For the past century, we have been beneficiaries of the advertising model for financing the delivery of news and entertainment. We buy newspapers and magazines for far less than it costs to produce them, because of the subsidy of advertisers. and we listen to the radio and watch television “free,” because advertisers pay for the privilege of slipping in a commercial every few minutes.
The system is breaking down. Newspapers are dying everywhere. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, a once-proud old paper, has decided that it can no longer afford daily publication. Most newspapers are running deeply in the red, and magazines, even hallowed journals like Time and Newsweek, are wafer-thin. The old Business Week, a once influential magazine under McGraw-Hill, is now called Bloomberg Business Week, and rigor mortis is obviously setting in.
Radio, until recently supported by drive-time advertising, now must compete with all sorts of mobile gadgets, including phones that let you talk hands-free to your wife or secretary through your car radio – or what was your car radio till you found a better use for it. On a 100-mile drive today, I listened to what used to be a source of good music. But today the station was playing endless help-wanted commercials for – people to sell air time on their station!
Most radio stations deserve to become extinct. Here in Kennebunkport, the one classical music station recently changed hands – and format. Now it plays music that is indistinguishable from the music every other station plays. It’s bad enough losing Beethoven and Stravinsky; now there is no place on the dial for Kern or Rodgers or Berlin or Porter or Gershwin. So stations will all compete for the vanishing teen-age dollar, and one by one they will all give up, until all is news and weather and traffic reports.
But, you may say, the TV channels are full of political ads, presumably at premium rates. But how many of these ads will you see in December or next year? You may also note that Google, Facebook, and other social media are raking in tons of money and that the advertising model isn’t dead; it has just changed hands. I wouldn’t be too sure. General Motors has expressed disappointment over returns from Facebook, and everybody I know (a small sample, I grant you) claims never to look at the ads on their iPad screens.
Humans still have only two eyes and one brain, and there are still only 24 hours in a day, minus time for working, sleeping, and eating. Shopping? You know what you want, you access it on Amazon or eBay, and you buy it. Click, click, and you’re done. Browsing is something you do on your computer, never at a store.
Some day people will watch reruns of Mad Men for their historical value. Yes, son, there were advertising people who made big money thinking up slogans and catchy jingles. We called their advertising “commercials,” and advertisers paid handsomely for the space or air time, because they wanted to reach millions of viewers or listeners or readers.
All that, of course, was before the Internet.