It's tricky to exert 'message control' in digital age

Mark Cuban possesses an arrogance one might expect from a self-made billionaire, but the Dallas Mavericks owner is never shy about speaking his mind, and has publicly given voice to a conversation doubtless happening all over Hollywood.

On his blog, Cuban essentially asked why he should provide access to media outlets that don’t help him market his team — and beyond that, have the temerity to pester management and talent with disruptive, impertinent questions.

For the fringes of modern media, this questioning of their worth to the bottom line could be the equivalent of a Cuban missive crisis.

At the core of Cuban’s rant is a fundamental debate — common in bastions of power like Hollywood, Washington and Manhattan — centered around how best to exert what might be called “message control” in the digital age.

Cuban concluded that local TV and newspapers still have a role to play, but traffic-driven websites are simply a nuisance — “Negative Headline Trolls” he could bypass through media options he and his players control, like Facebook and Twitter.

“The last few years have brought about a lot of change in how people publish and receive information,” Cuban concluded. “It might just be time to change how teams communicate as well.”

Substitute “studios” or “networks” for teams, and you have the basis for an interesting debate regarding how Hollywood sells its product.

Even if Cuban’s proposal is “silly,” as St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans suggested, the owner isn’t pussyfooting around the central issue — namely, that all he cares about is marketing the Mavs. Even those journalists Cuban says still have a place are coyly described as being “safe to dance another week,” meaning when the day comes that he can do without them, they could be shut out, too.

Cuban’s take increasingly mirrors the thought process in marketing movies and television, and how to deal with a plethora of new-media options clamoring for equal access and attention.

Clearly, networks and studios have sought to end-run these venues at times through social media, and coopted them in others. There’s also an ongoing dialogue about rewards relative to headaches dealing with those who don’t always adhere to traditional journalistic rules of engagement.

The TV Critics Assn. tour, for example, has undergone a shift from a room consisting of reporters largely representing major newspapers — mostly serving a consumer audience — to a fractious collection of newspapers and bloggers, trades and gossip sites. Because many cater to narrow constituencies, the questions are all over the map — from starry-eyed gushing to wonky dissection of business matters.

Thus far, networks have concluded that the exercise remains valuable — aggregating reach via a diverse mix of outlets, similar to the fragmentation witnessed in television. That assessment, however, very much remains a work in progress — one revisited now after almost every press tour.

The same is true in movie circles, where niche outlets will theoretically assume additional importance in a summer filled with comicbook adaptations like “Thor” and “Green Lantern.”

It’s only when the breathless anticipation turns to sniping — shifting from eagerly posting trailers to acidly panning them — that studios begin wondering whether it’s worth playing ball with fanboys.

From arthouses to HBO, prestige fare still cultivates reviews and praise. Indeed, those seeking direct payment will likely become even more dependent on third-party voices to validate purchases for overwhelmed consumers.

By contrast, many mass-appeal offerings — especially those perceived to be “review-proof” — will more frequently withhold access, forgoing screenings and sending critics scurrying to local theaters for midday showings, or blogging about reality shows that aren’t sent to critics in advance.

A few years ago, a top studio marketing executive echoed Cuban’s sentiments, complaining that early reviews “don’t help me sell my movie.” He seemed completely unmoved — and more than a little miffed — when I suggested that isn’t a journalist’s job.

In floating the idea of restricting locker-room access, Cuban bluntly stated his team has reached a point vis-a-vis certain media constituencies “where our interests are no longer aligned.”

The moguls who run studios are engaged in a similar calculus, and for the most part, just as unconcerned about journalism as Cuban.

The result could eventually lead to an ultimatum to the online world: When our interests no longer align, either get in line, or get lost.

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