We are living in the most fascinating of times, but we have actually already experienced these years. This isn’t about Gawker, Apple, Scraper – but about unfair double standards and expectations.
The Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) trend has set forth in motion the world of content production & ownership to collide with the universe of technology & distribution. But this post isn’t about technological disruption or a given company, but how we deal with emotions and are surprised when we don’t let people deal with things in a normal fashion. For the record, I loved Gawker and Apple makes fine products, this isn’t about any of that.
Backdrop? Sure, the lack of economic incentive has given way to a rush to bridge that gap, where rights holders seek access to audiences, and platforms acquire programming.
But in the “struggle” between content and tech, one side, clearly, has the upper hand. Indeed, as per Ben Smith of the NYT, it’s as if the technology leaders are more mercurial than their media brethren:
Hollywood is now firmly in the grip of giant companies with singular leaders — Tim Cook and Apple; Amazon and its chief executive, Jeff Bezos; the Netflix C.E.O. Reed Hastings; and AT&T’s top executive, John Stankey — with big consumer brands and other pressing priorities, like their lucrative other businesses and their access to international markets.
Is Content Really King?
As discussed in The Origins and Paradox of Content is King, if content is king, how do you explain that the most valuable companies are predominantly in the technology and distribution game? One reason of course is that technology was scalable and benefited from better unit economics: produce software one time, sell it infinitely with ever-decreasing marginal costs. For storytellers to win, they need to compete on both sides of the ball: content production as well as distribution. But for distribution companies to win, they just need access to the content – be it through licensing, acquisition or ownership. In some ways, digital media has become the new software, since incremental distribution does not come with commensurate costs.
Treading a Fine Line
Apple’s Tim Cook may be finding out what previous chiefs have come to learn: content ownership – namely the green-lighting of programming – isn’t for everyone. It’s a great business, and digital makes it better, but it requires a temperament and compromise that takes time to develop. This isn’t about code or delivery – which is more precise and binary and less emotional.
Earlier today we looked at how AT&T’s ownership of WarnerMedia has ruffled some feathers. That business decision will alienate some creators, and demand/supply dynamics will flow people accordingly to where they’re more comfortable with one another. Here, we see Apple’s Tim Cook on the surface balking at a Gawker-inspired show over a creative control decision:
Two Gawker veterans sold the idea to Apple TV+, the new streaming service: Cord Jefferson, who left the site for a career writing for TV, and Max Read, Gawker’s former editor in chief. Apple hired two more former Gawker editors, Emma Carmichael and Leah Beckmann, as writers, and they had completed several episodes, people close to the production said. Then, an Apple executive got an email from the company’s chief executive, Tim Cook. Mr. Cook, according to two people briefed on the email, was surprised to learn that his company was making a show about Gawker, which had humiliated the company at various times and famously outed him, back in 2008, as gay. He expressed a distinctly negative view toward Gawker, the people said. Apple proceeded to kill the project. And now, the show is back on the market and the executive who brought it in, Layne Eskridge, has left the company. Gawker, it seems, is making trouble again.
Managing creative talent is unique, but so is managing engineering talent, and so on. The world of media has always drawn surprising dancemates and new owners. When examining AT&T’s decision to concurrently air its slate on HBO Max:
Many in the industry, on the other hand, are calling AT&T's moves the unwelcome rattle of an outsider, and compare AT&T to other companies far from the U.S. entertainment world who entered in recent decades with disruptive goals — they include Japan’s Matsushita, which bought MCA; Vivendi, which bought Universal; and America Online, which bought Time Warner. None of those acquisitions worked out, they noted, and the companies soon uncoupled.
Indeed, in February 2020, I broke down telecommunications firms on-again, off-again love interest in media, which has created an odd couple, asking whether AT&T will sell WarnerMedia.
The reality is managers before Mr Cook and others after him will find themselves in this situation:
But now, from beyond the grave, Gawker is revealing another reality in this era of media consolidation: that the chief executive of one of the biggest companies in the world, who testifies before Congress and negotiates with China, also decides what television shows get made.
Why Local Media is Doomed = Why Media Barons Don’t Exist
Last century, industrialists were drawn to media for vanity and, well, as “insurance.” Owning the means of production and communications medium allowed them to control what was said of them, and what they could, in turn, say about their competition. Hearst vs Pulitzer, and so on. That side of the history of media is fascinating; I started to cover that in the Turn the Page series on ContextTV.
Those classified-profit-machines posing as local information brochures made the profit printing presses of today’s tech behemoths look take. Media owners would pour profits back into swanky newsrooms as… insurance. Eventually, the Web changed dynamics, Craigslist, Google, yada yada – the so-called ad monopolies of today – i.e. Facebook, Google (whom, ironically, are already seeing rising threats that will erode their profit base) don’t have similar concerns and thus, less interest to maintain those traditional newsrooms. That’s why the future of local news may be rooted and anchored in academia and campuses.
But even in moving away from news to entertainment, media owners who bought studios and TV networks understood the sex appeal of show business came with the reality that you may not like what was being produced. Ideally, owners, managers and creatives can compromise. That takes time, communications and compromise.
What adds a wrinkle in this narrative is that:
Mr. Cook also has a personal grievance with the site, which in 2008 responded to a glowing article about the low-profile executive by floating the rumor that he was gay. (Other coverage had used euphemistic expressions like “intensely private” lifelong bachelor.) When Apple named Mr. Cook to lead the company in 2011, it made no mention of his sexual orientation, but Gawker’s Ryan Tate introduced him as “The Most Powerful Gay Man in America.”
Now to be fair, I don’t really blame him for being uncomfortable… he’s human and humans have emotions. I am also one of the staunchest defenders of freedom of press and media. So my point isn’t about that.
Taking a step back, Mr. Cook stepped in to Steve Jobs’ shoes and arguably made Apple stronger. Second, he merits kudos for coming out out at the right moment for him.
Apple is not perfect, no one is. Mr Cook isn’t flawless, no one is. While two wrong’s don’t make a right, I am not sure we should set a higher hurdle rate for Mr Cook here. If the show, Scraper, was meant to prevail on the merits, it shall. Judging by it, it seems really interesting and based on Succession’s success, I think it will find a home and draw an audience (in fact, it sounds like a project I’m developing – call me? 🙂
Either way, I assure you for the long term success of the show, everyone involved, it may very well be best for it to shine under a new home… because ultimately for creative projects to be healthy, they need to be housed in healthy homes. That’s how you avoid toxic environments. You cannot force Mr Cook to ultimately support, green light and fund a show that no straight man before him in Hollywood would have supported. People from all walks of all life make decisions that are rooted in emotions, it seems unfair to expect Mr Cook to be immune of that.
A Balancing Act
Now back to that original thesis, even in a brave new world where content and audience morph into an eclipse-like sphere, that doesn’t mean that Apple will own the content, it may only license it. That is a balancing act that takes time. In doing so, Mr Cook will find a middle ground in these areas. Banks have so-called Chinese walls, companies like Apple should as well. But by the same token, as the head of a company, he is ultimately allowed to green-light projects, in any department. For the record, where I work, my colleagues pull the plug on some of my ideas – but I digress.
p.s. My title is obviously intended to make a point, I don’t actually support justifying bad behavior, but I assure you it’s better than the original one I had in mind…