Slate Magazine has a piece today about an interview with sports and politics commentator Keith Olbermann, where he touched on the declining ratings for ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter and opined on the similar trajectory of NPR radio’s flagship shows All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
“On the March 31 episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Simmons asked Keith Olbermann how he would fix SportsCenter. The show’s ratings have been falling steadily, leaving ESPN scrambling to save its stalwart franchise. “All the attempts to modify [SportsCenter] are predicated on the idea that it can be what it was two years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago, and it can’t,” Olbermann said. “There is no motivation except for old-time guys, who are our ages or even older, who want that sort of leisurely, well-done, paced kind of stroll through all the sports news. But we’re dying off. Generations have come behind us who say, ‘I just want to know who’s the leading candidate to be the Browns quarterback next year,’ and that’s it.”
In other words, according to Olbermann, the curated magazine show is dying. What Olbermann said about SportsCenter could also apply to the future of NPR. If people are talking about the demise of a once-dominant TV show like SportsCenter, we should probably be having that same discussion about audio giants Morning Edition and All Things Considered.”
The article goes on to explore how changing technologies coupled with changing expectations for receiving news might alter our car-driving radio-listening habits – thus threatening the NPR news magazine formats. The cultural shifts driving these changes seem to be similar to those that threaten the church; ncreasing individualism and a declining willingness for commitment.
The author of the Slate piece, Steve Lickteig, argues that the issue isn’t NPR’s or ESPN’s content; rather it is the delivery format that is threatened.
“In this new on-demand world, NPR will be as important as ever—perhaps moreso. People will always want to hear the news, and NPR’s problem isn’t its journalism; it’s packaging. In the future, what possible motivation will listeners have to tune into a radio news magazine, with all of its programming eccentricities, when they can assemble the show they want as effortlessly as they can speak it?”
It is this question that seems to link most closely to how we envision church for the future. In what ways is our Sunday morning worship and programming a format rather than a content issue? Using the language of commerce, what is our ‘product’ apart from the way we deliver it? Is our primary mission forming disciples for Christ’s mission or gathering people on Sunday morning? In what ways does management of our existing format (buildings, organizations, institutions) distract us from our mission? Or are we happy with continuing as a niche provider of a particular kind of religious experience?