Between the turbulent Warner Bros. Discovery merger, ever-shifting consumer habits and Disney’s old boss returning to the helm, 2022 was an especially chaotic one in media. Here’s a look at the stories I think will dominate the discussion in the coming year.
CNN is the New C-SPAN?
The protracted, circus-like House speaker selection earlier this month was disheartening on many levels, but it did offer one glimmer of hope: a huge boost in attention and viewers for C-SPAN. The cable network, a longtime favorite of the wonkiest of politics wonks and few others, trended on Twitter and notched impressive numbers as it trained its famously static cameras on floor proceedings that eventually brought Kevin McCarthy to the speaker’s podium.
CNN and MSNBC, both of which have bled viewers in the post-Trump era, also saw ratings surge for coverage that could seem downright sober-minded next to the hysterics the former president so often provoked. I’m not in favor of congressional disarray as a route to political news coverage actually focused on the nitty-gritty of politics. And the elections were not without their cheap theatrics. Yet there’s clearly an appetite for such coverage, and that could encourage a move away from a personality-driven cable news model to one based on more objective reporting. If Chris Licht’s rejiggering of CNN along those lines pans out, we could be in for a saner cable news future.
Disney: Iger Round 2
Despite industry despair over the underperformance of many A-list prestige titles (“Amsterdam,” “Babylon,” “The Fablemans,” “Tar”), the overall box office last year continued to recover from its pandemic depths. Disney rebounded 65% over 2021, trouncing other studios with nearly $2 billion in ticket sales accounting for 26% of the market. And in what may be a good sign of things to come, the abrupt return this fall of CEO Bob Iger preceded the release of James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which after a bumpy start is likely to become the director’s third movie among the top five all-time highest grossers.
I’m eager to see how Iger’s second CEO stint affects morale at the company, especially after his recent move to bring employees back to the office four times a week. “Nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors,” Iger said in a memo to employees. I agree with him. And I’d like to see more media companies move back toward more in-office time without entirely sacrificing the increased flexibility technology has made possible.
Disney’s immensity doesn’t disqualify it as a bellwether, so I’ll be keeping a close eye on a few other developments there.
Will creative-side employees regain decision-making control they lost during Bob Chapek’s brief time at the top? (That’s a question with big implications for creatives chafing under activist shareholders in several media conglomerates.) Might Disney+ break further away from the streaming scrum and nip at Netflix’s heels? Will the three Marvel flicks Disney has on slate for 2023 silence whispers about that cinematic universe’s (relative) reversal of fortune? And, putting media and entertainment aside, could international tourists return to the US with enough force to put Disney theme park attendance somewhere close to its pre-pandemic levels?
That would be a lot on any executive’s plate, but especially one back in charge of a company he’d so recently departed. Stay tuned.
A humbling for Big Tech?
Lip service is often paid to protecting endangered local news providers. A good deal more chatter concerns the distorting, undermining effect that tech giants have had on the dissemination of news real and fake. What gets dishearteningly little attention are efforts that would reel in Big Tech’s outsize role in news distribution and aid smaller news organizations.
I’ve been writing about this for years, and am hopeful that legislation making its way through congress gets the coverage it deserves this year. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act echoes similar bills passed in countries including Australia that advocate for journalism outlets to have increased negotiating power with online platforms over the latter’s access to their content.
Facebook isn’t the only critic of the bill. While initially intended to help smaller outlets staffing under 1,500 people, subsequent rewritings have disappointed some people by including exemptions for major broadcasters like Fox News. And some in the media fear giving too much one-size-fits-all collective power to news platforms could enable bad actors like InfoWars to essentially force its biased or outright false content onto Twitter and Facebook timelines. Other journalism entities are more optimistic.
This will be an important story to follow this year, and I hope that in its final form the bill gives the honest, little guys a fairer say. Criticism of Big Tech has been growing for some time, and the recent litany of layoff announcements in the sector suggests some vulnerability. Journalism exists in part to hold the powerful to account. Let’s see the powerful in Washington go to bat for journalism.