March Media Madness

With the NCAA's March Madness annual collegiate basketball frenzy underway, I see too many parallels to the music media business to not mention them.

Imagine if the key components of the music media industry were basketball teams -- with real nicknames, coaches and game plans.

Let's see if anyone other than Jim Cramer would bet money on them.

The Wireless Mavericks

Remember when many of the major cities in the U.S. were going to make municipal WiFi available to their citizens?

Forget it.

Philadelphia, the leader in round one, is now being forced to abandon its plans because of second thoughts on the part of Earthlink, their partner. Not profitable enough for Earthlink.

This is like basketball shorts not showing up in time for the game and the players had to hide in the locker room.

San Francisco, Houston and Chicago are among the cities and small towns that got early traction for a plan that some hoped would also be a way to help poor networks get online.

In Tempe, AZ and Portland, OR users are suddenly without service as providers are walking away from their deals or refusing to help the municipalities expand further.

Philadelphia vows to keep its service up and running but when City Council held a meeting in December to question Earthlink on how they were going to live up to their contract, they failed to show.

WiFi could have been a contender. It could have been somebody -- to quote Brando.

But after a fast start, the Wireless Mavericks petered out.

The Ruining Rebels of Radio

Radio is competing for the national championship based on the fact that it has been to the big dance before -- many times. But fewer people each day care about radio. And nobody wants their freshman player -- HD Radio. HD was supposed to save the team, but came up short. Very short. Kinda like if a player with questionable talent was hyped as being the next superstar.

This is a lackluster group of consolidators with more hubris than ability to compete with the bigger, faster teams.

Just before the tournament, head coach Farid Suleman decided to cut a lot of his players. His other radio competitors at CBS and Clear Channel also cleared their benches of talented players. Assistant coach John Hogan of Clear Channel reassured them not to worry because less is more.

Radio expects to win the listening championship with a lean mean machine (with the emphasis on mean). Of course, in college basketball this would be ludicrous. But in the world of March Media Madness it's a possibility, however remote.

Internet Radio Raiders

Internet Radio is on a tear. It may be virtually unstoppable and if people could listen via WiFi anywhere -- any time, it would be unstoppable.

Internet Radio is not just the next transmitter for terrestrial radio stations as radio people would have you think. The real value of Internet radio is access for all types of programmers to make their content available. But what is really happening? Licensing fees for music are oppressive and there is no real rate security for developers of this new medium.

This is like a highly competitive college basketball team on a season long winning streak running into -- the flu -- just before game time. The only way a team like that could lose would be if its players were not able to make it to the arena and compete.

Same is true of Internet Radio.

The only way it isn't the favorite to win it all is if the record industry ties their hands by taxing them more than established media companies.

Cellular Wildcats

Mobile phones are so far advanced in Asia. What are we -- a third world nation? Federal regulators and U.S. cellular companies have dropped the ball here at a time when technology and innovation need to be nurtured.

Cell phones rise beyond the ability of consumers to afford them. Almost everyone has a cell phone regardless of their economic status and most have monthly plans that, yes -- include text messaging.

Imagine if a cell phone became a mini-computer?

Well, Apple did and they are likely to up the ante on cellular communication in the year ahead even if they have to do it on yesterday's technology (say, the kind AT&T peddles to its customers).

Using the March Madness analogy, the Cellular Wildcats are lucky to make it to the championship series.

In sports terms, not this year. Maybe next year or the year after. Meanwhile in the off-season, the Cellular Wildcats need more practice and some new plays.

Record Label Titans

This team hasn't made it to the final four in eight years -- and in their league -- they are the final four!

They are working so hard to try and keep the Apple Aggie's out of their league that they are forgetting how to compete.

What's really embarrassing is that Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead are starting to put teams together on their own to play in their league. Their play book calls for new ways to compete and make money -- by giving away music in the hope that consumers will still buy CDs, special albums, merchandise -- something -- from them.

They lost a big player who cannot be easily replaced when The Live Nation Bruins stole Madonna away from Warner.

That's not the worst of it.

No matter how hard they practice, they aren't likely to win another national media championship because the majors and the fighting artists have not solved any of their problems.

The free model doesn't work for developing bands and artists and without developing bands, there is no music industry.

The TV Tigers

The national TV networks were once the envy of media competition. They had a strong bench in entertainment programming, news and sports. Today, their team has been reduced to a few members of the Reality Squad who produce programs on the cheap. This doesn't make for very compelling television.

Even HBO is having trouble putting together a new team to equal the Sopranos.

It's hard to bet on a team that is moving in the direction of YouTube without all the YouTube fun.

Their coaching staff has bitched about TiVo and being forced to make their programs available online in return for viewing a 30-second pre-roll, but in the last few minutes the TV Tigers just don't have the talent, creativity or endurance of previous seasons.

They are helping to turn your TV -- into a computer -- whether they mean to or not.

The Satellite Spartans

This is a very unusual competitor. They got permission to play in the big leagues back in the early 90's by promising to be the future of media and while they were ramping up, the Internet came along and beat them to the punch. Oh, and radio died along the way.

Coach Mel Karmazin has a unique game plan. He's merging his players to cut costs and maybe raise ticket prices later -- for now though, he's telling the "commissioner" that if he approves the team merger he will offer "a la carte" options. Maybe that means you can watch only the first period and not stay around for the ending but you get to pay less!

The Satellite Spartans have an uphill battle. They've never won a national championship and never won the hearts and minds of the Media Madness fans, but they have a plan to turn it around.

Less choice for less money -- what a concept. Their game plan has some problems because you already have a competitor doing that -- terrestrial radio.

Still, if the Satellite Spartans make it to the final four, you can count on coach Karmazin to march right up to the commissioner's office and demand that they merge the final four teams into the final two.

Oh, well ...

The rest of the nation only gets March Madness one month a year.

In the media business, we see madness every day.

In an age when there is so much exciting technology that unlocks so much creativity and inspires so much innovation, the problem seems to be so few people in charge of the game that are not oh-so-ordinary.

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