Editorial Era of choice

True, the rapidly changing media marketplace is staggering in its complexity.Among the more imminent and easier to comprehend changes is the potential addition of, by most guesses, about six new specialty television services from the more than 60 applications now before...

True, the rapidly changing media marketplace is staggering in its complexity.

Among the more imminent and easier to comprehend changes is the potential addition of, by most guesses, about six new specialty television services from the more than 60 applications now before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

In the category of impossible to grasp is the impending convergence of computers, telephones and television monitors along a fibre optic data highway. (Consider, for a moment that the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica could be transmitted over a fibre optic cable in one second.)

Yet for all of that, there is also a certain simplicity in what we face.

‘There is one word to describe the dominant trend affecting the future of media and that is `choice,’ ‘ says Terry Sheehy, senior vice-president and media director of Leo Burnett in Canada.

Sheehy says widespread disruption in demographic and lifestyle patterns, explosive technological change and the economic necessity of adopting new media alternatives are working together to bring an unprecedented array of media choice.

In a presentation on media trends that Sheehy is taking to Burnett clients, he forecasts that in this rapidly approaching age of multitudinous choice, power will shift to the people who create the programming that the media carry, but ultimate control will revert to the consumer.

‘In the era of choice, the consumer will face a wide array of media choices and will exercise control over selection,’ Sheehy says. ‘In the end, what we get, and what we keep, will be decided by consumers voting with their remote controls and paying with their cable bill and credit cards.’

Lest anyone think that technology will steer the course of change, Sheehy offers the sobering observation that ‘no one pays to watch technology. Technology makes everything possible, cost can be a big deterrent, and I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the economics. Will people pay for some of these new choices?’

Sheehy illustrates his point by citing a number of miscalculations that occurred in the technological hot zone of interactivity.

In the 1980s, for instance, Knight-Ridder lost millions on an interactive videotext experiment in Florida that let people request and read news on their tv screens.

J.C. Penney spent $106 million on Teleaction, an interactive shopping system which was shut down in 1989.

And Sears and ibm have spent $800 million on their jointly owned and unprofitable Prodigy Services, in part because they overestimated the desire of computer users to shop on-line.

So how does one make sense of this media Byzantium? Here, too, Sheehy has rather simple advice.

Share learning and experiences across clients and across countries. Seek out alliances and partnerships with the new players. Encourage experimentation and do not be afraid of ‘smart’ failures.

And, finally, ‘Embrace change and learn.’