Daddy, what’s a newspaper?
Last month, Doonesbury, the long-running politically loaded comic strip, turned 40. If you tell someone under 30 that, you’ll most likely hear, “What’s a comic strip?” When you explain that it’s a series of illustrated panels in a newspaper that changes daily, you may hear, “Why would I read a newspaper every day?” Then you realize that’s a darn good question.
Media consumption is changing faster than anyone has ever imagined. The last few years has seen the shuttering of several large-market daily newspapers and once-loved magazines. The big four networks are just one of hundreds on any cable box.
And with Netflix and Hulu, why would anyone bother with cable TV in the first place? Even if you prefer the latest movies on the big screen in an actual theater, you best hurry. Even the big money makers don’t stay in the cinemas for more than month or so. Maybe all you need is a good book to curl up with. Good luck finding a Borders or Barnes & Noble or a public library branch that hasn’t had its hours cut due to a lack of public funding (all good news for Amazon, no doubt).
Along with the fragmentation of media comes the waning influence of once prominent voices in American life. If Katie Couric on the CBS Evening News were to proclaim that it’s time for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan, it wouldn’t have a fraction of the impact as Walter Cronkite’s famous anti-Vietnam War opinion in 1968. The moment would pass, and no one would take to the streets. Different era, I suppose. Meanwhile, during election seasons, editorial boards of newspapers continue to endorse candidates. For a candidate, does this mean anything anymore?
Does it carry as much weight as getting into a shouting match on Fox or CNN?
Getting back to Doonesbury, a recent interview with its creator Garry Trudeau on Slate.com mentioned one of the milestones of its four decades was a 1977 animated TV special. It was the only TV adaptation of the popular strip ever to be produced.
When asked why, Trudeau said it only got 21 million viewers, and the network considered that to be a flop. Only 21 million viewers? Networks would kill to get 21 million people to watch anything nowadays. Competition isn’t just what’s on another channel. It’s millions of eyes looking for the next Dramatic Chipmunk or Baby Monkey on YouTube.
For advertisers, the dilemma is maddening. What good is having an airtight strategy with the best copy and art direction for a truly excellent product -- when there’s no one there to see it? OK, not no one. But not 21 million people either.