13 January 2010

Book Review: 3 New Books Search For The Future Of Media

USA Today

This is an awkward time to write about the media business. We know a lot about the damage that the Internet and other technologies have done to traditional movie, television, music and print companies. It's still unclear, though, whether the familiar pillars of civic and popular culture are merely teetering, or about to collapse — and, if they do fall, what will take their place.

Still, the story is too important to resist. And three books provide useful, but different, perspectives for readers who want to understand the current mess.

The Curse of the Mogul: What's Wrong with the World's Leading Media Companies is the most challenging book in this group. But it's also the most important for anyone who wants a sophisticated analysis of how media businesses work — or, more precisely, how the authors believe they should work.

Jonathan Knee, Bruce Greenwald and Ava Seave deftly and often entertainingly cut a generation of media CEOs down to size. Curse shows that many of them were geniuses at finding ways to stuff their pockets with cash, but pompous lightweights when it came to serving their shareholders or preparing their companies for the digital onslaught.

(Full disclosure: The book grew out of a course the authors teach at the Columbia Business School, which I took in 2004.)

The authors throw their sharpest knives at moguls in hit-driven businesses who think they're hot stuff because they're tight with entertainment stars or have a sixth sense for what TV watchers, moviegoers or music listeners like. That sounds impressive in magazine profiles, or when companies try to justify their CEOs' inflated salaries. But the data show that these creative-friendly executives don't consistently deliver big profits.

The same can be said for moguls who love megamergers, including ones that blend news and entertainment with distribution, such as TV networks and cable systems. They dream that their size will enable them to beat or circumvent all comers.

But the winners in media avoid competition. When companies have competition, the authors say, they should divide the market and fix prices (using code so as not to rouse antitrust officials).

That's great for investors; not so much for consumers.

And it's especially cold comfort for most companies trying to make it in the digital age. How do you create barriers to entry in a medium that enables everyone to reach a worldwide audience?

That's what makes Google so intriguing, and a worthy subject for New Yorker writer Ken Auletta's 11th book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. Unlike Curse, which treats moguls with derision, Auletta's more interested in penetrating the often secretive world of the business elite and telling the stories with skill, intelligence and respect.

As the media industry's most inside outsider, Auletta has become its chief storyteller — much as The Making of the President author Theodore White was to presidential campaigns.

That makes Googled a fine guide for people who want to know how the force behind the leading Internet search engine, YouTube and Android phones positioned itself to become the first $100 billion media company.

Unfortunately, the story delves too deeply into Silicon Valley's cool, insular subculture to grip readers who aren't already interested in Google. For all of its importance in contemporary life, this media company is about engineers solving technical and business problems — not entertainers who want to touch people's hearts or journalists who want to engage their minds.

Also, Auletta never seems to get close enough to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to humanize them.

So the book's detailed accounts of key events in Google's development read more like a series of stories from a trade magazine than a compelling work of literary journalism.

Just as important, it's still too early to say anything that's meaningful about where Google's taking the media business.

Bob Garfield, Advertising Age editor at large and co-host of NPR's On The Media, faces a similar problem in The Chaos Scenario, a sweeping, often provocative and sometimes entertaining series of essays about how the media business is changing.

Unlike Auletta, Garfield seems eager to channel Hunter Thompson. He taps his keen sense for the absurd to riff on social trends and personal experiences as he makes bold predictions about what he thinks will happen to media companies.

But the effort offers too few flashes of brilliant insight, and strains too hard to impress with bluster, anecdotes and shtick.

The bulk of Chaos suggests that the gig is up for traditional media. These companies are wedded to obsolete models and arrogantly fail to listen to their customers.

Garfield, who likes to label things, considers listening so important that he's elevated it to a field of study he calls Listenomics.

Garfield seems OK with the prospect of newsrooms and studios going under: The masses have "aggregated curiosity, IQ to spare, and all the time in the world," he writes, to replace them with their own news and entertainment.

That's a fascinating possibility.

Sadly, Garfield never develops the evidence and arguments that might support his vaguely libertarian faith.

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