Of Tosca, Telephones, "TRL" and Times Square

Last Updated Sep 25, 2009 2:52 PM EDT

Advertising Week in New York -- in addition to being exhausting -- is often a chance to see the high and the low of our media-saturated culture in one fell swoop. So, during the week, I witnessed Martha Stewart, Mark Cuban, New York Times' digital chief Martin Nisenholtz and even Ashton Kutcher all opining on the state of media and advertising at various panels.

But the most telling five minutes came not inside one of the many venues staging events, but in a brief walk to the subway through Times Square on Monday night. For me, Times Square is a particularly good place to compare-and-contrast how media has changed, as during much of the 1990s, I worked at 1515 Broadway, the building between 44th and 45th that houses MTV. (Alas, I was only working at Adweek.) This was during MTV's "TRL" heyday, when the show was broadcast live from the second floor every weekday afternoon; on many days, scores of teenage girls would swarm the streets, swooning over whatever boy band was appearing on the show that afternoon.

So on Monday night, I left the Marriott Marquis, across the street from my old office building to see one of those crowds that gathers around inania, like moths to a flame. Not being able to resist the temptation of seeing what they were looking at -- were those break dancers still doing their act, ten years later? -- I saw a scene that would have been very different had it happened when I last worked in Times Square in 1999. It was sportscaster Joe Buck and Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange, apparently filming an episode of Buck's HBO show. (Thanks, Google, and thanks, YouTube; what, exactly, was going on wasn't apparent on Monday night. ) There is nothing new about seeing things being filmed in Times Square, but what was different from years ago was all of the people shooting cell phone video of the shoot. I'm amazed that none of that appears to have shown up on YouTube, but it speaks to our increasingly public world that ten years ago, most of the cameras would have been in the hands of professionals, and there certainly wouldn't have been means to upload a civilian video, much less a market for it.

Within moments of proceeding to the subway station, everything changed completely. I became aware of an opera singer singing an aria. I'm not an opera buff, but the sound was incredible. Looking up, I realized that the opera (the apparently controversial Metropolitan Opera season premiere of "Tosca") was playing on multiple video displays, and pumped through a massive sound system. Meanwhile, in the new seating areas right within Times Square (the "TRL" crowd could've used those), people were sitting and staring upward at the screens. Two teenagers asked me what all this was about. "It looks like it's a live broadcast of an opera in Times Square," I said, stating the obvious. But I kind of knew what they meant: What was the opera doing in Times Square, on all those screens? And what the hell ever happened to 'N Sync?