image: Warner Bros]

In the opening scenes of Ridley Scott’s iconic sci-fi epic Blade Runner, we are hit with his vision of Los Angeles in 2019. It’s not pretty. Scott’s city of angels is dark and ominous, choked by the fumes from scores of refineries; the constant bursts of flames from the sentinel steel chimneys slicing the smoke that blankets the city in otherwise perpetual darkness. And it never stops raining. The cityscape is a matte of sombre skyscrapers pressed shoulder to shoulder, at their feet the citizens scurry in and out of a frenzied jumble of Asian bazaars trying to eke out a business amidst the forgotten filth.

When he made the film 35 years ago, Scott believed the skies over the city a few years from now would be criss-crossed by flying vehicles. Revisiting the film today we see he got a couple of other things wrong; some of them are more subtle and easily missed. For example the quick flash of a giant neon billboard brightly extolling the virtues of Pan American World Airways — the company collapsed in 1991. But Scott could be forgiven for this, as well as his belief that smoking would still be de rigeuer, albeit of loosely-packed Soviet-era styled cigarettes.

For me however, Scott’s glowing miscalculation of what would be consumed in 2019 Los Angeles is witnessed the first time we set eyes on the title character — Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, Blade Runner: he’s reading a newspaper. If industry leaders are to be believed newspapers will soon be consigned to the pages of history. According to Roy Greenslade (@GreensladeR), Professor of Journalism at City University in London, “It is simply a matter of time before it becomes unprofitable to continue publishing newsprint papers.” Sounds ominous.

Blade Runner, Rick Deckard, retrofitted for news [Image: Warner Bros]

So is this just a ‘newspaper thing’? No, it’s a ‘legacy media thing’, brought about by a devolution in the control of content. In his book Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News, Jeff Jarvis, professor of entrepreneurial journalism at City University New York, provides a succinct context to the shift: “Publishers as well as broadcasters controlled scarcity of resources — limited space in print and time on the air, each in a closed distribution channel — which afforded them enviable driving power.” He goes on to explain how the internet, by contrast, creates abundance and allows no shortage of content and no end of advertising opportunities; this allows brands and companies to bypass media and engage more directly with customers. The result is that the value of (media) content is eroded.

This corrosion has spread to broader mainstream media — including online. It’s now rare to read about the future of mainstream media without sensing anxiety and despair; widespread doom and gloom more than likely crawl from the copy. But as someone who has spent the last three decades working across all sectors of the media, I have to admit to revelling in the chaos. It seems the formerly rock-solid mainstream media is being buffeted by a tempest of disruption. But there’s one thing that could be a beacon, and it has its genesis in the annals of early man, and, ironically is key to the success of Blade Runner, and films like it.

It’s now rare to read about the future of mainstream media without sensing anxiety and despair; widespread doom and gloom more than likely crawl from the copy.

Before I get to that, a little context: In 2011 I was asked to be a judge for the South African Radio Awards. It had been less than two years since I had abruptly hung up my headphones after an, arguably, highly successful career in broadcasting, almost all of it in the highly competitive arena of breakfast radio. This seemed to puzzle many in the industry. My show contributed the bulk of the audience of the biggest English-Medium independent radio station in Southern Africa; so why leave? The truth was two-fold: firstly, and in truth, I was becoming frustrated, and secondly I had always promised my wife that I would ‘get out of radio while on top’.

For the awards I was presented with the entrants in the so-called ‘flagship’ categories that included Best Breakfast Show Presenter, Best Daytime Shows and Best Content Producers for commercial radio stations. What I heard made me glad I was out of radio. It was banal; the word ‘formatted’ would be more radio-apt. It was the broadcast version of print media: radio stripped of engaging personality in favour of brief bursts of minimalist spoken content smothered by swathes of music scheduled by algorithms.

It reeked of panic. It was also fleeing from one of the key components of compelling content.

Most people think of success in radio as measured in the number of listeners. In reality, it is the time they spend listening — or TSL. The reason sits in the commercial imperative: someone who tunes in and listens for, say 20–30 minutes (a long time in breakfast radio), is more likely to hear a commercial than someone who tunes in for a single feature. I was lucky enough to work with a remarkable team of people who embraced my notion of continual reinvention, and who understood my key to growing TSL: every time you open your mouth have have to give the listener value, and in the process develop a narrative that holds the listener’s attention.

This is especially important in breakfast radio, the reason being your finger, and more lately your thumb. Think about it: when you’re sitting in your car, you’re perfectly positioned — a finger-press away — from changing the radio channel at a whim. You hear a song, a commercial or something the presenter says that frustrates you, and ‘boom’, they’re gone. That’s the ultimate consumer power. It’s even easier now — most cars have the channel changer embedded into the centre of the car’s starring wheel, an inch away from the thumb. Add to this the transitional nature of listener behaviour in the morning routine — moving from room to room, getting in and out of the car, shouting at the kids in the back, trying to balance a number of things at the same time — and you’ll understand why TSL during breakfast time is usually the shortest of any time of the day.

So what is key to building TSL, and how can it save the media? To help explain, I’m going to tell you a joke:

A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman are sitting in O’Leary’s Bar in New York. They’ve walked in to get away from the rain. The weather encourages them to start reminiscing about home.

“Back in me pub in Glasgow,” brags the Scotsman, “fer every four pints of stout I order, they’d give me one fer free!”

“In me pub in London,” says the Englishman,”Oi pay fer two pints o’ Guinness and they gives me a third one free!”

“That’s nuthin’” says the Irishman, “In my pub back in Dublin, you walk up to the bar, they give the first pint fer free, the second pint fer free, the third pint fer free — and then they take you upstairs and you have sex for FREE!”

“Is that true?” asks the Scotsman. “Has that really happened to you?”

“Well, no,” says the Irishman, “but it happens to me sister all the time!”

It’s not a particularly funny joke, but that’s not the point. What is, is the science behind it. To explain, let me tell it to you as a journalist, employing the classic printed media inverted pyramid and focusing on the 5Ws and a H (who, what, when, where, why and how) and you’ll see the difference:

A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman were sitting in O’Leary’s Bar in New York. They’d walked in to get away from the rain. The weather and the surroundings encouraged them to start reminiscing about home.

You’d agree it’s a lot less funny, because it’s no longer a joke. A joke works because the punchline upends expectation, and in order for that to happen, expectation has to be developed, and this can only be done with the help of the listener — they have to be ‘unknowingly’ encouraged to take part. They are, in essence, drawn into their eventual upending through the power of the narrative — how it is constructed — and how it capitalises on the psychology of the listener. The more and more a listener is drawn in, the more they develop an expectation; the more they develop that expectation, the more tension they develop and the more dramatic the outcome when the punchline upends that expectation. The result — laughter — is a psychological tension-relief mechanism.

Magicians work in a similar, but slightly different, way: leading the viewer, developing the expectation then, in a dramatic flourish, unveiling an outcome. It doesn’t upend expectation; it simply stretches to capacity the suspension of disbelief.

[Image: Warner Bros]

And that’s the key to unlocking the future of mainstream media — not dabbling in mirth or magic: developing a compelling narrative. It’s no longer about telling the news, it’s about seizing the attention of the consumer and holding it as the narrative develops. This is done by drawing in the consumer and making them a key component to the execution of that narrative. They should be encouraged to develop supposition and have that tested; teasers should be dropped as to how the narrative could unfold, which are noted and then tested by the consumer

Mainstream media seem to miss this point. They still believe that people just want to know stuff, and that this should be shoved at them in detached packages.

Here’s an example of a typical mainstream journalism piece from my neck of the woods. It’s about the danger of superbugs in hospitals; I lost interest in it by the third paragraph — and I’m a science journalist! Reason: it has no narrative — no reason to hold my attention. If I were reading it on-air I’d be losing listeners in droves as they thumbed the channel button on their steering wheels.

Mainstream media still believe that people just want to know stuff, and that this should be shoved at them in detached packages.

There’s no silver bullet for the travails of legacy media, and chasing the latest shiny millennial media app won’t help. Agonising over whether to embrace Snapchat is not going to save a title if the basics of connecting with a consumer are ignored. Some media pundits point to the potential of ‘bots’ to do the ‘grunt work’ of journalists, similar to the algorithms that select music on radio stations. In the case of the Washington Post’s coverage of the results of the 2016 Rio Olympics, this is basically stripping down the 5Ws and an H to just four — the basic, less inquisitive, who, what, when, where — and imprinting it into a template for automated distribution. This is not the future for news; it’s a step backwards.

If there’s any elixir for a longer life for legacy media it sits at the heart of Scott’s Blade Runner— it’s the telling of a story. It has several components. The first is the sequential construct — the technical structure of the narrative that places events in a particular order so that the consumer can start making sense of it.

Done correctly, events and characters can be introduced to tease to potential developments. In this way the consumer creates scenarios — possible futures — and as the sequence develops, they are proven correct or the not. The result: the consumer keeps wanting to know what happens next. Like building TSL in radio, this keeps the media consumer engaged.

Secondly, ideally the narrative should also have a number of levels. This expands the consumer base — a simple sci-fi action thriller will only be embraced by those with an interest in the genre, but if the film flitters with deeper characters and more cerebral subplots, it will hook in those looking for more complexity.

In the case of Blade Runner, according to James Sey(@jamessey1), Research Associate at the Faculty of Fine Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg in South Africa, its storyline and theme “is on one level a well-worn one. It is the Frankenstein theme — science creating life, or technogenesis. But it’s the way in which the film broaches that theme that has remained prescient and influential. It was released long before the advent of the commercial internet, and long before the headline experiments in stem cell research, genetic modification and human genome sequencing.”

Sey also points to the complexity of the characters and the ‘humanness’ of the replicants. This encourages the consumer to ponder upon issues of human nature. This is the next level in the narrative, which gives the film a more artistic and discerning vein. He also explains how at an almost subliminal level, Scott, provides a more subtle narrative in his choice of buildings as artful tributes to real-life characters that sci-fi aficionados would identify with.

A salute to Ray Bradbury: the iconic Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, used for the chase and final fight scene [Image: Warner Bros]

It’s this multi-layered robustness, combined with the ancient art of storytelling, that has ensured the longevity of Blade Runner.

Mainstream media’s myopic compulsion to strip news of its contextual narrative and crunch it into smaller and smaller bite-sized chunks, in the belief that this will connect with consumers, risks being their biggest undoing. I doubt they will change their direction anytime soon, and you can expect they will continue to scrub narrative from their news coverage, believing it is the future of the media.

Perhaps as a final argument for the relevance of the narrative, mainstream media need look no further than the most enduring — and still pervasive — influence on the human condition, one that goes back thousands of years: religion. All religions, irrespective of their current configuration are all rooted in stories told around camp fires, some of them thousands of years ago.

And I’d argue tales of heaven, angels and winged horses are a lot less believable than those of future off-world colonies, replicants and flying cars.