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Isolating our points of viewing

Demanding audiences seek news when they want it, by TiVo, podcast, BlackBerry or cable TV. But experts warn of potential polarization.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published July 31, 2005


[Times illustration: Steve Madden]

Janet Sherer never imagined she might be living a trend that is redefining modern media.

But a look at her daily media diet says it all: mornings spent sampling TV news shows at 6 a.m.; a collection of headlines and stories gathered over the Internet during work; a glance through newspaper features sections at lunch, and a bit of talk radio during the drive home. If she's lucky, after her kids go to sleep, there's time for a quick look at cable TV news just before bed.

Thanks to the Internet and cable TV, she has access to more information than ever. But her high-velocity life - married with a full-time job, she's also raising two young kids - allows only consumption of information through a succession of quick dips, surfing over an ever-expanding pool of material.

One expert has called it "news grazing": picking items of interest from the sea of information available across the globe every day.

So she knows the Hillsborough County commissioners passed a resolution unfriendly to the gay community, but she's not sure why. As a parent, she finds coverage of lost children and women in danger particularly compelling, closely watching TV coverage of the Michael Jackson trial verdict just to see if he would be convicted on child molestation charges.

"It seems like we're on the Internet more because we don't have time to read the newspaper," said Sherer, a manager at the communications firm Tampa Digital Studios and co-host of a radio and Webcast show on media, Tampa Bay's Media Talk. "Maybe what we know about a particular subject might not be so detailed . . . but there's so many (information sources) out there, it's overwhelming. I'm (age) 32, and . . . 95 percent of our friends get their information like we do."

She doesn't own a digital video recorder like TiVo. And she doesn't download podcasts into an iPod or listen to satellite radio or use any other new technology to modify her media consumption ("I haven't even figured out how to download a different ring tone for my cell phone," she cracks).

But the one-two punch of her hectic lifestyle and expanded choices means Sherer has little time for media that isn't available when she wants it, dealing with subjects she specifically cares about.

Media experts call it an on-demand attitude. And it is irrevocably changing the face of today's media.

Ever wonder why cable TV news seems to be a growing morass of true-crime stories, conflict-driven talk shows and endlessly repeated minutiae? Or why mainstream media seems increasingly focused on a shrinking niche of consumers and their very specific political/social interests?

It all ties into a growing trend among consumers: an impatience with media that doesn't speak to their specific needs immediately.

"The audience . . . is busier than it has ever been. They don't have time for stories that waste their time," said CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein, who has drawn criticism for the newschannel's aggressive coverage of hot-button, videogenic stories such as Terri Schiavo's death, runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and Michael Jackson's trial. "Technology has sped up the pace of life, but it hasn't created more free time. So we've got to take the news of the day and show viewers all aspects of the story in an arresting new way."

Watching Sherer's routine last week, Klein's words came to life in her bustling early morning ritual.

By 6 a.m., she's surfing through news programs in the early morning - powering her way through a series of leg lifts, lunges and crunches while keeping one eye on the TV and the remote within easy reach ("Who cares about Wall Street?" Sherer asks no one in particular before flipping off one story.)

A newspaper sits on the dining room table, still in its plastic wrapping, as Sherer rouses sleepy-eyed 4-year-old daughter Payton and impish 2-year-old Matthew Jr. to gulp down a quick breakfast before school (husband Matthew, an employee at S&D Coffee, had left for work by 5 a.m.). Out the door by 7:30 a.m., her day has begun with a blur of motion and preparation, allowing time for little beyond a quick glance at the five TVs stationed in various areas of their South Tampa home.

Such trends are great news for media that provide constant access for a multitude of customers in small niches: cable TV, satellite radio, video games and the Internet.

But this on-demand attitude makes losers of media that attract large numbers of consumers through a variety of material, forcing every customer to wade through some things they don't like. That list includes newspapers, network TV and broadcast radio.

"When you look at the data of younger people especially, they really are an on-demand culture," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which released a report this year noting 36 percent of consumers "news graze" like Sherer - sifting information from four or more news outlets each day.

"They don't watch network news, local TV news, or read traditional news," Rosenstiel said. "They watch cable TV (news) . . . when something is happening. It's part of a larger shift - power is moving from journalists telling the consumer what is important, to consumers becoming their own editors."

Back when there were a handful of TV stations on the dial, people expected less from media. They might sit through a Lawrence Welk episode to get to The Carol Burnett Show, or endure a hokey Soupy Sales performance to see the Beatles. But the explosion of cable TV channels now available - well more than 200 on most digital systems - has changed that.

Today's media consumers increasingly expect an on-demand universe, where podcasts enable commuters to download audio versions of newspaper headlines and video on-demand services allow digital cable TV subscribers to see missed episodes of their favorite series at any time.

It's as if we spent 80 years assembling the largest mass audience in the history of the world, only to spend the next 20 years taking it all apart again.

"We had this large audience all feeding from the same cultural trough - everyone watching the M*A*S*H finale or something - which Rome and the ancient Greeks didn't have; such a complete grip on the culture at large," said Robert Thompson, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Now, all that has changed. I don't think we have come close to understanding the effects of taking away that cultural glue."

Consider the numbers. According to a recent Arbitron/Edison Media Research study, 30 percent of Americans are heavy to medium on-demand media consumers, with 10 percent - about 27-million - owning one or more on-demand devices (examples: DVRs, iPods or wireless Internet devices such as a BlackBerry) and using them heavily.

This on-demand audience is often young, affluent and strongly attracted to the technology - populated by teens, young adults and those with annual household incomes of more than $100,000 (by contrast, 57 percent of those with no on-demand media involvement are age 55 and older).

"These technologies are being consumed by 25-to-44-year-olds who are busy - their schedule is jam-packed," said Joe Lenski, an executive vice president at Edison Media Research. "That's why broadcasters are taking notice of this. It goes right to the heart of their target advertising demographics."

That's because the people using their iPods, TiVos, Web browsers, satellite radio and BlackBerrys are mostly avoiding the well-placed commercials that keep free broadcast TV and radio in business. And the trend only intensifies among users aged 8 to 18 - those consumers-in-training coveted by athletic shoe companies, soft drink manufacturers, movie studios and more.

According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation on youth media use ("Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds"), 64 percent of this group have downloaded music from the Internet, 48 percent have heard a radio station online, 66 percent use instant messaging and 34 percent have a DVR in their homes.

"The personalization of media is a huge trend . . . family members just don't have tolerance for watching (relatives') media anymore," said Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the Kaiser foundation. "I tried to do research on why TVs are multiplying in children's rooms - it's because parents want to free up the TV for their own shows. This means parents are less likely to know what media their kids are using and how to monitor it."

For media junkies, the changes have been dramatic. DVRs mean no couch potato need watch one second of TV they don't want to see; downloadable podcasts allow iPod junkies to tote everything from that day's Fresh Air installment to audio versions of stories from the New York Times just about anywhere. And established media outlets are trying everything from their own podcasts to Internet-only TV newscasts in a bold effort to meet consumer demand.

But not all the changes have been beneficial. Consider this short list of pitfalls:

- News reporting becomes more shock-driven, superficial and stereotypical.

The two worst developments for TV news - besides the discovery that it makes money - has been the development of the 200-channel digital cable box and the remote control. TV news directors now face increasing pressure to air compelling images regardless of their journalistic content, catering to a fickle audience that can leave their programming at the press of a button, thus pulling mainstream media outlets along for the ride.

"What (cable TV news) does is milk stories they know will attract eyeballs . . . a long decade of taking mundane crime stories and turning them into national obsessions," said the Project for Excellence in Journalism's Rosenstiel. "And when there isn't an O.J.-type story available, they manufacture one, like the runaway bride or the missing girl in Aruba."

But CNN's Klein disputes such notions, shrugging off recent criticism from founder Ted Turner that the channel must transcend its tendency to focus on the "pervert of the day" in regular coverage.

"It's a danger when you cherry-pick examples . . . You can misidentify something as a trend, when it's a one-off (isolated case)," he said, maintaining that CNN's coverage of "runaway bride" Wilbanks started on a slow weekend when few other stories were breaking.

- Along with a race/class income gap and school achievement gap, we now have a media gap.

Statistics indicate the one youthful demographic that isn't as steeped in the on-demand culture is young people of color.

According to the Kaiser study, though 80 percent of white children have access to the Internet at home, the number drops to 67 percent for Hispanics and 61 percent for black youths. And the Arbitron/Edison study found that, though black families watch more hours of TV than white families, just 8 percent of DVR owners are black, and only 11 percent of those who watched video on demand programming in the previous month are black.

Such figures suggest a media landscape where, for the first time, citizens may experience a markedly different type of media according to their race, culture, income or class status. And in an information-based society, that can be a significant disadvantage.

"Information is currency these days . . . it's how you maintain a certain social status," said Karl Carter, vice president of marketing and vanguard ideas for Current TV, the new cable channel focused on college-educated viewers ages 18 to 34 developed by former vice president Al Gore. "There's a reason why being in the know is considered cool. And this demographic definitely likes to stay up to date."

Scheduled to debut Monday, Current TV hopes to hook viewers by embracing the emerging on-demand/personalized TV culture. Here, news and information programming will air in bite-sized, three- to seven-minute segments, with about 20 percent contributed by viewers; users can vote on which amateur segments Current airs online. (Consult your cable or satellite provider for listing information.)

For now, it is a curious idea; a concept that will take years to move beyond its limited, 20-million household potential audience. But if the notion takes off, and a crew of unknown 20-somethings can cobble together a channel that challenges traditional TV outlets, expect free broadcast television content to get even more fragmented, youth-oriented and low-quality.

- People become isolated by their own concerns and points of view.

At a time when Americans appear more politically partisan than ever, an on-demand media culture runs the risk of deepening those divides - as people lock themselves into a media universe filled with Web sites, radio shows and TV channels that echo their specific point of view.

"What research shows very clearly, is that the more you reinforce your point of view and the less you offer a competing point of view, the more radical people become," said Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University, explaining a dynamic known as "attitude polarization." "America's strength mythically was that it was a centrist nation. I worry . . . we'll become a nation that is screaming at each other from the sidelines."

Soon, experts expect to see a wide range of on-demand media available to consumers through whatever screen is most convenient - cell phone, television, computer monitor, wireless Internet device or something else. But the long-term impact for media industries - and society itself - is tougher to gauge.

"People in marketing say the mass market died or splintered a generation ago," said Rosenstiel. "But . . . at the same time we have this fragmented culture, we all shop at the same stores and eat in the same restaurants. On the one hand, social fragmentation is creating deep cultural divides and at the same time, we're not as divided as we once were. This is quite complicated."

Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 28, 2005, 12:08:03]


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