Wednesday, November 30

Projecting Media: How One Source Becomes Two Stories

Depending the article you read, the next generation of television viewers is either growing or in jeopardy.

The Wall Street Journal reports an average of 5.8 million children between the ages of 2 and 11 watch television (broadcast, cable, and live) at any given moment. It's 1.7 percent higher than last year. The article concentrates on the big losses experienced by Viacom's Nickelodeon (down 15-20 percent) and Time Warner's Cartoon Network (down 11 percent) but cited gains in other channels, including the Disney Channel (up 5.9 percent) and The Hub (up 50 percent). The article alludes to more kids watching adult programs.

Ad Age, using the same data, ran a different story. It reported that Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney XD all experienced heavy declines, and only hinted at the gains at Disney Channel and The Hub, dismissing the latter channel's gains because the comparisons are drawn against the low-rated Discovery Kids. The article then shifts to television's increasing competition from other media, including social networks and gaming. It also cites a Kaiser Family Foundation study that says children ages 8-18 watch 25 fewer minutes a day.

What is especially interesting about the two stories is that they were prompted by the same research from Nielsen. And yet, the overriding slant of the Wall Street article is that Nickelodeon is in trouble despite growing viewership, underscored by the channel's plea to wait for upcoming fresh episodes. Whereas the overriding slant of the Ad Age article is that the entire youth audience is slipping, with Nickelodeon leading the way, even if Viacom claims a ratings glitch.

Expect both articles will be shared with new slants. The Hollywood Reporter already spun off The Wall Street Journal piece. Ad Age has had fewer takers, but mostly because what might frighten marketers isn't likely to frighten parents. The more compelling observation is how media is shaped and what that means.

The consequence of journalism's time crunch is accelerating different realities. 

I've been fascinated with the changing shape of media for some time, especially as it pertains to perception and reality. And while we can only infer that the journalists have different world views of television, comparing the two stories demonstrates how validation is increasingly prevalent in media, not only for how we consume media but also in how professionals report it.

In fact, there is enough content on the Internet today to prove that children are both watching more and less television than they did 10 or 20 years ago. And for some authors, it is even critical to prove it one way or another. After all, there is no reason to write about the dangers of television to kids (or the benefits of television* before railing on the negatives) unless it constitutes a threat or benefit.

But what that really means, as a marketer or parent, is the emphasis need not be placed on the delivery system (television) as much as the programs being delivered. The same can be said for how we consume information and make informed decisions, with the burden of fact-checking falling less on reporters (citizen or professional) than on consumers.

In the case of the two articles above, the net takeaway might be that Ad Age is correct in that kids spend less time in front of the television but more time with a variety of media, with a heavy emphasis on multitasking. But where The Wall Street Journal is right is in that some channels are losing young viewers to better programs, especially those with more engaging or interesting content. More adult shows included.

Equally important for marketers, they might place more measure on the psychographics of these viewers, asking tough questions like: Which types of kids are watching Spongebob and which aren't, and are those kids more inclined to like this product or that product? Likewise, parents don't have to be passive about programing, but rather take some time to balance what is appropriate while appreciating that kids might not be as corruptible as we think.

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