Monday, May 9, 2016

The death throes of traditional media

The New Zealand news last week was filled with the shocking story of the departure of news presenter Hilary Barry from the TV3 network. Actually it is not shocking at all but to see and listen to the media coverage, you would think it is the greatest story here since the earthquake that devastated Christchurch or maybe even since New Zealand's entry into World War 2. 

One of the worst characteristics of the mainstream media both here and overseas is their obsession with themselves. Personally I don't find the comings and goings of TV news presenters to be of any great moment and can't imagine that Hilary Barry changing jobs means much to anyone other than her immediate family, but there is a far more interesting story about the media that is going largely unremarked upon. That story is signalled by this lesser-heralded news report that TV3 owner MediaWorks is to close down sister channel TV4 and replace it with an all-reality TV channel to be called Bravo.

Variety magazine reports that the top four television series watched by the key 18-24 demographic in America during the important fall season were Netflix shows. The New Zealand equivalent ratings are not published (to my knowledge) but I imagine they show a similar picture. This confirms anecdotal evidence that broadcast television is in steep decline and the replacement of TV4 with a reality channel is surely evidence of a ratings-driven rush to the bottom in terms of quality that has more than a hint of desperation about it.

There is a similar decline in newspaper sales. The Wellington daily, The Dominion Post, declined nearly 14% in the last year alone and all the other major dailies showed sales falls. This is hardly surprising given the quality of those newspapers, particularly the appalling DomPost. The lower the circulation or ratings, the more desperate the response of the media outlet to try and save itself. Like a man drowning in quicksand, the flailing attempts at self-preservation just hurry the demise.

I think the decline of the mainstream media, in fairness, is not entirely self-inflicted. Popular culture is so shallow and evanescent that those trying to predict and cater to the public's tastes must have an almost impossible job. Prurient interest in the petty problems of other human beings, the staple of reality TV, seems to be the only bankable fashion for mass media these days. Those who are prepared to pay more - the subscribers of Netflix and the like - can still get a level of quality programming but the rest of the population are served dross, which they gratefully lap up like starved dogs.

The mainstream media are fond of decrying increased inequality in our society (real or imagined) but their own industry is developing into a two-tiered world where the walls to get into the premium section are getting higher while the standard of the economy section falls further and further. Ultimately we get exactly what we pay for.

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