Media World: Old dogs, new tricks

Peter Fiddick

Old media is dead, long live old media. That, at any rate, was the eye-catching opening to a recent analysis in the Financial Times Lex column.

Passing over the execrable media is and Lexs frequent perverseness (this time, he had just finished belabouring BT for not rolling out its ultra-new-media broadband telecoms services regardless of their impact on its existing businesses), the observation did seem to have a point.

It was focused in particular on the US media megamerger before last, between the CBS and Viacom empires, and how, while stock market reaction to Time Warner/AOLs deal had quickly turned from wild amazement to cool-eyed disinclination to buy in, CBS and Viacom shares had risen 20% since their betrothal.

Not only were they well placed to benefit from a us advertising boom (fuelled, piquantly, from the upstarts lavish promotional spend), but two-thirds of the enlarged groups earnings will come from radio, billboards and cable TV the fastest-growing segments of the media industry, with top-line growth of 1720%.

Well, I dont know about cable AOLs prime interest, after all, was higher-speed Internet delivery via Time Warners broadband cable systems but you certainly dont get much more old media than posters and the wireless, do you?

So, theres life in the old dogs yet. Simultaneously, however, comes an intriguing indication that one of those old dogs is already learning a new-media trick.

The hint comes in the latest data from RAJAR, the UK radio industrys joint audience research operator. On this side of the Atlantic, too, the top-line story is good. In the final quarter of the 20th century, total weekly listening to all radio topped one billion hours for the first time. With weekly reach steady (42.7 million people, 89% of the population), average listening time also hit new peaks: 21.0 hours per head of the population, 23.6 hours per listener.

And the UK market is booming too, with commercial radios advertising revenue hitting 464 million last year and its growth rate double that of television.

True, there is, at the commercial level, a glitch. The oldest dog of all, the bbc, has learnt a trick or two about defending its patch. Since RAJAR started in 1992, the rapidly expanding commercial radio sector has been able to trumpet a steady rise in share, from the low 40s to around 51%. Now that trend has gone into reverse.

The BBC, having clawed its way back into pole position earlier last year, now claims a 51.3% share to commercial radios 46.7% (with 2.0% attributed to stations outside the national system). Broad analysis suggests that the explosion of commercial licensees is cannibalising its own sector, while the BBCs revamps are working.

But the most intriguing finding to come out of RAJARs latest analysis springs from a closer look at a new and rising sub-group and affects everybody. Internet users were asked how it had affected the time they devoted to ten other activities. Four of these showed increases; six had dropped.

On the minus side: housework (-2%); magazines (-13); sleeping (-15); phone calls (-19); videos (-21) and television (-25).

The gainers: newspapers (+5); socialising (+8); radio (+11); other computer use (+14).

The usual health warnings apply, of course: small sample, needs tracking, and so on. And I shall heroically resist the temptation to extrapolate a typology of Internerds as up-all-night saddos who now e-mail instead of phoning such friends as they ever had and whose extra socialising probably starts from the same zero base as their housework.

Two pairs of figures do stand out, though. Magazine reading drops 18% while newspapers gain 5%. And TV/video viewing plummets by 2125% while radio listening puts on 11%.

Any number of intuitive hypotheses present themselves: that newspapers now offer Internet coverage, general magazines do not; that magazines, being evening fare, have been displaced; that real people, obviously, dont actually surf the Net and watch telly at the same time.

But if it turns out that, in this essentially solitary new occupation, the radio is to prove our companion of choice, then, whether were streaming it direct from cyberspace or just have the tranny on beside us, heres one old media dog whose woof-woof could become