How Bill O’Reilly and other TV stars got rich as cable boomed

April 20, 2017
Category: Newsletters

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With Bill O’Reilly’s ouster the lead story in this morning’s New York Times, a top broadcasting executive sets aside his usual air of certitude to concede one ambiguity: the ratings impact.

“My guess is, that time slot will take a ratings hit, but it was going to get harder and harder to monetize some of O’Reilly’s rating points anyway with all the advertisers that were running away. So financially, overtime lower ratings may monetize at a higher level.”

“Monetize at a higher level.” You don’t tend to hear that lingo in the print world, a reminder of the brutish democracy that is inherent in television. Overnight ratings, Q scores and the ability to assess audience share for any segment and compensation are often tied to actual performance and revenues.

It’s not like, say, newspapers, where publishers and editors often ran scared of real readership data and hid realities from advertisers. They really didn’t know how many people actually read stories, or particular columnists, and were loathe to link pay to quantifiable metrics. Now, the digital world lays bare the real deal and, at times, the results are not pretty.

And, yet, the primacy of personalities and metrics in TV melds with frequently errant personnel decisions. Data is not a roadmap. In cable news, for every breakout star, like Rachel Maddow, programming history shows two or three wayward decisions and scrapped shows not on the resumes of (mostly White male) executives.

Nobody counted on Tucker Carlson’s success in Megyn Kelly’s old time slot. And, now, Fox News can use the O’Reilly debacle to “try to refresh their demo a bit,” and thus “not rely on 70 year-old-plus white people as viewers,” as the same executive puts it.

“If they can’t upgrade the angry White man primetime formula, they may at least be able to find another White male personality that is younger.” And that would be Carlson.

As for putting “The Five” on in Carlson’s current time slot, that seems an uninspired patchwork of non-decision. That show’s whole is less than the sum of its uninspired parts and now gets a larger platform for intellectually thin, predictable faux combat.

Finally, there’s the matter of money. It suffuses the TV world in ways far different than in print, and there’s been dramatic change underway for years. In broadcast outlets, I know high-profile folks who have been given ultimatums: see your pay slashed by 30 percent to 50 percent or pack up Friday.

So why is it that the cable TV likes of O’Reilly have been commanding such giant, seven-figure-a-year deals (in his case a reported $18 million, with a morning star such as Joe Scarborough at around $8 million), while salary compression continues even in newsrooms and at TV anchor desks nationwide?

The local and national broadcast folks are seeing the results of declining ratings and station profitability, with executives no longer scared to lose a top dog as they once were. Salaries of broadcast anchors no longer lead the media pack.

But cable news personalities actually command growing amounts with “more money being made in cable news than other forms of video news,” says a former executive vice president of a network company.

But, interestingly, “The attempts to pay star talent for internet video — say, Katie Couric — have not worked out, even though in the aggregate internet distributed video news is growing share significantly.” Couric earns a reported $10 million, a salary cut from her CBS News days.

Amid the infatuation with video even among the “hot” digital startups, he concludes, “The question there among Vice, Vox, Mic and BuzzFeed is, does personality really matter the way it has traditionally for linear outlets? That is yet to be seen.”

Facebook wants to read your mind

“’What if you could type directly from your brain?’”

“That was the question Facebook executive Regina Dugan, who runs the company’s secretive research and hardware lab Building 8, posed to the audience Wednesday at the company’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose.” (Recode)

Yes, Facebook is trying to do it via a “brain-computer speech-to-text interface” technology meant to translate thoughts from the brain to a computer screen without the help of speech or fingertips. The president wouldn’t have to exhaust himself tweeting.

Bloomberg-Postlight combo

“Just how rich is Jeff Bezos? If you’re at your keyboard, the answer is just a Google search away: $75.6 billion. But if you’re swiping through an article that doesn’t include the info (or has an out-of-date figure) on your phone, you have to spend an extra minute or three tapping out the question to come up with an answer.” (Poynter)

“Bloomberg — with its ever-present emphasis on speed — thinks there should be a better way. So, the financial news colossus has teamed up with Postlight, the digital studio co-founded by journalist and programmer Paul Ford, to create a tool that aims to solve that problem.”

Headline of the day

“Fox News fires racist Bill O’Reilly, promotes racists Eric Bolling and Jesse Watters” (The Daily Beast)

Killing live video

If your life is somewhat lacking in actual social contact, and you’re annoyed by live Instagram videos pinging you all the time, there is help right here via Mashable on muting those notifications.

But, better yet, get a life.

Alex Jones and Hulk Hogan

Writes Harvard Law School’s Noah Feldman, “The split-personality defense is back in court.”

“This time it’s radio host and provocateur Alex Jones who’s using it to combat his soon-to-be ex-wife’s charge that he’s an unfit father because of his on-air rants against the likes of Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Lopez. Jones’s answer is that he’s a ‘performance artist’ who is ‘playing a character’ in his Infowars broadcasts.” (Bloomberg)

Sound familiar? “The last time we heard this kind of thing was when Hulk Hogan told a Florida jury in his sex-tape case that although he’d made public comments about his alter ego’s sexual prowess, he wasn’t talking about his private self, Terry Bollea.”

TechDirt on The New Yorker, Facebook

TechDirt took a swipe recently at Wired for “more or less suggesting that it was somehow Facebook’s issue that a troubled individual took a video of himself randomly killing an elderly man and then uploaded the video to Facebook.”

Now it frowns upon Steve Coll of The New Yorker, who runs Columbia University’s Graduate School of journalism, for a “mostly balanced” piece that in its mind concludes that while Facebook can’t prevent such a thing, it has to do something since it’s so big.

That may sound good, it argues, but “When you argue that Facebook should ‘slow down’ and ‘take on more risks associated with curating content,’ you’re arguing that Facebook should censor more content.” (TechDirt)

“Covering” the president

So Trump has spent about 25 percent of his early tenure at Mar-a-Lago. And if you feel at sea with the limited access given the White House press corps, Business Insider suggests a more revealing source of information: the Instagram postings of Mar-a-Lago members.

“On the ‘Mar-a-Lago’ geotag on the social-media site, club members and attendees have posted photos providing public details of Trump’s days that otherwise may have gone completely unnoticed outside of the high-society Floridians who saw them firsthand.”

The right’s golfing hypocrisy

As Eric Boehlert notes in Media Matters, conservative media creamed then-President Obama for playing golf and being an effete snob, out of touch with real folks.

“For conservative media, it’s not just the golfing hypocrisy that’s been driven off the charts this year. Instead, it’s becoming clear that many of the unlikable traits that the far-right press desperately tried to assign to Obama — he’s lazy, he’s secretive, he’s a bully, he’s corrupt — are all now being proudly embodied by Trump.”

The annals of privacy (not)

“Cybersecurity startup Tanium exposed California hospital’s network in demos without permission: Presentations by firm, which has notched $3.5 billion valuation, exposed private network information, server and computer names.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Flummoxed by Facebook algorithms

Kurt Gessler, deputy editor for digital news at the Chicago Tribune, and colleagues started seeing a sharp drop in successful Facebook posts.

“In December of 2016, we had only eight posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.”

But they weren’t doing anything particularly different. The strategy was the same. What was up? He’s now convinced it’s got everything to do with the other side of the equation as the goliath gatekeeper changes its algorithms. (Medium)

They’re not the only ones. As Digiday disclosed this morning, several other publishers are seeing a decline in their collective Facebook reach. (Digiday)

The morning babble

CNN’s “New Day” went whole hog with the O’Reilly exit as co-host Alisyn Camerota, a Fox News alumna, conceded “shock” with the speed of event since the fall of Roger Ailes. But when ace media reporter Brian Stelter alluded to a “toxic culture” there, she demurred by distinguishing between toxic and “pervasive problems with sexual harassment.” She got nowhere when she “tried to raise the flag.”

MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” got to O’Reilly — Mika Brzezinski and Cokie Roberts discussed an unseemly tradition of anti-female behavior in TV in general, while self-appointed populist Joe Scarborough underscored how Fox has “crushed” its competitors and given voice to Americans condescended to by elite media — presumably including folks in his very midst, like Roberts.

But that was after a foreign policy dialogue that included Scarborough defending as a de facto intentional fake-out the seeming Trump ineptitude in announcing it was sending an aircraft carrier toward North Korea but really not. He was ever-confident, short of convincing and rightly disputed by The New York Times Peter Baker, who found the saga to broach a bona fide issue of competence.

“Fox & Friends” on O’Reilly? I must have missed it since they appeared more interested in promoting Sean Hannity in Israel tonight and the cooking of Swedish meatballs by distant family members of the co-hosts. And, rightly, the latest free speech mess in California (see below).

Coulter at Berkeley

“The University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday canceled a scheduled speech by the conservative author Ann Coulter, in the latest blow to the institution’s legacy and reputation as a promoter and bastion of free speech.” (The New York Times)

What’s a girl to do?

“Saying she liked to believe she’d be given some kind of warning, Melania Trump idly wondered Wednesday whether she would get a heads-up if a nuclear missile were headed toward New York.” (The Onion)

I believe they’ve re-done the walls in the Mar-a-Lago pro shop in concrete. It might be safer there.

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