MediaPost had major media luminaries onstage Wednesday for a lively discussion about media at -- appropriately -- the New York Times Center. Holding forth on everything from screen sizes to ad revenue were Mark Cuban, Martha Stewart, Bob Garfield, and New York magazine founder Milton Glazer as well as venture capitalist and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman; Rob Norman, worldwide CEO of Group M Interaction; Susan Whiting, EVP of The Nielsen Company; and Judy McGrath, CEO of MTV Networks.
And with Cuban, the Dallas-based media billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, holding forth, coffee wasn't even necessary.
The heavy hitters were at the second annual panel to prognosticate about the future of media, and Cuban made the point early on that this very conversation could have been moved back 15 years and nobody would have been the wiser.
MTV's McGrath said that -- more than the proliferation of screens and "atomization" of content -- for the kids and teens who make up a big chunk of the demographic for MTV and its properties, "we have the advantage of a brand, and we have relevance, which has always been the name of our game." New media, she said, is opportunity: "Social media, mobile -- these are opportunities for more people to fall in love with Jon Stewart."
She also made the compelling point that comedy, perhaps more than music, has become the defining marker of who young people are. "Comedy Central is one of our properties. We are still finding ways to monetize that experience." And that means more than mere advertising. Recent campaigns include a launch program for Microsoft's Bing that allowed people to see an extra two minutes of "The Daily Show" and fast-forward through ads to do so. "It's a great time to find out how to connect to consumers and monetize content," she said.
Martha Stewart said that Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has not changed its business strategy to fit new media. "We still have the same business we developed 17 years ago; it still works. At the center of the model is content directed to consumers." She said that while the Internet has always been a part of that model, "[the fact] that we haven't monetized the Internet is a challenge, but the model works. We are a brand trusted by the consumer, who is all-important to us, and we want to make that connection with the advertiser."
Mark Cuban made the point that when content becomes free, the legacy of a perceived value in it drops to nothing, and that an assertion that new media means smaller, more portable screens is a fallacy.
"For me, the Internet is becoming stale. So, what's next?" He followed that rhetorical question with another one: What was the most memorable thing about the Dallas Cowboys game in their new stadium? "The No. 1 thing was that seven-story-high, 70-yard-long screen. You couldn't take your eyes off of it. Would you pay 20 bucks to watch U2 on a seven-story-high screen? "If marketers focus solely on the Internet, they are missing the good stuff." To wit, digitally enabled platforms that enable better social experiences. "Watching TV on a PC is last century. That's why free is such a big issue. Because it's so mature. The opportunities are elsewhere."
Bob Garfield was not so sanguine. "I can see the way forward," he said. "In the very near future, everyone in this room will be in the fetal position, whimpering. Never mind what technology offers; never mind high-quality content. There will be nobody to pay for it."
He said the fundamental problem is fragmentation and ad avoidance. "There's a glut of supply, and it will destroy the critical mass to produce high-quality content. The DVR, Craigslist and the Internet have newspapers and broadcast."
Garfield noted that two of the top four broadcast networks are talking about becoming cable outlets. "That's smart," he said. "Cable has much better prospects than broadcast in the way that it's much better to have multiple sclerosis than Lou Gehrig's disease."
Both Cuban and Group M's Norman said big screens have a future, and a potentially brighter one than the Internet window. "We think there is still a premium to be paid for richness and quality of image, and volume of reach for an audience at any given point in time," said Norman.