It’s become a cliche over the past 10 years to claim mainstream media is losing its marketing power. Whether you work within the industry or well outside of it, everyone’s made the point at some time or another.
The truth is, though, marketing still matters, and big marketing still works — after the web 2.0 boom of the early-mid-2000s, most astute observers realize this.
So the question is: what’s up with all of traditional media’s recent, huge failures?
You don’t have to search far for stories of traditional media’s demise, or its failure to adequately retain large audiences anymore. Flops, of course, are a perennial reality in the business, but there’s ample evidence the odds of delivering a flop are atypically high.
Music is among the hardest hit. Of course, this isn’t the first time in the industry’s history when star-making has been challenging. At a recent presentation at ICA, Matt Stahl (Univ. of Western Ontario) delivered a fantastic paper on the recording industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Discussing the “Olivia Newton-John” problem, Stahl focused on the industry’s push to get more flexibility in contract term lengths. California short contract rules (7 years) meant stars could sit out their deals until the contract expired, making money from touring and not delivering albums if they saw fit.
Stahl’s point was “star power” was a labor commodity in short supply: there are plenty of singers, but very few singers that can sell the millions of albums consistently. The larger point: making a star is hard, but once they’re made, they’re very valuable.
Cut to today: albums going platinum are at historic lows, dropping more than 60% in the last four years. Why does this matter? The numbers clearly suggest that making the next Lady Gaga is becoming increasingly difficult. Gaga and Beyonce might be masters at pushing records and getting videos watched, but few other stars are. Even much-touted and solid-selling new stars like Drake — and the American Idols — can be outsold by old names (Eminem!).
In broadcast television, we’re obviously seeing consistent declines in the 18-49 audience; it’s why Oprah is leaving (and those carriage fees). Perhaps more tellingly, new series are starting big but falling fast. Even shows renewed early for second seasons are starting to look suspect in retrospect. Of course, cable is doing better. USA seems infallible. AMC is carefully building a solid brand, as is TNT. On cable, HBO’s back with True Blood, whose ratings make it one of the very, very few television shows whose ratings have risen substantially since its series premiere. All in all though, television executives are just as anxious as they’ve always been.
Of course, the fall of stars like Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in Knight and Day also begs the questions of whether Hollywood can manufacture a hit. They’re doing better than music and television. Banking on franchises in the 2000s, Hollywood did a decent job of generating cash, and 3-D seems to be working, thanks in no small part to Avatar.
As the industry searches for more original scripts, their marketing muscle will be tested, and audiences aren’t getting any less fickle. Bankable stars are either aging – Will Smith, Brad Pitt, George Clooney — or fallen — Cruise, Mel Gibson. The most bankable female stars average out at about 40, with 60-something Meryl Streep (at the top of her career) and nearly-50 Sandra Bullock, topping the list. The search for the next Spiderman is just one example of the need to mine new talent; for women, only Katherine Heigl is young and bankable, and few are betting her career will last long.
But the industry is adapting, most notably by paying less upfront — production costs, chiefly star salaries — and giving incentives after release. Cruise may get paid less for MI4, but he gets more after studios make their money.
RENEWED OPTIMISM – BIG BUCKS IN A CROWDED MARKET
Yet let’s not overdo it. Industry matters. For every Knight and Day, there’s a Grown Ups, whose success I can only attribute to marketing (certainly not reviews).
In fact, in our so-called era of niches, infinite possibilities and an oversupply of content, some industry watchers are sensing a shift: a return to quality, gatekeepers (and paywalls) and big budget spectacle. Certainly, once again, Avatar, with its emphasis on cinematic mastery, is just one example. Christopher Nolan’s Inception, an auteur’s blockbuster (Batman was an auteurist franchise, Inception is original and, unlike the Matrix, not fanboy-oriented), is another example of the confidence in quality and talent amidst a large field of independent and small-scale production (from YouTubers to cable television).
The recent success of pay-cable, the coming of subscription service Hulu, along with a few newspapers (now The Times of London joining New York, FT, Variety), suggests industries are no longer fearful of the masses, those unruly people who refuse to conform to advertisements. In fact, they are increasingly confident they can dictate what’s important to read, see and hear.
Or perhaps they are acting out of fear, fear that online ad rates will never rise to match the quality of content (a fear I think is unwarranted) and that failing to “go big” will send them home. Such fears, borne of a so-so decade for some and horrendous for other markets, are leading them to bank on their scale and, essentially, crowd out the noise. There’s ample evidence to suggest they’re right. Sure, everyone’s seen a YouTube meme, but most people, myself included, love big media, well-marketed content.
Reasserting their power and size may just work for the industry, at least for some. Broadcast television may have little hope, but there’s also good reason to believe those who hold the cards will continue to hold them. Online, any hope of a mass, un-marketed, viral and citizen0driven media market (not just media, but one producers can live off of) seems to be slipping away.
For producers of online video, the ever more sophisticated entrees of the mainstream into producing digital content (now a trend 3 or 4 years old), especially on Hulu with If I Can Dream and LXD (Paramount Digital), means powerful marketing might well outdo — but obviously not erase — the more grassroots memes, even on their home turf on the web.
We’re not there yet, but we may be there soon.