Here's a Media Insight: the Experts Are Clueless

In 1977, a reputable media researcher speaking to a convention of theater owners predicted that competition from the then-embryonic cable TV business would wipe out U.S. cinema by the mid-1980s. What happened?
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In 1977, a reputable media researcher speaking to a convention of theater owners predicted that competition from the then-embryonic cable TV business would wipe out U.S. cinema by the mid-1980s. The movie-theater executives listened with a combination of surprise, a little worry ("what if he's right?") and amusement.

Fast forward to today, the movie industry actually sells more tickets now in the U.S. -- consistently over 1.3 billion versus just around 1 billion when the dire prediction was issued.

The prediction mistake is not an anomaly. Experts are notorious for being wrong in forecasting consumer behavior with new media.

A more recent example is the widespread prediction that consumers were dropping their cable TV subscriptions -- so-called cord cutting -- as individual TV programs become increasingly available on-demand via Netflix, Hulu and other online options. But the cable TV business (including satellite and IPTV) is in excellent health right now (though the future is up for grabs).


And we all remember the succession of stories a few years ago that the youth demographic loved online and their smartphones so much that regular TV is toast. Print-media journalists were particularly enamored with this draconian forecast because, well, it seemed so plausible. Wrong again so far. The online-active youth tend to multitask (they watch TV in the background) and like to boast they barely watch TV anymore, but exacting in-home research indicates they are still glued to the boob tube.

What's going on here? It's difficult to get consumers to express with certainty how they will react to new media options they haven't directly experienced. As computer guru Steve Jobs put it, "People don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Consumers constantly surprise the media pros, as evidenced by the way binge-viewing arrived by accident. When Netflix rolled out its original TV series House of Cards, it had no reason to premiere episodes one a week at a time -- like a regular linear TV channel that has to plug holes in a fixed schedule. So Netflix made multiple episodes available at once -- "dropped" in the TV biz vernacular now -- and a large chunk of its audience devoured the program immediately.

The best shot for getting a handle on media's future is observing consumers in media research labs (media and advertising companies quietly operate such "homes of tomorrow" labs) or carefully monitored in-home field trials of new media technology. This is expensive stuff and results don't get widely shared. So we are left with journalists reasoning what they see as plausible trends based on gut assumptions.

Remember that not many foresaw a day coming so soon when Granny is on Facebook. Twitter was initially laughed off with its limitation of 140 characters because digital has unlimited capacity.

I talked with author of that cinema-is-dying-fast report a few years after its 1977 presentation, who confessed to being wildly off target. The researcher attributed the miscue to underestimating the pull of out-of-home entertainment like moviegoing on the youth market. "Going to movies is ingrained in teen courtship," he said sheepishly (I'm not identifying the researcher because this embarrassment was a looong time ago). U.S. cinema ticket sales took off shortly after this gloomy presentation because theaters began investing heavily in modern multiplex theaters that improved the in-theater experience and attracted the youth demographic in droves.

So when encountering a media expert who talks with certainty about what tomorrow will bring... the expert may be better versed than you, but probably doesn't know.

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