OPINION

A Flash Forward to the Media’s Near Future

The new ABC television series “Flash Forward,” which premiered this week, has the promise of a great premise: For some reason, everybody in the world blacks out for two and a half minutes. Planes fall from the sky, cars crash, people drop where they stand, some cracking their skulls from hitting their heads on the pavement. During the time they are unconscious, they get a vision of their futures six months hence. Then everybody wakes up, and it’s chaos. Do they keep on their current path toward destiny, or can/should they change their futures?

You just thought it was all based on a book by award-winning science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer. I’m telling you this happened to me just the other day, and during my time passed out drooling over my 2003-vintage Powerbook G4, I saw the immediate future of news. It wasn’t pretty. By that, I mean it looked much worse than it does right now, and it’s already a pretty ugly scenario.

Paywalls Undermined, Corruption Gets Free Pass

Here’s what was revealed to me:

  • The initial attempts at paywalls set up by the online versions of real-world newspapers aren’t turning out to be any more successful than an earlier try by The New York Times. People find workarounds to get at the content they really want. They don’t feel like the content they now have to pay for is all that exclusive and special, y’know?
  • Speaking of exclusive content (or the lack thereof), most local TV station Web sites continue to operate as if porting their news broadcasts to the Web verbatim is all they have to do to succeed in the online world. Sure, some people will want to check out stories they missed on TV, but to get them stuck on your stickiness, you’ll need to give them fresh new video, audio and text content (see: NPR.org). But that will mean hiring more people, and even if the economy and advertising revenue start heading north again, it might be a while before station groups start spending what they have to on additional staff.
  • People keep migrating to their favorite point-of-view “news” Web sites, aggregators and other alternative forms of media because the nation itself keeps splitting right down the ideological middle. There’s more talk about the media’s role in bringing about that split as networks and online entities keep chasing ratings gold, but enough people keep watching to maintain the status quo. Forget about flashing-forward; if the Romans had access to a cable network during their throwing-Christians-to-the-lions phase, they would have easily pulled 3.5 million viewers overall — maybe a million in the key ad-friendly 25-54 demographic.
  • Because newspapers and TV stations can’t afford investigative reporters anymore — and who wants the headache of pissing off advertisers during a fragile economic recovery because of your five-part investigations — the newest growth industry centers around corrupt public officials. No watchdogs = cats moving away for good and more mice playing with taxpayer dollars. Which leads us to …
  • … the rise of more of a new breed of user-generated ambush “investigations” a la the ACORN scandal, simply because that example gained so much traction. This will not be a good thing, even though I have no qualms about technologies and citizen media wedging open more transparency for institutions. But ideologically-driven investigations smell like bad juju to me, and potentially dangerous implications abound.

Even though I haven’t heard any reports of mass “Flash Forward”-type revelations like the one I experienced (maybe I passed out simply because I stayed up too late playing “Halo: ODST”?) I read enough media-centric blogs and Web sites to know others are already thinking along these same lines. Maybe we are the chosen ones to help lead the media out of this new-century wilderness. Or maybe we’ll just wander the streets of our towns in ragged clothes, raving about the end being near. Or the end being here. Or something like that.

I can promise you one thing: The first part of this column was NOT brought to you by ABC. Segment sponsorships for various media are already part of the present, but I’m not that desperate.

Yet.

The Media’s Role in Science Fiction

In the book Flash Forward, everybody who blacks out actually gets to peek 20 years into their futures; I guess ABC cut it down to six months as a hedge against possible cancellation. Sawyer also posits the notion that the media aren’t much help in explaining the phenomenon because TV signals don’t record what happens during the blackout; all you get is static on your flat-screens.

As you can guess, I’m fascinated by depictions of the media in science fiction or speculative fiction. Many of the technological concepts and ideological directions now causing a lot of hand-wringing in the media have already been fodder for novelists charting our futures.

One of my favorites is Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, which predicted the rise of both TV op-ed hosts and local news consumer watchdogs. Jack Barron is a mix of both who takes requests to look into viewers’ problems and challenge powers-that-be. The book raised a stink when it came out in the 1960s. I think it would be considered rather tame by today’s cable news standards.

Stand on Zanzibar, a Hugo Award-winning tale of the effects of overpopulation on the planet, predated the 24/7 media universe with its depiction of something called “Scanalyzer,” an instant-headline service that featured news items with plenty of snark before snark was cool. Gossip items involving politicians get as much airtime as wars and social upheaval; sure glad THAT didn’t come to pass.

The idea of news feeds pushed straight into a user’s heads via wetware or other biotech means turn up in many works. Two of the more recent additions to my shelf featuring this development include Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge (another Hugo winner) and The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson. Both feature heads-up displays within a viewer’s field of vision, achieved either through implants or high-tech contact lenses, that allow users to download news items, send instant messages and enable other forms of communications. Fascinating stuff, and I’m sure if they ever become reality, there will be Facebook and Twitter widgets included.

My favorite speculative fiction writer, Harlan Ellison, saw how the media and violent sports would meld long before “Rollerball” in his short-story “Along the Scenic Route.” Think “Death Race 2000” only without the Roger Corman touches.

I’m sure I’m missing many, many others — even though I’ve been reading sci-fi since I was 10 years old, I couldn’t hit all the classics. Feel free to add your thoughts about depictions the news media in your favorite sci-fi novels in the comments section. Sorry, but movies don’t count; we could talk about the eye-tracking advertising in “Minority Report” until the cybernetic cows come home, but it’s been done many times before, I’m sure.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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