On a Tuesday evening in 1977, the entertainment industry changed forever…. for the better.
American consumers had few entertainment options during the Cold War. Since there was just three TV networks, and a spattering of local stations, viewers were captive. We watched what was available because we had so few options. We sat through commercials because we had to.
Then the American Broadcasting Company broke what –before that moment– could not be broken. A man named Fred Fox Jr. unwittingly began an evolutionary process by which Americans would no longer allow themselves to taken for granted by entertainment media. The most popular icon in America –Fonzie– was scripted by Mr. Fox to water-ski-jump over a caged shark. It was so spectacularly awful that the moment was henceforth and irrevocably associated with contrived, hackneyed entertainment failure.
Indeed, it was a breaking point. Americans were mad as hell, and we weren’t going to take it anymore. And TV and radio companies have been punished by their audiences for “jumping the shark” ever since.
Now almost forty years later, technology has given viewers and listeners more options than ever. Between the Federal Communications Commission, self-censorship, political correctness and the archaic mindset that accompanies traditional TV and radio, there has been a significant demand created for entertainment that is neither “Disney-fied”, nor permeated with obtuse banalities. The truth is, as the nation’s topography changes, both mediums in their current state are unsustainable.
Network television and over-the-air radio still reside over the shark.
On the TV side, cable networks have made ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX increasingly obsolete. Although status-quo apologists might claim that the success of pay channels like HBO and Showtime are due to their commercial-free business model and lack of FCC interference, the facts bear out differently. Commercialized pay channels like FX and AMC have garnered the same success as their “premium channel” rivals. Shows like “Louie” and “Breaking Bad” –although less encumbered by censorship– have no antenna friendly competition where it concerns platitude-free dialogue, honest characters or situational plausibility. In fact, cable channels that rely on advertisers manage to produce cutting edge, neoteric programming without nudity, or profanity.
The main difference between ABC, and AMC, is that the former is mired in psychological antiquity, while the latter employs creative courage. Which is a polite way to say that network TV and over the air radio have yet to find a way to enter the twenty-first century. Whenever network TV or over the air radio tries to compete with their cable or podcast counterparts by producing “edgy” content, they fail miserably. Consumers whose sensibilities allow for them to watch “Louie” in favor of “the Big Bang Theory” are able to spot contrived attempts to placate them a mile away. If anything offends this significant audience, it’s being condescended to.
Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, technology takes this dynamic a step further. Among other entrepreneurial and creative business models , Youtube, Netflix and Hulu have also entered the marketplace for original programming that is oversight-free of easily offended curmudgeons. Proving, if nothing else, that there has been, and remains to be a want for TV that doesn’t suck.
Radio however, is undergoing an entirely different metamorphosis.
While there was a time when satellite radio was believed to be the best alternative to what had become an over-censored and litigiously run medium, it seems now that “pay-radio” has succumb to the same pitfalls as its predecessor. The main difference between pay TV and radio, is that the little competition that existed in the satellite radio marketplace was erased by the merging/takeover of the only two entities in the corporate rialto. Indeed, if any advice can be offered to the radio industry by those who’ve achieved success in internet and cable TV, it’s that treating your paying customers like rubes is not an effective design of operation. Complacency is bad for any form of entertainment, and although it might be counter-intuitive to one with a twentieth century thought process, competition is good… for everyone.
If stock prices are any indication, it’s safe to say that the Sirius/XM “merger” turned out to be bad for both companies. However much like the television industry, consumers will pay for the radio they want. But it seems that requiring customers to pay for their product was never really satellite radio’s problem. Content was, and still is. Whether those in charge at Sirius radio want to admit it or not, they are struggling with a similar lack of programming imagination and smugness that made FM radio the vapid medium that prompted a radio alternative in the first place.
Certainly there is reason to speculate that Sirius’ hiring of executives (from the industry they were hoping to supplant) was a recipe for inevitable failure. Huge contracts, short song playlists, and gag orders on people whom they’ve hired to talk for the purposes of entertainment is proving to be a failing business model. Moreover, without the luxury of a customer regulated environment, Sirius radio has found themselves alone, adrift, and without a competitive entity to provide perspective. Showtime and HBO have one another to keep one another’s programming honest.
However a boardroom full of retrospective enablers is not conducive to the kind of forward thinking that the contemporary entertainment industry requires for success. Worse still is that Sirius’ litigious, FM radio-style corporate culture has led to (among other things) self-censorship via political correctness. That is the very dynamic that forced listeners to seek them out as an alternative in the first place.
The alternative that music and talk radio lovers have sought seems to have arrived via the internet. So much so that auto manufacturers are now moving away from offering Satellite radios in their package upgrades, and towards an internet alternative whereby one can pre-set their favorite online radio sites, and podcasts. Certainly, if the original reasons people sought satellite radio were short playlists and censored talk, then the internet is the entertainment medium they’ve been looking for.
Still in its adolescence as a commercial endeavor, podcasting is already proving to be a viable entertainment medium for those unable, unwilling, or unwanting to abide a corporate overseer. Comedian Mark Maron has done extraordinarily well with his podcast “WTF”, which has blown up to the point of it being (at least) as much of a source for his celebrity as his stand-up work. While conducting interviews and on-air pontificating is a significantly different skill set than standing on stage and telling jokes, Maron does both extremely well. By an industry standard, WTF is a highly successful show in any medium.
Unlike Maron, Glenn Beck was already a huge name in conservative talk when he made his talk entertainment home on the internet. Surely Beck had alternatives after he and FOX News parted ways, however he wisely chose to (at the time) think out of the box, and build a brand around an internet show he could perform from his home studio. Although Beck might have been able to earn more had he sought employment back on TV (probably not, but that’s not reflective of GB’s earning power as much as it is the viability of the internet as a revenue source), he certainly would not have been able to do the show he wants. And you can’t beat his commute.
Speaking of home studios, the most recent example of podcast entrepreneurship that might potentially take a significant portion of the radio market share is Anthony Cumia’s “Live from the Compound”. Late of Sirius Radio’s “Opie and Anthony show”, Cumia’s recent dismissal from the failing satellite radio company (after an off-air, politically incorrect twitter rant) prompted his venturing into podcasting. It’s a natural fit for a singular talent whose at his best when spontaneously unrestrained, and who exemplifies the irreconcilability of funny and political correctness. Like Glenn Beck, the natural appeal of working from home makes podcasting worth the risk, and like Glenn Beck, the thought of Anthony Cumia having to “watch what he says” is abhorrent to his fan base.
The Podcast success list doesn’t end with Maron, Beck or Cumia. Kevin Smith’s Smodcast, Mohr stories with Jay Mohr, the Joe Rogan Experience, and a myriad of other podcast venues have lasted the test of time. Podcasts have already proved that –like any other business– people will gravitate towards a good product, and they will stay away from ones that do not satisfy their needs.
Which is why at this juncture I would be irresponsible to not mention UnLearn TV. A podcast/ internet TV show which I co-host with a vice imbued genius who goes by the name Cigars & Scotch. It too, has managed to amass a significant following. Certainly more than many shows on other mediums. If nothing else, UnLearn TV proves that prior celebrity is not required to have a successful podcast, and it should serve as an example to those confined to radio and TV obscurity.
But here’s the thing… there are only twenty four hours in a day for entertainers across all mediums to divvy up. And while corporate entertainment is often guilty of taking their audiences for granted, entertainment consumers can be fickle, and petty. If podcasters don’t charge a fee to join their site, they will require sponsorships to stay afloat. Circumventing internet revenues has crippled the porn business, and it will likewise kill the podcasting business.
Cigars & Scotch and I have been slowly building a viewership and monetizing our product. Entertainers who move to podcasting still have to eat and pay bills. Granted, the internet provides more creative, less annoying ways for businesses to partner with podcasts (banners, links, etc)… but consumers must make it worth an advertiser’s while. Because no one works for free.
Nor should they.