Here’s some scant comfort in the Year Of Blood: it’s not just us.
The computer industry, for instance: bad times. Huge drops in hardware and software sales over the past few months, and nothing that can be blamed on failed IPOs or the Internet. Computer companies have been pumping out better products than ever: better CPUs, better CD burners, better monitors and encyclopedias. And nobody’s buying. I shouldn’t say nobody; whenever I pop into CompUSA the store is packed. There’s no doubt that technology makes quantum leaps in quality every month, and there’s half the problem. Take CD writers. They finally got the kinks out of them when they hit 12x speeds, but less than six months later, 16x writers have hit, with 25x writers on their tails. What’s the point in keeping up? Most non-professionals don’t really have the urge to write an entire CD in less than three minutes anyway – they don’t say it but the target audience for these things is really preteens (the way preteens were the “secret” target audience for Joe Camel) desperate to have a cool “personal rip” of the latest Backstreet Boys song before it’s forgotten by the world at large, and at that speed you need to copy it in under three minutes – and if you’ve got a 12x already, where’s the incentive to upgrade? Everyone knows by now they can just sit tight with a 12x for a couple years then upgrade to 72x or whatever’s the standard then. Is anyone still interested in jumping to the next incremental improvement every few months at the cost of a few hundred bucks? I still know guys who chomp at the bit every time some CPU manufacturer cranks up the chip speed another tenth of a megahertz, but they’re an endangered species. Most of my old computer maven pals now only get excited by full megahertz jumps, and even they’re not interested in shelling out for the new memory types and motherboards and various other accoutrements such improvements demand for “full performance.” Only true gaming nuts go bonkers for faster video cards, and most of the improvements in games – resolution and hexagon density – are due to the videocards, not the game designers. There haven’t been enough intrinsic improvements to computer games in the past three years except improved scenery to merit discussion except among the cognoscenti, and no business stays afloat solely on the cognoscenti, as the comics business has learned. Business software – hell, even web browsers – have reached the point where it’s obvious to everyone the few meager improvements upgrades provide don’t merit the price of the upgrade. For business users – the bread and butter of the computer industry – no business software has yet made use of the vast speed improvements the new memory and CPU chips provide, and until that happens, businesses can’t justify the upgrade expense, just as kids may long to wear basketball shoes with Michael Jordan’s name on them but when push comes to shove they can get by perfectly well with Keds. Complicating matters is the computer industry’s dirty little secret that the vast majority of people and businesses who need computers now have them or have access to them, so sales of new computers are falling rapidly too. It’s no longer a buyer’s market, it’s an upgrader’s market, and those with are far more likely to settle for what they’ve got than those without.
Does anyone believe advertising anymore, in any medium? Advertising in America is built on Pavlovian principles: you can teach a dog to salivate by ringing a bell. You can teach a TV viewer or a magazine reader to desperately want a candy bar or a can of beer just by seeing a picture of it in the hand of a buxom bikinied blonde. And you know what? You can! Except Pavlov himself, during his experiments, warned the Soviet masters not to get too worked up over it because conditioning has to be constantly reinforced by rewards. Just as quickly as a dog can be taught to expect a reward when he hears the bell, he will learn not to listen to the bell if there’s consistently no reward on the back end. And people are worse. We’re now in a culture where people have been systematically bombarded with lies – whoops, I mean advertising – for 50 years, and the upshot is nobody pays attention to it anymore. Technology periodically upends advertising and throws ad agencies into disarray. LAUGH-IN introduced the quick cut to staid American TV (others had used it; LAUGH-IN made it an institution) and suddenly advertisers had to worry about whether their ads looked hiply kinetic enough. Don’t want people thinking that toothpaste is just for squares, daddy-o. (Nike, Beneton and dozens of other companies continue this lunatic legacy today.) 15 years later the videotape recorder caused another crisis in advertising: fast-forwarding (a major benefit of the VCR: the ability to race past ads) made most commercials incomprehensible and ignorable. The only real sin in advertising is an ad the audience can ignore. So now you have ads that focus on selling not a product but a company, where the image may move with blazing rapidity but the name lingers so solidly no VCR in the world can obliterate it.
So why are ad companies in the dumps? Television. Since the 60s TV has been the prime market for advertising, with the medium’s potential for captive audiences bombarded with ads in their own home, held helpless and spending in the hypnotic cobalt blue TV glow. Hell, ads turned into mini-TV shows within TV shows. (Remember the running Taster’s Choice soap opera?) The problem? The networks are hemorrhaging viewers. Sure, ER gets a huge 21 share (of course, it used to be shows were cancelled for only getting 21 share, but a 21 share then represented a lot fewer TV sets than a 21 share now does, and it used to be comics were cancelled if they sold fewer than 300,000 copies), but establishing a show is next to impossible these days. NBC cancelled their new lawyer show, FIRST DAYS (stunk), after the third episode, which had sunk to ratings bordering on the XFL’s, and CBS cancelled its cop opera BIG APPLE (not bad and potentially terrific, with a great cast: Michael Madsen, Ed Neill, Jeffrey Pierce, David Straithern, Donnie Wahlberg – and, yet, nobody watched!) after five shows. And CBS thought BIG APPLE, rounding out a Thursday sched opening with megahit SURVIVOR and out-of-the-blue hit CSI (no doubt helped by CBS’s old timer audience who remember the show from when it was called QUINCY), would be the second season’s runaway smash. Even shows starting off with great ratings have little hope of longevity: it wasn’t six months ago ABC was gloating over the ratings for the execrable GEENA DAVIS SHOW, and now they’re burbling desperately over the “incredible reception” Joan Cusack’s histrionic WHAT ABOUT JOAN? is getting in the same time slot. Here’s what the real problem is for networks: ratings are predicted, and ad rates sold on the basis of those predictions. If ratings don’t materialize, networks have to make it up to advertisers one way or another, and that costs networks money. Networks don’t like to lose money. They blame it on cable TV, the way comics publishers blame declining sales on the availability of too much else on the market (add up sales of every comics sold in a month, they argue, and total sales will reach what they were in Marvel’s heyday… which is an interesting theory, but I don’t know anyone who has ever actually done the math) but have the HOME AND GARDEN NETWORK, BRAVO and ANIMAL NETWORK really chipped away the audience? I remember when cable TV was promised as a Mecca of creativity, where bold new ideas would burst forth and challenge consensus reality with grand auteurial visions. When I go around the dial all I see is reruns of old TV shows. The big winners in cable TV: sports (ESPN), kids programming (Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network), movies (HBO, Showtime) and porn. Huge, clearly defined markets inadequately served by networks. With a few exceptions like UPN and the WB daring to actually tailor some of their programming to African-Americans, the networks and their programming are interchangeable, and have been for years. Personally, I don’t get SURVIVOR, but I understand its appeal: if nothing else, it’s something different. Meanwhile, TV networks can’t figure out why their audiences are shrinking and their profits are plunging.
Movies aren’t in much better shape. Sure, there are Big Blockbuster Hits, but those are a tiny fraction of movies made and even those aren’t stopping movie theaters from closing their doors in record numbers. And it’s not like everyone’s waiting to see film on video; video stores are also succumbing in record numbers to intense competition. Game stores are struggling, and there has been no must-have breakout computer game in years. In fact, sales of virtually everything across the board are in major decline, as witnessed by last year’s Christmas dance (echoing the two previous Xmas seasons) of a flurry of propaganda… whoops, I mean news stories… proclaiming holiday buying sprees of Biblical proportions at the beginning of the buying season, and ending the season with a number of obituaries… damn, I mean news stories… about how slow sales were and how much stores are hurting.
And don’t get started on the Internet. A quick scan of three years of WIRED magazine tells that tale. Three years ago every issue prominently featured articles on cutting edge I-commerce virtuosos and how they turned their visions into millions and changed the way humanity viewed the world. Every issue now prominently features dissections of failed E-ntrepreneurs and how their great dreams were skewered by financial realities they thumbed their noses at. Remember when the Internet was the great tool that would change the world? And it has, but not the way money wants it to. Advertisers who once saw the Internet as irresistibly hip now bemoan that nobody pays attention to their ads. Yet great conglomerates are even now joining forces and spitting out half-baked philosophies about how the next step for the Internet is content an audience will pay for. Something besides porn, they mean. But audiences have showed continued reluctance to pay for Internet content. Why should they when so much of it is free and so much more of it is ephemeral beyond belief? Maybe when technology and price has reached the happy intersection of instant gratification (as opposed to today’s unending downloads) and $99 annual unlimited high speed access, but it seems the Internet is settling down to its original purpose: not a boom to commerce but a conduit for information.
Comic books traditionally have always been behind the times but maybe we’re ahead of the curve now. Here’s the good news: we’re social trendsetters! The bad news: the trend we set was the rapid collapse of paying markets. So it’s not just us. We live in a world where too many people have been promised too many things by too many con men who called it entertainment just too many times.
It’s not just comics. It’s all entertainment. Entertainment just isn’t entertaining anymore. There’s no reason to care about it, because there was never any reason in the first place. It’s what happens when you let marketers make the decisions about what people ought to find entertaining. It’s unfulfillable promise, leaving miles of dead golden geese in its wake.
And that, if you can find the happy intersection of money and imagination, is what’s called opportunity.
How’s that for comfort?
In the middle of moving. Love the house, but there are still a couple problems: the garage door opener only seems to work from inside the garage, limiting its usefulness, and my phones aren’t working so I have no idea how I’m going to send this in. We’ll see. No other notes at the moment because I have to go rewire the damn stereo.
Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Who’s your favorite comics creator that you’ve discovered in the last six months, and what’s so special about them?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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