Sunday, December 27, 2009

Media Meltdown

Uncertainty looms as the ad-supported media infrastructure continues its death spiral


 The Chaos Scenario
The Chaos Scenario. Bob Garfield. Stielstra Publishing. 294 pages.

When advertiser-supported media — print, broadcast, online, whatever — cease to exist as audiences shrink below the critical mass needed by businesses to justify placing advertising therein, it's what Advertising Age columnist and NPR host Bob Garfield calls "The Chaos Scenario.''

He began documenting this meltdown in 2005 with a column that engendered widespread industry hysterics. The book took all this time to write, he said, because the chaos was ongoing and accelerating. But he told me at the Miami Book Fair International that he was compelled to write this. Driven. This was something that needed saying.

If he'd managed to do it quickly, this book would have been even more explosive and mind-blowing, four years ago. Now, his tour of the emerging media-less landscape is slightly less shocking. Most mavens and everyone else already know what's ahead and take Facebook, Twitter, blogs, social networking, crowdsourcing and all that other Googlely stuff pretty much for granted.

But Garfield's take remains invaluable and is still quite timely, even urgent. Major components of the scenarios he describes are still unfolding. For example, Jay Leno's nightly TV chat show is a direct result of NBC's plummeting ratings and the relatively low cost of producing that show compared to (more or less) original dramatic presentations. Daily newspapers' diminishing circulation numbers have publishing execs considering patently suicidal tactics like charging for online access or withholding content from the great god, Google. (Good luck with that one, Rupert!)

What makes Garfield's insights valuable — even essential — is Garfield himself. He's an enormously entertaining and engaging writer. It's a blast to observe the machinations of his so-sane-he's-crazy (or is it the other way around?) mind. Witty, world-weary, wildly knowledgeable and endlessly curious, Garfield is your perfect guide to the end of the world.

He trudges through Lego's Danish headquarters to see how the makers of those annoying bits of shaped plastic profited from tapping into the hive-mind of its fans. He journeys to Australia, Estonia, Israel, England and through his own living room as he investigates the twilight of one media age and the genesis of the next.

To be sure, there are thousands of other books, blog posts, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, vodcasts and speeches on the subjects Garfield covers, but he's unique and his discursive by-the-ways, rude asides and dead-on skepticism provide the ideal balance to the mash-up of endemic excitement and widespread panic pervading the affected industries and culture at large.

Mass media is dying and Garfield, though currently part of its status quo, is simultaneously gleeful and distraught, mourning the decentralization of power while grabbing a bit of his own by blogging for the death of his cable provider for lack of support, dishonesty and general idiocy.

One nit to pick: the "real" last chapter of this tome has yet to be written and will appear online, per Garfield. Whatever. But the final one herein, explaining the book's origin and publication path, ought to have appeared up front, I think. No biggie, though.

Failure, however, to see what Bob Garfield's discovered — the chaotic and uncertain world we're entering — could be a very big mistake. You've been forewarned.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

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