Monday, February 28, 2011

Modern Media Culture

By Howard Thomas
Are we making too much of modern media culture?  Sure we are obsessed with consumerism, and certainly shopping has replaced politicians.  There are no serious magazines in South Africa, and even the Financial Mail has had to resort to a whole lifestyle section.

But is this new?

I won’t compare current South African media with present and past media culture in the Western countries.  This may have been so in white South Africa, but new South Africa displays its own characteristics that have no precedent as the new media is only 20 or so years old.

In workshops on audience psychology with media professionals, I ask round the room “What is your personal favourite magazine?”  This yields a narrow range of True Love, You, heat, FHM.  Note: no sports or in-house mags.

Does this tell me anything? Yes it tells me that media professionals share common interests which seem to permeate society.  Do media professionals lead taste?  I don’t think so.  The field is too competitive, and I think they follow the American system of “Do what everyone else does differently, but for God’s sake, don’t do anything different.”  My evidence: look at new mags launched: they always fit into a gap within a niche.

And radio and TV? Much the same.  The specific language stations have it easy; people never listen to the radio in a language they can’t understand.  But the English-speaking music and talk stations?  They have it rough, and they follow each other, either by stealing someone else’s DJ, or doing a shock jock stunt. DJ’s are carefully followed also because Kuli Roberts follows them, and they’ll trek to another station to follow their jock idol.  Nothing new here. Talk is always “controversial” unless it is serious, in which case your station goes the same way as SAfm.

Television? Well, it’s hard to follow trends on SABC because it is now a state broadcaster more than ever before and it fills the time in-between with repeats of local programmes and über-cheap foreign reality crap.
M-net is certainly more reflective and its spread to 6 million or so viewers tells us a lot.

Struggle is out; young black professionals having sex is in. Celebs are in; politicians are out. Celebs must toe the celeb line – in which case even professors can become celebs.  Simply because celebs must be well-known for being well-known and NOT for any personal or intellectual attributes whatsoever.

New rich and failed rich is better than old and successful rich. Gay is always more interesting than straight, but straight have sex in a way most viewers identify with – as long as they talk about it. (Ref: the Kiss - Khanyi Mbau).

All these media and young hip cultural activities horrify the old and conservative, which is why they follow it avidly – presumably because it is their duty to be morals watchdogs.

But it seems that the old ways have not changed. Stolley’s Law of magazine covers, from People editor Richard Stolley, dating now dating from the early 70s, now applies to content. “Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. TV is better than music. Music is better than movies. Movies are better than sports. Anything is better than politics. And nothing is better than a celebrity who has just died.” Evidence: any news broadcast, magazine shows and local schlock reality.

The same adages that we followed in the same years for content still apply: tell the audience they may be ill and you’ve got them. Tell them they can overcome misery themselves, but give them the formula in easy steps (usually five). Shock them with a scandal that permeates their very existence, like sell- by-date on chickens. When your ratings are rock bottom, interview the Flat Earth Society[1], or any other lunatic fringe. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Howard Thomas has been working in entertainment and media for 40 years since graduating in economics and political science, as well as a drama teaching diploma. He writes, trains and lectures extensively on all aspects of media, specialising in the psychology of entertainment.


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