Media Predictions for 2008

The future promises loss, revenge, surprise...or something like that

Disclosure: I probably shouldn't be doing this. If you went by my predictions, John Kerry is President, the Republicans still control the Senate, Katie Couric's ratings trounce the competition, and Nirvana is another also-ran band from the early '90s. But look at this past year in media. Among many other things, Rupert Murdoch's buying Dow Jones (DJ), Don Imus got fired (and then rehired), and an eccentric real estate billionaire named Sam Zell has a deal in place to buy Tribune Co. (TRB) while only putting up around 4% of the purchase price.

Who foresaw any of that?

Thought so. With all this in mind, some of the big stories of 2008 likely lurk below.

Daily newspapers begin to redefine the word "daily." At least one U.S. newspaper in a top-100 market will stop taking "daily" literally and drop its (historically thin) Saturday print edition. Other papers in smaller markets also do so, in some cases going further by dropping print publication on another day as well.

More than one famous band pulls a Radiohead. That is, these bands release the digital version of an album online on a pay-what-you-want basis—and then sign to an actual label to press and distribute a million or so CDs to retailers around the world. But one such band will go whole hog and release said CD without signing to a label, in yet another sign that the iceberg of the music business is melting faster and faster.

Wall Street Journal readers and staffers concede that the News Corp. (NWS) purchase has not destroyed their paper. In fact, many admit Murdoch's company has proven to be a better owner than the previous regime.

Jeff Bewkes moves very quickly to remake Time Warner. In addition to previously surmised moves (Time Warner Cable (TWC) spin-off, the sale of AOL's (TWX) access business), news will surface that AOL is exploring a broad partnership and/or deal with either Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), or Yahoo! (YHOO)—and is engaging in discussions with the others despite the inherent complication that Google already owns 5% of AOL at a $20 billion valuation. And magazine unit Time Inc. slims down by selling its IPC stable of British magazines.

New York Times Co. continues to stonewall the current media environment, making few changes in either management or company portfolio while waiting for the business to stabilize (NYT). Faint light at the end of the tunnel appears near the end of 2008 as severe revenue declines begin to slow (finally), although they don't reverse.

Technological issues continue to make cell phones an undernourished and disappointing media platform in America; claims of rapid growth on either the ad or the programming side fail to materialize.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin's half-a-loaf bid to undo the laws preventing newspapers from owning television stations in the same market goes nowhere.

Amazon's (AMZN) Kindle e-book reader is stillborn. Version 2.0 adds color and Web functionality, and the device achieves middling success—but as a portable Web browser, not an e-reader.

Increasing chatter swirls around two possible post-election developments: Katie Couric will leave the CBS (CBS) Evening News before her current contract expires, and General Electric (GE) will sell NBC Universal. In one case, the chatterers eventually are proven right.

In a bid to broaden the data it gathers on users and what it can offer advertisers, Google takes a first tentative crack at designing an operating platform for cable operators' set-top boxes.

Microsoft significantly de-emphasizes its media offerings, and instead ramps up selling its online ad solutions to other players.

Mounting citizen ire over toothache-inducing media and marketing clichés leads to threats of a general strike. Congress unanimously passes legislation banning any form of the following phrases: "The consumer is in control"; Wanamaker's apocryphal maxim that half of his advertising is wasted, but he just doesn't know which half; the term "content"; "If we build it, they will come"; and any references to media properties being "brands" and not mere newspapers, magazines, or TV shows.

But maybe that last one is just wishful thinking.

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