Fortune Publisher Agrees With Me About Death of Broadcast

Was He Wrong or Just Far Ahead of His Time?

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
This Mr. Apocalypse game is no cinch, let me tell you. Whenever you patiently try to explain to people that their mega-multi-billion-dollar industry is going down the tubes, and with it their livelihoods -- not to mention "CSI: Paramus," or whatever -- you get all sorts of pushback. Take broadcast TV, which for quite a number of years now I've consigned to the leaking underground fuel tank of history.

All a fella has to do is say "law of diminishing returns" and "unsustainable" and "sorry, but you all are just totally (bad word)ed," and all of a sudden he gets a reputation for hysteria or self-promotion. And God help you if you laugh till snot flies out over Comcast buying control of NBC and Universal Studios, which is like picking through a hospital dumpster for gangrenous limbs. Believe me, the Chicken Little Libel is sure to follow.

That's why it's most satisfying and personally vindicating for me to report I'm not the only one to see this all coming. Fortune Magazine came to the same conclusions. And compared to gloom and doom foreseen by Fortune Publisher Ralph D. Paine in his editorial broadside, I come off as a simpering Pollyana. Paine's prediction, in a December cover essay called "TV: The Light that Failed," is essentially this: The future of commercial TV as an advertising vehicle is doomed.

Paine didn't just pull this out of his astrology chart, either. He looked hard at trends and cited five of them in drawing his conclusions.

  1. Broadcasters are caught in a cost/price squeeze.
  2. TV's declining economy is now reflected by a buyers' market in the medium.
  3. TV can grow no more because its audience is near the saturation point.
  4. The rate structure is threatened because the audience is getting choosier.
  5. A growing number of sponsors question the value of TV advertising.
If that all sounds familiar, well, no wonder. These are articles of faith among those who conquered their fear, denial, blind faith and desperate attachments to the status quo at last to face the reality of the gathering Chaos Scenario.

There's only one little problem. Ralph Paine's screed wasn't from this past December's Fortune. It was from December 1958. Which meant the poor chap had to endure a slight half-century of egg on his face.

I'll say this for Paine. He didn't labor in obscurity. His screed triggered a huge takeout in Printers' Ink, at the time the chief competitor to Advertising Age, which polled industry leaders to see who stood where on the viability of TV. The response was equally divided between those who believed Paine was entirely wrong and those who believed he was mostly wrong. Fortune's most ardent defender was research consultant Albert Sindlinger, who opined, "We have come to the conclusion that television is, depending upon the product advertised, an awfully powerful negative. It can be a Frankenstein with some products." His evidence was a new-car rollout from Ford Motor Co. Based on his market research, he told the automaker to expect 191,000 in first-year sales. But after an extensive ad blitz introducing the vehicle, demand shrank immediately to 88,000 units.

The new sedan was called the Edsel.

That might have been the wrong data point to, you know, extrapolate from. And I suppose if you were persnickety about it, you could wave this episode in my face as the wages of pessimism -- a cautionary tale for those with a tendency toward premature burial. You could hardly be faulted for feeling smug, considering that for five decades after Paine's end-of-days prophesy broadcast TV was the most powerful force in Western culture, most potent driver of retail sales and one of the most profitable enterprises in the history of commerce. So, yeah, arguably the man was wildly, disastrously, hilariously wrong.

Or maybe just a visionary, slightly ahead of his time.

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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