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TV Vanquished by AOL's Live 8? Not Quite

It turns out that reports of the death of TV at the hands of Live 8 and America Online were greatly exaggerated.

Soon after the July 2 concerts, the conventional wisdom set in: The event was a turning point in the way people consume entertainment, as millions more viewers chose to watch AOL’s video streams of performances from venues around the world instead of tuning in to ABC’s or MTV’s ad-riddled, wretchedly produced day-long presentation. Why, just look at the numbers! Five million for AOL and just 2.9 million for ABC! “MTV and sister station VH1 had an average viewership of only 2.2 million viewers,” the Los Angeles Times said of the channels’ “soft ratings.”

In a bit of typical post-concert analysis, the Philadelphia Inquirer said, “The Internet left cable in the dust. To put it bluntly, MTV sank and AOL soared.”

The first warning sign should have been the trumpeting of AOL as cool and popular—the last time anyone heard that was, oh, about 1998. It turns out that the ratings being bandied about resulted in apples-and-oranges comparisons, unless you read the fine print. AOL’s 5 million figure was a cumulative number; the average viewership was 175,000 at any one time.

It’s like tallying the number of people in Chicago’s O’Hare airport right now versus the cumulative number who will pass through it today. The ABC and MTV numbers in the 2 millions were averages. The networks’ cumulative audiences: 16.2 million for ABC’s two hours of coverage, and 13.3 million and 9.1 million, respectively, for MTV’s and VHI’s eight-hour simulcasts. Oh, and AOL’s numbers were global, not just U.S.

The aesthetics of the coverage was another thing. Clearly, AOL won that war, and a chastened MTV and VHI announced a do-over telecast for July 9 that showcased the music instead of the talking airheads.

A VNR Fixer

As threats to restrict government-produced video news releases reached a fever pitch on Capitol Hill this spring, Medialink CEO Laurence Moskowitz—whose company is a major distributor of VNRs—didn’t mess around. He hired Public Strategies Inc., a Texas-based lobbying and political-image firm. Moskowitz wanted some high-powered help to fight legislation that would greatly restrict how TV stations could use one of his biggest products, prepackaged news clips that can be run as full stories with little editing.

Public Strategies has close ties to the White House. Its vice chairman, Mark McKinnon, oversaw Bush campaign advertising in 2000 and 2004 (he was on B&C’s June 27 list of Washington’s 10 most influential “Hidden Persuaders”). Public Strategies’ chief Washington lobbyist, Billy Moore, is working the VNR issue in Congress.

As it happens, Congress appears set to enact a measure that mirrors the disclosure practice Medialink has followed since 1989. Two weeks ago, the House passed a measure that would require VNRs to carry disclosures identifying the government agencies that produced them. But it would not force TV stations to air the disclosures as some lawmakers demanded. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens favors a similar approach.

Citing a confidentiality agreement with Medialink, Moore declined a request for an interview, but Moskowitz was happy to chat about the grappling over VNR regulation. He’s pleased with the way the legislation is wending its way through Congress, but he plays down Public Strategies’ influence. Instead, he says, “I think worries about VNRs have died down.”

Nevertheless, he’s keeping Public Strategies on the payroll to help make sure the Senate rejects a tougher bill that would prohibit stations from stripping out disclosures.

A Little Late

Here’s the headline of the CBS press release: “FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, 'THE LATE LATE SHOW’ DELIVERS MORE VIEWERS THAN 'LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN.”

Here’s the asterisked editor’s note: “Last week, NBC’s late-night programs were rebroadcasts and delayed due to Wimbledon highlights.”

It’s not that we don’t sympathize with publicists, whose job it is to find silver linings, but this looks like an unforced error. When you’re flogging Craig Ferguson’s chat show and you’re reduced to crowing about beating repeats of Conan that aired late because of tennis coverage, maybe the low-key approach would be best. Still, a tip of the hat to CBS for admitting the special circumstances of the “first ever” triumph.

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