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All those political ads remind us: TV needs to adapt—or die

The voters have spoken. The results were appalling, as usual. (I've lived in Arizona since I was 11. Does it show?)

Arizonans will get what they deserve; the American people will get what they deserve; and one hopes that they will like it. At least it's over, and I can answer my phone when it rings. It takes something like election season to make you appreciate the small things, the good things, in life.

You keep hearing about how in, say, Adams vs. Jackson, the candidates said even nastier things about each other. That may be true. However, they did not say them in the voters' homes, over and over and over again.

The new, souped-up, Supreme Court-enhanced political-advertising environment raises some interesting questions. For instance, how long do the networks and their local affiliates think they can survive with only preschoolers and helpless trailer park shut-ins sitting through commercials? (I work in marketing, so you can trust me when I say that is not an advertiser's dream demographic.) Oh, wait, there are also people stuck in waiting rooms where there's a TV blaring—they, too, watch ads. At least those without iPhones do.

Everyone else records whatever's worth watching, or gets it off the Internet and skips the ads. Or at least mutes them. And guess what? Months of nonstop he-said/she-said political advertising just turned a few more percentage points' worth of the remaining passive, commercial-tolerant viewers into alternate-source-seeking ad-avoiders. (My extremely easy-going mother, who always watches the evening news, called around dinnertime a couple of weeks ago just to ask, "Who is paying for this junk? How can they just say these things?!")

It's not that we want to have to figure out how to get the TV and movies we like without the intellectual equivalent of a stinking coat of used crankcase oil. Most of us would rather be shot with tacks than need to scope out our digital-entertainment options, but, really, it gets to the point where what's coming out of your TV starts to feel worse than doing due diligence on TiVo and Hulu. It feels worse, even, than the prospect of calling Cox Cable. And that's saying something.

Traditional TV, IMHO, is now fully engaged in its version of the Morning Newspaper Death Spiral. It goes like this: New information and ad streams arise, and many people start getting much of what you sell from other sources, for free. Your income decreases. You fire your highest-paid people to save money, causing the quality and volume of the information you provide to go down; critically, you are increasingly unable to supply your only distinguishing asset: informed, reliable coverage of your community. (A large number of readers turn to the local alternative paper—yay!—which is free, locally obsessed and largely funded by lust, an inexhaustible resource.) Subscriptions continue to drop, and the classifieds are gone, baby, gone. You blame your troubles on Craigslist and fading literacy—O tempora! O mores!—fire more people, use more stuff from the wires, and run more and larger photos of people's dogs. Your newspaper gets thinner, and even the people who absolutely must have a paper to read at breakfast become increasingly disgusted. You try to sell the weekly TV listings separately, and hide the comics behind the one page of remaining classifieds, which makes everyone hate you. Finally, your paper is reduced to a frail skin to wrap around real-estate ads. Sadly, that industry is having its own troubles, and, besides, it's rapidly moving online. And, oh, here, over in the right-hand margin, sucking up small-business ad revenue: Groupon! (Cue the death march.)

The same thing is happening to the networks, with slightly different contours and mostly without all the journalistic angst. (Network TV news ... yeah, whatever.) We've been conditioned by many decades of passively accepting what's on, but the fatalism is wearing off fast, in the face of a zillion choices and easier ways to make them. Pummeling viewers with months of ads they hate, hate, hate (and which one study after another shows to be ineffective at changing people's minds, anyway) is just causing the networks to collapse even more quickly into pathetic crumped-up shadows of their former selves.

Adapt or die. Evolution: It's not just for finches anymore.

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