There’s still hope for traditional media

<B>Brian Lowry: Tuning In</B>

Take a step back, and traditional means of distributing news and entertainment are experiencing a collective nervous breakdown, as old-media titans place their eggs in the new-media basket. Tribune has toyed with dumping TV stations, as Clear Channel recently did. Reports say Time Warner might reduce its stake in cable, and after fighting to get DirecTV, Rupert Murdoch jettisoned his satellite and saw a brighter future in MySpace.

Every tide appears to flow inexorably toward the Internet, with newspapers banking on the web to offset declining circulation and TV/video producers hedging their bets on broadband.

All of which raises an interesting question: What if everybody’s wrong? Or, more specifically, what if there’s ample life in print and broadcast properties, and it’s just a question of how they’re assembled, and then adopting a long-term view in operating them?

As the tech-powered parade marches onward, it’s noteworthy that a few billionaires are exhibiting similar skepticism.

“People think television’s dying and the Internet’s replacing it. … It’s the exact opposite,” tech-and-sports mogul Mark Cuban contended recently on AMC’s “Sunday Morning Shootout,” noting that once consumers can buy a 70-inch set for less than $1,500, “Watching TV is fun again.”

Cuban isn’t the only deep-pocketed tycoon making an iconoclastic bet. Sam Zell is banking $315 million of his own money — which for almost anybody else would be a lot — on Tribune, while other billionaires circle the ailing Los Angeles Times. Murdoch, meanwhile, startled the media world with his unsolicited bid for Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones — in part out of vanity, no doubt, but also as a major cog in plans to expand his Fox News Channel franchise into business news.

Murdoch’s offer comes at a propitious time for publishing entities, following a stretch of disheartening circulation news from major newspapers. (The Murdoch-controlled tabloid New York Post was an exception, which, in terms of its news coverage’s tone and direction, is equally discouraging.)

Betting against Murdoch seldom pans out, which explains the second-guessing that followed his play for Dow Jones. Ultimately, he’s wagering he can achieve what Tribune could not — namely, to combine print, TV and online in a synergistic manner that actually unlocks additional value.

Asked by Fox News’ Neil Cavuto about the horror with which Journal employees responded to the prospect of coming under News Corp.’s aegis, Murdoch sounded characteristically undaunted. “Naturally, people are a little bit frightened of change,” he said.

Anybody working in old media who lacks a Murdoch-type fortune to fall back on should frankly be scared witless merely by the suggestion in their own headlines or news programs. That’s because key signs keep pointing toward a radical shift away from old-guard newspapers and television (witness NBC’s primetime ratings sinking to record lows) as media consumption increasingly fragments and becomes a personalized, have-it-your-way experience.

In their rush to shed assets that have fallen from favor on Wall Street, however, it seems equally obvious that these major companies are making decisions about long-established distributionapparatuses some will woefully regret in the years ahead — casting off old clothes, as it were, and seeking a squeeze into a stylish new wardrobe.

These big conglomerates are many things, but nimble isn’t an adjective often applied to them. So, given that nobody knows anything for sure, what if Cuban’s right, and an unexpected configuration emerges from these latest convulsions, diminishing the Internet’s influence? What if the time and effort spent affixing a “2.0” designation to NBC — signaling its ready-for-the-web intentions — would have been better spent shoring up the network itself? What if Tribune had the right idea all along and just the wrong group of people to implement it?

There are many ways to finesse matters for corporate stockholders but really no good equivalent for saying, “Whoops.”

In truth, answers will only come as execs, analysts and academics look back on this decade with the benefit of hindsight, and there’s little time for that in the heady rush toward digital nirvana. Yet while this has been labeled the summer of the sequel, those rhapsodizing about the transformation of TV and publishing should recall that most of us have seen this plot unfold once already — right before the Internet bubble burst in 2000.

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