A daredevil hung upside down for 60 hours high above a pond in Central Park for an ABC special last week as the financial markets teetered on the brink of apparent collapse.
David Blaine survived, and with luck and a brief bridging of the partisan gulf that has divided us for far too long, hopefully we will, too.
But the Blaine special, which had to be pushed back 15 minutes or so to let the president tell us we were on the brink of financial disaster, reminded us of those grainy black-and-white newsreels from the 1930s of flagpole sitters and others whose dangerous stunts tried to distract a nation in the depths of the Depression. We half-expected to see suddenly down-at-the heels stockbrokers selling used Apple iPods on Wall Street from pushcarts.
Even with a bailout, a recession is still on the table, and that could mean more pain and dislocation for a media industry already feeling the effects of a shifting ad market and the sea change in their business. A year or so ago, the automotive and financial services industries were among media's leading advertisers, and not too long before that, Merrill Lynch bragged that it made money the old-fashioned way. It earned it. Quaint.
As Neil Begley, senior VP of media, entertainment and sports for Moody's Investors Services, says in this week's B&C, as Americans start hearing words like “depression” and seeing banks fail, it's not likely they will be increasing their spending going into the holiday season. That's a mindset that will have an obvious negative trickle-down effect on television, radio and Internet advertising. On the local level, Begley fears advertisers won't just pull back; they'll go under.
The movie studios in the 1930s thrived on being the great American dream machine; they offered escape. Of course, the equation has changed. In the '30s, the film industry just had to make movies. Today, the TV business has had to invest in new—and sometimes overlapping—business models, including cable, broadcast and the Internet. And with a tight credit market, that's a tough trick.
Probably like many television executives, Stu Snyder, who heads up the Cartoon Network, last week was taking the glass-half-full approach. “The reality is that, obviously, it is tough out there. But our job is to produce and deliver great entertainment options and we think we do that through TV, and it is very important that we continue to do so.”
Still, television cannot just be about escape. This is the time for news divisions to step up and show us the unvarnished truth about our situation, to keep an unblinking eye on the presidential tickets and their capacity to lead through difficult times, and to help explain what is actually going on and what it could mean to our fortunes, both literally and figuratively. And even though the financial crisis occurs smack-dab in the middle of the premiere season, now is the time for voters to seriously explore the issues and the consequences in the coming elections. The answers matter all the way from Wall Street to Main Street…to Wisteria Lane.