TCS Daily

The Digital VIP Room

By Dominic Basulto - May 9, 2005 12:00 AM

As innovative companies continue to bring self-publishing and other content-creation tools to the masses, technology is once again cool. It's not only Joe Consumer who is discovering the magic of creating and distributing content: bona fide celebrities from the worlds of entertainment, media and politics are also experimenting with blogs, podcasts and satellite radio as they witness firsthand the gradual disintegration of Big Media that helped make them celebrities. Domestic diva Martha Stewart just signed a four-year deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to create a 24-hour lifestyle & entertainment channel; Britney Spears and Rosie O'Donnell (among others) have embraced the celebrity blog as a way to reach out directly to their fans and bypass the tabloids; and Paris Hilton has experimented with podcasting to promote the release of her new film. In early May, the ever-controversial Arianna Huffington debuts an all-star group blog (the Huffington Post) that will feature 250 celebrities from the cultural, political and media elites. Now that celebrities are actually trying to create business models around these technologies, it's fair to ask: How will the mass-market celebrity fare in the brave new world of micro-market media?

Thus far, the techno elite have tended to turn up their collective noses at many of these celebrity ventures, viewing them as nothing more than the work of dilettantes or as cynical efforts at self-promotion. For example, take the Huffington blogging venture, which promises to engage big names like Walter Cronkite, Warren Beatty, David Geffen, Gwyneth Paltrow (and perhaps even Tina Brown) in round-the-clock online commentary via a group blog. Yet, many in the blogosphere suspect that the venture will be more style than substance.

For example, the "Huffington is Full of Crap" Web site ("Inherited wealth, Hollywood friends, and natural stupidity are a formidable combination") has been taking Huffington to task for everything from ignoring the need for reader comments to using "ghost bloggers" (i.e. PR flacks and other hangers-on) who will do the bulk of the writing and the editing for the celebrity contributors. Not to be outdone, The Guardian recently ran a hilarious send-up of the Huffington super-blog, pointing out that luminaries like Gwyneth Paltrow and Warren Beatty are probably too self-absorbed and too busy to make the Huffington Post anything more than a sad parody of a real blogging network.

Before rushing to judgment on Huffington, though, consider that the satellite radio market has been able to grow its subscriber base exponentially by recruiting celebrities at a breakneck pace - including many who may be just as politically controversial as Huffington's left-of-center celebrities. The two leading satellite radio players, XM and Sirius, have made highly public and expensive moves to snag the best talent. While XM has landed Al Franken, Snoop Dog, Opie & Anthony and Dr. Laura, Sirius has countered with Martha Stewart, Howard Stern, Eminem and former Senator Bill Bradley. The moves seem to have paid off, as subscriber growth continues to outperform expectations. As Paris Hilton would say, "That's hot."

If mass-market celebrities hope to prosper in the brave new world of media, they will need to:

        (1) Join the conversation by having something to say. Don't just talk to 
             people as consumers, but listen to their feedback as well. That 
             means contending with reader or listener comments that are critical 
             or skeptical. It also means that highly-crafted PR messages need 
             to be tempered with a realistic look at a celebrity's problems and flaws. 
        (2) Have the dedication and time to get involved. Having a certain 
             passion for a topic is necessary. In other words, contributing two or 
             three blog posts a month won't cut it.
        (3) Be willing to cede the floor to others with more authority in a certain 
             subject area.
        (4) Realize that the world is exploding into niche markets. A one-size-
             fits-all message may no longer be possible.

As more than one pundit has pointed out, we are experiencing a gradual evolution from mass markets to niche markets, from broadcasting to narrowcasting -- a world where the audience is also the publisher, where the very people you are trying to reach are also creating content. Google CEO Eric Schmidt explains: "We're all still reeling from the fact that there are not homogeneous news sources anymore, that the magazine and publishing industries are becoming more variegated, more distributed, and smaller and more targeted. Many other media companies -- newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, online -- will need to start looking at the world in this way: from the other side, from the perspective of the audience, the audience as publisher."

It's not thinking too far out of the box to say that if mass markets created a mainstream, hit-driven culture where the celebrity flourished, the creation of highly-targeted, niche markets will require a change of strategy for the mass-market celebrity. Perhaps new micro-market celebrities will dominate a particular hyper-niche, but nothing more. Andy Warhol once famously remarked that "In the future, we will all be famous for 15 minutes." Maybe it's time to update that for the 21st century: "In the future, we will all be famous to 15 people."

The author is a TCS contributing writer covering technology, business and venture capital markets. He recently wrote about Wall Street's Endangered Species.



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