Gents, Maybe It’s Time To Shut The Puck Up?

I’m sleepless yet again, and it’s not just because it’s been more than a bit humid of late and, at least how I live these days, the cost of incremental air conditioning is beyond my pay grade.  Apparently that’s less of an issue for a couple of snarky journos who have decided for the second time in less than a month to take to their microphones to attempt to amplify an issue that indeed appears to be central to the concerns of the unions striking the AMPTP.  Well, at least they SOUND like they’re cool and comfortable.

To be fair, Matthew Belloni and Lucas Shaw are in way better financial shape than I am these days, and they both have far bigger megaphones than I do.  Belloni has the holy grail of podfathers Bill Simmons and THE RINGER as his business partners and has leveraged his history as a crusading HOLLYWOOD REPORTER editor and a lawyer into an increasingly influential platform called THE TOWN.  Shaw has been an equally swashbuckling entertainment reporter for Bloomberg and is a frequent source and sparring partner for Belloni on his weekly podcast.  They are in many ways to entertainment news reporting what Simmons and his former ESPN colleague Ryen Russillo are to sports or what the Philadelphia twins Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald are to the coverage of entertainment production.   They are, for the most part, informed, highly opinionated and unafraid to share their arguments and back them up with passion and, even at times, defensiveness.   It’s a formula that has worked for the likes of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless since they changed the face of weekday sports reporting with FIRST TAKE, and Simmons has smartly expanded upon it to help feed his own anti-ESPN partnership with Spotify handsomely.  They are, in fact, a very good listen, and have become part of my very, very crowded playlist.

But in Belloni’s most recent snarkfest which he and Shaw dropped into our inboxes yesterday, for the second time in a month these journos have again opened a debate on data transparency, or lack thereof, in which they both seem to take shots from the perspectives of the frustrated talent that is striking, as well as their representatives whose ability to attend Taylor Swift concerts and vacay in Cabo, without any attention to or acknowledgment of some of the solutions that could be out there and might actually help accelerate more substantial conversation if they were addressed.

In a piece for Bloomberg last week, Shaw raised eyebrows by postulating that streamers’ reluctance to share data is driven not by a desire to hide success from more objective eyes, but failure.  Belloni then used this as a jumping off point to then throw his own four cents of ego-driven opinion onto the pyre, castigating the streamers for their seeming obstinance and goading Shaw into a defense of some previous enterprising work where he drew the ire of Netflix executives when he came across KPI information that revealed exactly how successful a show like WEDNESDAY was for them, and why it will cost them a whole lot more for a second season.   Shaw’s written piece does raise quite a number of extremely good points, especially a couple of the conclusions he postulates toward the end:

In their haste to compete with Netflix, many companies soured on content licensing, advertising and movie theaters. Netflix grew up without any of those businesses or the costly infrastructure that goes along with them. It didn’t need them; it had no library. It’s now expanding into advertising and video games — and may one day get into syndication and theme parks.

Media companies can’t rely on streaming to replace all the money they made from cable TV and movie theaters. They need to find other sources of revenue — new windows — be they video games, syndication or something else.

But you wouldn’t have known that after the performance art of Belloni’s belligerence and the Barstool Sports-ish arrogance that seems to be what many people seem to believe works for “embrace debate”, a concept that ESPN hit upon only after actual research, both qualitative and quantitative, had been commissioned to determine what really resonated and why.  The SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER dropped a wonderful piece last week that cites an even more detailed recent article that gives long overdue credit to the role of actual audience intelligence in the kind of sea change that is often needed for even the most cocksure executives to take notice:

A few days ago, The Athletic, The New York Times’ subscription-based sports website, wrote a comprehensive analysis of the ESPN megahit First Take. The story described how Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless transformed ESPN morning television. It was the first long-form piece of content detailing the rise of the uber-popular morning show. Called “ESPN’s ‘First Take’: Skip and Stephen A. embraced debate, played the hits and changed TV,” the article methodically detailed the transformation of ESPN’s First Take into a debate-driven show. It explained how the contrasting personalities of Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, under the guidance of TV producer Jamie Horowitz, had a profound influence on sports television.  When ESPN producer Jamie Horowitz was asked to take over First Take in 2011, he wanted to understand the show and its audience better. He had just created and produced SportsNation, which grabbed the attention of fans and senior ESPN executives. However, when he assumed control of First Take, he learned that little was known about why certain parts of the show worked better than others. With the help of ESPN researcher extraordinaire Barry Blyn, he conducted minute-by-minute ratings analysis and ran multiple focus groups across various cities. The research was clear — audiences stayed tuned during specific segments featuring Skip Bayless.

Full transparency: I’ve known Barry Blyn for years, and aside from our respective weaknesses in blindly supporting underperforming our respective New York baseball teams, there are few people I’ve known who have combined passion WITH insights to rise above the typical morass of half-truths and assumptions that experienced, nuanced researchers have to deal with.

Like the kind that Matthew Belloni amplifies and instigates.

What’s especially consternating about listening to a bully pulpit such as the one Belloni bellows from is that within the same RINGER-verse, Ryan and Greenwald offer up a bi-weekly roundup of breaking news and profiles called THE WATCH, which aside from occasional pandering to everything John Landgraf says as gospel (hint:  even HE would readily admit it isn’t if you took him to lunch) offers more muted but often equally informed takes on where the entertainment business is going, even if it is to hell in a handbasket.

Nowhere in Belloni’s work is any discussion about potential solutions.  No awareness that third party data companies do exist that aren’t named Parrot (to Belloni’s credit, he actually does get the limitations of that information and summarily dismisses it, which is more than Shaw’s piece did).  No appearance, or even reference to,  people who actually have done research, worked extensively with KPIs from virtually all streaming platforms, have debated and provided real ammunition for top executives to engage in the very arguments with these platforms that apparently gaslight the ten percenters that Belloni appears to pal around with.

Sure. those qualifications are high on my own resume, and believe me, I need the pub and cache way more than Mr. Shaw or Rich Greenfield or many of his other guests do.  Fuller disclosure, I’m as dedicated a RINGER-verser as anyone who isn’t employed by Simmons or Spotify, and the fact that I somehow found a few spare shekels to see a live staging of THE REWATCHABLES, a perpetually entertaining mashup of classic movie revisits from the lens of a Monday morning quarterback, which Simmons, Ryan, Sean Fennessey and “special guest” Mallory Rubin put on late last month, should be noted. I’d have given anything to be on that stage, or even closer up, to personally congratulate them all for the countless hours of enjoyment they have provided me, as well as to tip my proverbial hat to Rubin that her beloved Baltimore Orioles are the envy of folks like Blyn and myself this year.

But trust me, there are a LOT of other people equally (or nearly as) qualified to be a true resource for someone like you, Matt.  Plenty of researchers and strategists who have become casulaties of the type of bad decision-making that you are eager to jump on but fail to dig into some ways to counter it.

Funny, a one-time rival/colleague of yours who now works for CNN, Brian Lowry (late of VARIETY!), did offer his own thoughts in a piece for CNN’s website that dropped yesterday.  I hope you gave it its due, particularly this timely observation:

If benefits of big hits seem obvious, that still just scratches the surface. In the past, HBO spoke of stitching together a quilt to expand its appeal to different groups. From that perspective, the less overlap between “The Lord of the Rings,” the dark superhero satire “The Boys” and young-adult show “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” potentially the better for Amazon.

With streamers relying more on advertising these dynamics could evolve – or perhaps more accurately, go back to the future, with more conventional ratings and advertising-driven calculations.

Indeed, Amazon and every other streamer with a linear platform subscribes to Nielsen and other third party data providers such as Comscore, Samba and others to support their AVOD efforts.  It is my understanding that Netflix is also a Nielsen subscriber, if for no other reason than it’s better to keep your friends close and your “enemies” closer.  I can also assert that under previous research management Apple was getting Nielsen data as well, though I won’t go out on a limb and say for sure that’s currently the case.  But since their new head of research comes from a history with ABC (and shares a birthday with me!), I’m pretty sure they’re at least savvy enough to know what it says and doesn’t.   Nielsen is working hard to expand its ability to more completely measure streaming, and I’ve made no bones about urging them to accelerate their far too delayed rollout.  ‘Tis a shame you haven’t been as aggressive with chiding them on that point as you have with your insistence that you might have the answers yourself.

And believe me, Matt, many of us who actually have worked in the trenches with real data, run our own reports and sifted through thousands of lines of metadata that your type merely gloss over to make some sort of incideniary point are more than capable of sitting down with you one on one, in a podcast studio, on Zoom or even on a stage in Hollywood like the REWATCHABLES gang –maybe even at a media conference–to help you be a bit more informed on what you champion, and how you seek out your own stage of “embrace debate” content.  We’re a click or phone call away if you’re game.

And while we’re at it, we might even want to help your empire out, too.  You could start by trying to get a few tips from my friend Barry Blyn on how he figured out what worked for FIRST TAKE.  They’re easily applicable to your world.  Spotify has that data; indeed, as a producer, you likely have access to it.

Want to be transparent with anyone about where your peaks and valleys are?

I wonder if they may be at the times you lost me–those where you swagger and scoff at how much smarter you are than those who are in control, without offering any fact-based points of contention or even testimony from anyone who has spent more time than you with it?

Or perhaps like those you snark at perhaps you aren’t all that eager to know about what’s not working, and instead just take the money and shut the–ahem–puck up?

You seem to draw inspiration for the name of your company, Puck, from Shakespeare.  Well, you know what Shakespeare said about lawyers.

Until next time…

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