Media Predictions for 2009
Dare we go into the breach with another column's worth of predictions, at the risk of looking shortsighted, foolhardy, and stricken with all manner of naïveté?
Yes, we do. As the media world is distracted by whatever else 2008 will bring, look for all—well, some—of the following to happen next year:
It gets much worse before it gets better. Marketers use the downturn to revamp (and reduce) ad spending. At least one recent, heavily leveraged media deal—Tribune, Univision, Clear Channel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I could go on—goes bankrupt. More than one newspaper in a top-100 market ceases publication or reduces its print edition to something unrecognizable as a daily newspaper. At least one top-50 magazine pulls a TV Guide: It sells itself for something like $1 to a nonindustry entity, presumably for a restructuring that any magazine company would find excruciating.
Online advertising demonstrates it isn't immune to gravity. Online display ad spending underperforms (low) expectations for '09. Those predicting an explosion in advertising on social networks are sorely disappointed. But pundits working for organizations that gross a fraction of MySpace's revenues continue to look dumb by prematurely declaring that News Corp.'s (NWS) social network is finished, even if its glow faded long ago.
Media ownership consolidates. It's driven by players who've conserved cash as well as by international firms looking to buy U.S. assets on the cheap (or at least those they're allowed to own outright, unlike broadcast networks). Sweden's Bonnier Group, which in 2007 bought 18 magazines from Time Inc., bulks up its U.S. holdings. International players entirely new to the U.S. invest in other traditional and online media properties.
After pocketing billions from its cable spin-off, Time Warner (TWX) announces one of two major deals: merging some assets with NBC Universal, or purchasing Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI), which owns HGTV and the Food Network. (My money's on Scripps.) Also: Time Warner untangles itself from AOL. I'm going to keep predicting this until the year I'm right.
Ad pullback whacks big broadcast TV networks. Scripted shows with markedly reduced production values start winning prime-time slots. Serious talk circulates of the Big Four networks shrinking to a Big Three, but said shrinkage does not occur in '09.
Murdoch revisionism takes root. News Corp. (NWS) deploys some of its $6 billion in cash to make a major acquisition, but it leaves investors and observers cold. A spate of stories follows, pointing out the company's poor stock performance and questioning whether any actual strategy animates Chairman Rupert Murdoch's moves.
A picayune change in how magazines count circulation is O.K.'d by industry arbiter Audit Bureau of Circulations. Current rules only allow digital replicas of print magazines to count as paid copies. The rule change will let mags count circulation from a much broader range of paid digital editions; an avalanche of new digital offshoots ensues. Consumers' reaction to them is charitably characterized as "very mixed."
Radio rolls out a sort of hipster-lite format aimed at urban thirty- and forty-somethings consumed by jobs and parenting. It draws surprisingly good ratings in a few markets. This minor triumph is overshadowed by continuing double-digit declines in radio revenues and ongoing concerns about the high debt levels held by many of the sector's biggest players.
New York Times Co. (NYT) sells About.com to buy time for its flagship paper. Company's attempt to reinterest former General Electric (GE) CEO (and current BusinessWeek columnist) Jack Welch in The Boston Globe flops.
A sort of shadow media industry is born—properties created and staffed by those pink-slipped in '08 and '09. This sets the stage for epic clashes with existing players in '10 and beyond.