Biz adapting to reality in the digital age

Although journalists and Hollywood talent may occasionally attend the same parties, there aren’t many places where our interests coincide. Yet some choices we face — or being made for us — have begun to overlap in the digital age.

Audience fragmentation has placed traditional models for print and video content under siege, creating inherent tension between egos and economics now that all the world’s a smaller stage.

Most journalists want to have their work read by as many people as possible, just as actors, writers and directors generally want their efforts to be seen and admired on the biggest stage they can find. Once, the relationship between those numbers — bigger audience, earning greater rewards — happily went hand in hand.

Increasingly, however, that’s no longer necessarily true, and a financial formula that makes sense — one that demands payment from a few, in lieu of free access to the many — often means sacrificing broad appeal for the commercial benefits of a paying niche.

For “content producers,” to quote Tribune’s pithy term for its employees, adapting to this reality can become disorienting.

Paywalls may be necessary for news operations to survive — the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch and Variety all think so — but erecting them limits exposure. Similarly, TV producers can take projects to less widely distributed venues, but far fewer people will see their work.

Pushing into series, Showtime and Starz have quickly been able to attract marquee talent — look at the casts for the upcoming “The Borgias” and “Camelot” — even if these programs figure to attract relatively small audiences by broadcast standards. Ditto for the producers of “Damages,” who kept their show alive by migrating to DirecTV — which, like those pay channels, reaches less than one in five U.S. homes.

Back when HBO began making its pitch, the hook was always that stars deigning to appear on the pay service weren’t really slumming in television. Alas, that Jedi mind trick no longer works quite so well as other competitors crowd into the space.

For agents, in particular, the polarity of all this must be somewhat difficult to fathom, and it’s an interesting switch. Historically, they’ve had to politely grapple with A-list clients who wanted to go do an Off Broadway play or its equivalent — stretching their creative muscles, perhaps, to do more satisfying work but potentially leaving money on the table during those interludes.

Now, when they shift to a more confined stage — the theatrical equivalent of the arthouse — it’s not strictly for the sake of creative fulfillment. With reality TV vying for timeslots and effectively shrinking broadcasting’s real estate, they don’t necessarily have a plethora of options or the luxury of being choosy.

In this context, the current TV Critics Assn. tour has become an apt metaphor for what’s happening with both industries. The event brings together lots of scribes — many toiling away for websites and other outlets nobody has heard of — to question actors from shows that most people will never see.

Watching colleagues frantically using Twitter to convey instant reactions during these sessions, meanwhile, pushes the whole process further from the communal experience that newspapers and TV once represented and closer to something resembling acts of self-gratification.

The saving grace, in a way, is that the very same new media that have splintered old-school platforms help magnify the voices of those who do peruse a column or enjoy a series, if only within their narrow spheres. Beyond adulation in chat rooms, stars of cult hits can be swarmed at venues like Comic-Con, receiving a taste of what it must have been like to be Steve McQueen in his prime.

Small wonder, then, that this weekend’s big showcase, the Golden Globes, has graduated from a once-obscure event — an industry laughingstock that honored Pia Zadora for her acting — to a marquee awards telecast, smack dab in the middle of primetime. Sure, the honors are judged by a group of only 90 or so international journalists, but for Hollywood’s marketing purposes, they’re 90 people whose opinion matters.

These days, that can be enough.

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Email brian.lowry@variety.com

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