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One can define "pathology" as the persistent, knowing participation in self-destructive conduct. By this definition, the mainstream infotainment media are engaged in pathological behavior: the pursuit of mass audiences.

No one disputes a giant audience can still be assembled for singular or short-term events, but it's clear information and entertainment providers cannot create products with the power to keep a mass audience engaged over time. Yet magazines and broadcast TV networks still try-to horrifying diseconomic effect.

It's time to get wise: The business models of conventional media are irreparably broken. New ones must be found or today's media will die defending an ancient molehill.

Case in point No. 1: A coming Capell's Circulation Report study showing that the lost luster of magazine stamphouses has led their subscription response rates to plummet by one-third. This plunge at American Family Publishers and Publishers Clearing House may force large-circulation periodicals-among them the Seven Sisters and the major newsweeklies-to slash their rate bases, The New York Times says.

Case in point No. 2: The shocking discovery by the major broadcast networks-reported by the Times on the same day-that there are no TV stars any more.

Well, duh. The stamphouses' dilemma and TV's Dim Star Syndrome derive from the same phenomenon: Audiences are more discriminating than publishers and broadcasters ever believed; they finally have choices, and are exercising this long-denied freedom.

Consumers who supported AFP and PCH now have satellite dishes; secretly derided by dependent publishers as trailer trash, they manage their portfolios with the help of CNNfn and boogey to M2. Viewers force-fed the antecedents to "King of Queens" and "Will and Grace" chat on America Online and program their own music with Imagine Radio.

Instead of developing ways to profit from smaller and richer audiences, publishers and broadcasters insist on cramming old forms, formats and come-ons down the throats of contemporary viewers and readers. They still see themselves as farmers, consumers as geese and the audience-attraction process as what the French call "le gavage"-by which the fowl are force-fed against their will until their livers become foie gras. Guess what? Today's media gavage ain't producing bloated ratings. And you can't spread it on toast.

Ad agencies bear much responsibility here-so much so we might consider them enablers of the pathological behavior.

Instead of coming down hard on circulations inflated by subscription agents and "12 issues for $12" solicitations, agencies have looked the other way. They criticize the garbage the networks intend to dump on us but they still purchase time on the shows.

Agencies complain bitterly about Nielsen ratings and about readership research, but they accept it, foregoing the increasingly easy task of judging exactly who is out there. They allow media sales executives to seduce their planners with golf outings and alcoholic blandishments. And they do not demand answers to questions all media and marketing people must ask today: What's your audience quality? What makes your brand "sticky"? How do you intend to hold your audience as your current offerings mature and communications technologies evolve?

I have a few modest proposals.

For the media:

* Consider transient brand franchises. Short-term programs and publications aimed at generating cultural phenomena around which retail sales and advertising tie-ins can be themed might be a hell of a lot more profitable than a bad sitcom.

* Try a partial-pay model. Develop an audience with the giveaway or cheapie, but charge for the premium product-and charge advertisers accordingly, too.

* Develop a broadband strategy. You won't be delivering your content in the same form or same way two years hence. Prepare now.

For advertisers:

* Ban audience-inflating tricks and research. Since it's becoming possible to know who's watching and how they're reacting, don't let the media get away with faking it.

* Professionalize the planning function. Ban the media parties; pay more; get better personnel and keep them. Would you hire McKinsey if it let suppliers take consultants to the U.S. Open?

* Demand a broadband strategy. Any infotainment venue without a plan to migrate its audience is a dying brand and shouldn't be supported.

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