Media mergers, morphs, mutation

World Wrestling Federation or world events? A dad ponders the future of his son's 20 media weeks.

The night the largest corporate merger in history began to reverberate, I was in the trenches of American popular culture. I was with my son and eight of his teen friends - and 20,000 others in St. Louis - at the live, nationally televised, sold-out performance of the newly public World Wrestling Federation's (WWF) "Raw Is War."

Gladiators, male puffery, indoor fireworks, low drama, all highly produced. And soon it will come to a small screen near you, anywhere in the world, via live video streaming. Or it will be available later from an Internet video vault, courtesy of AOL- Time Warner broadband, ideally (for them) delivered by a cable subsidiary. (Of course, their preference would be that you watch the World Championship Wrestling's Nitro series on Turner Network Television - but enjoy the competing WWF if you choose.)

The irony is that such universal and timeless availability will make the live performances more popular, not less.

This is the great media paradox of our age. We are witnessing the greatest media explosion ever, not just on the Web but in digital TV channels, satellite radio, even magazine titles.

Yet large implosions are occurring all the time - consolidation, convergence, and crossover. Viacom buys CBS. Dow Jones, NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Microsoft, all work together. Disney owns the Mighty Ducks, ABC, and ESPN - and the Kentucky Prairie Farmer and Women's Wear Daily. (To track it all, the Columbia Journalism Review has a page on its Web site called "Who Owns What.")

It is as if these media need each other to breed, and to produce even more media to fill up our lives. And for every implosion there's another explosion. As huge radio chains are being created, the FCC is considering licensing thousands of independent low-power stations.

As historian Daniel Boorstin, librarian of Congress emeritus, observed way back in 1994: "Media technology ... expands to fill all available time. Humankind is not capable of inventing as much novelty as we have come to crave. So trivia, the weird, the strange, and the extreme fill in all the space."

Why, it's the WWF!

The explanation, perhaps, is that what we are really seeing is the confluence of three great rivers: technology, entertainment, and marketing.

All need one another. Together their entities expand and contract, but the sum just keeps on growing.

Clearly, media are cramming all the crevices of our lives. According to the Census Bureau's Statistical Abstract, total media usage by Americans will average 3,380 hours per person this year - more than 20 weeks of a person's life. How can this be? We have huge consumers of specific media - and we are multi-tasking, listening to CDs while we surf the net. Near the bottom of the media usage chart is Internet use, at 43 hours - half that of magazines, and about a quarter that of daily newspapers.

At the top? Television, at 1,565 hours per person this year - almost half of all media usage, and more than nine weeks, waking and sleeping.

Television - broadcast, cable, and satellite - is far and away the dominant medium of our time. Television is entertainment, marketing, and technology.

That is one of the keys to the AOL-Time Warner merger.

The Internet, once it goes broadband, is the ultimate Trojan horse for television. When that happens, Internet usage will skyrocket.

So, will Internet TV crowd out the networks? Did radio kill books? Did TV kill the movies? This is what Boorstin labels the "displacive fallacy." The tendency has been for use of older media to level out. Books are at about 100 hours per person per year, and holding steady, according to the statistical abstract. Radio is doing very well, firm at more than 1,000 hours per year per person. Newspapers are fairly steady at more than 150 hours.

But where do we find room in our lives for all these media products? In rising standards of living and more leisure time, fueled by new technologies. Why? Improving education and more knowledge. That's where we must continue to focus, in the final analysis, to bring more prosperity around the globe.

So I ask my son, Jack, after "Raw Is War," if the blood was real. He thinks so. I think not. But this is certain - if he doesn't make B's at school, he'll lose his precious Dreamcast machine (video games: 19 hours per person per year).

If he doesn't get a good education, he won't be able to afford to take his son and his friends to whatever gory, glorious equivalent to "Raw Is War" that we dream up by 2040. Enjoy it, Jack.

*Jay Lawrence, an ex-newspaper journalist, is now with Fleishman-Hillard, a global communications firm headquartered in St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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