Sun Valley: Where Media Goes to Die

There’s no better gauge of the state of the media—however broadly you might choose to define that—than the lack of any sort of story line to set up the Allen & Co. Sun Valley Conference. Things are so bad that the Wrap’s Sharon Waxman had to resort to this kind of reporting to post anything about the conference at all:

“And here, looking all romantic, comes Paramount chief Brad Grey, hand in hand with his girlfriend, Cassandra Huysentruyt. Did I say girlfriend? That girl is wearing a great big sparkly rock on her finger and the couple confirms that, yes, they just got engaged in France.

“We push for details. Grey demurs. WaxWord persists and gets this much out of him: He proposed at the Hotel du Cap in Cap d’Antibes.

“Cassandra has a conundrum. Will she change her name? Or stick with the Danish-origin Huysentruyt? (I can’t say it.) She says she’s not sure yet.

“Well, that’s some news, anyway.”

If that’s media news, we might as well all pack it in. Sure, a big part of the problem is the conference itself, which, whatever the original purpose, has become just a red-carpet photo opportunity for media owners and executives. Stars have the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys; why can’t the suits have their own awards-show-style event?

Even as a pseudo-event, this year is seriously lacking in anything that might be exciting. Last year, Twitter was the belle of the ball. The service dutifully pulled through in the following 12 months proving the power of the conference to at least invite the hot new start up. Allen & Co. achieved this a few years before with YouTube which was subsequently acquired by Google.

Deals are supposed to be the point of Sun Valley. Some even credit talks last year between Steve Burke and Jeff Zucker as starting the ball rolling toward Comcast’s purchase of NBCU from GE.

This year there’s nothing to hype—Foursquare is hardly a media property—and nothing to buy. You almost wonder whether the Roberts wish they’d waited a year before pulling the trigger on NBCU.

Hovering in the background of Sun Valley is the launch of the iPad and the ominous threat to the media industry of further dislocation in the economics of production and distribution. Organically generated, cheap and widespread distribution of content through apps is a real potential outcome of the 25 million iPads projected to be sold next year.

By July of 2011, we may see app makers at Sun Valley but the initial experience of the mobile revolution is that creativity doesn’t scale into bigger companies. App makers tend to be small shops of quirky and creative types. If they become the next moguls—or what passes for moguls—it will be like the writers taking over Hollywood. Which is kind of a funny thought—until you really start thinking about it.