The room was packed October 1 for the launch of a new speaker series presented by the School of Communication’s Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises (MSLCE) program. Nearly 40 students, faculty and others gathered to learn how digital technology has transformed media as well as audiences, during a talk by Stacey Lynn Schulman (C91), executive vice president of strategy and analytics with Katz Media Group, and James Webster, professor of communication studies at Northwestern.
In introducing the event, MSLCE program director Pablo Boczkowski said he hopes that this talk, as well as upcoming discussions, will further conversations about business and the creative arts. “The goal of this series is really to showcase the work of leading practitioners and scholars in the creative sector in a way that fosters dialogue about important trends across the different industries,” said Boczkowski.
The energetic talk was fueled by Webster’s new book, The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age, which explores how people respond to the seemingly endless choices of media available today; and expanded on by Schulman’s work in marketing research and analytics since graduating Northwestern University, where she majored in radio/television/film.
Schulman, who works for the leading media representation company for radio and television in the country, said that about 15 years ago, when she was working in the television industry, the launch of TiVo was a major disruptor. Until then, cable television had ruled the roost, and TV executives were leery of a device that gave people control to watch what they wanted to watch, when they wanted to watch it, without commercials.
She said there was a panic about losing advertising dollars. “It was as if you poured cold water on the industry,” she said.
So she began researching whether that fear was warranted, and what this new sense of control over media meant to people. Her conclusion: choice would be a good thing for the industry. “It was going to be yet another soundtrack for how audiences were engaging with our content,” she said. “It was going to be another way that advertisers would be able to interplay with broadcasters.”
Fast forward to today, when digital choices galore—in the form of radio, television, movies, books, websites, forums, blogs and more—are all at our fingertips. And still, Webster pointed out, marketers and media aren’t exactly sure what to do with that.
“The problem is that nobody seems to have a very clear idea of what the future holds,” he said. “If you follow the people who comment on digital media, you get a fairly large number who have a very optimistic take on developments. That digital media really signals the dawn of a new participatory culture, and we’re all going to be better off as a result. And then you get an equal number of well-informed thoughtful people who take a very pessimistic view of the future, and think it’s going to be the death of us all.”
At the same time, the ever-expansive choices we make online give outlets more data to track, giving more insights into our behaviors than any time in history. Which means— well, no one really knows that either.
Schulman said that there is an “irrational exuberance” in the industry about having so much access to data. And yet, she said, it’s still unclear how useful these reams of information are. But it doesn’t stop there: Just as researchers aren’t sure how our digital behavior defines us, they’re also unsure of how our digital choices will transform us.
From left to right: School of Communication professor and MSLCE director Pablo Boczkowski;
Katz Media Group’s Stacey Lynn Schulman (C91); and School of Communication professor James Webster.
Schulman said she anticipates that the next five years will require us to explore how technology is “re-engineering human interaction.” Gone is the water-cooler chat about TV shows—now, we all watch them at different times and if we want to discuss them, “we go on blogs and talk about it with strangers,” said Schulman. She added that it’s not uncommon for relationship break-ups take place over text message, or couples dining out to spend more time engaging with a cell phone than one another.
It’s because of that digital disconnect, said Schulman, that we need to find ways to reconnect. So when people ask her if she thinks mass media/newspapers/nightly news will become obsolete, she doesn’t hesitate to say no.
“We can go through the day without talking to the mailman, without having to go to the store and buy groceries,” she said. “We can do everything thing we need to do in our lives without having a human interaction. Because of those things, mass media needs to survive. We need to have points in common. We need that touchstone. We need that cultural currency. We need it because we have to have a way to connect.”
The next two events in the MSLCE Speaker Series will take place Nov. 5, featuring ICM talent agent Kevin Crotty (WCAS92), and Dec. 3, featuring Adult Swim Games producer Matthew Schwartz (C95), both at 5 p.m. in the Frances Searle Building, 3-417. They are open to the public. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.