Long Day’s Journey Into Right
Don't Let The Next Crisis Go To Waste
Happy Long Weekend War & Peaceniks!
It’s been a long, hard couple of years. But, if you can imagine (and you should), the year ahead is going to be longer, and even more challenging.
I’ve said this many times before, but here it is with even less sugar coating: A recession is coming, fully loaded, and pointed directly at the media industry.
The first warning sign was the digital ad slow down. The next was Netflix’s churn. YouTube and Facebook missing targets were indicators. Amazon losing half a trillion in value set off an alarm. When Comcast missed its broadband target, Snap adjusted 2Q projections down just weeks after issuing them (blaming a quickly deteriorating economy), and TV Scatter sales dried up… recession danger signs jumped to Charlie Sheen levels.
However, this piece isn’t about the streaming wars, or the ad market. It’s about us. It’s about how media’s professional class deals with the challenges ahead, and uses the coming crisis to change our businesses for the better… Or how we fail to do so, and drive ourselves off The Cliffs of Irrelevancy.
I am lucky to be invited into many media corporations as they struggle with evolution. The existential nature of our collective current challenges have generated a true sense of bewilderment and not a small amount of panic.
Thousands of people in our industry will lose their jobs this year, as media companies (old and new) “restructure” and “retool” for what they believe comes next. If that last sentence was only about Warner Bros Discovery, it would be true. But 2022 is bringing this wave of nausea to all corners of the media ecosystem, to companies huge and small.
As this happens, conventional wisdom will blame “the economy,” “disruption,” “consolidation,” or “global events” for the carnage. And a good deal of the turmoil we are about to experience is simply cyclical. Our pre-pandemic economy was scrambled for lockdown, and is unwinding chaotically. Accepting events that we cannot affect is part of surviving earth.
But a high percentage of the challenges the media now faces are self-inflicted. So, before our industry simply reshuffles deck chairs, and makes our habitual mistakes, this summer, let me propose (nay, beg) that we all to take a breath, and understand what actually needs to change in Media, before we simply start throwing spaghetti at the wall.
Summer officially kicks off this weekend. So, below I’ve assembled a beach-reading listicle of things for us all to consider this season, before we start the second half of 2022.
ESHAP’s Top Four Ways Media Can DeBullshit Itself
Hire someone else. In the next few weeks, I’ll release a study on economic diversity in media. Key Finding: The vast majority of the leaders (85%) who run our media come from very, very expensive colleges and universities. The Media Industry’s Decider Class is overwhelmingly rich, white and (yep, still) male. This monolith directly affects the kinds of media we make; the types of messages we send; how our content is distributed; and which business models we embrace. It. Is. Not. Sustainable. It is precisely why we, as an industry, are repeatedly SURPRISED by our consumers’ behavior. Examples, SEE: Peloton, Meta and Netflix. Each were at the TOP of their food chains just 18 months ago. Despite their abject faith in algorithms to run their companies, EACH has lost billions in value because they went blind to their consumers’ ACTUAL NEEDS. This pandemic of media myopia is not limited to these three companies. The lack of socio-economic diversity at all levels of our industry has driven us blind to how the real world actually works; how our consumers actually live; and what life is truly like on the other side of those screens.
Whether we’re deciding what stories to tell; the prices for our services; how best to deliver content to users; even which new economic models best fit a restructured world… every single decision we make would be strengthened by MORE, DIFFERENT points of view. This is NOT a “nice to have.” The looming media crisis I see is due in large part to the monolithic nature of the clique making all our major decisions, and an utter lack of input from those who cannot afford private college, let alone seven different SVOD subscriptions.
This isn’t something more focus groups can solve. It’s time for a wholesale shift in how we recruit into our community, and who we empower to raise their hands and make decisions. Think about all the major decisions that led Netflix to NOT EVEN CONSIDER a less expensive ad supported tier, until it was too late; that let Facebook get upended by TikTok; that led Peloton to think they could sell $3K stationary bikes forever… Now, consider how those decisions might’ve been influenced if people who grew up below the poverty line had been included in the conversation. No really. Do that. I’ll wait.
We, as an industry, portray America as a place where opportunity is endless, where anyone can succeed; while we simultaneously horde all the opportunity in our business for folks in our own Rolodexes, families, and alumni associations. Then, at moments just like this, we scratch our heads and say “how did we possibly miss the signs of this current crisis‽” Gee, I wonder. Of all the things we MUST change, THIS is by far the most urgent, and yet the most solvable.
Big Key: We MUST STOP only giving Equity, Diversity and Inclusion lip service, and actually do something systemic about it. What? How about mandating a percentage of entry level media jobs for Community College Grads? How about internships based solely on economic need, rather than on who one’s Uncle is? How about investing in Media Studies programs at high schools in low income neighborhoods? How about cancelling our million-dollar Upfront events and instead spending the cash on undergrad and graduate scholarships at business and film schools for qualified students from low income families? These may NOT be the answers. But right now, we’re not even asking the right questions. This. Must. Change.
Trust in the media is at an historic low. And it’s our fault. This cancer of trust is the DIRECT result of the rat race for clicks that started when social media was born. It’s become THE fuel of the fraud-dependent programmatic ad business. It is a direct byproduct of a News industry entirely unfettered from any sense of rules. Cable News abuses its lack of FCC oversight, makes everything BREAKING NEWS, and focuses exclusively on a ratings-based blood sport version of politics, rather than adhering to its ORIGINAL MANDATE of watch-dogging public officials. This is why screaming heads have replaced actual news and how White Replacement Theory got a prime time TV show. We have allowed free speech to be overtaken by paid media, and let our collective greed overpower our civic responsibility.
So what to do about it? How about taking 10% of our collective profits - every year - and investing it in media literacy curricula for all American schools starting in Kindergarten? Big tobacco was forced to give $27 billion to anti-smoking campaigns. Why can’t we expect the media, who gave cancer to our public trust, to fund anti-bullshit awareness? How about making it more difficult to run a business based on pure Bullshit? Campaigning against Facts is not Free Speech. Platforming misinformation and conspiracy is NOT freedom of the press. Spreading untruths is harmful; enabling the bullshit designed to harm others with our ad dollars and distribution channels makes us complicit in the outcomes. We need to make it unprofitable to create content that undercuts fact, and hurts our people. Unless we do, the audience’s mistrust of media will continue to metastasize.
We always change too slowly. The history of media is laden with examples: Music over-charged listeners and refused to adapt, so tech ate their lunch, disintermediated their fans, and destroyed their economics. Pay TV refused to evolve its bundle because of its addiction to unrealistic 40% profit margins, so streaming ate their lunch and broke their model. Movie theaters refused to recognize the dumpster fire of their business model because they were addicted to ever rising ticket prices, then a combination of a pandemic and the streaming gold rush drove a stake through its heart (does not apply to superhero movies). Streaming TV thought that pandemic living would last forever, and it became addicted to the huge sub counts and high market caps, so it refused to create packaging that catered to a post-modern home, and now TikTok is eating their lunch.
Repeatedly and consistently, “new media” disrupts “old,” then matures, forgets what happened, overindulges on the spoils, fails to invest its margins in itself, then gets disrupted. Rinse. Repeat. We don’t evolve, we conquer. Then, while times are good, we get complacent and lazy, are SHOCKED when shit gets bad, and THEN after the fact, we JOLT. As an industry we do a LOT of R but very little D. We get so paralyzed by fear of failing in the short term, that we totally ignore our gathering irrelevance. I have written thousands of words to this effect, but the first half of 2022 and impending economic implosion require me to repeat: THE TIME TO INVEST IN A NEW BUSINESS IS WHEN YOUR CURRENT ONE IS DOING GREAT. Those who did that the last three years will weather the coming storm in tact. Those who didn’t, won’t.
Your employees are more important than your strategy. Approximately 40% of American work days are now from home. That may be the new normal. And. That. Is. Ok. Yet, the majority of corporate management worry that their staff cannot be effective remotely, despite mountains of data showing them that productivity per hour is HIGHER at home.
The Media elite need to get over the idea that their companies are more important than the people who work there. In the competition for the best knowledge workers, only companies who attract, retain, and (get this) listen to the best people will be successful. The Great Resignation has shown employers the longterm effect of their abject neglect. Our employees know they are worth more than we’ve given them. There’s no re-corking that bottle. Conglomerates will be tempted to use a new economic crisis to roll this back. That will fail.
Some things that will never fail: Investing in the longterm development of our workforce; adapting workplaces for two new generations of workers; listening to and hearing our people when they speak truth to power. The sooner Media CEOs give their employees the same respect as they do their Board Members, the sooner they’ll discover the true value of their work is their workforce. If this sounds crazy to you, then you’re in for a long decade.
If the last five years in Media have felt to you like an untethered merry-go-round with zero merry and extra ‘round and ‘round, you’re not alone. Consumers feel it too. They are paralyzed by rows and rows of limitless, chaotic choice; frustrated by walled gardens; burn out by an endless inundation of ineffectual ads; and pissed off by entertainment platforms treating them like lobotomized cash machines.
We in “The Media” LOVE to talk about change. But we HATE actually trying it. Because trying risks failing. And that ingrained fear of failure is the enemy of new ideas. So we wait for the world to change, then we react - very often too late, and at the expense of thousands of lost jobs in our community.
We are at yet another inflection point, facing a new crisis. This summer, we can (once again) bury our heads in the sand, and wait for it to change us; or we can lean into it, and make the kinds of systemic changes we, and the world, actually NEED.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the choice is actually ours to make. Let’s buck our collective natural instincts and choose wisely.
Enjoy your holiday weekend!