Having settled in front of the moron cabinet for a well-deserved evening off, engaging in entirely passive recreation, I’ve noticed something profound: We have the media we deserve. If you believe North Americans are kind, generous and supportive, then a short sweep through the current offerings should change your mind.
Considering that Canada has been sucking the business end of the thousand channel pipe for more than a dozen years, one would think that we have a diverse and fascinating range of entertainment offerings. Yes, the Doc Channel exists, but how many times can one person watch The Parrots of Telegraph Hill without longing for an early demise?
The problem is, as always, money. Advertising agencies buy time on a station or channel based on the audience numbers. If you have 1,200,000 people between 18 and 59 years of age paying attention to the program, then a 30-second commercial might very well be of interest to at least a small portion of that audience that will sign up for, buy or try whatever it is the ad agency is flogging for whatever client. Fair enough, that’s how advertising has worked since the advent of the newspaper and moveable type: The media has the attention of a group of people for a length of time and ad agencies give the media money for access to that group of people.
Where it all goes pear-shaped is market segmentation. Our media has changed dramatically in my lifetime. There used to be two or three newspapers, a handful of radio stations and at most four television channels in any given market. Consequently media had to appeal to a mass audience, which explains why Ed Sullivan was popular. If you didn’t like the plate spinning Serbians you knew that Senor Wences would be on later and you waited a few minutes to get your entertainment fix.
Today, we have the attention span of a ferret on amphetamines. If we don’t get that shot to the joy button in a few seconds, then we punch the remote and go someplace else.
For this I look at the Children’s Television Workshop, creators of Sesame Street. The CTW mantra was to keep the young’uns from getting bored by doing something/anything visual at least once every three seconds, tickling the visual cortex of our brains, keeping our attention up so we could learn about near and far, brought to you by the number 6 and the letter M. We’ve bred at least two generations on the three second rule, which explains why media has become so segmented: We demand stimulus and if we can’t get it right now, then we’re changing the channel.
Which leads us to our thousand channel universe of hyper-segmented media offerings, where there is absolutely nothing on worth watching. We’re producing more media than ever before in the history of the planet and there is barely a tenth of a percent that is actually watchable for more than five minutes without wanting to do damage to someone.
Many years ago, 1978 or so, at a radio station conference I attended, a noted speaker, media futurist John Parikhal, observed that radio was becoming a mood drug. You wanted to feel upbeat, you listened to a particular station. You wanted to relax and unwind, you listened to another station. Parikhal’s thesis was that radio stations that offered a wider range of mood options would have larger audiences overall and consequently, more revenue.
He was right of course, then the lab experiment got loose and mutated. If you want to feel superior, watch any number of the reality shows that include challenges and catfights. Wish to be awed by technology that give you a gee-whiz moment with violence? There’s a half-dozen channels for you. Want to watch food-porn? There’s a whole slew of offerings that are utterly respectable in polite society.
Convention porn? About half the offerings on our local provider are of that nature, but mainstream advertisers haven’t quite made the leap. “This hour of the Bangkok Biker Babe Strap-On Channel brought to you by La-zy Boy: If you’re going to buff the bishop all evening, then there’s nothing more comfortable than a durable and washable recliner from La-zy Boy….”
Which leads us back to getting the media we deserve. Just as an experiment, take your remote, start at channel 2 and hold down the up arrow. See if there is anything you actually want to watch by taking a two-second slice of everything that is available. So far, my favorite channel is still the Lobby-Watch channel. If only we lived in an apartment building.
The buffet is full of food, but none of it is food you want to eat.