Profanity and Politics

You may have missed the 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast last week…actually, based on ratings you almost certainly missed it…but even so you may have heard that movie star Robert De Niro dropped the f-bomb in a political statement directed at President Trump. Networks censors were ready and bleeped the offending word, as required by the FCC, but viewers at home still got the message.

While LA and New York are known for liberal politics, it still came as a bit of a surprise when De Niro’s condemnation of President Trump was followed by a standing ovation. The famous Michelle Obama dictum, “when they go low, we go high” was nowhere to be seen.

This is not the first time that awards programs have drawn attention for outrageous or profane statements. U2’s Bono, Cher, Nichole Richie, and others have uttered “fleeting expletives” on awards shows in the past.

Profane political speech comes with a special challenge . According to Frank Bruni, opinion writer for the New York Times,

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves.

The stunt by De Niro reminds me of a similar statement made by the editorial staff of the CSU student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, back in 2007. After publishing a very brief editorial very similar in tone to De Niro’s statement, reactions from the community and alumni led to the student newspaper being moved off-campus where it is now published by the independent 501(c)3 non-profit Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation.

The paper’s editor-in-chief J. David McSwane said in response to the controversy, “While the editorial board feels strongly with regard to first amendment issues, we have found the unintended consequences of such a bold statement to be extremely disheartening.”

Many would agree that the tone of political debate has indeed become “extremely disheartening” on many levels.

Sinclair Stumbles

Sinclair Broadcast Group owns 193 local TV stations in 89 markets around the US. As the largest owner of local TV stations, they wield enormous influence and are closely watched by those who are concerned about media convergence and consolidation.

If you were paying any attention to social media this past few days you probably saw a short video (edited by Timothy Burke of Deadspin) that mashed up recordings of Sinclair anchors/reporters reading from the script that was sent to affiliate stations. Here’s the script that Sinclair’s management asked each station’s news department to read on-air:

“Hi, I’m (anchor A) ____________, and I’m (anchor B) _______________…
(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our (station location) communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that (station call letters) News produces.
(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.
(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.
(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.
(B) At (station call letters) it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.
(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to (station call letters) and clicking on CONTENT CONCERNS. We value your comments. We will respond back to you.
(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.
(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

When you just read the script there’s not much that raises concern. Fake news and biased reporting shared on social media ARE, in fact, “threats to democracy.”  And few would argue the idea that truth is “neither politically left nor right.” And in fairness to Sinclair the editing of the video was manipulative. The repetitiveness of certain phrases and the omission of the call for input and feedback was intentionally designed to create its own bias.

But the optics tell another story. Comedian and provocateur Jon Oliver said, “Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again, like members of a brainwashed cult.”

The idea that a network of local TV stations, and their news departments, would be directed by their corporate owners to fall in line and deliver a commentary decrying “fake news” is problematic. For one, it sounds too much like the weaponization of the term “fake news” that President Trump has perfected in his first year in office. Add to that the fact that Sinclair leans to the conservative side of the political spectrum. And finally, Sinclair is asking the FCC to allow the acquisition of an additional 42 stations as part of their purchase of Tribune Media. All of this combined makes it look like a political maneuver rather than a sincere call to action.

Fake news and bias are real problems…but they won’t be solved by empty promises or by using the issue as a political weapon. What we need is a serious discussion about how we got ourselves into this mess, and how we can get ourselves out.


Going for Ratings Gold

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games, aka XXIII Olympic Winter Games, are underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea and millions of viewers are tuning in to see nearly 3,000 athletes compete in 102 events in 15 sports. In addition to the traditional winter sports of figure skating and alpine skiing, you can watch athletes compete in big air snowboarding and mixed doubles curling.

Shaun White’s back-to-back 1440s for the gold medal and a high-flying gold medal performance by Chloe Kim in the half pipe have given Americans something to cheer about. And if you like spills and chills, pay attention to “notorious curve 9” on the luge course.

Besides the obvious appeal of world-class athletes competing on a world stage, the Olympic Games offer compelling stories with drama at every turn. Who can forget the Jamaican bobsleigh team or the US Hockey team’s miracle on ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

There’s also the political angle. Athletes from Russia are banned from competing in Pyeongchang under the Russian flag because of doping charges. However, Russian athletes are being allowed to complete under the banner of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.”  Also, the opening ceremony unity displayed by the teams from North and South Korea has prompted plenty of discussion about future prospects for peace.

But this is a media blog, so we need to mention that the US broadcast rights were purchased by NBCUniversal for $963M (part of a larger $4.38B rights package that extends through 2020 summer games in Tokyo). NBC will provide 2,400 hours of coverage with 176 hours of broadcast coverage, the most in winter Olympics history. The remaining coverage will stream on and on their NBC Sports app.  More stats here. Some of the coverage will be in 4K UHD (Ultra High Definition) and HDR (High Dynamic Range) giving viewers options for high quality at a premium price. How to watch, and more info here.

And of course the costs will be passed along to advertisers who are paying top dollar to reach the desirable demographics provided by Olympic programming. However, with viewership in decline among younger viewers, the future of multi-billion dollar Olympic deals may be in jeopardy.


Televised Sports and Politics

I’m sure you’ve seen and heard the noise in recent weeks around the topic of politics and sports. From ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill’s critique of President Trump to the #TakeAKnee protest this past Sunday, sports and politics appear to be on a collision course. LeBron James and Steph Curry have traded tweets with President Trump regarding the Warrior’s invite to the Whitehouse.

I don’t know about you, but my social media feed is overflowing with opinions as NFL players responded today to President Trump’s comments a few days ago calling out players who have protested racism during the playing of the National Anthem.

Thankfully this is a media blog and not a political blog…so I’ll do my best to limit my comments to the issues related to the mass media industries and free speech and expression protected by the First Amendment.

Televised sports has largely been a place where fans have gone to escape politically charged issues. With a highly integrated roster, pro sports teams have actually been able to avoid much of the racially divisive issues that have troubled other sectors of society. There have been notable exceptions of course: the Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympic games, Muhammad Ali’s protest of the Vietnam War, and others.

Even though we have been experiencing a highly polarized political climate of late, TV programmers (with the exception of Sunday morning political talk shows, cable news networks, and late night comics) typically avoid political debates. When advertising revenue is your bottom line, political issues are dangerous because they risk alienating large segments of viewers who turn on their TVs to be entertained, not excoriated.

To be clear, professional athletes, like all Americans, have a First Amendment right to express their political concerns. But the First Amendment does not apply to non-governmental entities. So while the government can do nothing to penalize these protests and protestors, team owners can legally enact policies that restrict players’ rights to express themselves while representing the team. That’s how MLB owners can restrict visible tattoos that contain brands, the NBA can fine Kobe Bryant for an anti-gay slur, and any team can discipline a player for his/her private use of social media. In an interesting twist, college athletes playing for a state-school are legally much more protected for their personal use of social media since the university is an agent of the state which is an extension of government. (see more here)

P.S. No matter what you’re political opinions, you might have strong feelings about the Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty against Von Miller in Sunday’s game against the Bills! 🙂


Big Night for TV

I wanted to write something pithy and relevant about tonight’s Emmy Awards telecast. Instead, I’ll start with this quote from Adam Epstein at Quartz,

Every year, the biggest stars in television gather in a theater in Los Angeles and celebrate how great they all are.

They wear expensive dresses and tuxedos, award each other big golden trophies, pat each other on the backs, and give sappy speeches about “making it.” This garish party is an exercise in narcissism, which is part of the reason TV ratings for it and all award shows are in steady decline.

And yet, the Emmys still matter. TV critic Alan Sepinwall put it best when he pointed out that the Emmys are the prevailing historical record for the medium of television. They are the ultimate measuring sticks—the ones that will still be studied decades from now when all the Twitter threads, think pieces, and water cooler conversations have been lost in the ether. The Emmys are forever.

We’re still a week away from talking about TV in the Media & Society class, but with the Emmy awards and Ken Burn’s first episode of The Vietnam War, a 10-part, 18 hour documentary series, both airing tonight I needed to acknowledge the moment.

TV has been called a lot of things, including the boob-tube and the idiot box. Someone once said, “a poor man has a large TV…a rich man has a large library,” and people who watch a lot of TV are called couch potatoes. TV has taken a lot of well-deserved criticism.

But TV has also been unfairly criticized for failing to deliver what it never intended or promised. Parents have wanted it to be a babysitter and nanny but that was never its strong suite. There have been a few bright spots—Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow spring to mind. But it is much easier to point out the failures.

Political scientists want TV to be a channel for political discourse and a means to an informed electorate. 60 Minutes, Meet the Press, and various other news programs have made significant contributions, but service to advertisers and the networks’ bottom line has blunted their success.

TV has certainly delivered when we demanded mindless entertainment to distract us from real reality. Sitcoms, game shows and reality TV deliver top-notch diversion and binge watching allows us to sustain that diversion for days on end.

So enjoy the Emmys if you like, but even better block out 18 hours to watch the latest Ken Burns masterpiece. I had the pleasure of seeing about an hour’s worth of segments and to hear from Ken Burn when he visited Colorado Spring a few weeks back. It’s going to be a great show. Whether it wins an Emmy or not, I’m convinced that this is what TV does well…and that makes it well worth your time.

Media Conglomerates, Comedians, and Political Influence

If you’ve watched John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight you know that he has a knack for discussing pithy issues by injecting more than a smidgen of sarcasm and irreverence. His show last week was about Sinclair Broadcast Group, a media company that owns numerous local TV stations and which is poised to grow even larger by buying up the Tribune Media network of stations.

Here’s the show.  (CAUTION: language)

You’ve already seen how Clear Channel became the powerhouse of radio consolidation and how that led to cookie-cutter formats and a loss of local control. That is part of what is causing anxiety for those watching the Sinclair deal unfold.

But there is another factor in this equation. Sinclair Broadcast Group is known for holding conservative political positions. In a media world that tends to skew to the liberal side of the political spectrum this is giving some media pundits a severe case of heartburn.

While cable TV news networks have historically leaned to one end or the other of the political spectrum (e.g. Fox News leans right while CNN and MSNBC lean left), local television stations and their news programs historically reflect the political diversity of their local viewers. It is unusual for local TV news to take a clear position on a politically hot-button issue for the obvious reason that they stand to alienate a significant portion of their viewers, which is bad for ratings, which is bad for the bottom line.

The fact that much of John Oliver’s criticism of Sinclair is delivered with a heavy dose of alarmism suggests that Oliver is himself well to the left of not just Sinclair but a significant segment of the American public. Oliver is not alone. He is joined on the left by former comedic journalist Jon Stewart and current late-night comic Stephen Colbert (both alumni of Stewart’s The Daily Show).  All three (as well as many other comedians throughout history) have been effective messengers for various progressive political causes.

Media companies and media stars can exert political influence overtly or covertly. But if there’s one thing that comedians have shown time and time again it is that getting us to laugh at the absurdities of the target of our scorn may be the most powerful political weapon of all.


Survivors and Victims of Reality TV’s Deception

Reality TV is constantly inventing new ways to shock its viewers. This past week on Survivor it was the outing of transgender contestant Zach Smith by gay competitor Jeff Varner. In a side story (in real life), Varner was subsequently fired from his job as a real estate agent by a boss who was quoted as saying that Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

The uproar on social media was immediate and unforgiving. Some of the harshest criticism was for Varner and his use of the word “deception” to describe Smith’s secret. Others were harshly critical of CBS for deciding to include the scene after months of deliberation.

But it turns out that CBS and Smith worked closely to prepare for the episode’s airing this past week.

According to the New York Times,

From the moment the episode was filmed nearly 10 months ago, the “Survivor” producers had been consulting with Mr. Smith about how best to handle airing the incident, which included a strategic media rollout and working with Glaad, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group, before the episode’s broadcast.

Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer called it “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on ‘Survivor.’ ”

But I’m left with a question that goes to the heart of reality TV as a programming genre. For the Survivor-type shows where contestants compete for a grand prize, deception, betrayal, and backstabbing are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Deception is how you play the game on reality TV…and, unfortunately, increasingly so in the world of politics and international relations. But I digress.

One viewer took to Twitter refusing to accept Varner’s apology saying, “Apologies only have meaning when they are expressing sincere regret for a mistake. What Varner did was no mistake. He intentionally humiliated Zeke and tried to justify it.” Exactly! That is how you play the game on Survivor. The drama created by conflict is why most people watch, and have been watching Survivor for more than 13 years. The business model for Survivor and CBS is based on people doing outrageous things in front of cameras and microphones. CBS will cash that check over and over again…or at least as long as the audience shows up asking for more.

But we’re still left with the question; why did this tactic by Varner elicit such a strong response from viewers? Just like the collective judgement directed at United Airlines, the moral outrage targeting Varner and CBS is indicative of society’s desire for justice. We know when something is over the line. But whose line is it, and where should it be drawn?

Some of the ugliest disagreements (on social media and elsewhere) are between people who want to draw the line in a different place than where others think it should be drawn.

Supersize That!

wingsSuper Bowl LI is this afternoon and the hype is living up to expectations. I read earlier today that “experts” are predicting that Americans will eat 1.3 BILLION chicken wings today. (In case you were wondering, “1.3 billion chicken wings is enough for every man, woman and child in the United States to have four wings each”). It just so happens that the “experts” quoted are the National Chicken Council. Here’s their press release…the one that generated the news stories. As you can probably tell, this is all about promoting chicken wings. It’s not news, it’s advertising. And journalists and news outlets that carry the story are part of the problem facing real journalism.

And speaking of journalists, there will be approximately 5,000 of them covering the big game. Is that really necessary? I know what you’re thinking…I’m just jealous and wish my organization (fat chance) had sent me to Houston to report on the game and the many associated parties.

Of course I’ll be watching the advertisements. Every year there are a few good ads…ones that might even be worth the $$$ that keeps increasing every year. This year a 30-second spot will set the advertiser back a cool $5.5 million. Over the past half-century, total ad spending in the big game is approaching $5 billion. And while I don’t have hard data to support my claim, I think it’s fair to say that not all of those dollars were well spent. But there have been some great ads that have been worth every penny. Coke “Mean Joe Green”, Apple “1984” and Budweiser “Frogs” come to mind. (See them here.)

Okay, enough ranting. But before I close, I thought I’d revisit that whole chicken wing thing. PETA has, characteristically, found a way to make you feel guilty for indulging. Don’t click this link if you plan to enjoy some hot wings at your party…I warned you!


Supersized Audience for Presidential Debate

trumphillaryThe first of three presidential debates between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was expected to set a new record for audience size as the two “least popular” candidates in decades took the stage tonight. The previous record goes back to 1980 and the Reagan/Carter debate.

With this large of an audience, brands see this as an advertising opportunity. While the debate itself is aired without advertising, some of the ad spending will go to social media where hashtags are used to connect with customers. According to,

Tecate and agency Saatchi New York are airing a Trump-mocking ad called #TecateBeerWall. Unlike the barrier proposed by the Republican nominee, Tecate’s wall will be 3 feet tall and used as a meeting point for people from both sides of the border to have a drink on. It will air Monday night on Fox, Univision and Telemundo.

The guidelines for the debate are set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that sets the rules and chooses the moderators. One decision that has drawn some attention is that the moderators this year will not serve as on-the-fly fact-checkers. So if/when either candidate says something that is dubious, it will be up to the other candidate, journalists, and later, the TV commentators, to try to set the record straight. Of course you can always turn to Twitter where the American audience will be fact-checking every statement in real-time.

And speaking of social media, you don’t even need a TV to watch the debates. Plenty of websites, including Facebook, are live streaming the events.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy…

chris-rock-oscar-countdownThe first Oscars ceremony in 1929 was all of 15 minutes long. Last year, it was nearly 4 hours. Part of the reason for the length is the fact that nearly everyone honored with an award gets to make a speech, and in that speech they try to remember and thank the many “little people” who contributed to their success. It’s nice to be generous and to recognize the folks who helped you reach the top…but come on, some of these speeches go on far too long.

Producers and directors try to keep the show moving by cueing the live orchestra to “play them off” the stage after 45 seconds passed, but some don’t take the hint. This year, things will be a bit different. Instead of giving verbal thanks, nominees have been asked to list the names of those they’d like to thank should they receive the opportunity. And then, when their time comes, the names will scroll across the bottom of the screen, ticker-tape fashion, while the awardee focuses on delivering a short and pithy acceptance speech. It will be interesting to see if this works. By the way, can you guess which actor/actress has been thanked the most by his/her peers? Check it out here!

On a side note, the “swag bag” this year will be worth upwards of $220,000. Among other things it will include a vaporizer, a breast lift, and a sex toy. GQ categorizes each item ranging from basic to “trashy” to respectable. According to an article in The Atlantic, not everyone was happy with the assortment of gifts and the Academy has sued the marketing firm that put the package together. Sigh…it’s getting harder and harder for the 1% to enjoy their conspicuous consumption.