How to save the TV industry using only print media’s mistakes (and a Bill Murray movie)
The false dilemma of cord-cutter vs cord-forever has newspapers fiasco written all over it
Not Fight Club, not The Matrix, and not even Pulp Fiction. The best movie of the 90’s, by far, is Groundhog Day — if the original ending had survived Hollywood’s narrow-mindedness.
For those under 30, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, tells the story of a TV reporter that gets stuck in a time-warp and must live the same day over and over again. “Like Palm Springs?”, some young lady raises her hand at back of the room. Yes, dear, like Palm Springs, but lonelier.
There are many other movies with this same time-loop plot, sure, but what makes Groundhog Day remarkable — and the same applies to last year’s Palm Springs — is its ability to mock the ephemeral nature of human existence without invoking any truisms.
Both Phil, the main character from Groundhog, and Nyles, the one from Palm Springs, quickly escalate from self-absorption to existential sarcasm and life disdain which unwittingly leads to two of the most clever lessons from the movie — in both cases. (No, none of them is “love will set you free,” and if you even considered that, I envision a life of disappointments).
Number one: there’s a big difference between getting smarter and more resourceful in a world in motion, and getting smarter and more resourceful in an environment that never changes. Number two: if you’re experiencing the same event over and over, maybe it’s a good strategy to ditch the self-absorbing attitude and start deconstructing the reality around you.
Take TV networks and media companies as an example, given that we’re talking about getting stuck in time.
Last year, two research firms published distinct reports that, combined, only confirm what we have already known for quite some time: the traditional pay TV expiration date has passed. “Subscriptions fell by a record 1.8 million in the first quarter, the worst quarterly result on record,” the guys from MoffettNathanson wrote. By 2024, there will be 46.6 million cord-cutter households in the United States, the other guys, from eMarketer, projected.
The expression “cord-cutter” refers to those people who switched from traditional cable, satellite and telecom TV to streaming devices and services. Additional jargon in this same sphere are “cord-never” and “cord-forever,” both self-explanatory.
The most recent studies show that the average cable package in the U.S. is $215/month. Even if you take $60 from internet alone out of the equation, consumers are still facing a $155 bill. When people activate the cord-cutting mode they’re balancing money and expectations, which means some may live perfectly well with Amazon Prime and Netflix at 23 bucks a month, while others will choose services like Hulu Live or YouTube TV at $50 to $65/month. Either way, it’s not only a cheaper deal, it is a way cheaper deal.
Yet money is only one of the many reasons why traditional TV numbers are nosediving. And here’s where print media fiasco and its unfathomable course of action may come in handy.
Everybody knows the story about newspaper’s mass extinction event 66 million years ago, so I’ll skip the part when the internet conquered the media world and gradually reduced print media to a dozen wounded survivors and a big heap of ashes.
What happened during this period is far more interesting. Similar to the current TV scenario, newspapers executives ignored the overt shift in consumer’s behavior and tried to pulled off the most stupid business strategy ever: do nothing and hope that your customers don’t die any time soon. Let’s call it the “print-forever” project.
I could pull out my bag of clichés and say all of it was caused by analog souls trapped in digital bodies, but it wouldn’t be true. Print media’s collapse was the result of a collaborative effort conducted by incompetent staff led by incompetent executives. Together, they have formed their own L’armata Brancaleone that ended up defining the future of thousands of jobs, dozens of companies and the entire industry.
It wasn’t pretty. Over the last 20 years, newspapers have wasted an obscene amount of money hiring useless consulting firms, an obscene amount of time conducting endless reunions with disinterested employees, and an obscene amount of self-respect trying to recreate new media hits using an old platform. Virtual high-five if you belong to the been-there-witnessed-that club too.
Ironically enough, TV executives have the exact same concerns today that those from print media had two decades ago: a) how do I squeeze real money out of this "new thing"? b) how do I keep my bonus? c) is there any way I can go through the motions until retirement? So far, they only managed to accomplish the last one, which is understandable, as they’re using the same techniques their ancestors did back in the day.
They could try option D: ditch the self-absorbed attitude and start deconstructing the reality around them. Preferably, learning from past mistakes.
As a way of helping those tormented souls, here’s my Complete Beginner’s Guide to Saving Your TV Enterprise solely based on print media’s blunders.
- Staff — You need to let people go. For real. I hate to break it to you, but 80% of your staff have no clue how to help you or couldn’t care less. The other 20% are looking for a job with fewer hours and more money on LinkedIn as we speak. Once you’ve cleaned house, hire a whole different set of professionals — different background, mindset, culture, ideas, motivation… in short, a much different team than the one you had. Bonus tip: start by getting rid of the but-he's-such-a-great-guy type.
- Job functions — It is more than safe to say that in every media company, there are several outdated job functions that no longer make any sense. At the same time, there are a few roles without people to fill them. The same applies to positions, methods and routines.
- Creativity — With your new team and their new job functions, focus on attracting a new audience, new customers, and even new money. Creativity is the raw material for your business. You must have heard it a thousand times, which doesn’t make it any less true: your competition is a 15-year-old girl on TikTok and she’s creative AF.
- Storytelling — It doesn’t matter if you’re the next Netflix killer, a live sports channel, some reality show, a 60-second video on mobile, a local news network, or a newly released podcast, storytelling is the key factor to everything you do. Now, check your budget spreadsheets, your calendar and, since we’re already here, your conscience. Take your time. This way you’ll have a good picture of how much you have NOT invested in storytelling.
- Access — One of the many, many wrong convictions to which print media clung was the fear that legitimizing other platforms would annihilate their primary business — today, this kind of mindset would be enough to justify hospitalization. Be sure to put yourself everywhere, even on YouTube (even if, for some delusional reason, you believe you compete against YouTube).
- Read the room — Starting yesterday, stop trying to recreate modern platforms winners in your business, there’s a very good chance that you’re just embarrassing yourself and your audience. More importantly, if you’re a new streaming service — whether from an independent company or from an association — please, do not try to resurrect old methods, thus old vices, from old TV. That’s even more preposterous.
At this point, it seems that I’m just creating absurd situations to fill these pages. Plausible, but not true. You may not know, but I get paid whether I scribble 200 or 2,000 words (“paid” meaning “satisfaction,” of course). As in a time-warp narrative, all of the above have happened before (in print media), and it still happens now (in traditional TV).
I’d love to offer some sophisticated answer to solve the mystery of why this keeps happening but the only thing that occurs to me is one of the famous quotes from Groundhog Day. “I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over?”, Bill Murray’s character grumbles at one point.
Because, my friend, in real life, if you end up living the same event over and over, it will never be a sex-beach-drinks day. It is almost certain that you will have a groundhog one.