Are You Media Irrelevant?

Posted on 06. Apr, 2011 by Administrator in Social/Cultural

Assuming one is relevant in the first place, it shouldn’t take any time at all to become truly irrelevant to the media, especially those consumers who aren’t on the media’s main radar screen. But it needn’t be so.

Is quality irrelevant?

In American society, we are encouraged (but not necessarily taught) to be productive, energetic, assertive and successful. Our school lives are spent in constant competition to be the best in our class, to rank highest on a grading curve; to excel in sports or aspire to be popular. All those things are relevant to our society, a society that doesn’t seem to respect or reward anything ‘average’ and whose tolerance for losers is nearly nil. Our role models of relevancy are changing, too. Once upon a time, Jesus Christ headed that list, and he shared it with many great men and women of all faiths and backgrounds: doctors, great thinkers, and the occasional musical or artistic genius.

Sadly, those first-stringers on the relevancy all-star team are benched, maybe for good. Today, the list is filled with bare-midriff teenage waifs who uniformly sing off-key and diamond-fingered rappers with baggy pants who advocate bad language, along with an assortment of serial killers, child molesters, overpaid top corporate executives and, of course, celebrities. They are relevant not because they represent the best in our society, but because they appeal to our baser instincts and our insatiable need for something new and different. Truth is, vast amounts of money are made by talking about them and showing their antics on our TV screens.

These days, relevance is measured by the number of times a person’s name or face can be mentioned or seen within a traditional news cycle and how long their publicity agents can manage to stretch out their exposure by ‘spinning’ the original press statement or report. The war of the 30-second soundbite has reached thermo-nuclear proportions. The time available for true news stories on radio and television has dwindled, dramatically. Commercials dominate and push the ‘real’ news farther into the background. What does that say about relevance or more appropriately, the speed at which our society travels?

Today, only the speedy and the seedy can be relevant, because they will get airtime. Only they can be programmed, slotted or inserted within the few minutes available for newsbites. An Everett Dirksen (the now deceased drawling Senator from Illinois) or a Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (a popular 1950s TV religious figure) couldn’t cut the soundbite mustard today. Why? Because they talked in measured tones, using language as their principal tool. Probably the only ‘slow-talker’ left on the national airwaves is Paul Harvey, and he is barely hanging on, largely due to his longevity and credibility (and aging audience which dutifully buys the vitamins he sells). It’s certainly not because of his delivery which is very very slow. Page Two!

Have we lost our patience?

The media will say that our society doesn’t have the time or patience to listen anymore, and they may be right. But what does that say about us, and what will that mean for our future information dissemination? It means time-compression technology will take over where conversational delivery once ruled. Where is Edward R. Murrow when we need him most?
Every future complex issue will need to be distilled into something simple, otherwise it won’t catch the eye or ear of the TV or radio producer or be passed on to the viewer/listener. Those who don’t adhere to the newsbite/soundbite requirement won’t get their message out. The media that figures out how to deliver their message quicker will likely get more ad revenue, and the ones who don’t will fade away like General MacArthur’s old soldiers. So round and round we go, locked in a series of vicious concentric circles that will insure that the time available to us for serious news will eventually end up as a nano-message, grazing a glancing blow on our conscious mind. The ‘Brave New World’ of the media will begin to sell ‘millisecond spots’ and ‘delayed action tags’ (ultra-rapid two-three word messages designed to capture our attention, later, when we’re more relaxed and receptive).

Has Aldous Huxley written the script, or is there an alternative?

Ironically, it is our nation’s own demographics that will present the biggest challenge to the current trends. We are getting older. Our capacity to digest (both physically and mentally) is diminished with age, and that will present advertisers and purveyors of news with a dilemma: how to advertise/appeal to the large ‘Baby Boom’ generation while not alienating the more youthful consumers. The test will take place at the cash register. Advertisers and the media will only take notice of our desire for more content-driven messages and newscasts (and other programming) when we vote with our pocketbook. Only when enough consumers start demanding more ‘traditional’ messaging, will we get more ‘traditional’ messaging. It’s up to us.

I believe it will happen, and when it does, it will spawn whole new media divisions, geared to the older American within the major networks. The marketplace will take care of it because American business needs its cash cows … even if they are longer in the tooth.

Stephan Helgesen is past President of the Albuquerque Council for International Visitors. He spent 25 years working overseas observing changes in the American media. Prior to that he owned his own advertising agency in Connecticut and counseled U.S. businesses on their corporate media strategies.


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