Home > Uncategorized > The Best or Worst of Times?

The Best or Worst of Times?

-first posted at RJIonline.org on March 8, 2014

Arriving in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, I was curious about what to expect at the festival. Though I’ve never been before, the combination of music, film and interactive elements has drawn me for a long time. When the chance to represent RJI at the festival came up, I jumped at the chance. Since my plane landed fairly late on Friday, the sessions for the day were pretty much over. So I decided to immerse myself in the festival by walking the streets around the convention center and soaking up the Austin weirdness.

images_rjibestworstIs this the best or worst of times in media?

Strolling down Sixth Street, the scene that played out in front of me suddenly struck me as a microcosm of the state of media today. As throngs of people walked along the crowded street, some stopped to enjoy a bit of free entertainment. About every other block, street musicians sat in the street and serenaded the crowds with gutsy blues, pumping rock or fluffy pop. Passersby could stop and listen for free, take a picture or two, or—if they wished—make a donation to the tip jar sitting out front.
By contrast, lines stretched around the block for entry into private parties thrown by tech and media giants. Once inside the parties, convention attendees would be wined, dined and sold on the latest commercial offerings from the vendor footing the bill for the party.

These competing scenes playing out just a block apart could just have well been representing the struggle for the media attention of the public these days. Vast media giants once held a stranglehold over the entertainment available to the public. Production and distribution was expensive and took a huge brick and mortar infrastructure to operate. A handful of companies made that investment and reaped the rewards in massive profits.

images_rjibuskerA busker sings the blues on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest festival

Then the Internet arrived, and along with it, the democratization of media. People were able to share songs, videos and other forms of entertainment, bypassing the corporate source of media. So the companies that once had a guaranteed audience for their programming and the advertising that surrounded it now struggle to compete against what circulates online. And as big money media competed with lone buskers on the streets of Austin this weekend, Friday night revelers exercised their micro rights to consume just as we do on a macro level with our keyboards, mice and remotes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This blog isn’t out to make heroes of the little independent producer and villains of the big corporate media monoliths. Both have contributed and are still contributing a great deal to our media mix. For instance, I’m a rabid consumer these days of what I consider to be some of the best corporate television ever made. The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Game of Thrones—these and more are all must-see TV for me. Even that phrase, “Must-See TV,” speaks to the change in the source of quality in corporate television. NBC used that slogan in the 80s and 90s to sell its quality TV lineup. Now quality is more often attached, not to traditional network TV, but to the cable/satellite channels that have put vast sums of money into making television that’s usually better than what’s playing in movie theaters. Sure, there’s plenty of crap on corporate TV—perhaps the majority of what plays there is garbage. But it is also the same place to find the work of the most talented writers, directors, and artists who have ever worked in the medium.

All that praise is not to say it takes big money and a huge marketing platform to deliver quality in media. Just a week ago, I enjoyed another round of documentary goodness at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo. Two powerful factors echoed there speaking to the excellence found in very small media enterprises. Many of the documentary films that brought the most acclaim were the work of a single person or small team working with almost no money. A hit of the fest was a film called “The Overnighters,” whose director worked almost exclusively by himself to make—including living in a shelter for homeless men for six month to capture his subjects there. That film has found an audience without any real corporate fanfare, reaching small venues at festivals to get word of mouth to carry it forward. Part of that word of mouth comes through social media sharing by those who have seen the film, bringing more like-minded people to look for it. Will it ever be booked in theaters nationwide or air on a major over-the-air network? That’s highly unlikely. But it is already finding critical success despite lacking corporate mass distribution.

images_rjicorporateCrowds line up to enter a party hosted by the A&E network on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest

Likewise at the True/False fest, musical buskers play to crowds as they wait for the lights to go down and projector to roll. Being a regular at the fest, I look forward to seeing many of the same acts each year. And though you’ve probably never heard of The Toughcats, Dubb Nubb or Raya Brass Band, not only do I enjoy their music live each year, but I buy it online to listen to it those weeks they aren’t appearing at the fest. In this case, much as with the documentary scene, true fans of the art can spread the word through social and other means to keep these bands alive and coming back to play year after year. Will these talented artists earn millions and host the Video Music Awards some day? I suspect not. But that one definition of success at the corporate level does not define the quality of the music or how much I enjoy it.

So that scene that first appeared to me Friday night on Sixth Street here in Austin turns out not to be the epic struggle of the entertainment haves and have-nots I first thought it to be. Instead, big corporate TV and small independent artist existing—and even thriving—on the same street is a metaphor for the media mix we enjoy now. I don’t want to see corporate media “win” so I can get more shows like Game of Thrones at the expense of small, independent productions like “The Overnighters.” Nor would I want independent filmmakers to multiply at the cost of losing the big budget, high-quality television that enriches home entertainment. I guess we’re looking at the best of times as long as each can grow and succeed as a complement to the other.

avatar_646Stacey Woelfel is a 2013-2014 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow and the news director of KOMU-TV, the NBC affiliate at the University of Missouri. As a Reynolds Fellow, Woelfel is wanting to add a richer experience to traditional linear television news consumption by developing and exploring second-screen engagement opportunities at KOMU. Second-screen viewing means audience members are using a mobile device to view content while watching news broadcasts. Click here to learn more. 

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