It's easy to counter-program and we are all doing it now

By Published on .

While you indulged in the Super Bowl last Sunday, I surfed the competition. Here's what I found.

On Bravo, two hours of mini-series "Fire Island," then four hours of "Gay Weddings." Not in my need-to-know category, but (as The New York Times has discovered) a subject with a constituency.

On TNT, "Gone With the Wind," the greatest diva film of all time (in which Atlanta experiences a version of what Oakland underwent).

On Trio, a Dame Edna extravaganza, with the cross-dressing Australian crossing paths with a cross-section of celebrities from decades past. (Hmmm ... is there a pattern here?)

On AMC, an Audrey Hepburn festival.

On Food Network, nine hours-plus of "Two Fat Ladies" (that was at least 18 fat ladies before I got scared and stopped counting).

The next day I found that Super Bowl XXXVII had scored 40.7 in the Nielsen ratings, barely changed from last year-and not up much from 1972, when Super Bowl ratings first hit 40.

Conclusion: Programming is hard. Counter-programming is easy. We're turning into a nation of counter-programmers, and the effect on the infotainment industries is profound. For evidence, just look at the drumbeat of news emanating from east, west and south.

The major TV networks are now conceding that the entire notion of a programming schedule, a mainstay of broadcasting since the dawn of KDKA, must be abandoned. With the rise of reality shows and their advantaged costs, TV programming, according to The New York Times, is turning into a continuous cycle of trials in a war with endless fronts. Meanwhile, the loss of potential syndication revenues will make studios even more loathe to invest in "quality" programming, furthering the breakdown of traditional scheduling.

In publishing, Random House's dismissal of top editor Ann Godoff-plus AOL Time Warner's disclosure that it plans to shed Warner Books and Little, Brown-signals that blockbuster books are becoming dicey, if not downright dis-economic. Even with distribution increasingly concentrated in two superstore chains, publishers are having a hard time earning out on $8 million advances. Meanwhile, PDFs, print-on-demand and e-mail lists are making it ever easier for niche authors to build a brand, hit their audience quickly with timely product and reap all the rewards. Marketing guru Seth Godin self-published his newest book, "Purple Cow," selling just under 1,000 copies the first day he offered it online, and 6,000 in total-triple the break-even point. (Sensing the trend, a Penguin Putnam division has picked up the work for bookstore distribution.)

In music, the Recording Industry Association of America won a legal action against Verizon, aimed at getting the Internet service provider to disclose the name of a user who, the RIAA contends, is illegally swapping MP3s over peer-to-peer services. While civil liberties groups decried the decision as a blow to privacy, in the face of a multi-year slowdown in recorded music sales it might also be looked on as the music business's acknowledgement that too much individual counter-programming has undermined its economics.

By the way, I didn't watch the Super Bowl or the ads. Instead, I sat through Steven Spielberg's "AI: Artificial Intelligence," which I'd TiVo'd a few months ago but hadn't had time to watch. If you didn't catch it in the theaters, I highly recommend it. It's about the future.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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