A Media Melee

If the print media were an ancient civilization, it would be the Gauls, getting pummeled into souffle by Caesar’s legions. If it were a basketball team, it would be those patsies that always get clobbered by the Harlem Globetrotters by 100 points. And if print were a man, it would be Lou Costello, getting slapped around by a taller, better-looking guy who always got the girl.

The Romans, the Globetrotters and, hey, Abbott would, of course, be broadcast television.

You know the story. Hasn’t changed in 50 years. It’s an advertising truth so seemingly immutable, by now it feels almost like a divine revelation. Like David Ogilvy ascended to the top of a mountain, saw a burning bush and heard a thunderous voice declaim from the heavens, “Print is media’s redheaded stepchild. TV rules.”

The latter delivers less every year but gets paid hundreds of millions more. Its annual slap-around with buyers, which we whimsically call the upfront, earns it billions, like clockwork, every spring.

Print reps? They struggle just to keep the bleeding to a moderate trickle. They talk about environment. They spend more time on golf courses than Tiger Woods, hoping a good walk will get the client to shift some bucks their way. Never works, at least not really. Every year, TV is fatter and they’re thinner.

Now, though, they’re through with getting slapped around. Now they’re slapping back. In fact, they’re even slapping each other.

In a sweepstakes contest, the Magazine Publishers Association is giving out TiVos to ad guys and clients. And the Newspaper National Network last week launched an ad campaign that not only takes on TV, but magazines as well.

It’s about time this thing heated up, because it’s personal. I write for a magazine. It’s not about pages, it’s about my paycheck. Cry “insertion” and let slip the media dogs of war.

Think of all the fronts that could open up if this firefight turns into a battle royale: TV reps kidnapping all the paper boys in important DMAs. Magazine publishers in SWAT gear and night-vision goggles sneaking into TV- station control rooms and sabotaging all the satellite feeds so viewers get nothing but Uzbekistan game shows. Outdoor boards with smart bombs that fire every time a magazine distributor’s truck passes by. Gunfire blazing in New York steak joints as mag reps and cable guys open up on each other. Drive-by shootings between rival gangs of Condé Nast account execs and Infinity Broadcasting sales personnel on the streets of L.A.

And the upfront? What’s that ticking sound coming from under the stage at the NBC presentation next spring, as Jeff Zucker tries to explain why Coupling didn’t get lucky?

Forget about Power Point presentations, coffee cup premiums and tickets to the ballgame. Let’s see the media haul out the heavy artillery and have at each other. Because that’s what it is, after all. A war. It’s not just business.

We’ve heard more than we ever wanted to about how everything in marketing has changed forever, about how jobs will never come back the same way, about how corporations will never fatten up like they used to no matter how well the economy may perform. We’ve heard about clutter and branded entertainment and the challenges facing the ad industry as it competes with upstarts like search consultants for the client’s love.

But the media, until now, have competed the same way for the past half-century. TV gets the gold, magazines get to take the client to the golf course. Newspapers get dealerships, and that’s about it. Oh, and let’s buy a board here and there.

Of course, what they all ought to do is band together and smash the living daylights out of every computer in the country.

Because if there is a total war, online may be the only medium left standing when the dust clears.