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The death of advertising, show by show

RICH PEOPLE are always trying to weasel out of their responsibility.

They usually do this in complicated ways, such as creating intricate offshore tax shelters or by trying to convince a judge that in Malibu, normal people’s feet damage the special David Geffen sand. But now the rich are just blatantly bailing on their primary obligation: our entertainment. And not just because they stopped wearing Ugg boots.

The deal had been that everyone got to enjoy the same TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, but we didn’t pay equally. People who bought more of the advertisers’ products indirectly paid for a bigger percentage of the content. Commercials functioned as a progressive sales tax that also provided work for bad actors. It was like that mural project FDR started, only for beautiful people.

Basically, here’s how it worked: We all got to watch “60 Minutes,” but only some of us were able to buy the BMW advertised in the commercials. This was a great deal for the poor, other than the fact that they didn’t get the BMW. And they had to watch Andy Rooney. When you’re working two jobs for $30,000 a year and a guy is pulling mid-six figures by rummaging through his desk drawers, it’s got to hurt.

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But now the advertising model is dying. More than 10% of Americans own a TiVo-style DVR, skipping all the ads. The networks have made deals to charge directly for commercial-free TV episodes sent to portable video players. Their series are already sold ad-free on DVD. So instead of watching “24" when it’s broadcast, viewers can now order it from Netflix, thereby saving six hours they can now use to stuff DVDs into envelopes and mail them.

HBO, which charges about $11 a month and has no ads, is far more profitable than any network. In the meantime, newspapers, hit hard by the Internet, are instituting massive cutbacks and layoffs, and this one, despite all that empty space, still won’t give its Tuesday columnist an office. And Friday, Howard Stern broadcast his last free show, choosing to move to commercial-free satellite radio, which costs about $13 a month. Oddly, that’s the same premium I’d pay strippers not to talk.

When the Internet exploded with political blogs and Napster destroyed the music business, people argued that information wanted to be free. Unfortunately, the people who create information want to make as much money as possible. So when a guy with 12 million listeners figures out that he can make more by directly charging his customers, the old, annoying, inefficient advertising model of interrupting our programming with diaper ads -- whether we had a baby or not -- is in big trouble.

At this rate, we’ll soon have to directly pay the real cost for most of our high-quality media. And this is when the revolution starts. Take away welfare, send their kids to war in Iraq -- poor people will deal with it. But now that they’ve taken away Stern’s “lesbian-dial-a-date,” there could be rioting in the streets.

That would be fair. In today’s society, entertainment is education. Not having seen “The Sopranos” is the modern equivalent of not knowing which fork to use.

Mainstream media needs to fix itself fast or, just as cities have put Internet access in libraries, we’re going to have to set up community centers with Sirius radio and televisions with pay channels. Young boys will huddle around the late-night Cinemax or the XM radio to hear 50 Cent without the curses bleeped out.

If the media companies or the government won’t pony up, I think I’ve found the first charity project where I can be the CEO.


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