REALITY CHECK FOR THE 'INFOTAINMENT' INDUSTRY

By Published on .

Aug. 27, 2001

For a subculture that specializes in understanding audiences, the infotainment industry indulges in an awful lot of misperception, often to deleterious effect. Consider a few recent cases:

The Tabloid Wars. No one has come right out and said it exactly this way, but in New York the Daily News has outright won the tabloid war against the New York Post. The speed and relentlessness with which the mediarati have pounced on and devoured the Post's new expat editor, Col Allan, has been remarkable even for this short-attention-span city. It's also evidence (if any were needed) that even those at the epicenter of the gossip culture can still become its prey.

What did the hapless Mr. Allan do wrong? As The New York Observer astutely reported, he utterly misperceived the role of class in New York society.

With boneheadlines like "Benedict Jeffords" over a page one story about the U.S. Senate, and its embarrassing "Lizziemobile" contest (based on a PR person's traffic mishap at a Hamptons nightspot), Mr. Allan's Post seems to want to incite English-style class envy among its downscale readership.

Thus the error: Under Rupert Murdoch's ownership, the Post hasn't succeeded by fomenting lower-class rage against the upper-class machine, but by serving as a platform for arrivistes to do battle with each other. (The various gossip columns, in case it's escaped your notice, are little more than leak lakes in which members of the infotainment infrastructure try to dislodge each other from their life rafts.)

Amid this "which class is mass" questing, the Daily News trundles along, its toehold among the city's striving ethnic communities growing stronger by the day -- as is its influence in city politics (something the Post seems to have squandered entirely).

The News increasingly exudes a "we get New York" knowingness the Post lacks. The question is: How long will Mr. Murdoch continue to finance the latter's losses? Similarly, with his successes, is News proprietor Mort Zuckerman truly in for the long haul?

Law & Disorder. So Procter & Gamble Co. coerced CBS into not airing a rerun of Family Law that P&G deemed controversial. So the series' co-creator lashed back, accusing advertisers of cowardice in the face of anything "thought-provoking." So what?

It should be unnecessary at this late stage to repeat one of marketing's more enduring mantras, but here goes: Television is a commercial medium. Art -- and entertainment, for that matter -- happen only by accident. I mean, of course advertisers rule -- especially when the show is doing as badly in the ratings as Family Law.

Procter and its emulators ought to be forewarned, though. By subjecting a program to an "issues test," they're legitimizing a tactic that will be used against them.

As TV ratings continue their inevitable decline, advertisers, networks and production companies risk setting up an untenable contest: between the need for "heat" to rack up eyeballs and the potential for backlash as the offended seize the soapbox to carp.

The Standard, Poorer. The death of the Industry Standard, a little more than a year after it took the No. 1 slot for ad pages among American magazines, is more than an exclamation point on the excesses of dot-communism. It's a parable about misplaced potential.

The Standard was one of the best out-of-the-box purveyors of business journalism in recent memory. It rapidly turned itself into an honest broker of truth amid multiple strata of hype, using such old-fashioned tools as gumshoe and rigor. If only ...

If only its financiers could have forgone the hope of a quick killing and let it grow naturally. If only they'd have saved some of the remarkable advertising windfall to tide it through the dim times. If only they'd have said, "We're not an empire. We're a magazine." If only people understood that perception is not reality. Reality is reality.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.

Copyright August 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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