One analogy and a little explainer, and we’re off to the races here.
If you’ve seen Guy Hamilton’s World War II movie Force 10 from Navarone (and really, who hasn’t?), you know the plot. Based “loosely” on the novel by Alistair MacLean, the story is about British special forces men (played by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox) who are operating in the Balkans, and who in the course of the movie need to take out a bridge over which the Germans intend to move a massed force against the local partisans.
The bridge can’t be blown, according to the explosives expert. But there’s a dam up-river, and if it can be blown, and the water released, the sudden onrush of pressure could well compromise the bridge and make it impassable. The bridge spans a gorge, so taking it out would effectively stall the German advance.
Our heroes Mallory and Miller manage, after overcoming numerous obstacles, to set charges at the base of the dam. (Harrison Ford joins them along the way, playing an American officer named Barnsby.) The explosives work, but the dam holds.
Until it doesn’t. The effect isn’t immediate, but weakening the dam gets the process rolling – and the weight of the water does the rest. Before the movie ends, the dam collapses, sending millions of gallons of water hurtling toward the bridge. The bridge shudders and topples in an impressive sequence. The Germans are stopped; the partisans saved.
By 1978, the taste for World War II action films had diminished somewhat – in Hollywood, if not as much among the general public. But if you were in my Dad’s household, you saw Force 10 from Navarone (a sequel to the even better 1961 movie The Guns of Navarone). And the story of the dam and the bridge is just the analogy we need to understand the effect the NFL meltdown is going to have on the major news media.
Blowing the media dam
The NFL is like the base of the dam that Mallory and Miller need to blow. It’s the weight-bearing center of the media’s sustainability model for top-down-controlled, centralized, theme-dictated reporting. (We’ll get to the centralized media model in a moment.)
That’s because the NFL has been a reliable money-maker – which the news isn’t. The NFL has been the core of sports broadcasting as a whole for decades, the model and “hook” for every form of revenue the media giants depend on: advertising dollars, fees from network affiliates, and cable fees for bundling rights (see here as well).
Sure, there’s a package of factors in how marketable the legacy networks and cable sports channels are to these revenue sources (advertising and fees). Other programming – series TV, popular morning news and talk shows – is just as important to fulfilling the media model of varied content and audience outreach, at least for the legacy networks. (ESPN and the other sports channels obviously market a less-generalized product.)
But sports broadcasting has been the core content driver for marketability and revenue for a long time now. (See here, e.g. – “Why ESPN drives Walt Disney’s Media Networks revenue,” and the point that in 2014, ESPN alone represented 50% of Disney’s overall profits.)
And NFL football is the core of the core.
NFL broadcasts are routinely much bigger revenue-makers than other sports, including college football and the other top pro team sports, basketball and baseball (see next link). The only thing that beats pro football – at all, in any TV broadcast genre – is the Olympics. NFL games command far bigger advertising rates than any other sport, with the Super Bowl being the undisputed king of the model.
The Washington Post last year had a prescient article on this very topic, when NFL ratings began in mid-autumn to slide noticeably from the previous ratings in 2015. The title was “NFL ratings plunge could spell doom for traditional TV.” Network executives are frank about the outsize impact of the NFL; author Drew Harwell summarizes it thus:
Football last year  was still TV’s biggest golden goose, with the Super Bowl and other games locking in many of the most-watched hours on air. Its viewership grew in recent years as ratings fell for many of television’s other genres, including scripted dramas, which are often expensive to produce and yield more limited viewerships.
So knowing that you will have the revenue to sustain your media operations as a whole has depended for quite a while on having specific confidence in your NFL broadcast revenue. That revenue per se is not your big NFL payoff, as a media company. It’s the ripple effect it has on the rest of your profitability model, something media executives refer to as the “halo effect.”
Sports in general, you see, and NFL football in particular, have continued to make the way media companies deliver content necessary and attractive to the audience. That then keeps their various other forms of content and revenue streams viable.
At least, it has until now.
The news broadcasts through which political themes are flogged may or may not pay for themselves. Networks can be cagey about that. But even if they do pay for themselves, they are wholly incapable of paying for all the other things a big media corporation has to spend on, like losses from series that flop, and structural changes in the media world – loss of cable subscribers, local affiliates losing money – that have a big cumulative impact on the bottom line.
The ultimate bottom line is this. To sustain the theme-dictated news model that rules our infosphere today – ABC, NBC, CBS providing slanted-narrative copy to their affiliates; the cable news channels reciting similarly centralized themes – the big media companies need sports broadcasting, and sports broadcasting needs its flagship, the NFL.
Without sports broadcasting and the NFL, the media companies can’t get you to function as an audience that makes money for them. And that means they can’t get your eyeballs on their political-themed content. They have no way to market that content to you, except as a by-product of the stuff you’re willing to open your wallet for.
Would you pay to subscribe to something, or buy a special viewing box now, just to see the network news? Of course not. You’ve got other ways to get news, for one thing.
Plus, you barely even tune in as it is, which is what advertisers notice. News audiences in general are dismal, compared to other forms of programming. In terms of operating revenue and sustainability, the main forum for disseminating centralized political themes to viewers – the news broadcasts – depends on the media companies’ other sources of revenue to survive.
It’s all about the advertising dollar
A couple of slices of this illustrate the point. One is that the sources of revenue for the media companies may be multifaceted, but they all come down to whether a media company’s product attracts advertising. Attracting advertising is the bottom-line measure of whether a broadcast media product is sustainable. Nothing can keep a broadcast media product alive if there’s no advertising source somewhere in the chain to pay for it.
You can’t wring cable bundling fees out of a cable company if your product, taken as a whole, doesn’t attract advertising. No matter what initials you have in your name. There is no such thing as making up for the lack of advertising with cable bundling fees. If you can’t attract advertisers, the bundling fees will dry up too, because clearly you’re not necessary to the cable companies’ customers. In this time of mass defections by cable subscribers, the effect will occur even faster.
The same dynamic holds for levying fees for your content on your local network affiliates. Ultimately, you can’t make them pay for network products that on balance, they can’t make money off of. That’s not a survival model for them, so it can’t work.
No matter how you parse this one, there must be an appetite for your content perceived by advertisers. When the TV advertising power of the NFL wanes as sharply as it has over the last month – coupled with the seminal drop from one and two years ago – that’s a tectonic disturbance.
And the disturbance is as much to the media companies – Disney (ABC, ESPN), Xfinity/Comcast (NBCUniversal), Fox, National Amusements (CBS), Time Warner (CNN) – as it is to the NFL itself.
The centralized, dictated-theme media model
The other slice is the dominant model that’s going to get hit by the wall of water in all this. The model of centralized, dictated-theme media – the way most people get their news – is the “bridge” in this scenario. And like the bridge that needed taking out in Force 10 from Navarone, it’s going to sway and topple when the dam eventually blows.
What do I mean by centralized, dictated-theme media? Journalist Lee Smith had a seminal article on the topic in July. (In fact, he came through again on Monday with a superb article on a closely intertwined topic: how the fall of Harvey Weinstein exposes the loss of power by the media model through which Weinstein made his billions.)
Smith was writing in July about Fusion GPS, the political consulting company that brokered the infamous “dodgy dossier” on Trump. But Smith’s real focus was on the way mainstream “news” is manufactured now by companies like Fusion GPS (which invariably have ties to politicians and politicos on the left side of the spectrum – in Fusion’s case, both Obama and the Clintons).
Smith at one point calls these purveyors of thematic news “information packagers,” and traces some prominent cases of their manufactured stories being obviously retailed by multiple news outlets as if they are “scoops” from genuine journalism.
Their effect is the one Ben Rhodes, the former Obama aide, notoriously described as creating an “echo chamber” for the information packagers’ themes. They say it here; it comes out there.
How are the information packagers able to make such headway with their content? One factor is the one Smith points out: the print media – where such themed news starts – are dead broke. They don’t have the customer power they once had to commission real, old-school journalism to set the agenda with. Outfits like Fusion GPS do have the money to commission themed news, and then supply it to the media outlets. (Notably, a number of such outfits are funded by George Soros.)
Much politically-themed news does still come from the editorial and newsrooms of the legacy media. But that “news” too is centrally disseminated into an echo chamber, which is what matters to our story here.
Lee Smith did us the signal service of tracing some news items in the echo chamber, but many observers, from all points of the political spectrum, already knew what he was talking about. They’ve been putting together videos like this one for years:
A short, harmless montage, to be sure. But it would be easy enough to assemble one on more contentious topics; e.g., showing local newscasters across the nation repeating the exact same politically slanted phrases about what a provision of Obamacare means, or whether people protesting something are justifiably outraged, or are instead expressing “intolerance.”
This is the system that packages “news” for us thematically, so that it all fits a centralized political narrative. Its purpose is to have everyone talking about topics in the same terms, whether it’s using irrational but universal expressions like “gun control,” or using heavily biased terms like “racist” or “homophobic” (or, more gently, “anti-gay”) to refer to any opinion that doesn’t conform to the agenda of the progressive left.
This is, in short, the “echo chamber.”
We need to note that the echo chamber extends beyond news broadcasts. The centralized editorial posture permeates talk TV and scripted series programming too — just as it pervades movie-making and other forms of content produced by some of the media giants’ subsidiaries. These “information” products too, as the output of the old-school centralized model, depend to a significant degree on the profitability of sports broadcasting.
And here’s the circle back to the NFL. The echo chamber has to include you and me at some point, if it is to matter. The most effective vehicle by far for spreading the gospel of themed “news” to most of America is the network-affiliate relationship, in which the editors at ABC, or Fox, etc. provide packaged content to their affiliates for the scheduled news broadcasts.
Outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Politico may publish the original stories. The “wire services” like AP and Reuters may write a lot of the original copy. But none of their reach is anything like the reach of the evening news on CBS. It’s the network-affiliate link that moves “news” to eyeballs, and gets it in digestible soundbites into the public’s head.
Right behind that is the even more centralized model of the cable news channels, which have their central newsrooms, and thoroughly dictate the packaging of “straight” news (as opposed to opinion and talk) for their anchor presentations.
Of course, online news packaging is an important and growing method of getting “news” before an audience. But it’s the same old players involved in determining and feeding the content. Facebook and Google are exercising a gatekeeper role now, to be sure – but they don’t originate the themed “news.” They’re not set up for that. They favor or disfavor what comes from the traditional news retailers, in terms of how it’s disseminated.
Centralized production of this themed news is hanging on as a viable model because of the old network infrastructure, which produces news that way.
And the load-bearing center of that infrastructure is sports broadcasting – particularly NFL football – without which customers wouldn’t pay the freight for the mechanism that brings the echo chamber to them.
Other factors will accelerate the dam’s collapse
Of course, there are other factors affecting this whole evolution in public information. The loss of cable subscribers, and TV viewers in general, is due to independent technology developments as well as to the sociopolitics of news and broadcasting.
But those factors don’t explain the sudden, precipitous drop in NFL viewership in September and October of 2017. That drop is the separate, singular event: the detonation of explosive charges at the base of the dam. What the additional factors will do is increase the weight of water on the newly compromised dam.
The days of centralized themed-news production – the echo chamber – are numbered. The very media that have conceived of themselves as dictating a national narrative to their audience are about to be hit with tons of water crashing over a blown dam – and be washed away.
The irony is that the themed-news media – a category into which all of the legacy broadcast media fall – have been busy attacking the NFL for a number of years now. There can be legitimate criticism of any industry, and the NFL isn’t exempt from such criticism, nor should it be. But pro football has been a political target of the left-leaning legacy media for a long time, often speciously and unfairly.
And now that some NFL players are dividing themselves and their league from millions of fans – over politics – the legacy media are cheering them on. It’s remarkable to watch.
The more disaffected the NFL fan base is, the less time the legacy media have left on life support. They are about to lose what’s left of their power to shape the public narrative, for the most basic of reasons: there won’t be enough advertising dollars in the media-company chain anymore to sustain them.
He that troubleth his own house shall assuredly inherit the wind, and the fool shall be servant to the wise in heart. Who would have thought, ten years ago, that the monolithic mainstream media would be taken down, in the end, by their own sniping campaign against the National Football League?