Byline: Ted Cox TV/radio columnist
If you're one of those right-wing, free-market, laissez-faire Republicans who maintain there is no need for public television, make it a point to tune in "Frontline" at 9 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11.
It's the sort of thing you're never going to see on the commercial networks, but it's nevertheless absolutely essential viewing, especially for teens and their parents.
In an episode entitled "The Merchants of Cool," the PBS investigative newsmagazine looks at the way a small number of media conglomerates battle to market products to the teen market - a market that now dwarves the baby boom at 32 million strong, and that accounts for $150 billion in annual sales, two-thirds of that purchased by teens themselves, the other third bought by parents for their children.
It's a notoriously difficult audience to deal with - skittish and self-aware and more sophisticated than most adults are ready to admit. But, as the documentary makes clear, "There is one thing they do respond to - cool. Only cool keeps changing."
The dichotomy of teen marketing is reflected in the old Yogi Berra line about Toots Shor's being so popular "nobody goes there anymore." Once something catches on to the point of being mainstream, it's not really cool.
"By discovering cool, you force cool to move on to the next thing," says New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. "It's chase and flight."
Thus, the major conglomerates hire "culture spies," consultants who specialize in identifying trend-setting teens and divining their secrets.
The documentary is at its best in suggesting that all this effort isn't really about giving teens what they want. It's about finding ways to give them what the five major entertainment conglomerates - News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Universal and AOL-Time Warner - want to sell.
"Now that's an important distinction," says media critic Mark Crispin Miller. "The MTV machine doesn't listen to the young so that it can make the young happier. It doesn't listen to the young so it can come up with, you know, startling new kinds of music, for example. The MTV machine tunes in so it can figure out how to pitch what Viacom has to sell."
Consider that CBS is owned by Viacom, ABC is owned by Disney, Fox is owned by News Corp. and General Electric-owned NBC has a corporate alliance with AOL-TW, and you can see why this topic is of no interest to the major network newsmagazines.
Yet you can also see why it is critical to teens and their parents. Teens think they know the media, and in many ways they know it better than their parents. "The Merchants of Cool," however, traces how kids' suspicions lead to anti-marketing marketing, and how products find new ways to market themselves even after kids get wise to how their own cynicism is being used against them.
Kids need to be aware that it's not enough to be merely aware, that the game of cat and mouse, "chase and flight," never stops, and that there is more out there than what the major media conglomerates are offering. …