MEDIA ROUNDUP: Media feeds off buzz created by home entertainment

Getting coverage for the latest consumer electronics isn't hard, though it differs for the hardware and software sides of the business. But for both, reviews are what matter most.

Getting coverage for the latest consumer electronics isn't hard, though it differs for the hardware and software sides of the business. But for both, reviews are what matter most.

During a speech at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, film director Barry Sonnenfeld suggested he'd much rather watch a movie in his home theater than at a nearby multiplex. A few days later at an event in LA, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax declared his favorite letters in the alphabet were DVD. A few years ago, comments such as these would have been considered blasphemous in an industry that derived its livelihood from enticing Americans out of their homes. But home entertainment has turned into a cash cow - not just for Hollywood, but also for TV networks and the consumer-electronics industry that produces the hardware found in most living rooms. Over the past two decades, the home-entertainment industry has evolved from a handful of channels on a 25" TV set to surprisingly affordable home theaters with surround sound, DVD, hundreds of channels and, in some cases, high-definition, big-screen TVs. And the news media has jumped on the home-entertainment bandwagon in a big way. "We're benefiting from the true excitement surrounding home entertainment and how these products are truly changing the way people watch television," says Sue Bohle, president of Los Angeles-based Bohle Company, which represents several consumer-electronics companies, including SonicBlue and its ReplayTV video recorders. Much of the surging media interest surrounding home entertainment is personal as well as professional. "We get a lot of calls from reporters because it's something they are interested in personally," says Pam Golden Loder, president of Golden Loder Associates, which represents Thomson and its RCA brand. "They might have seen a personal video recorder or a high-definition TV, and so they want to write a story. As a result, we are full-blown into every consumer outlet you can imagine. YM was at our booth at CES." The rise of home entertainment has been a godsend for the media, especially for tech reporters and outlets that found themselves searching for both a purpose and an audience following the dot-com collapse. And while home entertainment does have its share of hype, it's nothing like the "vapor ware" phenomenon many tech journalists routinely faced during the internet bubble. "They're real products that the average person can go out and use," says Adam Sohmer, VP with Magnet Communications' consumer technology group, whose clients include JVC. Little cross-pollination Outside of certain specialty magazines, few media outlets cover both the hardware and content side in the same section. Instead, most still cover home-entertainment hardware with what remains of their tech section, and relegate DVDs - and often games - to the entertainment pages. But what's exciting is the breadth of media now covering the category, especially new DVD releases. "Our list of reporters has grown two-fold in the last year and a half," marvels Sue Procko of Sue Procko Public Relations, who does PR for DVDs ranging from cult horror classics to films by acclaimed directors such as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. "A number of newspapers are now assigning specific DVD reporters, so it's not just the film reviewer anymore. Even Salon.com hired a DVD reporter a couple of months ago." One of the few remaining challenges is gauging how much the reporter knows about the technology going into the story. "For journalists, it's part of their job to make technologies like HDTV common knowledge," says Russell Rowland, EVP with HWH Public Relations, which represents Samsung. "So a lot of them are ahead of the curve. You might go to them with something like high-definition TV, and they already know about it. Others just care about how it looks, and are looking for a nice photo and a caption." Part of this increased interest can be tied to the media coverage of the entire "nesting" phenomenon, with families opting to spend more time together in the living room. But a lot of that coverage falls under the umbrella of social commentary. Shawna Lynch, SVP with Bender/Helper Impact, says, "Those stories are almost too general. Our clients want to be in those stories, but at the end of the day, they want to sell their titles. And if it doesn't translate to sales, it's not always the biggest priority." Reviews are what matter Instead, what clients on both the hardware and software side of home entertainment crave is reviews - the more, the merrier. "We get really dinged if we are not in every review that's multi-product," notes Bohle. A glowing review in The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, or on the Today show is still considered the ultimate prize. However, Ron Rogers, CEO of Rogers & Co., points out, "Home entertainment is a much broader category than it's ever been, so one cannot rely on the mainstream media alone to deliver a message." Indeed, a lot of home-entertainment PR involves first pitching specialty publications to get the attention of the early adopter before reaching out to the masses. "When RCA unveiled its new HDTV sets this fall, the first outlets to get it were Sound & Vision, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater, E-Gear, and Home Theater," says Golden-Loder. "A person who's looking to buy an HDTV set is going to do their research in a magazine like Sound & Vision before they go to The New York Times." The second-biggest media for home-entertainment coverage is the internet, although that brings with it the problem of figuring out which websites are legitimate journalism, and which are simply run by an enthusiast looking for free product. "You've got to sniff around and do due diligence, but every once in a while, you still get burned," says Rowland. "There are some sites that look so professional and in fact can be very influential, but still could be that kid doing it out of his bedroom. We try and work from the top down, starting with the CNETs, but you have to develop a network and gather intelligence, and find out which sites are legitimate." "The biggest hurdle is web coverage," adds Lynch. "Even the advertising community cannot track the effectiveness of many sites. We all know E! Online, but sometimes you've got enthusiast sites or start-ups you want to support. The way we dissect it is if they have advertising, we'll support them." Given that home entertainment is essentially two categories in one, who the most influential journalists are depends on whether you're on the hardware or software side. Among the key reporters covering hardware are The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg, the Today show's Corey Greenberg, Westwood One's syndicated radio host Fred Fiskin, and David Pogue of The New York Times. On the software side, the top reporters include Peter Nichols of The New York Times, Susan King of the Los Angeles Times, Buzz McClain of Playboy, Mike Clark at USA Today, Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press, and Al Brumley of The Dallas Morning News. The only real barrier to home-entertainment coverage can be price. "Sometimes with a product such as flat-panel TVs, a newspaper will say, 'That's really out of readers' price range,' and so they won't run it," says Rowland. "But it doesn't happen often, because a lot of these a products are aspirational. They may not be able to afford it, but they're thinking about it." ----- Where to go Newspapers The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, San Francisco Chronicle Magazines Sound & Vision, Home Theater, Stereophile's Guide to Home Theater, E-Gear, Gear, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Time, Esquire, Family Circle, Electronic House, Scientific American, BusinessWeek Trade Titles Video Business, Video Store, Television Digest, DVD Release Report, DealerScope, Communications Daily, EE Times, Home Networking News, CE Pro, TecHome Builder TV & Radio CNBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, Westwood One and other syndicated radio outlets, TechTV, NPR Web CNET, ZDNet, Salon, Yahoo!, The Media Channel, TomPaine.com, Alternet.org, Planetout.com, CommonCause.org

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