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autumn of the mouse - updated

"am i still dreaming?" i thought, as i rubbed my eyes while listening to a breathless bbc reporter announce that comcast offered $66 billion for disney. a few moments later i realized that i wasn't and smiled at the perfect timing of the announcement, given the fact that i had spent the night dreaming about the implications of the thesis put forth in the "autumn of the moguls" , which i had finished before falling asleep - that the pathological ambitions of moguls have brought about the impending collapse of the "media business."

michael wolff makes him his most important point early. the modern "media business" is collapsing, because it's not really like any other business - that the word itself, media , is a made up concept. and that along the way, the morons that "architected" the aol time warners, the vivendis and the disneys of the world forgot that the, "...the entire industry is a fluke of semiotics." things started to go bad in the fifties when ad agencies started using the word to describe physical artifacts, such paper or film. one natural leap later the word became added to the saleman's vocabulary, as in "i sell media." notice the change? it went from something concrete to something less concrete. and from there is was twisted to mean all things related, " the abstract function of communication." (p.34) and on and on, towards more abstractions such as mcluhan's mantra on the media being the message. until in the 70s you had the emergence of something that hadn't existed before - media companies:

"This was just inflation. A useful bastardization of an already obtuse word. It was a Wall Street thing. We're more important that we were yesterday becaue we're no longer a broadcast company (notice how old fashioned that word sounds), we're a fucking media company.

But at no point in the development of the word and the of the concept of media was there an assumption that the television business and the magazine business and the radio business and billboard busines and music business and the movie business were the same business - that they should be run by the same person, that they required the same talents, or would, even, logically have the same investors or the same stars or the same audience." (p. 35)
it takes a little while for that to sink in, because we're so accustomed to thinking of "media" as an abstract concept that's merely packaged in different ways and sent along different distribution channels - cable or broadcast television, print or the internet. it doesn't even strike us that this might be an overextended metaphor that might be a trick of language. but it wasn't so long ago that the idea of a media company was considered absurd. wolff tells the story of a memo circulating in the new york times in the early seventies, "...advising reporters and editors that, in fact, there was no such thing as the media per se.." and that basically you were a lazy schmuck for using the word. it still seems odd, though, you might think. maybe wolff is pulling the old philosophical trick of "proving" that something doesn't exist that you know damn well does, in fact, exist. wolff finally beats you over the head with a reductio ad absurdum :
"It's as ridiculous as if someone had come along and invented the "transportation" business and, within the same company and under the same management, because they were all somehow related to the same word, put car companies and train companies and ship companies and airlines together." (p.35)
and yet the moguls - murdoch, isaacson, eisner, redstone, karmazin and diller et al, glossed over this, didn't understand, or didn't care - and went on building dysfunctional, disjointed, hollow, creaking empires held together only by the inertia of the next big deal. on and on, it went from one deal to another until things starting breaking down, with aol time warner and vivendi only being the most obvious effects of the underlying symptom [ he goes on at great length about the decaying carcass called disney, waiting to be devoured by the next big deal, if not for michael eisner's own obsessive mogul freakishness ] - that there really isn't anything synergistic about a vast media empire. and sooner or later, wolff believes sooner, the whole charade will come completely and totally flying apart.

in wolff's world each bigger deal is not a sign of the strength of super-consolidated media corporations, but rather the last dying gasps of an industry based on something that doesn't even exist. a giant bubble that has been expanding for over 30 years.

i don't know if it's true, and the book certainly has its flaws, but go read "autumn of the moguls" and you'll find the latest big media deal a whole lot more interesting. or sad.

updated: while he might not agree with the above reasoning, tim oren more succinctly states the premise in "Comcast / Disney: Dumb and Dumber":

"Let's keep this short and sweet. Anyone thinking they are going to merge a content business and a network transport business and add value hasn't been paying attention for at least ten years. "
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2/11/2004 09:17:00 PM 0 comments


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