Big Game for Someone with Such a Small Truck: Media Conglomerates Vs. Everybody
Posted by <Eamon Levesque> on 2021-09-15
The reading experience of the piece is augmented by THIS PLAYLIST. Begin track one now, Advance to the next track when prompted. No Peeking.
Most corporate mottos land somewhere between laughable and unsettling.
Laughable: Facebook’s original motto, “Move Fast and Break Things,” was better expressed by Fred Durst in 2000 (who you should be hearing right now).
Unsettling: If a friend tells you that he does things “The Chevron Way,” you should call the police.
Even a non-specific platitude like Google’s “Don’t be Evil” was eventually jettisoned when the company found it was cramping their style.
PROCEED TO TRACK 2
An exception. The late media mogul Sumner Redstone coined the phrase “Content is King” to describe his business philosophy. He nailed that shit.
In 1954, Redstone’s dad handed him the keys to the family’s 14-screen movie chain, National Amusements. Redstone proceeded to absolutely pop off. For over six decades, he ruthlessly M&A’d his way through film, music, TV, movies, and countless other industries. This did not stop until he was 93 years old. It took both a battle for the throne with his own daughter and his former allies getting him declared mentally incompetent in court for him to step down.
For that sort of palace intrigue, you need a palace; to have a palace, you need a kingdom. When Redstone died in 2020, National Amusements was now the parent company of the ViacomCBS conglomerate, valued at $41.42B. The worst you can say about his “Content is King” motto was that he got it backwards. Redstone lived and died by the desire to be the King of Content.
PROCEED TO TRACK 3
Let’s explore The Redstone kingdom. It’s vast, and it has something for everyone. They’ve owned and/or distributed everything from The Talented Mr. Ripley (Paramount) to The Fairly OddParents (Nickelodeon), the works of Ernest Hemmingway (Simon and Schuster) to Crank Yankers (Comedy Central). Redstone’s sprawling empire notably includes much of the American empire’s cultural soft power arsenal: the NFL on CBS, everything ever made by MTV, films like Titanic and The Godfather, the Spongebob Squarepants franchise.
But like Marcus Aurelius or Eazy-E, Redstone may have died right as things started to go south. As it stands, the global content monarchy should probably light the beacons and call for aid.
PROCEED TO TRACK 4
This is due to the rapidly accelerating quality, popularity, and ubiquity of user-generated content. We’ll abbreviate that term throughout as “UGC.” Its opposite is publisher-generated content; “PGC.”
(Note: UGC and the PGC are terms coined by a supranational think tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. They’re ugly-sounding and designed by an organization hoping to enforce copyright law on a global scale. But they’re also apt descriptors. If you can think of a better set of terms, I’ll use them.)
PGC describes all of the media named above, and practically everything in the Content Kingdoms of ViacomCBS, Walt Disney, Comcast Corp., or Netflix.
To quote a film that lies on the border between Redstone’s content kingdom and that of the Qatari beIN Media Group (two 50/50 Miramax stakeholders), the individual content creator is poised to drink the milkshake of major media conglomerates in the coming years.
Let’s stop for a second and agree on What We Talk About When We Talk About Content. There are many bullshit answers to this question. Ad exec David Trott once described sitting at a roundtable full of content business magnates (“...publishers, media company execs, ad agency owners.”). None of them could agree on a definition of “content”, only that it was seemingly “important to say [the word] a lot.”
PROCEED TO TRACK 5
Trott used a simile to illustrate his definition. He picked a truck. Actually, he went with “lorry,” since he’s British. But I don’t want to build my argument on a goofy word like “lorry” (As a US/UK dual citizen, I can make these decisions, and if you complain about it you’re going to end up in the trunk/boot of my car).
Here’s what Trott had to say:
lorrytruck has wheels, an engine and a cab. And a big space on the back to be filled up with something. It doesn’t matter what you fill it with, the lorrytruck is the delivery system. The lorrytruck will do the job of delivering whatever "content" you put in the back.”
Great definition. It’s for sure derived from Marshall McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message,” from 1964s Understanding Media. McLuhan argued that the means of delivering content (the medium) has a greater impact on the audience than the content itself (the message). This is still debated; Trott sidesteps that. He gives us an immediately applicable definition of “content.” Importantly, it distinguishes between the medium (the truck) and the content (stuff in the truck).
Musical content can go on the radio truck, on the Spotify truck, or the vinyl truck. Video content can go on the cinema truck, or the TikTok truck. Admittedly, interactive media makes this definition less cut-and-dry. Grand Theft Auto III was content delivered on the CD-ROM truck. But if you go onto Steam and download Grand Theft Auto V, the game itself will later download more content for itself. So I guess that Steam is a flatbed truck assigned to deliver GTA V, itself a smaller truck.
Whatever. You get it. Content goes on the truck. The truck simile will be very helpful as we learn why Content Kings like Redstone are in deep shit.
PROCEED TO TRACK 6
Let’s keep the truck metaphor in mind as we look more closely at how a given piece of ViacomCBS content comes to be loaded onto the truck.
In the early 2000s, screenwriter Jeff Davis pitched the show Criminal Minds to CBS. Shooting began under CBS Paramount Network Television. The show was added to the primetime lineup of the CBS Television Network, a property of the larger CBS Entertainment Group. It was sent to CBS Television Stations for distribution, and broadcast across the country from WCBS in NYC to KCBS in LA. After that, CBS Media Ventures syndicated the show, while CBS Home Entertainment published it on DVD.
!!! ALERT: YOU HAVE COMMITTED A MARXIST BLUNDER !!!
Ahh, shoot. By over-relying on such a simple simile, we’ve inadvertently succumbed to Entfremdung: capitalism’s efforts to estrange the worker from the results of his labor. That’s what I get for citing so much capitalist source material.
We all know the content truck doesn’t just arrive at your door. The amount of labor it takes to get a piece of network television from idea to eyeball is staggering. Even more staggering: Redstone and his ilk have consolidated this process entirely.
ViacomCBS isn’t just “the truck”. ViacomCBS decides what goes into the truck, designs the truck, manufactures the truck, loads the truck, fuels the truck, hires the driver, and unloads the cargo into their own store. They can replicate this degree of supply chain continuity for music, film, books, and many other content genres.
So, why should such a formidable entity be worried?
PROCEED TO TRACK 7
Consider the following:
-- For the 2021 Emmys (to be aired on CBS), Bo Burnham received six Emmy nominations for his Netflix comedy special Inside. He qualified for outstanding variety special, direction, picture editing, music direction, original music & lyrics, and writing because he had undertaken all of these normally discrete tasks himself.
-- The Joe Rogan Experience podcast is created by two individuals each week. Despite this, he commands 11 million weekly listeners, which the Washington Post notes is “nearly four times as many people as prime-time cable hosts such as Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC.”
-- In 2016, Frank Ocean had been locked into an unfavorable contract with Def Jam/UMG since 2009. Despite Def Jam reportedly not providing “any backing or support,” he needed to fulfill a $2m advance to leave the label. Ocean surreptitiously made two albums. The first was Endless, a collection of b-sides to satisfy the Def Jam contract. The second was the vastly superior Blonde, independently released on Apple Music the next day. Ocean netted several million more than he stood to under Def Jam.
These are all examples of individuals famous for producing Publisher Generated Content abandoning the Content Kingdoms that made them famous (ViacomCBS, Comcast, and UMG/Vivendi respectively). All of them have now switched to a User Generated Content approach.
This trend alone doesn’t spell doom for the Content Kingdoms. Not everyone is Frank Ocean.
PROCEED TO TRACK 8
But what’s only become true recently is that anyone can try to be Frank Ocean. The tools to make quality music are that accessible. Same goes for film, news, long-form audio, and literature. Across many areas, a formerly massive quality gap between UGC and PGC is either approaching zero or entirely eliminated.
Yes, by traditional standards, most of the UGC sucks compared to PGC. But consider that platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Soundcloud are getting it all for free or for pennies on the dollar. And their algorithmic content delivery does a downright beautiful job of covering the remaining quality gap by learning the user’s interests.
Media coverage of the YouTube and TikTok algorithms often dwells on their addictive potential or radicalizing tendencies. When pressed on these issues, YouTube’s Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan said that the site’s only key metric is “how satisfied are our viewers? Are they getting what they want out of their connection with their creators?”
This sounds designed to brush off the allegations made against the company. But it actually explains them. As a user becomes more passionate about a given topic, they begin to care more about the volume of content available and less about the quality. Online political radicalization always begins with content that looks like network television and ends with 45-minute videos of dudes “telling it like it is” recorded while sitting in their car. The same model applies to other interests.
PROCEED TO TRACK 9
Armed with free content targeted with laser-precision, UGC aggregators have a massive competitive advantage over PGC-producing conglomerates in the fight for screen time. ViacomCBS and YouTube are both in the content-trucking business. ViacomCBS has a fleet of reliable, diesel-powered 18-wheelers, which deliver a pre-selected array of high-quality goods that the company hopes will satisfy as many customers as possible. YouTube has a shitload more trucks that are smaller, faster, and are tuned to do sick drifts along the information superhighway as they drop the cheap thrills they know you love on your doorstep. And TikTok does the same shit but with even more, smaller trucks, like maybe a 1982 Subaru BRAT with iridescent paint and a bunch of underglow sitting on 21-inch rims. Like this or something.
PROCEED TO TRACK 10
That pursuit of validation has caused YouTube and TikTok to create content — entire genres, even — that could never find a home in Content Kingdoms like ViacomCBS.
Vlogger Beau of the Fifth Column is a great example of how this pursuit for validation affects political commentary, a field formerly dominated by Content Kings. Beau speaks directly to his 627,000+ subscribers on a variety of topics from a left-leaning stance. Many of his talking points, and even his oratory style, wouldn’t be out of place on MSNBC.
However, Beau is a passionate 2nd amendment advocate, he’s served time in a federal prison, and speaks with a distinct Southern accent. All of these factors would disqualify him from appearing on any news network — except for Fox, which he openly despises. But he’s found and earned a sizable audience.
It’s easy to understand how. The Venn Diagram of “People who watch Gun YouTube” and “People who watch Leftist YouTube” has limited overlap. But there’s clearly enough to sustain a dedicated following. This makes Beau’s content a commodity ripe for the algorithm to promote to the small, passionate community of lefties with AR-15s. Beau and those like him show that the algorithm’s desire to validate its users will discover niches that large-scale content operations aren’t nimble enough to cater to.
PROCEED TO TRACK 11
This drive doesn’t just elevate individuals, it can shape media.
ASMR videos are a great example. They’re built with a narrow purpose: to elicit a relaxed, tingling, sleepy sensation from the viewer. It’s a digital pacifier — content designed to content. YouTube was the birthplace of ASMR. It now holds millions of hours of this hyper-specific content genre, all of it user-generated, with notable examples reaching seven-digit view counts. How could a Content Kingdom like ViacomCBS ever cater to this audience, or even know it existed? Yes, many ASMR creators cite Bob Ross as an inspiration. But a pure ASMR cable channel is unimaginable, no matter how deep it could hide in your cable box.
The algorithm has found countless genres that could never fit within the borders of a Content Kingdom. Unboxing videos, “kid youtube”, Let’s Plays, Iceberg Videos, etc. An indescribably vast wealth of content designed to validate a user in any possible way — like a miles-long Cafe Gratitude menu.
PROCEED TO TRACK 12
So if UGC is cheaper, faster, and more personalized than PGC, what’s PGC still good for? Answering that question is the key to determining what the future of both will look like.
UGC isn’t yet “water cooler” conversation. Maybe someone else at your job watches the same weird internet shit you do, but far more people all watched the same buzzy Netflix doc or last night’s baseball game. UGC’s atomization makes it hard to watch communally. But even that advantage might be temporary. Really, how long could it be before we can all make an Avengers quality film on our cell phone. Talented YouTubers improving on the visual effects of summer blockbusters is already a trend.
Other media seem destined to remain PGC by nature. Creating a current-gen video game is beyond the scope of any individual. Owning to the aforementioned truck-delivering-a-truck nature of interactive media, there’s just too much fucking work involved. When asked for advice for aspiring filmmakers in 2006, Tarantino said “make Reservoir Dogs.” That’s probably even more accurate today than it was then. But Hideo Kojima couldn’t give the same advice — you’ll need to convince a Content Kingdom if you want to make your Metal Gear. In the same vein, sports seem massively resistant to UGC. Monday Night Football or WWE Smackdown require a multitude of individuals to turn the contest into content.
The real obstacles for UGC to be at the zeitgeist are likely the legal moats and barricades erected around the Content Kingdoms. Any of us could livestream a presidential debate, it’s just that CBS owns the rights. Copyright and contract seem likely to be key ways for Content Kingdoms to repel the barbarians at the gates.
PROCEED TO TRACK 13
Don’t mistake this as trying to sing the Internationale and rally the power of TikTok.
Individual content creators are ultimately a vulnerable class. Making a living at the whim of an opaque algorithm is a disempowering prospect. But maybe there is solace to be found in the fact that direct corporate influence over culture is waning. The individual has simply too many market advantages when it comes to getting their content out there.
The Content Kingdoms have a choice: gas up their aging war rigs and colonize new territory, or be over-run by an agile fleet of Tokyo-Drift’ing content pickups. If they choose the latter option, Paul Walker has a great quote to estimate their chance of success.