Friday, February 03, 2017

legends of orson-ness

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles famous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel ‘War of the Worlds’ played on CBS Radio’s weekly ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ show.

Mercury Theatre’s regular theme was adapting classic literary works for radio broadcast.

By the late 30’s, much of America was adopting the new disruptive technology of radio for news and entertainment.

As part of the adaptation – and to fit with idea of presenting the play in the form of faux-news bulletins - Welles, his creative partner John Houseman, and writer Howard Koch selected the small town of Grovers Mill from a map of New Jersey to be the site of the alien invasion.

The rest is history, of course.

According to lore (and some allegedly scientific analysis - Hadley Cantril’s paper ‘The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic’ a notable example) something in the region of one million Americans were sent into blind panic - some taking heart attacks and others committing suicide - all of them certain that New Jersey and America were under attack from Martian invaders.

The reality is a somewhat different story.

Very few listeners were duped by War of the Worlds.

For a start, the audience was pretty small.

Mercury Theatre went out against a long running and hugely popular NBC comedy show playing at the same time slot, which regularly scooped up upwards of 80% of the audience.

At the best of times Mercury Theatre accounted for only about 4-5%. Nothing approaching the one million number.

And most of those listeners were well aware that the show’s schtick was dramatic radio adaptation.

The stories of widespread panic were actually fabricated, and grossly exaggerated by the newspapers – most notably, The New York Times – in the subsequent days.

The story goes that the print media were looking to discredit this new emerging channel for news, the radio, as they viewed it as an imminent threat to their advertising revenue model, and therefore their existence.

So they cooked up a bit of fake news.

Not a bad strategy, it shifted the extra units.

The threat of death to printed news, or at least the advertising revenue, never materialized, and the free publicity for Mercury Theatre may even have helped make radio drama seem even sexier, and contributed to increase popularity. Who knows?

Either way, within 24 months post-War of the Worlds, Welles stock was so high he was able to do a total-control studio deal with RKO, and produce his first feature film, Citizen Kane; to this day widely regarded as one of the best movies of all time.

So it was win-win-win.

But, in a sense all news, is fake.

Brietbart and HuffPost, for example, will report on the same 'story' through different editorial lenses.

It could even be argued that biased media are actually more informative.

Readers with a particular political bias are bound to prefer the news media with a similar bias. It’s confirmation bias as strategy.

Or if you prefer, news consumption simply reflects behavioural loyalty.

Consumers like and know more about the news outlets they consume more regularly and know little about news outlets they do not consume.

And the current clamor from sections of the internet to pressure advertisers such as Amazon to cease advertising on sites like Breitbart – and theoretically cut off their revenue stream – has a familiar ring, don’t you think?

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