Death of TV: Democracy's Rebirth?

/ Source: Discovery Channel

Television is dying. Why? Because, by and large, people hate commercials -- none more than political ads -- and it's getting easier all the time to skip over or mute them.

As TV viewers skew older, and online ads get more effective, the cost of producing and airing TV ads is becoming an ever greater burden for political campaigns just as those very ads are losing audience.

Those forces, analysts say, will eventually change the way politics -- and democracy -- are carried out in America.

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"Campaigning could become much cheaper and also more participatory if candidates weren't products that had to be sold like toothpaste," said Micah Sifry, the Editorial Director of Personal Democracy Media, a group tracking the progress of technology-aided democracy.

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Sifry sees a future where candidates are less likely to emerge from within a political party, and more likely to rise out of social media networks. "Picture a candidate who has been highly active on local email lists and social network sites, who is in effect "drafted" by her neighbors to run for a local office," Sifry said. "That person doesn't need to spend as much money advertising herself."

What remains to be seen, said Sifry, is if such a candidate can do more by investing in online advertising, rather than traditional media.

That's my biggest hope in all of democracy," said Clay Johnson, the author of the recent book "The Information Diet."

Without TV ads, a candidate would need much less money overall, and that could allow more people to run for public office.

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"The way to take money out of politics," Johnson said, "is to eliminate television advertising."

President Barack Obama was at the forefront of the gradual shift to this new political world in 2008, when X-Box players could spot the Obama campaign's "O" logo on in-game billboards.

According to the Obama campaign's first-quarter expenditure reports, among its biggest billers is a company called Bully Pulpit Interactive, a group that specializes in "digital marketing and strategy" to "deliver messages to help shape public opinion." Presidential challenger Mitt Romney is pouring cash into Web ads and mobile apps.

For the candidates who can adapt, the death of TV could be a good thing, said Johnson. "Online ads are nearly a tenth the cost of television ads," he said. "And the inventory and targeting are far superior too."

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With apps and widgets and online ads, it's much easier for campaigns to track data on the effectiveness of their messages. Most web surfers leave a long, wide trail of information behind them as they click through links, and that data is invaluable to political campaigns. A candidate can tell, for example, which issues fire up 30 year olds, and which motivate 65 year olds.

Campaigns are now using that data to finely craft ads and carefully place them where they'll get the most response. And the more response they get, the less effective those old TV ads become.

This shift in technology, and the money that's saved because of it, could open the door to a change in political culture, from big, expensive, centralized campaigns, to leaner, grass-roots message machines.

Said Johnson, "...To get to people like me, you're definitely not going to buy television ads. You'll buy online ads."