Gone to the Dogs

In case you haven’t heard, the Anheuser-Busch beverage company has come out with a brew for your basset hound, a drink for your dachshund, a pour for your puppy…you get the idea. The product is Dog Brew, an alcohol-free, bone broth beverage for canines, and their current viral campaign is a search for some lucky pup to become their CTO, Chief Tasting Officer. The job comes with salary ($20K), benefits (health insurance), and all of the perks normally reserved for celebrity endorsers. (I would nominate Jasper, “America’s Dog” but I’m not sure he needs any more endorsement contracts with his already-busy schedule.)

This marketing campaign has a little bit of everything that makes me think it will be a case study in advertising/PR textbooks in the near future. There’s a contest (enter here) with social media requirements (FB, IG and Twitter) that must include cute shots of your puppy.

According to USA Today, “Busch says the responsibilities of the Chief Tasting Officer include ‘taste-testing, quality control and fulfilling duties as an ambassador for the product and a featured content creator on Busch’s social channels.'”

Veteran CNN reporter Jeanne Moos put together a report for CNN that, once again, proves that she’s one of the all-time great human-interest storytellers.

https://www.cnn.com/videos/business/2021/04/15/busch-dog-beer-taster-moos-pkg-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/wacky-world-of-jeanne-moos/

I know you’re probably not going to read the fine print in the contest rules, but here is one clause that let’s you know what you’re getting yourself (and your dog) into:

You grant Sponsor an exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, unrestricted, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferrable right and license to exploit your Entry (including, without limitation, your name and likeness and the names and likenesses of any and all persons in the Entry, and any intellectual property rights (e.g. copyright, trademark, etc.) contained in the Entry) in any media now or hereafter known, without any payment or other consideration of any kind, or permission or notification, to you or any third party, for any purpose, including, without limitation, your Entry and any person’s property (physical, personal, intellectual property rights, and indicia) contained therein. The foregoing grant includes, without limitation, the right to reproduce, display, distribute, publicly perform, create derivative works of, alter, amend, broadcast, edit, publish, use, merchandise, license, sublicense, and adapt the Entry in any and all media now or hereafter known, throughout the world, for any purpose, whether commercial in nature or otherwise, including in contexts and circumstances that result in your Entry being associated with a particular Sponsor or Sponsors. Accordingly, you hereby waive any objection to, such use including without limitation, distribution, reproduction, creation of derivative works of, public performance, or display of your Entry, and any claim for compensation whatsoever in connection therewith. Such waiver shall include any claim for infringement of any so-called “Moral Right,” “Droit Moral” or similar right or interest.

Erosion of Credibility

Journalism rests on foundations of truth and credibility. Truth is challenging enough and there are plenty of ways to stray from objective facts. People in power with access to information may do their best to hide the truth or put up smoke screens. Personal biases and laziness also contribute to failures to suss out the truth.

But even if you, as a reporter, do your absolute best to get the facts and report them accurately, the next important piece of the puzzle is credibility…and this is something that is not entirely within your control. Credibility is conferred on you, (and your reporting), by a sometimes skeptical public. Some of that skepticism is healthy and serves to keep the press honest, and some is manufactured by enemies of truth who want to erode the power of the press.

Former President Donald Trump is well known for attacking the press as “the enemy of the people” and often went after journalists in very personal ways. Members of the press were more than willing to engage in this battle as it provided a quick route to clicks and ratings. But while returning fire may have felt good, it also provided oxygen to the fire that was consuming the foundation of their craft.

As politics and social issues become more polarized, credibility is strained by in-group/out-group alliances. If you like someone, you’re very likely to disbelieve negative reports and question the motive of the source of those reports. In contrast, if you despise someone you are more than likely to believe and pass along any negative news that appears on your news feed.

A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post issued a correction to a story that contained inaccurate quotes by then President Trump. The alleged quotes were provided by an anonymous source and were later determined to be false when the Wall Street Journal obtained a recording of the phone conversation. Now we can discuss at length whether the WP reporting was sloppy or biased, and whether the conclusions that resulted from the quote and correction were justified, but the bottom line is this. Trump called the WP and other media outlets “fake news” many times. For Trump’s supporters this incident was just one more bit of evidence they now had to confirm their suspicions and agree with that assessment.

According to Tom Jones at Poynter…

The Post has been beaten up pretty good the past two days over the correction and deservedly so. With so much divisiveness across the country over Trump and the election, as well as distrust in the media, this kind of mistake is a bad one. The Post is a respectable news outlet and this was a mistake of sloppiness, not maliciousness. It trusted a source and wasn’t vigilant enough in pinning down the details. But some damage has been done. It certainly adds fuel to those MAGA types who are convinced the so-called “mainstream media” had it in for Trump.

Poynter Newsletter

If you’re a journalist you should care that this incident may have caused unfair damage to the President. But you should be even more concerned about the damage done to the profession of journalism. Journalists who contribute to the further erosion of credibility in their audience will soon find that they no longer have an audience.

Passing of a Radio Legend

Love him or hate him, Rush Limbaugh was a talk radio legend. His death yesterday at the age of 70 due to complications from lung cancer marks the end of an era for conservative talk radio. Long before social media brought its brand of polarization to the political landscape, Limbaugh was a master at using the megaphone of terrestrial radio to channel and shape conservative thought.

The repeal of the fairness doctrine in 1987 made Limbaugh’s rise possible. Before that regulatory change, broadcasters were obligated to give access to opposing views. According to the Congressional Research Service, the fairness doctrine required broadcasters to, “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance” and “affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues” (cited in Poynter). Once the fairness doctrine was no longer in place, broadcasters (specifically AM radio station owners) found that partisan political talk was a viable business model.

Among his many critics, Limbaugh was feared and reviled. According to the Washington Post,

“He saw himself as a teacher, polemicist, media critic and GOP strategist, but above all as an entertainer and salesman. Mr. Limbaugh mocked Democrats and liberals, touted a traditional Midwestern, moralistic patriotism and presented himself on the air as a biting but jovial know-it-all who pontificated ‘with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair,’ as he often said.”

Marc Fisher

And among is most strident critics, Limbaugh was the embodiment of all that was wrong with right-wing extremism. According to Shannon Watts, an anti-gun activist, “Rush Limbaugh helped create today’s polarized America by normalizing racism, bigotry, misogyny and mockery. He was a demagogue who got rich off of hate speech, division, lies and toxicity. That is his legacy.”

But controversy sells, and Limbaugh’s success was well documented. According to the Morning Brew newsletter, Limbaugh earned $85 million/year and his show was the most-listened-to US radio talk show in 2020, with more than 20 million monthly listeners. 

Big Tech, Political Polarization, and the Assault on Democracy

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Zuboff and Why We’re Polarized by Klein

I’ve been catching up on some reading over the holiday break and two books that caught my attention are proving to be quite helpful to understanding the recent events in our nation’s capitol. What we’re witnessing is shocking, but not surprising, to those who have paid attention to the ever-increasing power exerted by Big Tech over every detail of our lives, including our political identities.

Big Tech is shorthand for the companies that control much of our everyday lives through their use of software and hardware designed to capture and hold our attention. And speaking of attention, if I were to add another recent title that addresses this concern it would be The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu.

By gathering the massive amount of data generated every minute of every day by billions of users, these companies have tapped into a resource that they have turned against us to predict and control our future behavior. Siloing, creation of filter bubbles, nudging users towards certain behaviors, shadow-banning (and now more overt actions to disenfranchise users) are just some of the ways that Big Tech is meddling in the political process. If that sounds like a radical conspiracy theory to you, I urge you to read these books and then we can have a conversation.

And while all of us can agree that what transpired this past week in the halls of congress was both dangerous and disgusting, reasonable people continue to disagree about how to respond to controversial political speech on the leading tech platforms. The ban of the President of the United State by numerous platforms, regardless of your opinions about Trump himself, is cause for concern and should not be taken lightly.

Similarly while the attack on right-wing alternative platforms, e.g. Parler, by Amazon, Apple and Google, may feel like a reasonable and perfectly legal response to unhinged speech that calls for political violence, the danger is to further marginalize and force underground a movement that has enormous popular support.

I’m not suggesting that racists, white-nationalists, and anarchists should have a seat at the table, but I am suggesting that unelected leaders of a few massive tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions about who gets to participate in our political discourse. This time they may appear to be on your side, but what about when the tables are turned? We’ve given these tech platforms enormous power over the future of our democracy…and that makes me very concerned.

Stern & Depp is not a Law Firm

Howard Stern and Johnny Depp are two familiar names in the media business…and they’re both making news. Stern, the self-proclaimed “King of All Media” just signed a new contract for SiriusXM satellite radio for something like $120M/year for 5 years. That’s a lot of $$ for a radio host who talks smack for a living. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Stern announced the deal on his show yesterday morning…

Howard Stern acknowledges the audience at the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Cleveland Public Auditorium, Saturday, April 14, 2018, in Cleveland. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP)

“Fifteen years ago, I joined SiriusXM, a fledgling group of broadcasters. I had been in a toxic relationship with terrestrial radio,” Stern said. “And no matter how well I treated the medium, no matter how successful I made them, they abused me. Going to SiriusXM liberated me. I felt like Tina Turner freeing myself from Ike.”

Stern has never been at a loss for words…including spicy words that are much more welcome on satellite radio than terrestrial radio where FCC regulations placed some restraints on his speech.

But whether Stern is worth $600M is yet to be proven. Again, according to Hollywood Reporter, “…a recent report estimated that 15 percent of Stern listeners could cancel their SiriusXM subscriptions if he left the company, ‘implying a potential subscriber loss of 2.7 million.’”

Johnny Depp is also in the news, but no doubt wishes he were not. Depp had filed a defamation lawsuit against the British tabloid The Sun for an article describing him as a “wife beater.” According to the ruling judge, as reported in the Hollywood Reporter, “The claimant has not succeeded in his action for libel. Although he has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true.” The burden of proof for celebrities to win defamation lawsuits has always been a challenge, but in cases where the accusations are true, they’re nearly impossible. Depp plans to appeal.

The times, they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, one of the most iconic singer, songwriters of our era, is cashing in. Today it was announced that Dylan was selling his song library to Universal Music Group for upwards of $200M (some are reporting closer to $300M). With more than 600 songs spanning a career of nearly 60 years, Dylan’s prolific contribution to folk, pop, and rock music is unmatched. You don’t have to take my word for it: Dylan is the only songwriter in history to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The massive deal is a great example of why copyright of intellectual property exists. Without copyright protection, Dylan’s musical accomplishments would be worth a mere fraction of its market value. And without the financial incentives provided by copyright protection, artists would be less motivated to create original work.

It does seem counter-intuitive that the counter-culture icon would sell out to a corporate media conglomerate. Universal Music Group is owned by French media oligopoly Vivendi. According to NPR, “[the company] will collect money any time another musician covers any of those songs, and it will earn revenue for allowing the songs to be used in commercials and movies as well as when the songs are streamed, sold commercially on such formats as CDs, or broadcast.” But Dylan has always resisted labels…even the label of non-conformist.

Again according to NPR, citing Universal, “Dylan’s songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, including such famous versions as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ and Guns N’ Roses’ version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.‘”

Beginning of the End for Video Game Consoles?

This week Sony and Microsoft are launching their next-generation consoles in the form of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. It’s been 7 years since the last major upgrade, and this one is shaking things up with serious gamers. Some of the new technologies include: ray tracing, 3-D audio, ultra-fast frame rates, and a controller that incorporates vibration-based haptic feedback.

At the same time, some industry analysts are wondering if this is the beginning of the end for consoles with the rise of cloud video gaming services as the next big thing. Google’s Stadia (“no console, no download”), Amazon’s Luna, Apple’s Arcade and Facebook Gaming are all vying to be the future of video gaming.

To keep things in perspective, the video game industry is three times as big as the Hollywood movie industry. Yes, that’s right…video games generate three times the revenue as Hollywood blockbusters…and that doesn’t even take into account the hit that movies theaters have taken with the pandemic. But even with success measured on this level, the gaming industry needs to be nimble and quick to respond to consumer demand. Whoever comes up with the next big development in video gaming will be richly rewarded.

Bad News at ESPN

ESPN, the sports cable channel and ratings powerhouse, is laying off hundreds of employees and announcing that it will not fill hundreds of additional open positions. The cuts total approximately 10% of their overall employees.

The Covid pandemic has not been kind to TV sports and ESPN is suffering as a result. When the pandemic hit, professional and college sports were sidelined, and when the athletes returned to the fields, the viewers, for some reason, did not return to their TVs. As I noted in an earlier post, TV ratings have tanked for nearly every sport and analysts are not sure why.

The economic model for most major media channels is based on advertising revenue. Ad dollars follow audiences made up of prospective consumers of the products that advertisers need to reach. If ESPN can recapture sizable audiences for their programming, advertising revenue will follow and that will allow them to rehire workers. But until then, they have to find ways to cut their losses. And remember, ESPN has huge costs that are baked-in. According to Morning Brew (and the New York Times), “ESPN is paying more than $7 billion for the rights to air live sports in 2020, the NYT writes. But due to the Covid-19 outbreak, it basically had no games to broadcast for four months of the year.”

It is important to note that Disney, the parent company that owns 70% of ESPN, is in no position to bail them out. With motion picture production on a slow track and theme park and movie theater attendance way down, Disney has its own challenges.

Will it Rate?

Journalism has been sliding down a slippery slope for many years. Recent economic hard times (first the economic collapse at end of the 2000’s and most recently the Covid- induced downturn) and the long-term erosion of advertising revenue have all contributed to a collapse of a business model that is no longer sustainable.

More and more the news departments at broadcast and cable TV networks have struggled to compete with internet start-ups that do more with less and steal away advertising revenue. The result has been more and more explicit attempts to attract and hold the attention of an audience that exhibits ADHD media consumption behavior. According to an editorial recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review, ratings have become “the only metric that matters” at cable networks like CNN.

The pursuit of eyeballs, clicks and likes frequently leads to some pretty bizarre behavior on the part of journalists and editors who are trying to appeal to their base. For example, recently CNN used this Chyron (lower third graphic) to caption a stand-up reporter’s coverage of a protest in Kenosha.

The appeal of violence, mayhem, and tragedy is natural for news organizations who adopt the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to sensational reporting. However, because CNN knows that its left-leaning viewers largely support peaceful protesting and social justice causes, they want to avoid offending them with a critical depiction of the dynamic scene playing out before their cameras. Hence the jarring juxtaposition of image and text.

Right-leaning media companies are guilty as well. Fox News regularly targets its base with conservative-leaning perspectives on the day’s events knowing that viewers want to hear news and analysis that confirms their biases.

Pandering to partisans on either the left or the right may be good for the bottom line, but it is a recipe for disaster when it comes to a functioning democracy. Journalism needs to do better and hold to a higher standard than the one that is currently calling the shots. As Pekary, a news editor for CNN, admitted, “We’re merely there to sow conflict and make the numbers go up, to sell more ads. They [audience members] deserve better. We all deserve better. ” I’ll rate that sentiment a 10!

It’s Showtime at Your Local Movie Theater

The motion picture industry has been put on hiatus by the Covid-19 pandemic and theaters that have been closed for many months are only now starting to slowly reopen. With few exceptions, e.g. Tyler Perry’s studio outside of Atlanta, film and TV production has ground to a halt over recent months. To put it in perspective, by this time last year domestic box office had surpassed $11B. This year they are struggling to break $2B. But now, as production is beginning to resume and movie theaters are beginning to reopen, safety protocols are the focus of attention.

According to Axios, executives from the largest theater chains are introducing safety protocols that they believe will encourage folks to return to movie theaters. The CinemaSafe campaign is fairly routine stuff, but if all goes well, and Covid-19 cases continue to drop, they’re hoping that movie buffs will return to being comfortable sitting down with a tub of popcorn to enjoy the big-screen experience. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to Christoper Nolan’s “Tenet” set to be released over Labor Day weekend. If you go expect the following: masks, social distancing, reduced capacity (40%-50%), upgraded air filtration systems, and touch-less ticket sales.