CT No.38: What the people want
What is the normal we want to come back to?
Before: rainy or snowy days indoors were considered luxurious.
Now: rainy or snowy days just drear away and my caffeine intake goes up along with my anxiety. And yeah, it’s snowing in Minnesota and I’m just tired.
Software reviews will return next week, I swear.
Why do I like shows about rich people?
Because I’m a glutton for punishment, and also because I like to be a part of pop culture conversations, I’m watching Succession in my downtime. It’s ahead of the HBO paywall now. So is The Sopranos, which is still fantastic. But if you have already watched all the better shows in front of the paywall, you can also watch Succession, if that’s your thing. I’ve just started season two.
Like Arrested Development and Schitt’s Creek, it is about the Large Adult Sons (and Daughter) and very rich people who are mostly inept at doing anything but “investing,” which they’re not very good at, either. Unlike those other “rich people are so weird” shows, Succession is mostly a drama, with comedic snacks of schadenfreude, cutting remarks and side-eye.
More importantly for this newsletter, Succession concerns the legacy part of the legacy media business, about which regular readers know I have very strong feelings. It is literally a show about patriarchy.
Succession fascinates me because I’ve been close to those untalented media heirs, and their tv representation rings true. I once met a Murdoch (Lachlan most likely? but I was a drunken bad intern and don’t actually know), and I’ve had conversations with other legacy media sons, the kinds who are concerned with “investment” and “scale.” They aren’t conversations, really, because the media son isn’t concerned with what I have to say, even though he asked for my time.
I’ve only ever met the sons, though, never the fathers.
The show’s patriarch, Logan Roy, is reprehensible, a Rupert Murdoch figure at the top of a global media conglomerate who thinks solely in terms of winning and losing, who like all media execs believes that he has made his fortune by “giving the people what they want.” Everyone in his path bows down, talking dirty but maintaining status quo, always.
The characters in Succession talk about the media business, of good investment and bad investment, mostly with Sorkinesque reverence for institution. The first season mentions local tv buys a number of times. Some scenes show the creation of cable news, demonstrating that the personal attacks come from the top on down when it comes to good TV. The characters talk news and the power that comes with it.
No one in Succession ever mentions journalism.
How are your news habits changing?
“I’m giving the audience what they want,” says every media executive I’ve ever met or seen speak, in one way or another.
When I talk with my friends and colleagues about media consumption, March’s vast every-couple-of-hours news intake has dwindled to “15 minutes a day, only what’s absolutely necessary.” Most of our news comes from public radio (MPR or NPR) or state briefings (our own and New York’s). I get the feeling everyone scans headlines online but doesn’t read much more.
When I scan the New York Times daily, I see market numbers and jobs created listed in the headlines, while death tolls are buried, and I wonder whether they are “giving the audience what they want.” Part of this may be because solid, confirmed numbers of actual deaths and illnesses are hard to come by. Part of it is because, well, death is depressing and god, don’t we just want good news right now so we can return to normal.
I think about how the characters from Succession will react to this. Likely they will be upset in the same way that many of the more comfortable people I know are: when can I get back to the usual?
For once they are not concerned about scale.
I really hate the excessive zooms in Succession (they add little to the story), but they do gif well.
Let’s be cognizant of scale.
When I read the NYT, it seems that the biggest item of concern is returning the economy to normal. It’s like the numbers of life and death don’t really matter because we don’t want to see them. Numbers of jobs created and market trends looking upward. Up and to the right. Look, video games and social networks are still making money! The policy of No bad news is clearly working for us in America, with more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country in the world.
Local news, meanwhile, seems to be keeping it as small and local as possible across the board. Talk about the small, plausible numbers first. Keep the big numbers hidden in the back. And it’s working: Americans who get their news from print and tv (read: older Americans) feel more positively about how the media has covered the pandemic, according to Pew.
I wish all of this were supplemented with the question, “What is the normal we want to return to again?”
The news industry is crisising around ownership and profitability, the same crisis that has been lumbering along a decade, accelerated. Newspapers are cutting and furloughing and journo ops wonks are arguing about subscriptions again. It’s business as usual, accelerated.
Meanwhile, my friends and I want small bits of news about our day-to-day not because we can’t handle bad news, but because anything beyond the core facts feels like the bullshit media fathers and their children are pushing toward us. We feel powerless. We saw what happened in 2008 and fear that we’re always coming back to the same markets. We don’t want to come back to the same chain of events in five, ten years again.
In the coming weeks, I’m curious about finding ways to make significant change when we come out of this. How do I divest and invest like a media son who knows very little except what I can offer, except with my tiny share of attention? And what would an audience really want?
Granted, I was a proponent of radical change when there was only one global health crisis (climate change) and not the current pandemic. But between stressing about every mild cough and finishing up the work that needs to be done I’m asking
What is the normal that I want to come back to? And how does the media I consume reflect that?
Corporate advice on success tells you: write down your goals and you will accomplish them. That’s not really an option right now.
So instead I’m writing down the answer to this question: What normal do I want to come back to?
Content tech links of the week
Ahrundati Roy wrote in the Financial Times about the global pandemic, appropriate metaphors, and how India’s current political situation is handling/exacerbating the crisis. She is of no relation to the Roy family in Succession.
If we see a lot more animation in the next couple of years, it’s probably because it’s far easier to produce in a pandemic than live video, via The Information.
Another Pew story about perceptions of the coronavirus crisis and cable news.
Here is an NYT story about internet behavior changing because of the current crisis, mostly citing verticals with gains and not listing declines (up and to the right).