Is Mainstream Media Ready for its Online Close-Up?

A former colleague from my career-in-television era now heads interactive ad sales for a major cable broadcaster. Over lunch last week, he smilingly confided, “The guy down the hall who hasn’t talked to me in three years makes me come to all his meetings now. He doesn’t want to look stupid in front of our two biggest advertisers, GM and P&G. They won’t do network buys anymore unless there’s a broadband component.”

I’m glad my friend’s career is revving, but he’s someone I can be frank with. After expressing congratulations, I asked if it isn’t a problem that his network of Web sites doesn’t offer much in the way of rich media or video content. To be honest, the sites kind of suck.

He plunked back down to earth. “Management has been really slow to act in terms of investing in any technology or design for online,” my friend sighed. “The thinking was always, ‘We’re a TV company, not a Web site.'”

As recently as five years ago, media companies safely considered their Web sites mere brand extensions; summoned into existence to promote a core print or broadcast product. A site wasn’t a product unto itself.

It is now. Media companies have woken up with a jolt. TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines are all ad supported, and they get the fact that readers, watchers, listeners, and advertisers expect them to have nice, deep, engaging multimedia Web sites. The catch is nearly all media companies have a core competency, whether it be print, moving images, or audio. But the Web is King of All Media. That means media companies are moving away from their comfort zones. In many cases, far, far away.

NYTimes.com hosts video and slideshows. Slate just launched podcasting. CBS News on-air journalists are blogging. Down is up, up is down. As traditional media outlets race to compete with competitors they hadn’t even met 10 years ago (Yahoo, AOL, MSN, and Google, to name a few) and to meet audience and advertiser expectations, are they succeeding or do they just get an “E” for effort — and extra-expensive inventory?

In this new landscape, every medium must master all the media, and the real media masters want to master the Web (welcome back, Rupert). There were certainly signs of this early on. It must have been part of the reasoning behind AOL TimeWarner and Barry Diller’s IAC. It’s why top Yahoo executives, such as Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun, were plucked from Hollywood studios.

There’s something else here reminiscent of Hollywood — old Hollywood. Remember what happened when the talkies came in? Careers were dashed. Stars of the silver screen who seemed permanent fixtures in the firmament crashed and burned the moment they opened their mouths to speak. Both the art and the craft of filmmaking were radically transformed.

How does this translate to the Web? Studio marketing departments must be thrilled they can push trailers and promo reels to NYTimes.com. The “Willy Wonka” reel was the featured clip on its home page. Heck, back when I was doing feature film marketing, we messengered printed press kits over to Vincent Canby.

“The Times”‘ current lead film critic, A.O. Scott, reads his “Wonka” review over video clips from the film. Know what? I’d rather read his review. I guess what I’m trying to say nicely is that Scott isn’t the most telegenic guy in the world.

Some of my best friends are film critics. I was one once, too. We like to watch. Most professional print critics aren’t electrifying screen personalities. These are people who, after all, elected to spend the bulk of their professional lives in dark rooms looking at electrifying screen personalities.

Staying with the Gray Lady, another top home page video feature last week was a series of clips from North Korea — not something you see every day. Eagerly, I clicked the first spot. The very first word of the voiceover narration was “I.” The mystery voice went on to talk about the last time “I was in Korea,” about how “I got a visa.”

Who? Who? I scanned the video window for a byline. Zilch. Nothing in the promotional home page box, either. It wasn’t until I recognized “Times” columnist Nicholas Krystof when he finally appeared in a frame (and let’s face it, Krystof is a well-known print journalist but hardly boasts the visual recognition quotient of Uncle Walter).

Krystof’s OpEd page and his North Korea columns link to the video, too. It took “The Times” a long time to make that synchronous step. But I didn’t get here from there. I arrived from the big, fat, featured-video-of-the-day home page link. It’s not often one gets to North Korea, even vicariously. Introductions to traveling companions are certainly in order. Bylines aren’t optional in certain types of journalism.

Having picked on “The Times,” I hasten to add such production and personnel foibles occur when TV and radio sites write for the Web; when TV companies find their sites have to move beyond HTML; or when a myriad of other print media outlets find themselves confronted with the new, all-singing, all-dancing, always-on Internet.

Advertisers and marketers buy media to be associated with brands, context, audiences, and a certain level of professionalism and credibility.

Will old dogs learn new tricks? Will writers send in reels, in addition to clips, when job-hunting? Will news announcers be expected to craft paragraphs in addition to being heads that talk? And if they can’t, will the media buys (and audiences) eventually flow elsewhere, to companies that really are Masters of All Media?

Somewhere between citizen journalism and global media conglomerates on the scale of News Corp., a lot of media companies out there are cramming on new skill sets.

‘Scuse me, but I gotta go. This columnist is due in makeup and wardrobe.

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