The Big Four are no more.
According a recent survey published in Ad Age magazine, only one in four 12-to 34-year-olds can name the four major traditional broadcast networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox (sorry CW, you’re not in the club yet.) What networks can they name? MTV, Cartoon Network and Comedy Central. It’s enough to make you wonder how we still have a Republic.
The most popular activity for this group is going on the Internet, with TV watching coming in fourth. In other words, they watch YouTube more than the “boob tube.”
The survey is interesting but not terribly surprising. If you tell a teenager about a great story he should read in the newspaper, he’ll ask you for the URL. The Internet, TiVo and IPods have expanded media choice and control, yet they have also homogenized differences among television networks, newspapers and radio. On the Internet, all media looks the same.
But there is another reason for the devolution of media brands. Yes, the Internet and time-shifting devices have played a part in the loss of brand luster and identity. In terms of news, however, the issue is not so much one of content overload or “brand killing” technologies like RSS.
The problem with news is that most network news programs and newspapers are going after that same audience of 12-to-34-year-olds. And in trying to stand out, the news media end up being the same – running the same stories, with the same angles and same opinions, vainly trying to appeal to and retain the same audience by not offending or challenging them.
Journalists like to say, “If it bleeds, it leads.” But in today’s environment of news as profit machine, there is now a just as important corollary: “If it pays, it plays.”
How is an 18-year-old supposed to tell the difference between the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times when he reads an article via his MyYahoo page? Other than the name or logo, there is no real difference.
The Los Angeles Times is now a newspaper by committee, having replaced voice with an illusion of balance. The Times is a brand interrupted, no longer sure of its own place so instead it is trying to appeal to everyone while offending no one – or a least no one with the disposable income coveted by advertisers.
The same is true for the “Big Four” broadcast networks – and let’s throw in CNN for good measure.
What makes a CBS news story different from an NBC story? Where is ABC without the tenacity of a Ted Koppel? CNN wasn’t making enough money being CNN, so it decided to become Fox and add the kind of vitriol necessary to meet the demands of modern broadcast news – namely, just shout louder than the other guy. It’s sad to think that the same network that gave us Bernard Shaw and John Holliman now gives us Nancy Grace and Lou Dobbs.
No wonder people refer to any news organization as “the media” – that’s what happens when you go from “brand” to “bland.” I’m not sure if this trend is a credit to capitalism or a discredit to the American news consumer, but either way, it is a harbinger of the future of news.