Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
Are we done here yet? The end of the year is a good time to look back at this messy, disfigured, endlessly shifting mess called 2017, and assess How Things Went. And boy, am I ready for 2017 to go. For now, though, let’s look at some of the big shifts in this year full of change to see what we have before us as we head into the new year.
Journalism made a comeback, kind of.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and his endless attacks on mainstream news organizations (among many other institutions, such as the FBI, the judiciary and the Constitution), mainstream news organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post staged a comeback from years of decline, notching record numbers of digital subscribers and plenty of hot scoops. All wasn’t completely rosey, however. At one point, a newspaper group proposed getting Congressional approval for an antitrust exemption so they could better compete and negotiate with Google, which with Facebook still Hoovered up the overwhelming majority of all digital ad revenue worldwide.
Twitter really didn’t make a comeback.
Oft-troubled Twitter was more central to the national conversation than ever, thanks to one particular heavy, if erratic, user. The company doubled the maximum of characters, invested in video and live programming, and embarked on an endless series of initiatives to rid the site of its most odious and patently fake users, if not one particular heavy, if erratic, user. The company actually showed signs of recovery, with better growth in user numbers, though profits remain elusive.
Facebook burned through a LOT of goodwill.
The company reaped the unsurprising consequences of a series of missteps this year, including its clueless response to Russian hacking during the 2016 election, insider revelations of the company’s intentional hacking of our brains to further engagement, the Facebook version of Ad-pocalypes, endless issues with bullying and trolls, the wholesale duplication of Snapchat’s interface, even Mark Zuckerberg’s reputed interest in running for public office.
Was there anything Facebook did this year that wasn’t an obnoxious new way to burn through corporate goodwill amassed over the previous decade? No. There wasn’t a damned thing.
The Big Slowdown Gets Rushed Through.
Republican Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, embarked the nation on a grand experiment to see if monopoly-inclined Internet companies could be trusted to not embark on monopolistic behavior if they’re freed of government regulations. The initial results of Pai’s grand experiment weren’t promising. Several major internet providers have already announced price hikes. And AT&T is giving its 200,000 employees $1,000 bonuses each because of how much it’s saving from the tax bill (and, probably, the FCC decision).
As for you and me and the little digital media companies out there now at the mercy of those monopolistically inclined Internet providers, well, we’ll see how we fare over the next few years. Maybe it’ll all work out. Or not.
The Cable Die-Off Began and the Digital One May Be Coming Soon.
As traditional Pay-TV eroded, and room on the set-top box shrank, marginal channels became “zombies,” with little prospect of long-term survival. Zombie channels had few regular viewers and no cash to create must-see content, leaving their owners with few choices beyond going digital or just disappearing.
Meanwhile, other companies are jumping into digital media, from Apple (which is hiring lots of top TV execs from around Hollywood and making high-profile show deals even though it still hasn’t detailed how it will distribute those shows) to Google (ready to Step Up, anyone?) to Time Warner’s Stage 13 to Walter Presents (betting on the quirky, high-quality programming tastes of one man). Something has to give in the next year or two, because most digital channels seem unlikely to be substantially less zombie-fied than their Pay-TV equivalents. Indeed, Fullscreen scotched its subscription service and others may be coming.
Snapchat had a doozy of a year. It went public, was relentlessly copied by Facebook and its far-flung minions, and still managed to remain the favorite app of about half of all teens. Along the way, it forced into being a new way of seeing entertainment, in portrait mode. That stock price is still ugly though.
Digital Assistants. And the Nintendo Switch.
Jeopardy-style, those are the answers to the question I posed ahead of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show: Which devices would break out amid the sea of me-too gadgets and gear at the vast Las Vegas shindig, and later with consumers?
Artificial Intelligence-fueled digital assistants found a useful purchase in the house tied to microphone- and Internet-enabled speakers, despite serious privacy concerns. Amazon bolted to the market lead with its own Alexa-enabled devices and those of many other consumer-electronics makers. Google made a design-savvy debut late in the year, and Apple made, well, an announcement. The Homepod looks great and promises excellent audio tied to the Apple Music service, but the company missed the Christmas season as it continued to tinker with a device it’s been noodling with for years.
Meanwhile, the frequently left-for-dead Nintendo scored a huge hit with its Switch gaming device, which is both console and handheld. Great new Mario and Zelda titles didn’t hurt in driving sales. Sony, meanwhile, continued to sell a boatload of PlayStation 4 consoles, and later in the year, began to dominate sales of virtual-reality headsets with its market-setting PS VR and integrated content market.
Viacom still hasn’t solved its problem with 5-year-olds, and Sony lost more top execs, but Fox and Time Warner were sold off.
Given the family warfare around senescent media baron Sumner Redstone, it was reasonable to expect that his empire might get sold. But then Sumner was eased out of the empire he created, his daughter Shari asserted strong control of both Viacom and CBS, Viacom’s new CEO Bob Bakish proposed a reasonable turnaround plan, and, well, we’ll see.
Bakish’s focused plan leaves a neutered Paramount, and probably doesn’t solve structural problems for channels such as Nickelodeon and MTV whose core audiences are kids of various ages who don’t watch cable TV. Sony saw its chairman, Michael Lynton, depart for Snapchat and its co-heads of TV production head to Apple. But the problems at both major studios didn’t lead to sales. Those honors went to Time Warner, which hooked up with AT&T (though a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit means the sale still isn’t final), and, more recently, Fox.
Disney agreed to buy many parts of 21st Century Fox, a deal that would really make over Hollywood power structures. I guarantee you 18 months ago, no was betting Fox and Time Warner would tap out before Paramount or Sony. Now we have to wonder if the holdouts are the next to go in a wave of studio consolidations.
Subscription content is still what everyone wants, even if only Netflix is doing it right.
The Big N passed 100 million subscribers this year. Hulu, the critical darling of the season with The Handmaid’s Tale, hasn’t revealed how many subscribers it has in more than a year. After launching its own skinny bundle and winning a Best Drama Emmy, Hulu saw its CEO skedaddle to Sony.
Amazon, meanwhile hit heavy seas. CEO Roy Price and right-hand programming guy Joe Price were pushed out over personal peccadilloes, while ABC veteran Morgan Wandell left for Apple’s new video operation, followed this week by three more execs. The company killed off all three Price comedy pilots it was showcasing, and is now trying reclaim some semblance of momentum even as it moves into huge production facilities in Culver City, Calif., next to Apple’s new digs.
TV tried to adapt.
New possibilities in the just-adopted ATSC 3.0 digital broadcasting standards suggest some technological ways for local broadcast stations to remain relevant. How fast companies, and consumers, get there is another, much more complicated question. Broadcasters understand they’d better hop to it in an era of digital powerhouses. But over-the-air delivery of a range of interactive, high-end content holds many promises for those worried about the dominance of Facebook and Google, like targeted advertising, intensely local and niche programming and much more.
VR hit a lull, but AR shot forward.
Thanks to developer tools such as Apple’s ARKit, Amazon’s Sumerian, and Google’s AR Code, augmented reality got a huge boost this year on newly released, newly powerful Apple, Samsung, and Google smartphones. Virtual reality, the darling of 2016, dawdled in the doldrums much of 2017, a near-inevitable process that cleaned out some of the smaller companies but positioned a number of big ones for success in 2018.
So 2017 ended up being a year of tremendous change. I’m ready for it to go. And I’m ready to see what 2018 brings us.