For me social activism first became relevant during the summer of 1981. It was the last weekend before my junior year in high school and my girlfriend had returned from her vacation in New York City with two magical video tapes -- 120 minutes of music television, courtesy of MTV. The network promised to shatter my isolation and launch a young, vibrant cultural link between Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the rest of the country. No longer would I be stifled by the limited music available on radio stations and record stores in my hometown. My MTV experience would be identical to those who lived in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Boston.
Yes, the videos were raw and occasionally lame (the Buggles "Video Killed the Radio Star" was on that tape from New York) but the impact of MTV was unique, spontaneous and, at least for me, musically relevant. MTV pledged to teach me what was cool, how to talk, how to act and how to dance. It may have been an extension of top 40 radio, but the original VJs -- Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J. J. Jackson and Martha Quinn -- were the antithesis of Casey Kasem. Most importantly it seemed I could relate to them, they were one of us. With unbridled enthusiasm I joined the "I want my MTV" letter-writing campaign on the first day of school.
From an advertising perspective, the fact that MTV pioneered the ad message as content business model was not lost on us -- we embraced it. We yearned for new music and entertainment. If the record companies wanted us to buy their albums, their bands' videos had to be in the mix. The content that made up MTV's programming in the early 1980s was often crude -- concert clips and amateur promotional footage -- obtained at little if any cost. As MTV's popularity climbed, record companies leveraged the network to gain recognition and publicity for their product. Quality and quantity improved. Many up-and-coming film directors got their start in the music video business, including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and David Fincher. Arguably, MTV evolved into a cultural activity.
Flash-forward 25-plus years. I had lunch with my neighbor this past week. As a consequence of MTV, our musical experience is largely shared, despite growing up 1,500 miles apart. He has two children, one in college and another who is a senior in high school. Their musical education has been dramatically different than ours. Today, MTV is much more reality than music television. The central voice we connected with is not present and there appears to be no shared experience to link kids today. Traditional radio as we knew it is dead. While Internet radio appears derivative, it separates audiences -- it does not unite. The dramatic fall in the influence of MTV has been more than matched by the rise in the persuasive power of MySpace pages, MP3 blogs, and YouTube clips. Cool and hip tracks seem to be discovered, debated and discarded online almost exclusively by the kids themselves. How does a record label manage that process? How can an advertiser leverage it? They want to turn to researchers, but this is a much different environment.
From my perspective, kids today appear to be more discerning when it comes to music and entertainment. They create their own content and share it. They seem more comfortable deciding for themselves if something is cool, entertaining or relevant. You need look no further than YouTube's incredible popularity to understand how differently media is consumed today. In my experience, attempting to understand this behavior is incredibly challenging. Recruiting, cooperation, panel management are all much more difficult and render many traditional research tools of limited value. As a researcher, this development is fascinating and troubling at the same time. Our predecessors in the 1980s had it easy. Talk to a couple of kids, find out what interests them and run with it. That won't work today, at least not very well, and certainly not with any consistency.
So what is a researcher to do? Small samples are not the answer, despite what the old guard constantly preaches. Panels may be a part of the equation, but they will only be a small part. In the long term I believe almost all media consumption data will be available (in a privacy-compliant fashion) as a requirement for advertising support. With consumption data, most content will remain free to the end user. Product integration will be honest and more or less seamless. Advertising will be targeted and more tolerable. In the short term, I believe service operators who provide Internet, television and mobile communications will provide researchers with very interesting, cross-media consumption data. With access to that kind of information, we can begin to answer basic but interesting questions:
· Do you want to know how media consumption changes when someone gets a new iPhone, Samsung Instinct, or HTC Touch? How much of their total television viewing do 18-54 adult iPhone owners watch on their phones? How does the availability of mobile video affect large-screen-television viewership?
· If someone in a household streams season one and two of "Battlestar Galactica" on Hulu or on their iPhone, at what rate do they convert to loyal first run "BG" fans on the SciFi channel?
· How much of a premium should Toyota be asked to pay to send addressable advertisements to only those households who had "shopped" for hatchbacks in the last three weeks on motors.ebay.com or autos.yahoo.com?
· What are the best times of day and week to incorporate cost-per-action campaigns on cable networks, Internet news sites and Mobile Yahoo?Finding people to participate in panels is hard enough, but the fantastic splintering of the distribution models associated with media makes the process financially impractical. Cross-media consumption is here to stay. We should admit it and make new plans to address it. Even if the powers that be say it isn't a big deal. Where my generation wanted its MTV, the current teenage generation wants its iPhone, its MySpace, its Twitter, its Morpheus and its ComedyCentral/Cartoon/BET/ESPN/MTV/FOX television. These venues compete constantly for kids' attention. Entertainment will never be the same again. If they truly want to understand how media is consumed, researchers must take note and change the tools in their tool box.