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The Fall of the Hit?

The article in this month’s WIRED is called “The Rise and Fall of the Hit,” and it’s by WIRED editor in chief, Chris Anderson, who popularized a phrase called “The Long Tail” to describe the business models of outfits like or of social networking phenoms like Flickr or YouTube.

The idea, in a nutshell, is that there’s an emerging market for a little bit of everything and a diminishing one for “hits.”

While I respect Chris’s insights and the depth of his analysis (both are considerable) I also think that when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. And Chris sees “the long tail” wagging behind just about everything.

His obsessions focus, of course, on the entertainment industry – TV, movies, music, and even radio. The hits are getting smaller, he says, and he isn’t wrong.

But wait…just because 60% of TV’s were tuned to Gunsmoke in 1960 and 30% to American Idol in 2006, does that mean the hits are “falling”? Or does it rather mean that the definition of a hit is changing? That is, all things are relative. The “size” of the hit isn’t the point – what matters is that a “hit” is much more popular than a non-hit, and it’s always better for the hit-makers to have the former rather than the latter.

Oddly, Chris shows a graphic which defies his argument.

Adult Contemporary ratings are shown declining over time (anyone who works in radio knows full well that this is a result of the plethora of new options on the radio for AC fans), while the News/Talk ratings are shown INCREASING. Now just a minute…News/Talk is as much about “hits” as AC is, it’s just that the hits have names and voices and issues rather than recording contracts.

And on a related topic, Chris says:

What’s killing rock radio? A perfect storm of competition. Start with the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which added more than 700 FM stations to the dial. This fragmented the market and depressed the economics of the incumbents. At the same time, the limits of ownership in each market were relaxed, which led to a nationwide rollup by Clear Channel and Infinity, whose operating efficiencies included bringing cookie-cutter playlists to once-distinctive local stations.

Chris seems to be confusing “market fragmentation” with the “long tail.” Competition is certainly greater in radio than it once was – and, thanks to new technology, competition is greater from outside radio, too. But what’s with the last sentence? Those of us who work in radio knows full well that most local stations never sounded any more distinctive than they do now in terms of their music – most sounded LESS distinctive. Every station I know wants to win and will play whatever they think will help them satisfy more ears. Yes, more of the same voices and brand names are everywhere, but it’s not the big groups that are keeping Country stations from playing the Dixie Chicks, it’s the Country fans in each individual market. When you own a bunch of stations in a market rather than just one, you want to make them different from each other, thus inspiring variety, not reducing it. On this point at least, Chris is wrong. Go one market to the next and you’ll find more formats and flavors than you saw in the mid-90’s. That’s the truth.

But back to the “hits”…

What seems pretty darn obvious to me is that “hits” naturally diminish over time as entertainment options and other distractions increase. This doesn’t mean that “hits” are dying. Quite the contrary. It means that “hits” are harder to make than ever, thus they are more valuable than ever. Because businesses profit by hits, advertisers yearn for hits, and – most importantly – movie fans, TV fans, music fans, and radio fans all want hits.

Just today I was in a packed movie house to watch Johnny Depp play a pirate. This movie is a “hit.” Wag that.

One can only hope that when Chris’s new book is published his prophecy will not self-fulfill and find book sales wagging that long tail.

What do you want to bet he’s hoping for one of those elusive “hits”?

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