The week the media crashed

So this is how it ends:

  • Detroit newspapers have lost so much revenue they plan to publish and distribute a traditional paper only two days a week, according to the Wall Street Journal (and reported here).
  • NPR has lost so much revenue that it will cancel programs once considered the network’s future to conserve resources for its decades-old hits, according to an NPR announcement.
  • NBC has lost so much revenue it announces it will only program four hours a week of traditional prime time entertainment next fall. Yes, that’s correct: four hours a week. (The press release is available here.)
  • The Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and a host of other newspapers, has lost so much revenue that it filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors, sending shockwaves throughout the industry.

And all of that was just last week.

In little more than a decade, the Internet has grown from a communications tool for the scientific elite into the force that is fragmenting mass media. The Internet, with a shove from the recession, are pushing 20th century American media to evolve into something that our great grandparents would find familiar: the golden age of the pamphleteer.

But back to NBC: The network’s announcement that Jay Leno’s nightly show will move from 11:30 to 10 p.m. (and Conan O’Brien from 12:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.) means inexpensive talk formats will expand to replace traditional television dramas and comedy – what Hollywood calls “scripted entertainment” – starting at 10 p.m., 9 p.m. in the middle of the country.

NBC considered the announcement so important it interrupted live coverage of the Blagojevich corruption scandal to switch to live coverage of its own Jay Leno announcement.

But remember, it was also NBC that announced earlier that it could no longer afford to buy traditional TV entertainment shows for broadcast for the first hour of the evening – before 9 p.m. — so it now will only schedule games, “reality” shows and NBC News “Dateline” from 8 to 9
p.m.

That leaves only one remaining hour, 9 to 10 p.m., for scripted dramas and comedies. But only four nights a week: NBC runs sports on Sunday nights and reruns on Fridays and Saturdays.

So starting next year, NBC will only need to buy four hours of scripted programs. But let’s spin this out: if “Heroes” is renewed on Monday, “Law and Order” on Tuesday, “The Office” and “30 Rock” on Thursday, that leaves exactly one hour a week, Wednesday 9-10, as the last NBC opening for all of Hollywood’s stars, producers and studio executives.

Leaving only one hour a week (okay, for the sake of argument let’s say it’s two hours) for all of NBC’s drama and comedy development, in a business where most shows that premiere fail, does not exactly give NBC an edge in developing the next generation of hits.

(It is worth noting that CBS strongly and gleefully disagrees with NBC’s strategy, expecting “CSI: Miami” and its other 10 pm hits will benefit by reduced competition at 10 pm from Leno’s NBC talk show.)

Game almost over.

Which brings us to NPR.

The nation’s largest public radio broadcaster gave as the reason for the cutbacks “[a] sharp drop in our current and projected corporate underwriting.” You can see more details in NPR’s internal staff memo (found here).

So just as in commercial broadcasting, “noncommercial” broadcasting relies heavily on advertisers and advertising. Yes, advertisers — the same companies that advertise on commercial broadcasting – but on “noncommercial” broadcasting, the commercials are “underwriting.” (Plus public radio and TV suspend hours of programming at a time for telethons for themselves.)

And just as NBC is all but eliminating its future in scripted drama and comedy, NPR is eliminating its newest daily news programs — “Day to Day” and “News and Notes” — which were designed as future core offerings of the network:

“Day to Day” has had a surge of audience, according to the NPR website and “News and Notes,” which started on NPR as “The Tavis Smiley Show” before Tavis quit NPR, was designed to attract younger and nonwhite listeners to NPR News.

Not so coincidentally, “News and Notes” is also what inside NPR is called “mission” programming: programs justified by the public mission of NPR but not likely to be supported by commercials (underwriting). Of course sometimes there are surprises: such “mission” programs as “Wade in the Water” become hits. And, if you look far enough into the past, “All Things Considered” was a “mission” program.

But just like Jay Leno on NBC, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” are mature programs. Both Leno and “ATC” have peaked in total audience, and that audience is aging, an anathema to youth-obsessed advertisers (and underwriters).

And at NPR, “ATC” and “Morning Edition” have long been the cash cows, profits from which are used to support mission-driven, money-losing NPR programs such as “Performance Today”
(which NPR has spun off to a public radio competitor, American Public Media; details here).

NPR has not seen an audience drop in 25 years, and that one led to a financial crisis and broad layoffs which in NPR is still called “the crash.” What happens if NPR News is just another aging mass medium, like newspapers, and the audience drops once again – and doesn’t
recover?

But step back from the profit and loss and consider the more important policy question: NPR was never designed to be just another business. Its genesis was in the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 PDF,
which cited media neglect a major cause of urban unrest. The Commission recommended creation of a new noncommercial medium, and its explicit charge – and public broadcasting’s
explicit core mission, the reason Congress gave public radio and television all of that money — was “to serve the underserved.”

Now, by relying on advertising, pursuing the same affluent mass audience as commercial broadcasting and thus abandoning its core mission, NPR has made itself into just another mass medium, supported by commercials (underwriting).

(OK, public radio isn’t entirely supported by ads, but then neither are cable TV networks supported entirely by ads. Public radio relies on a second revenue stream, listener contributions. Cable TV networks have a second revenue stream, viewer contributions, also called your monthly cable bill. Contributions to NPR differ from contributions to your local cable company in
that your cable bill is generally fixed in price, while you can elect to contribute as much as you want to NPR – and it’s tax deductible.)

Now please don’t misunderstand: I still listen to NPR, but I listen the way our students listen: downloading specific stories that interest me to my computer.

And I still watch NBC television, but I watch the way our students do: live sports. That’s it. Everything else is available on line, on my schedule, not NBC’s. For certain, I was among the millions who watched Tina Fey as Sarah Palin – but not on NBC. We watched on the Internet.

Game over.