Column: The University -- New Media Old Habits

My autumn in academia continues here in Los Angeles, as temperatures plunge into the low 70s and the leaves — well, pretty much stay the same color. For those of you who didn’t catch my column here last month, you can follow my foray into teaching on my blog (* But I will review: I was graciously invited to teach a media planning course at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. Annenberg is celebrating its 35th year as one of the country’s preeminent schools for journalism, pr, and communications, and I am honored to be a small part of that tradition.

My ulterior motive for teaching the course was essentially to spend time with the ultimate focus group of impossible-to-reach young adults. As an industry, we are preoccupied with engaging the impenetrable GooTube generation. Like the cops on 21 Jump Street, I would go deep undercover to learn the other side’s ways.

As I write this, the students are taking their midterms, which cover the fundamentals of media. Ironically, they are answering questions about old-school media that, by all accounts, are irrelevant to them: TV, newspapers, and so forth. I have learned by now that these students don’t have a traditional perspective on media. But it’s not clear whether this actually translates to radically different bonds with media. After the equivalent of nearly 1,200 hours verbatim with my private focus group, I have three ideas to share:

>TV frames their world: TV still rules as a source of entertainment and social currency for this group. As a class, we spend nearly as much time talking about user-generated content as we do about traditional TV. Yet their bond with the two forms of media is wildly different. TV shows elicit a passionate and personal level of engagement that, with the exception of LonelyGirl, no viral video has yet achieved. Whether it’s for heady stuff like Lost or guilty pleasures like Flavor of Love, today’s young folks have committed emotionally in a way that user-generated media can’t reliably duplicate.

>… and so does TV advertising: A consequence of their surprisingly TV-centric existence is that TV advertising still claims the lion’s share of their collective consciousness. This was made starkly clear each week as we discussed various brands with media strategies ranging from conservative (pure TV) to alternative (new media). Interestingly, this group of 20-year-olds was most familiar with, and truly fond of, TV commercials. No viral campaign drove unanimous responses like “Oh my God, I love this one. Play it again!”

>Emerging media is still just that: I, probably like many of you, assume that emerging but nearly ubiquitous technologies like wireless and podcasting are becoming staples of young adults’ supposedly finicky media diets. But surprisingly, a tiny fraction of my group downloads podcasts or accesses video on their mobile phones. And by tiny fraction, I mean exactly one person out of 40. While they are all text-messaging addicts (Note to self: Why are so many texting during the midterm?), the idea of watching TV or surfing the Web on a tiny screen was actually laughable to them (“Why would you want to do that? Is your TV broken?”).

Now, I don’t pretend that this is quantitative research. But I thought for sure this group would be the ultimate new-media mavens; this group ought to confirm every media cliché about the demographic. But it doesn’t. After all, these students sit in a position of relative privilege from a technological and socioeconomic perspective. And if they aren’t watching TV on their mobile phones and iPods, who the hell is? If TV is supposed to be dead for young Americans, did I alone find a nearly extinct ecosystem whose habits are circa 1986, not 2006? I doubt it.

In actuality, the paradigm has not yet shifted, but it has been jostled. At the risk of sounding like a media Luddite, claiming the world is flat and TV is still king, I submit that old habits are hard to break, even for a group that is, well, not that old. More important, we have to look past the data, posturing, and headlines to truly understand how young adults bond with communication and media. The answers can be surprising.

*Not a live URL.

Kyle Acquistapace is executive vice president, director of media planning at Deutsch Los Angeles. (

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