Having spent the last two weeks in Europe, I’ve found that Euro media players are baffled by almost everything that’s taking place in the U.S. – a unique disconnect. Every manifestation of Trumpism bewilders them; even the media mega-deals are disturbing. Deals like AT&T-Time Warner in their minds portend exactly the kind of oligopoly and content concentration that Europeans would like to escape.
“The prospect of CNN disappearing into an anonymous multinational exemplifies a threat that neither the U.S. nor Europe needs,” observed one Euro production CEO who doesn’t want to be quoted. Euros, who are accustomed to oligopoly, note that even now only four providers control the U.S. wireless business while high-speed Internet service is provided by only one or two entities in most parts of the country.
Media executives in Europe are also puzzled by Hollywood’s acquiescence to the major Chinese invasion embodied by the Sony and Legendary co-production deals. To their view, there’s a perverse irony in the fact that China is invading the U.S at a moment when ticket sales in China itself are shrinking (down 10% in the last six months). Given their problems selling their own product in China, will the Chinese mavens have better luck with potentially censored versions of American product?
Given this range of anxieties, I decided to escape both the political wars and the ratings wars last week for a visit to the river wars — floating down the Rhine as a passenger. River-boat vacations, I’d been reading, have become so popular that waterways from the Danube to Cambodia are clogged with vessels packed with tourists. Companies like Viking and AMA are pouring millions in marketing dollars to expand their niches. But the growth of the river biz has stirred problem similar to Hollywood’s: Unforeseen obstacles and bureaucratic intrigues keep getting in the way, and management has a way of screwing up.
Hollywood needs audiences and rivers need water. There’s so little water on the Rhine that the Amacerto, on which I was a passenger, was motoring along trepidaciously with 8 inches of water under its keel. While my boat didn’t get stuck in the mud, our progress was broken because four of the 10 locks along the voyage have been malfunctioning and the Dutch, German and French bureaucrats tend to argue among themselves as to who should do the fixing. This means that while the passengers party, the captains fret over delays. One was sufficiently distracted that he forgot to duck and hit his head on a very low bridge, causing 10 stitches.
The ubiquitous commercials for river voyages feature photos of some 24 majestic castles from Ehrenbreitstein to Rheinfels to Mauseturm — they are the stars of the Rhine riverboat industry, some dating back to the 10th century. The problem is that the old structures, like movie stars, cost too much money to keep happy. Many teeter forlorn and abandoned while others have been converted into youth hostels.
In short, the river business is like most others: the demand is becoming too big for the infrastructure. I saw five or six substantial riverboats tied up side-by-side, spilling tourists into small towns like Speyer and Breisach or bigger cities like Heidelberg and Strasbourg. Stalwart tour guides marched through the towns, holding their banners high while reciting hours of details about dead empires and medieval cathedrals.
Having said all this, floating down the Rhine still has its pleasures. The food is good and the bar parties never end. The carriers are clearly making lots of money (the price of a tour on my boat ranges from $3,000-$5,000) and are relentlessly exploring new venues.
There’s hardly a river in the world that isn’t being scrutinized (the Los Angeles river is one exception). Lawrence Simon of Mariners Travel, a veteran of the tour business, believes the appetite for rivers will continue to expand but that canny travel experts must become increasingly selective about their destinations. It’s all show business, after all, and that spells both fun and profits. That is, until the water dries up, the locks become permanently locked and the castles finally surrender to the demands of time.