Trump, Twitter, and the Death of Television

Should CNN have hosted a town hall with Donald Trump last week?  Everybody has an opinion, I’m sure you do.  Inside CNN this question has prompted an existential crisis.  According to numerous reports the atmosphere resembles a toxic cauldron of confusion, anger, bitterness, and embarrassment.  Only those close to CNN head Chris Licht and his boss WB Discovery CEO David Zaslav seem to be pleased.

Regardless of whether one agrees with CNN’s decision, the more interesting question to me is why they did it.  Licht and Zaslav say it’s about returning CNN to the center of political discourse and reestablishing the tradition of news organizations prizing objectivity above all else.  In this light, the decision to host a town hall of New Hampshire voters with Donald Trump, the leading contender for the Republican nomination in ’24, is a no brainer.

Sure, ok, you can believe that if you want.  No doubt there’s some truth to it.  But there’s a much simpler explanation:  CNN’s ratings are in the tank, and it needed a win, badly.  And love him or hate him, there’s no doubt Trump is good for ratings.

Let’s go one step further and call CNN’s decision for what it was – an act of desperation.  David Zaslav and Chris Licht are watching their business crumble before their eyes and despite their confident assertions to the contrary, don’t know what to do about it.  So, they are acting like human beings on a sinking ship, looking over the railing in terror at the dark, cold, merciless abyss of the sea.  Under such circumstances people are prone to do just about anything to stay alive.

And they’re not alone.  CNN platforming Trump wasn’t the only act of desperation last week. 

Elon Musk, facing the complete disintegration of Twitter’s reputation on Madison Avenue, hired Linda Yaccarino from NBC Universal to be CEO.  Musk has done everything possible to alienate advertisers and destroy Twitters’ brand since buying it.  Let me be clear, he’s incredibly fortunate to land an executive with Linda’s talent, skills, reputation, and track record.  She’s as good as it gets in our industry.  If anyone can restore Twitter’s standing in the ad community, it’s her.

I don’t know Linda and have no firsthand insight into why she took the job.  The chance to be a CEO, money, prestige, the thrill of a new challenge – there are lots of good reasons.  But back to our sinking ship metaphor, I wonder if part of Linda’s calculus was the inescapable reality that ratings on NBC’s core business are in irreversible decline and staying meant she would be doomed to preside over a television portfolio that is taking on water much faster than the pumps can handle.

I could go on.  Bad ratings are also the reason the writers resorted to the desperate measure of a strike.  Media companies are prioritizing their best programming for streaming because that’s where the eyeballs are.  But that’s not good for writers whose livelihood is based on the economics of the traditional television model of more episodes and back-end residuals.

For years industry has talked about the inevitable “death of television.”  Changing viewing habits, cord cutting, the rise of streaming – the list of culprits is long.  Everyone agrees that death is inevitable, even if the exact timing is in dispute.

Yet I wonder if we’ve given sufficient thought to what TV’s death will really look like.  The problem with anthropomorphizing a concept like television is that it can lead to shallow analysis. In others we take the term death at face value without really thinking in depth about what it means for the business.  For instance, most analysis stops at the basic question of whether one day all the cable and broadcast networks be gone.  Maybe, but I think that outcome is best measured in decades, not months or years. 

Television is not dying in the sense that one day it will vanish entirely from the Earth like a human being.  Far from it.  The better metaphor, if you’ll forgive the weather reference from the guy who works at The Weather Channel, is that we are seeing a once in a century, category five hurricane beginning to make landfall.  The storm is so big we could see it coming for a long time. The skies darkened and the wind picked up as it approached. We hoped it would veer away.  But it hasn’t.  And now it’s here and things are accelerating quickly.

Trump, Twitter, the writers strike, eye watering cord cutting numbers – the hits just keeping coming.  More will surely follow, even bigger and more severe than what we’ve seen.  Companies will fail, networks will be absorbed by competitors, and high-powered CEOs who failed to prepare adequately will resort to desperate measures.  And, who knows, maybe some boards will even start to hold them accountable.

Speaking of CEO accountability, there’s an irony here: the severity of the storm hitting the industry was made worse by the actions of those charged with protecting it.  The reckless spending on sports rights, expanding commercial loads to the point where programs are unwatchable, the failure to consider the consumer experience with VOD and TV Everywhere, the greed induced blindness to the existential threat of Netflix, these are just some of the failures that got us here.  But none of that matters now. 

The issue isn’t what we can do to prevent the storm, rather what will the world look like when it finally passes.  One thing seems certain, if we use Netflix as the model for the future the bounty of profits that TV once delivered are gone forever.  Netflix is a true innovator and the gold standard in the business right now.  And while it’s the only profitable streaming business today, it doesn’t deliver near the margins that the industry generated in its heyday. 

This is the saddest reality of all: no one has yet found a way for the business to generate more money tomorrow than it did yesterday. When the storm passes the pie will be smaller. That seems inevitable.

It’s not all bad. The storm could do some good by finally purging the industry of long held bad habits. One thing is for certain – television is far from dead. It will remain the best format for storytelling and collective emotional experiences, and therefore a must have for consumers and advertisers alike. The industry never fails to surprise, it will do so again.

But be prepared, we are all going to feel like Jim Cantore standing in the middle of gale force winds for a while, the storm is just getting started.

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