Last Monday night was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, which was fitting because on that day, the stock market dropped faster than one of the wife's overcooked matzo balls.
It's also fitting that many people in the business headed to a synagogue to pray that night. The broadcast television industry, which already could use a little divine intervention, now has to turn to the heavens and hope the economic roller coaster doesn't keep dragging the business on a downward slide.
One of the people who went to shul that night was the guy who this columnist turns to for economic translation: Jim Cramer. You've seen the Mad Money host in this column before because he fits right in: He likes to scream a lot and, like me, would save a few bucks if barbers charged by the hair.
So I called Cramer and when he'd finally stopped screaming about his Philadelphia Phillies, he told me why he went to synagogue in the middle of an economic crisis.
“Everyone there said, 'Jim, how can you be here right now?'” he said. “And I said, 'Sandy Koufax did not pitch in the World Series [on a Jewish holiday], so there is definitely no reason someone like me needs to be on television.'”
Plus, what could he do? Like the rest of us, Cramer now has to wait and see what the latest economic curveball will mean to our business. He gets paid to pick stocks, but as he put it, no one has seen anything like this, so prognostication is futile.
The first worry, of course, is that advertising is going to get even tougher to come by as marketing budgets are slashed. Clearly there are sectors like the already-stalled auto industry that didn't need any more problems. That will be especially bad news for both local broadcast and spot cable.
“We all know television viewing will probably go up because it's such a cheap form of entertainment,”one network chief told me. “But if we can't monetize it, what's the difference?”
Cramer hopes some of that will be offset by a few opportunity-seekers using the chance to up their ad spend to steal market share. He says companies like Lowe's are well-known for this tactic, and properties such as Tivo-proof live sports may be the beneficiaries.
But what of those ratings? Conventional wisdom says they should go up in bad times, but right now broadcast TV has no buzz whatsoever. No new shows have exploded into the pop culture ether, and the ratings for many of the returning assets have been as depressing as a late-season game at Shea Stadium.
The truth is that any buzz normally reserved for the fall season has been utterly swallowed up by the election and Wall Street. Last week I heard countless more people talking about the Sarah Silverman “Great Schlep” video and Tina Fey's latest Sarah Palin turn than anything in primetime. Come to think of it, I don't think I heard anyone talking about anything in primetime.
And advertising is not the only media domino that's teetering at the moment. There are movie tickets and DVDs to sell, and companies like Disney and NBC Universal have theme parks to worry about.
And what about the M&A marketplace? Would a deal like NBC's recent Weather Channel purchase have a chance right now?
If you believe Cramer, people may be too scared to buy anyway. “I've never seen anything like this,” he said. “The market is being so irrational that no one trusts prices right now, so no one wants to buy.”
While some industry insiders have mentioned to me that it may be a good time for Viacom and CBS to get back in bed together, the consummation outlook across the media business may be about as bleak as my high school days.
Back then, I used to pray a lot for that to get better. It didn't work out then, either.