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A media recession like few others

The American media market was already in turmoil before the terrible events of Sept 11. The terrorist attacks accelerated changes already occuring across the media landscape. By Jane Weaver.
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The American media market was already in turmoil before the terrible events of Sept 11. Advertising revenues were shrinking even as TV networks, magazine and newspaper publishers were fighting for attention from increasingly fragmented audiences. The Internet was reeling from the dot-com implosion. The terrorist attacks accelerated changes already occuring across the media landscape.

A YEAR AFTER the September attacks, the actress Julia Roberts is gracing magazine covers and Anna Nicole Smith is cavorting grotesquely on cable television. It’s easy to say that it’s back to business as usual. But that would be overlooking deeper, possibly permanent changes in the media world.

Almost immediately after the first planes struck the World Trade Center, the broadcast TV and cable news networks began wall-to-wall coverage of the aftermath, eliminating all commercials for several days.

From Sept. 11-15th, TV networks lost nearly $220 million in ad sales, according to Competitive Media Reporting, a Taylor Sofres company which which tracks advertising expenditures. Newspapers lost about $200 million in the first week.

The September attacks contributed to a 6.2 percent drop in advertising to an estimated $172 billion last year, the worst media recession in decades. Thousands of jobs were lost as nearly every major media outlet desperately scrambled to cut-costs.

InsertArt(1620715)In reality, the September attacks may have temporarily worsened the U.S. economy, but the brutal ad recession had begun in late 2000 and was already hurting virtually every corner of the media, from network television, newspapers and consumer magazines to the Internet.

That didn’t stop some media executives from blaming their pain on the September attacks. In February, editor Tina Brown said that the weakened advertising climate after Sept. 11 prompted the demise of her Talk magazine, a celebrity-filled glossy.

At the same time, the horror of the attacks led pundits to declare that American consumers would no longer have a taste for celebrity fluff and sleazy gossip, that we would become family-centered homebodies craving “comfort food” editorial and television that would remind us of more secure times.

But many of those shifts were already ocurring.

“Was 9/11 the impetus for change or did it just speed change?” asked media analyst Jack Myers. “9/11 took what people were already feeling, accelerated it and exaggerated it.”

It’s arguable that the slumping economy was turning stressed-out consumers fearful of job layoffs into financially conservative homebodies even before the terrorist attacks made people nervous about going to the mall or traveling overseas.

Still, even though domestic queen Martha Stewart struggles to keep her media empire going in the face of an insider-trading scandal, the home-focused category is thriving. Real Simple, the Time Inc. publication which is essentially a slicker, more upscale version of women’s magazine stalwarts like “Good Housekeeping,” saw its circulation climb more than 33 percent to 1.1 million this year. Other publications that appeal to our basic nesting instincts are launching this fall, including Budget Living, Meredith Corp.’s LivingRoom and Chic Simple from the Hearst Corp.

On TV, viewers are lapping up The Learning Channel’s “Trading Spaces, where regular people redecorate their neighbors’ homes with sometimes hiliariously disastrous results. The reality program is the highest-rated prime-time show in the channel’s history.

Reality programming in general has become more popular with shows like “Fear Factor” and “Dog eat dog” on NBC. “American Idol” on the Fox network and MTV’s “The Osbournes” became cultural phenomenons.

That doesn’t mean Americans aren’t still celebrity-obsessed. The remake of “US” by editor Bonnie Fuller into a magazine filled with snippets and photos of Hollywood stars has become one of the newsstand successes of the year. Single copy sales for “US” were up 30 percent in first half of the year, according to Media Industry Newsletter.

But while we continued our celebrity worship, Americans also responded to the triumphs and courage of regular people such as the rescue of the Pennsylvania miners. In December Esquire magazine will publish its annual list of the “Best and Brightest” Americans, people who are expected to change the country in a positive way through creativity or innovation.

On television, the decades-long decline in network evening news slowed and ratings grew at cable news networks.

When ABC tried to dump Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” for David Letterman in pursuit of a younger audience, the ensuing uproar over the broadcast network’s claim that the award-winning news program was irrelevant would have seemed like little more than a temper tantrum by indignant baby boomers if it had happened a year before.

The newsweeklies Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report may not have held onto their stellar newsstand sales from the end of last year when “in the hunger to see what was happening people bought magazines off the roof,” according to Steve Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter. Nevertheless circulation for Time was up seven percent and Newsweek was up three percent in the first half of this year. That’s a switch from a circulation situation at the news magazines that was spiraling downward so rapidly that observers debated the purpose of newsweeklies in a time of 24-hour news on cable and the Web.

A year later, some parts of the media such as network television and radio are pulling out of the advertising recession, while the Internet and most magazines are still struggling with revenue declines, according to industry research.

But overall the longterm economic impact from Sept. 11 is minimal. After last year’s 6 percent decline, ad spending is expected to rise a scant 1.5 percent in 2002, according to a study released this week by media buying giant Zenith Optimedia Group.

“The worst fears in terms of impact on spending never materialized,” said Myers.