Media Consumption

I’ve already predicted the end of newspapers as we know them. I think media is fracturing in to a myriad of niche sources which often cater to the lowest identifiable common denominator in an attempt to grow an audience. What does this mean to me, to others of my generation and to people in general? I’ve been thinking about this lately.

Before the media landscape began to fracture, call it the early 80s, though cable television goes back to the 40s and 50s in the US, you could count the major sources for news on one hand. There were the major networks on television and newspapers and perhaps some magazines. The first was free, the second was low cost and the third was not very expensive. They represent what most people had access to for news of the day. They were the font at which America sated it’s thirst for knowledge about the world and what was going on.

I imagine there was conversation about which channel was “best” or had the more believable anchors. Certainly there were conversations about which papers had the best news coverage, but for most of the United States, it was a limited set of options.

As a result, there was a common set of knowledge that one could count on. If someone said something on Carson or if Walter Cronkite covered a story, a large number of people could be counted on having heard it. Where folks hadn’t heard it, they could catch up around lunch or the water cooler the next day.

Let’s take an example of an “event” from the early 80s, the finale episode of M*A*S*H which had a record-breaking 125 million viewers (60.2 Rating and 77 Share). This means that on average 60 percent of all TVs were on and 77 percent of households watching TV were tuned into that program during the time slot. To this day, there’s not much that touches that aside from an occasionally really good SuperBowl (Go Seahawks!)

Certainly folks are watching television. The current average per person per day is five hours of television. Let’s hit pause on that notion for a moment. Let’s say an average of 10 hours goes to work between prep for work, travel to work and work. Add in an average of eight hours of sleep and five hours of television. Using my advanced maths, that’s 23 hours out of 24 hours available, or only a sole, lonely hour on a given work day for not-sleeping, not-working and not-television watching. Wow.

Anyway, folks are watching, but they can now choose from far more than the original ABC/CBS/NBC. Viewership is fractured across hundreds of stations, many of which are created to serve a particular niche from comedy to science fiction to sports to reality television and, because there is so much to choose from, it means increasingly small numbers per given show.

Back in the early 80s, if you referenced something from that episode of M*A*S*H, you had roughly a 2 in 3 chance of someone knowing what you referred to. Contrast that with television today and if you reference a “sheepsquatch” (yes, this is a thing), the only way you’re going to know about it is if you happened to have seen a particular episode of a particular show which happens to be very loosely termed “reality television”. According to the data, a few hundred thousand people watched this show. So, unless you are part of that group, you have no idea what the context is should someone use “sheepsquatch” in a sentence. Some would feel left out of that conversation, many more would be happy to be ignorant. But, that’s not the point. The point is that smaller and smaller groups share a common cultural reference point.

I find this continues in to how I consume news. My news sources are largely limited to consuming RSS feeds in my favorite news reading software (Feedly) on my desktop or my tablet. With this tool I control what I see, when I see it and whether or not I choose to consume it in detail. I have effectively self-selected my news, my sources and what I’m exposed to. I’ve done this largely because I can and because it allows me to increase the odds of seeing things I’m interested in.

While I like the control this gives me, I suspect it leaves me underexposed in many areas. World affairs and international politics are two areas I am under-educated about, in part because I don’t choose to spend my time on those areas.

In “the old days” where folks would sit on the couch and were forced to watch the nightly newscast in serial order (with commercials!), they were exposed to what was chosen for them, but they also heard about things they would likely not have selected. So, upsides and downsides.

Today, if I choose to record it and if I choose to watch it and if I choose to watch that particular story, I might learn about it, else it goes by and I remain ignorant. And don’t get me started on commercials. I haven’t watched a commercial on purpose since the advent of the DVR and the 30-second skip. In that regard I am not a good consumer because whether it’s cable or one of the national broadcasters, I am NOT sitting through a commercial if I don’t have to.

As a result of all of this, I find two notable things:

  1. I worry about the effect of my self-selected news sources on my ability to understand what’s going on in the world. I wish I had a better way to get exposed to high quality sources of information, even and especially ones that differ in opinion from my own.
  2. I am increasingly unaware of a large number of people in pop culture. This is not a huge loss, I know, but it does serve to magnify the sense that I’m getting old as I hear names of people I don’t know and don’t know why they are (according to someone) important or why I should care. It’s either not my music or it’s not my kind of show (most all reality television) or it’s simply not something I choose to care about.

I fear that these two things, in combination, are what tends to make one start to feel as if the world is passing them by and they are (or I am) increasingly decoupled from the popular zeitgeist.

I’d love to hear from anyone with some thoughts on how they educate themselves, how they consume news and whether they are concerned about doing it in a way which is balanced and includes sources that may disagree with their views. It seems like the goals should be to try and stay informed and not just surround ourselves with self-selected sources which agree with us because that’s all we choose to listen to with what we perceive to be our limited amount of free time.

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