Better Things

(ready for primetime)


The beginnings of a coalition of the brave are bolstered by the January 6 Committee’s first prime time session. The event drew 21 million viewers, and the media obediently fell in line. Fox ran an ad-free Carlson rant instead, which says to me that the right felt the committee needed suppressing. All in all, the message was that there’s a center in American politics, and mainstream media played ball. The first commentator break came well into the broadcast, and gave the networks just enough time to use the facilities but not enough to look for better shows.

I’ve been embedded in the newslettersphere for about a month now, by which I mean I am about a day behind on the commentary I skipped on the cable networks. Some of the commentators on Substack and unaligned newsletters frequent MSNBC et al, so Substack text is the horse’s mouth. Sometimes podcast versions are run through a transcription service, and let me harvest the media in a more consumable needle-drop fashion. Basically what I’m doing is decoupling the talking head class from the repetitive 24/7 ad-based news cycle. Meanwhile, the cable networks are in massive restructuring mode, pushing people like Chuck Todd to secret-location networks like NBC News Now, and Rachel Maddow pushing herself to one night a week and lead anchor on the committee cast. Other victims of my news attention include the Sunday shows, which are preempted by sports and the second round of streaming shows surviving the Netflix meltdown. We knocked off Ozark, This Is Us, the sophomore season of Hacks, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, and the Bosch reboot. Only This Is Us was a traditional broadcast show, but it’s now being marketed as a Peacock streaming limited series, as in limited to the last season’s Final tranche of shows.

You’d think mainstreamers would be leading the parade from broadcast to subscriptions and back to ad-supported weekly show drops, but we’re still not seeing the complete capitulation the streamers tout. I think that’s because of the disparity of quality content from an effective bundling strategy. The political coverage of the January 6 show is way ahead of cable, because rather than undermining their credibility by ignoring the legitimate issues of the center, the Substackers are all over the place in aggregate. Noxious conservative voices like Andrew Sullivan are the ones speaking truth to power about the impact of people like Bill Barr calling bullshit on the Big Lie. I still don’t buy Sullivan’s no-prisoners approach to much of his core politics, but at least now I’ll listen until I have had enough.

All of these moves seem oddly triggered by the intersection of streaming and newsletter publishing. The series with traction are growing more comfortable with a pandemic-era rhythm of companion television, where the audience is looking for a reliable partner in accommodating the enormity of the changes to a hybrid world. Companies are grappling with the demarcation between hardware and software boundaries, blurred by the CRM-era notion of whole product that seems to be where consumers are coming from.

Here is where bundling needs to assert itself to close the sale on micropublishing. There’s a real there there waiting to be acknowledged. You see this forming on the cable roundtables on the business networks, where the Musk/Twitter story prompts get in/get out commentary by Casey Newton and Eric Newcomer and maybe Kara Swisher once she extracts her brand from the Times. These folks are bundling themselves on podcasts; now they need to do it in text. Establishing a paywall free-zone for this bundle will pay for itself in reach to the hungry triggerpuller audience the tech and entertainment (includes news) industries want to engage.

Don’t forget the Substack moves to a high-touch rich mobile client and integrated video. The key to bundling omnichannel is commandeering the notification stream. Email will continue to be the dominant channel in volume, but I’m years into replacing the inbox with iOS notifications. It’s early days for the metrics, but Substack’s embedded analytics show a consistent signature of viewers settling into the show for the duration. Small numbers, but it’s reminiscent of the days at InfoWorld where the surveys trended to some 37 minutes average reading time per weekly issue.

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