Posts about mass media

What is happening to TV?

If AI made TV: I asked Dreamstudio for an old TV set with Shakespeare in a sitcom

TV has had more supposed golden ages than the Queen had bling: Sid Cesar’s brief blip during TV’s infancy was hailed as one such shimmering age only because what followed — America stranded on Gilligan’s Island — was so unbearable as to make his Show of Shows’ Vaudeville shtick seem worthy of nostalgia. On broadcast, Cosby — yes, that Cosby, but only at the beginning — and Hill Street Blues marked a prime-time pop-cultural high. Then with cable’s freedoms came what I think of as TV’s real golden age, spanning The Sopranos to Succession.

TV today is certainly in no golden age. Prime-time, broadcast TV is profoundly self-parodic, populated with sitcoms that look as if they ran out of Viagra, cop- and doc-shows exhibiting the production and thespian quality of telenovelas, and “reality” shows that have lost any hold on reality. On premium cable, I pay for HBO and Showtime every damned month, watching none of it, waiting for Billions and Succession. On regular cable, I let MSNBC doomscroll the news for me — in between commercials for butt-cheek cream and dancing poop emojis (have they no standards?) — and then gratefully fall asleep to Guy Fieri’s comfort food. Netflix is so dark it has become Black Mirror. I dread subscribing to Apple TV+, Disney+, Discovery+, ESPN+, and all the other pluses for fear of what it will take to cancel them. Just yesterday, I received an actual letter delivered by the Post Office from Amazon saying, “We’re sending you this letter because you are an Amazon prime member who has not recently used any of the video benefits available to you.”

I was, for many years, a TV critic: the Couch Critic at TV Guide, the first TV critic at People, and founder of Entertainment Weekly. I was born with and grew up with TV. In the day, I defended television, which was almost as difficult as defending the internet is now. Of course, there are still good things to watch on TV. But given the medium’s current state, I am concerned about its health. Consider recent developments:

The Times reported that NBC is considering handing over its 10 p.m., prime-time hour to local stations — which is even more of a surrender than giving it to Jay Leno. This week, The Times valiantly tried to find 41 shows to recommend this fall — only five from network prime time, the rest mainly found in the bottoms of barrels — while the newspaper’s own critics mourn the death of fall TV. (I, too, am old enough to remember when fall brought new TV series and car models instead of just new phones.)

If network prime time has lost its value, so have networks, so has television, so has broadcast.

Cord-cutting continues apace, so cable is ailing, too. Thus all Hollywood is rushing to stream. Nielsen just reported that, for the first time, streaming surpassed both broadcast and cable in time spent watching in the U.S.:

But hold off writing that hot take about streaming taking over the world. Even as it triumphs in viewing time, The Washington Post declares that streaming “is having an existential crisis, and viewers can tell.” Take HBO, lately acquired by Discovery, which is merging the former’s streaming network, HBO Max, with the latter’s, Discovery+. To streamline — to cut costs — both are not just canceling shows but erasing them from the archives and even from social-media mentions. Netflix, which last year spent $13.6 billion on programming, is panicking, cutting back, and adding ads. Writers, producers, and actors are panicking, too, as they are finding fewer buyers for their output in Hollywood’s new monopsony — that is, a market with fewer and fewer buyers. There are only five corporate-conglomerate major studios now: Universal (NBC), Paramount (née Viacom), Warner (ex Time Warner, ex AT&T, now Discovery), Disney, and Columbia (Sony). And don’t forget that Amazon bought MGM.

Why is this happening now? In a fascinating Twitter thread, University College London researcher G. Vaughn Joy said we are rapidly reverting to the bad old days of Hollywood’s studio system. Recall that in those days, five all-powerful studios controlled entertainment from end to end, from production to distribution to exhibition. A 1948 Supreme Court anti-trust decision led to the Paramount Decree, forcing studios to divest their movie theaters. In the happy heyday since, independent theaters and production companies flourished.

Unbeknownst to me and maybe to you, in 2020 Trump’s anti-anti-trust Justice Department asked the court to sunset the Paramount Decree because, well, times have changed. That took effect just last month.

So now big studios can once again lock up vertical integration in entertainment, from production to distribution to exhibition, not in movie theaters — they are rapidly going bankrupt — but on your small screen via their streaming services. There is no longer a bright line between movies and TV shows, between broadcast and cable, between production and distribution; it’s all a stew of stuff flowing by your house in streams, each with a toll booth.

We tend to think of media as immutable institutions. But nothing in media is forever. In addition to my big book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis, coming out next year from Bloomsbury (more plugs coming soon), I’ve been writing a short book on the magazine as object (also for Bloomsbury). In my research and reminiscences, I come to see that all media artifacts — a magazine, a show, a series, a newspaper, a channel — are evanescent, like a bubble in the champagne glass of time; ultimately, so is any medium: television, radio, magazine, movie. I’ll get to the book in a minute.

Is this the internet’s fault? Yes, for once it is. What the net destroys is scarcity and scale. It kills the blockbuster. It massacres mass media. But isn’t the internet all about scale, you ask? Yes, but in a network ecology, it is that unprecedented scale that permits anyone connected to it to speak, to create, to collaborate, to share. We didn’t end up in a 500-channel world but in a five-billion-network world, each unique. So now there is an abundance of voice and creativity and every old medium — each of which trafficked in scarcity of space, time, talent, or attention — must now compete in a marketplace of abundance. The first reflex of old media is invariably wrong: to seek protection against new competitors by lobbying in Congress and courts, to buy up competitors to become bigger yet (see: Discovery + Warner), to reduce costs and thus quality, to raise prices.

All media are affected. The newspaper industry is consolidating into the hands of hedge funds and is engaging in profound journalistic conflict of interest by lobbying for protectionist legislation (one attempt just failed). The magazine industry is consolidating (see once-mighty Time Inc., sold into homemaker heaven Meredith, and sold in turn to content sweatshop Dotdash, with various of their magazines — including my own Entertainment Weekly — folded along the way). The book industry is trying to hold onto its old ways; see this saga about the resource and risk poured into making just one book a best-seller; how can this be sustained and how often can it succeed? The music industry did all this and more until it finally saw the light, clawed back, and found growth in a new abundance of talent, genres, and fans.

What comes next? At first, what comes next is inevitably derivative of what was. Marshall McLuhan said “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium,” that is, the medium that came before. See how, a few years ago at Vidcon, YouTube was pushing shows that looked a lot like old TV series.

YouTube has since killed much of this effort because it was expensive and didn’t work. Of course, it wouldn’t. YouTube should not aspire to be TV. It still must figure out what it means to be YouTube.

What we are left with today is a mess. TV and movies are still hoping for blockbusters and so they invest only in what they believe are sure things — Game of Thrones the Presequel House of Dragons — and otherwise, they fill their channels with cheap pap. Producers, writers, and actors will no longer find studios willing to back the endless credits of their big-budget productions. Streaming services will fold as viewers get frustrated paying for crap.

In each medium before, it took time to invent new, native genres. In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I recount a rush of innovation that came a century and a half after movable type with the creation of the essay, the novel, and the newspaper. In my magazine research, I saw how new forms met new opportunities and needs: how Harper’s started in 1850 with a mission to curate a new abundance of content; how Godey’s found value in women as a new market; how Ebony outlasted Life and Look as white people abandoned their picture magazines when they saw themselves on TV but Black people did not; how Henry Luce and Briton Hadden invented not only the newsmagazine but the media corporation. As a TV critic, I came to appreciate the sitcom as well as the series, the miniseries, and the soap opera as genres native to the medium.

What will the new, native genres for the post-mass, post-theater, post-broadcast, post-blockbuster internet ecosystem look like? I cannot know. They are only now being germinated, mostly by people who could not have survived the gauntlet of old media. I think we see hints of that future in TikTok, which to my mind is the first truly collaborative creative platform original to the net (thus: Ratatouille the TikTok Musical and the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which is being sued by big, bad Netflix). We see hints, too, in Wattpad, a receptacle for the energy and affection of fan fiction. No, I am not saying this is the future of culture, only that that future can come from unexpected places. While the big, old companies try desperately to hold onto their control, cultural insurgents will undermine them.

I’ve been thinking about the institutions of culture and media — editing, publishing, networks, and so on — and what we may lose if or when they disappear. I celebrate the fall of the gatekeepers who restricted media to the privileged and powerful, the elite and highbrow. I am glad for the end of the Cronkitization of journalism and civic life: the hubris that one old, white man could speak to and for all. I am happy to see our sitcom addiction to happy endings fall to the messy realism of, say, Breaking Bad. I do not miss the paternalistic nature of mass media, but I do regret that media today have not maintained its sense of mission; see how network TV entered into public discourse about bigotry (Roots, All in the Family, Will & Grace) but is all but silent today on evangelical white supremacy and authoritarianism.

We may miss past institutions’ contributions to the culture — finding, nurturing, goading talent — until these institutions are eventually replaced as needs demand.

I believe culture will come out the other end better for the turmoil: more representative, less exploitative, less expensive, more collaborative, more inventive. In the meantime? It’ll be a mess.

In defense of targeting

In defending targeting, I am not defending Facebook, I am attacking mass media and what its business model has done to democracy — including on Facebook.

With targeting, a small business, a new candidate, a nascent movement can efficiently and inexpensively reach people who would be interested in their messages so they may transact or assemble and act. Targeted advertising delivers greater relevance at lower cost and democratizes advertising for those who could not previously afford it, whether that is to sell homemade jam or organize a march for equality.* Targeting has been the holy grail all media and all advertisers have sought since I’ve been in the business. But mass media could never accomplish it, offering only crude approximations like “zoned” newspaper and magazine editions in my day or cringeworthy buys for impotence ads on the evening news now. The internet, of course, changed that.

Without targeting, we are left with mass media — at the extreme, Super Bowl commercials — and the people who can afford them: billionaires and those loved by them. Without targeting, big money will forever be in charge of commerce and politics. Targeting is an antidote.

With the mass-media business model, the same message is delivered to all without regard for relevance. The clutter that results means every ad screams, cajoles, and fibs for attention and every media business cries for the opportunity to grab attention for its advertisers, and we are led inevitably to cats and Kardashians. That is the attention-advertising market mass media created and it is the business model the internet apes so long as it values, measures, and charges for attention alone.

Facebook and the scareword “microtargeting” are blamed for Trump. But listen to Andrew Bosworth, who knows whereof he speaks, as he managed advertising on Facebook during the 2016 election. In a private post made public, he said:

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period….

They weren’t running misinformation or hoaxes. They weren’t microtargeting or saying different things to different people. They just used the tools we had to show the right creative to each person.

I disagree with him about Facebook deserving full blame or credit for electing Trump; that’s a bit of corporate hubris on the part of him and Facebook, touting the power of what they sell. But he makes an important point: Trump’s people made better use of the tools than their competitors, who had access to the same tools and the same help with them.

But they’re just tools. Bad guys and pornographers tend to be the first to exploit new tools and opportunities because they are smart and devious and cheap. Trump used it to sell the ultimate elixir: anger. Cambridge Analytica acted as if it were brilliant at using these tools, but as Bosworth also says in the post — and as every single campaign data expert I know has said — CA was pure bullshit and did not sway so much as a dandelion in the wind in 2016. Says Bosworth: “This was pure snake oil and we knew it; their ads performed no better than any other marketing partner (and in many cases performed worse).” But the involvement of evil CA and its evil backers and clients fed the media narrative of moral panic about the corruption and damnation of microtargeting.

Hillary Clinton &co. could have used the same tools well and at the time — and still — I have lamented that they did not. They relied on traditional presumptions about campaigning and media and the culture in a changed world. Richard Nixon was the first to make smart use of direct mail — targeting! — and then everyone learned how to. Trump &co. used targeting well and in this election I as sure as hell hope his many opponents have learned the lesson.

Unless, that is, well-meaning crusaders take that tool away by demonizing and even banning micro — call it effective — targeting. I have sat in too many rooms with too many of these folks who think that there is a single devil and that a single messiah can rescue us all. I call this moral panic because it fits Ashley Crossman’s excellent definition of it:

A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.

The corollary is moral messianism: that outlawing this one thing will solve it all. I’ve heard lots of people proclaiming that microtargeting and targeting — as well as the data that powers it — should be banned. (“Data” has also become a scare word, which scares me, for data are information.) We’ve also seen media — in cahoots with similarly threatened legacy politicians — gang up on Facebook and Google for their power to target because media have been too damned stubborn and stupid, lo these two decades, to finally learn how to use the net to respect and serve people as individuals, not a mass, and learn information about people to deliver greater relevance and value for both users and advertisers. I wrote a book arguing for this strategy and tried to convince every media executive I know to compete with the platforms by building their own focused products to gather their own first-party data to offer advertisers their own efficient and effective value and to collaborate as an industry to do this. Instead, the industry prefers to whine. Mass media must mass.

Over the years, every time I’ve said that the net could enable a positive, I’ve been accused of technological determinism. Funny thing is, it’s the dystopians who are the determinists for they believe that a technology corrupts people. It is patronizing, paternalistic, and insulting to the public and robs them of agency to believe they can be transformed from decent, civilized human beings into raging lunatics and idiots by exposure to a Facebook ad. If we believe that and believe our problems are so easily fixed then we miss the real problems this country has: its long-standing racism; media’s exploitation and fueling of conflict and fear; and growing anti-intellectualism and hostility to education.

We also need to fix advertising — in mass media and on the internet in the platforms, especially on Facebook. Advertising needs to shift from mass-media measures of audience and attention and clicks to value-based measures of relevance and utility and efficacy — which will only occur with, yes, targeting. It also must become transparent, making clear who is advertising to us (Facebook may confirm the identity of an advertiser but that confirmed information is not shared with us) and on what basis we are being targeted (Facebook reveals only rough demographics, not targeting goals) and giving us the power to have some control over what we are shown. Instead of banning political advertising, I wish Twitter would also have endeavored to fix how advertising works.

I hear the more extreme moral messianists say their cure is to ban advertising. That’s not only naive, it’s dangerous, for without advertising journalists will starve and we will return to the age of the Medicis and their avissi: private information for the privileged few who can afford it. Paywalls are no paradise.

What’s really happening here — and this is a post and a book for another day — is a reflexive desire to control speech. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about the spread of printing in early-modern Europe and I am struck by how every attempt to control the press and outlaw forms of speech failed and backfired. At some point, we must have faith in our fellow citizens and shift our attention from playing Whac-a-Mole with the bad guys to instead finding, sharing, and supporting expertise, education, authority, intelligence, and quality so we can have a healthy, deliberative democracy in a marketplace of ideas. The alternatives are all worse.

* I leave you with a few ads I found in Facebook’s library that could work only via targeting and never on expensive mass media: the newspaper, TV, or radio. I searched on “march.”

When you eliminate targeting, you risk silencing these movements.

Opening photo credit and link:

Trump & the Press: A Murder-Suicide Pact

The press will destroy Trump and Trump will destroy the press.

Consider that trust in media began falling in the ’70s, coincident with what we believe was our zenith: Watergate. We brought down a President. A Republican President.

Now the press is the nation’s last, best hope to bring down a compromised, corrupt, bigoted, narcissistic, likely insane, incompetent, and possibly dangerous President. A Republican President. Donald Trump.

If the press does what Congress is so far unwilling to do — investigate him — then these two Republican presidencies will bookend the beginning of the end and the end of the end of American mass media. Any last, small hope that anyone on the right would ever again trust, listen to, and be informed by the press will disappear. It doesn’t matter if we are correct or righteous. We won’t be heard. Mass media dies, as does the notion of the mass.

Therein lies the final Trump paradox: In failing, he would succeed in killing the press. And his final projection: The enemy of the people convinces the people that we are the enemy.

The press that survives, the liberal press, will end up with more prizes and subscriptions, oh joy, but with little hope of guiding or informing the nation’s conversation. Say The New York Times reaches its audacious dreamof 10 million paying subscribers. So what? That’s 3% of the U.S. population (and some number of those subscribers will be from elsewhere). And they said that blogs were echo chambers. We in liberal media will be speaking to ourselves — or, being liberal, more likely arguing with ourselves.

No number of empathetic articles that try to understand and reflect the worldview of the angry core of America will do a damned bit of good getting them to read, trust, and learn from The New York Times. My own dear parents will not read The New York Times. They are left to be <cough> informed by Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge, RT, and worse.

Last week, Jim Rutenberg and David Leonhardt of The Times wrote tough columns about turmoil in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal over journalists’ fears that they find themselves working for an agent of Trump. They missed the longer story: What we are living through right now was the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch. It started in 1976 (note the timeline of trust above) when he bought the New York Post to be, in his words, his bully pulpit — and he added new meaning to that phrase. Yes, Rush Limbaugh and his like came along in the next decade to turn American radio into a vehicle for spreading fear, hate, and conspiracy. But it was in the following decade, in 1996, when Murdoch started Fox News, adding new, ironic meaning to another phrase: “fair and balanced.” He and his henchman, Roger Ailes, used every technique, conceit, and cliché of American television news to co-opt the form and forward his worldview, agenda, and war.

Murdoch could have resurrected the ideological diversity that was lost in the American press when broadcast TV culled newspapers in competitive markets and the survivors took on the impossible veil of objectivity. Instead, he made the rest of the press into the enemy: not us “and” them but us “or” them; not “let us give you another perspective” but “their perspective is bad.”

What’s a liberal journo to do? We are stuck in endless paradoxical loops. If we do our job and catch the President in a lie, we are labeled liars. When we counteract fake news with real news, everything becomes fake news. If I get angry about being attacked by angry white men I end up becoming an angry white man. Liberals tell us to be nice to conservatives to win them over but then they only mock us for being weak. Snowflakes. Cucks. Liberal tears.

I commend to your reading this essay by Dale Beran explaining the ultimate political irony of our day: The alt-right is made up of losers and when we call them losers they win. So we can’t win. “Trump is Pepe. Trump is loserdom embraced,” Beran explains. “Trump supporters voted for the con-man, the labyrinth with no center, because the labyrinth with no center is how they feel, how they feel the world works around them. A labyrinth with no center is a perfect description of their mother’s basement with a terminal to an endless array of escapist fantasy worlds.”

How do you argue with that worldview? How do you inform it? How do you win somebody over when all they want is enemies? (Watch this at your own peril.) You probably can’t. There are some chunks of America that likely need to be written off because they have fenced themselves off from reasonable, fact-based, intellectually honest, civil debate and now wallow in hate. Is that condescending of me to say? No, it’s pragmatic. Realjournalismus.

So then am I giving up on journalism and democracy? No, damnit, not yet. I am giving up on mass media. The internet wounded it; Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump finally killed it.

So now what? Now we reinvent journalism. Now we learn how to serve communities, listening to them to reflect their worldviews and gain their trust so we can inform them. Now we give up on the belief that we are entitled to act as gatekeeper and to set the agenda as well as the prices of information and advertising. Now we must learn to work well with others. Now we must bring diversity not just to our surviving newsrooms — which we must — but to the larger news ecosystem, building new, sustainable news services and businesses to listen to, understand, empathize with, and meet the needs of many communities.

Our goal is not to herd all the lost sheep back into our fence. I will disagree with those who say that we must grinfuck to Trump voters to woo them to our side of the ballot. No, we must stay angry and incredulous that they — the fanatical core of them — brought us Trump, and we prove our worth by fixing that. I say there is no hope of convincing frogs and eggs in our Twitter feeds; let’s not waste our time. Instead, our goal is to bring out the people who regretted their vote; there must be some. Far more important, our goal is to bring out the people who did not vote, who were not sufficiently informed of the risk of their inaction and thus not motivated to act. We can do that. Journalism can. That is why journalism exists, for civic engagement. (This is why starting Social Journalism at CUNY was a revolutionary act.)

Start, for example, with the many communities who are lumped together as Latino Americans. Meet them not as a demographic bucket imagined by Anglo Americans and marketers but as distinct groups of people who have distinct needs and interests. (This is why I am proud that CUNY started a bilingual journalism program.) Do the same with so many other underserved and these days abused communities: immigrants, Muslims, LGBT communities, people who will lose health insurance … communities organized not just around identity but also around need.

To be clear, this does not mean that the last mass-media companies can abandon these communities to media ghettos. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, every newspaper company, and every broadcast company must work much harder to bring diversity into their newsrooms and executive ranks to do their jobs better. (One last plug for CUNY: This is why we work so hard to recruit a diverse student body.) We can improve mass media. But I don’t think we can fix it as it is — that is, return it to its lost scale. And I don’t think that mass media can fix the mess we are in.

So I would advise media companies old and new to invent and invest in new services to serve new communities. If I wanted to save a struggling mass-media company — think: Time Inc. — I would start scores of new services, building new and valued relationships with new communities.

And, yes, I would start a new service for conservative America. I would hire the best conservative journalists I could find not just to write commentary but to report from a different worldview (if anyone can define conservatism these days). I would underwrite scholarships at journalism schools (I promised to stop plugging mine) to recruit students from towns wracked by unemployment, from evangelical colleges, from the military. I would take advantage of a tremendous business opportunity to fight back against Murdoch’s and Trump’s destruction of the American press in the full belief that there are enough people in this nation on the right who want facts, who want to be informed, who will listen to their own uncomfortable truths. I would welcome that diversity, too.

Finally, I would stop listening to the entitled whinging of journalists about the state of their business. Yes, Murdoch fired a first bullet and Trump hammered a last nail but we bear the most responsibility for abandoning large swaths of America and for refusing to change. I disagree with Adrienne LaFrance that Mark Zuckerberg is out to “destroy journalism.” His manifestoabout the future of communities and an informed society shows we have much to learn from him. “Online communities are a bright spot,” he writes, ever the optimist. “Research suggests the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do.”

OK, but I will also push him, too. Facebook, Twitter, and all the platforms should invest their considerable intelligence, imagination, and resources in helping reinvent journalism for this age. New tools bring new opportunities and new responsibilities. I would like to see Facebook help news companies understand how to serve communities and how to reimagine how we inform citizens’ conversations where they occur. I wish that Facebook would find more ways to introduce us to new people who can tell their stories in safe spaces where we can come to learn about each other. I would like Facebook and media to collaborate convening communities in conflict to informed and productive discourse. I would like to see Twitter finally address its and perhaps society’s key problem: Can we be open and also civil? I hope Google will be more transparent about those who would manipulate it and thus us. I hope they all help us invent new business models that no longer reward just clickbait and fame, cats and Kardashians, sensationalism and polarization (Zuckerberg’s words). The platforms should spend less effort trying to help journalism as it is — except insofar as it buys us time for innovation — but instead support journalism as it can be.

Let Donald Trump kill the mass media that made him President. Let his ego and his hate suck all his attention and hostility from its last dying embers. Let his election be the last gasp, the nadir of this dying institution. Then let the rest of us — God willing a comfortable majority in this already-great nation — find a path to resume a civil and informed conversation about our shared future.