In the swaying palms and balmy heat of the Sunshine State, where the gators laze in the Everglades and the retirees laze in the the Villages, we find ourselves in the throes of yet another media circus, once again with Donald Trump in the center ring playing emcee, or perhaps he’s closer to a revival tent preacher leading the congregation (played by the media), all singing from the same hymnal. The spectacle includes blaring digital headlines, breaking news alerts, shouting talking heads, and all of rife with wild speculation and little news, backstopped by breathless “reporters” standing outside the federal courthouse in Miami, as if being close to “the room where it happened” somehow gives those reporters authority that others lack.
Yet in spite of the endless variety of cable TV news channels, they all serve up the same flavor of news and analysis. And millions of Americans watch it because we are programmed to believe it’s important. By golly, it must be if Fox News and CNN and the New York Times and the Washington Post all have reporters standing outside the courthouse, right?
Over the years, if you’re over the age of 45, you’ve watched the media landscape shift, from Walter Cronkite to the trio of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, to an explosion of circus-cacophony 24-hour news channels. Then over the next 20 years, names like Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity, and Rachel Maddow took their place, but have since ceded ground in the face of ever-increasing pressure from a new generation of media carnival barkers, best exemplified by the political arena’s reigning social media showman, Tucker Carlson.
Carlson’s deft pirouette last month from 3 million nightly viewers on his 60-minute Fox News show, to his new, 100 million+ viewer, 10-minute Twitter show surely has cable news talk show executives wondering if the 20-year decline of the print journalism industry might seem like an epoch compared to the fate that awaits Fox News and CNN.
Both networks have suffered humiliating setbacks this year: Only days ago, CNN fired their relatively new CEO Chris Licht after a series of missteps, including news reports that the network lost as much as 40 percent of its ad revenue during his tenure. Then there’s Fox News, once the reigning heavyweight champion of the cable news ratings, the network this year settled the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit for a crippling $787 million. Shortly afterward, Fox News dumped Carlson, and the news nets and legacy media piled on the criticism, highlighting every negative news nugget they could find as a possible explanation for Carlson and Fox’s sudden and unexpected parting of ways.
Who would have thought just six weeks ago that Carlson, the ratings-king of cable TV, would be unceremoniously jettisoned from his Fox News pulpit, let alone become, virtually overnight, an instant social media sensation, reaching the same number of people in 10 minutes that it took him a full-month to get at Fox? What a wild ride. Imagine, in just one short video, Carlson manages to ignite more interest than the most rabid “Florida Man” headline. But let’s not focus too narrowly on Carlson, for this isn’t really a story about one man’s flight to the digital wild west; rather, it’s a tale of our shifting media ecology.
Consider for a moment NBA superstar LeBron James. In addition to his whopping NBA salary of about $40 million paid by the LA Lakers, James also earns millions more from endorsement deals. A huge chunk of that cash is generated through social media. With each sponsored Instagram post, for example, James earns almost as much as his per-game wage with the Lakers. Yes, that’s right: he makes just as much money competing during the grueling NBA season as he earns from snapping a selfie holding a smoothie blender or a pair of high-end headphones.
The point? There’s a lot of money to be made on social media. And the next generation of Americans is already there, waiting to be info-tained.
What we’re witnessing is the next phase of the media (r)evolution that saw newspapers slowly die over 20 years. But now, instead of websites like Craigslist, Ebay, Facebook and Twitter cannibalizing the print media’s revenue and information streams, we’ve got engaging news personalities like Tucker Carlson who can reach far more people for the cost of an iPhone and a decent internet connection competing with multi-billion-dollar television news operations. Surely, executives at CNN and Fox News are realizing, to their horror, that they can’t keep spending millions of dollars on the creation of ultra-sleek news sets, dizzyingly-futuristic TV graphics, and spending millions more to ensconce attractive hosts behind ‘desks’ designed to show off more skin than Lebron James himself if he was wearing a pair of 1970’s era Laker shorts.
Want to know how its going for cable TV news? Look no further than the plunging necklines and shortening hemlines of the anchors, which are dropping just as fast as their ratings.
Experts caution that Twitter isn’t exactly the promised land. A 10-minute show on a platform designed for quick, bite-sized content might be like trying to stuff a Florida manatee into a swimsuit – a bit of an awkward fit. But if the first three efforts from Tucker are any indication, there’s a reckoning on the horizon. Just as Youtube gave rise to an entire generation of internet celebrities like Mister Beast and Jake Paul, Twitter and other social media video platforms are poised to give cable TV news its comeuppance. Guys like poor Wolf Blitzer don’t stand a chance. Even Carlson himself will have to fight to maintain his lofty position in the fickle, new social media video news era.
He may not earn $300,000 every time he pitches a juicer on his show, and nobody’s gonna buy Tucker Carlson basketball shoes, but it’s obvious that he’s found a way to beat his old employer at the ad revenue game. Now, it’s just a matter of time before someone else shows up on Twitter with an even bigger audience, ready to tell us what to think about the day’s news.