#Content: Expanding Entertainment, Collapsing Criticism

August 10, 2016   •   By Matt Hartman

“TRONC THREATENS a nightmare hellscape of video content in new warning to employees.” That’s how The Verge described a video produced by the (horribly, hilariously) rebranded Tribune Publishing, explaining the company’s new business model. And The Verge was far from the only media outlet to mock Tronc’s “unrelenting circular saw of vapid media-consultant cliché,” to borrow Jordan Weissman’s words.

This shaming was for good reason. Tronc’s chief technology officer and president of new ventures, Malcolm CasSelle, opens the video by claiming, “This is the future of journalism; this is the future of content.” By the video’s end, the second clause sounds less like a distinction and more like a correction. “We’re a content company, first, last, and always,” Anne Vasquez, chief digital officer, adds after two-and-a-half minutes of the two executives discussing revenue per customer, the role of artificial intelligence in automating articles, and the density of video players on webpages. When CasSelle concludes that Tronc’s goal is to “transform journalism,” it starts to seem like Tronc wants to transform it into content — or, maybe more accurately, #content. What exactly their #content will be and whether it will meet any of the traditional standards of journalism is unclear, maybe even irrelevant to Tronc’s higher-ups. But I’m sure its metrics will look great. What else would you expect from a company that combines “tech startup culture” with “legacy corporate culture”?

Yet, as distasteful a demon child of capitalism’s two most-hated cultures as Tronc may be, it’s not exactly alone in its approach — just less graceful. According to Digiday, The Atlantic makes 60 percent of its ad revenue from the kind of sponsored content Tronc seems to be pushing, and Medium made its sponsored content program a crucial selling point for the publications that migrated to the platform earlier this year. The simple fact is that the collapsing media market has required publications to shift their focus, at least partially, from journalism to #content — to whatever it is that will keep the doors open, whether that’s clickbait, “special advertising sections,” or content that collects ample customer data.

This mishmash of journalism and other #content has prompted readers to plug their ears and cover their eyes, pretending everything is okay and that there’s not an impending crisis for the industry. But journalism is not the only place blending the lines to create one undifferentiated mass of profitable #content. The entertainment industry, in all its forms, is doing the exact same thing, only to great cheer — cheer that is in large part deserved. But that cheer also masks the fact that entertainment’s success is creating the very conditions that gave birth to Tronc.

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Game of Thrones is perhaps the decade’s most dominant TV show, judging by the sheer volume of reviews, analyses, and think-pieces it’s inspired — and that’s no mean feat given its competition. One of the most reliable sources for all that Game of Thrones content, up until its demise, was Grantland, the beloved Bill Simmons–led, ESPN-owned publication. The site published a weekly recap by critic Andy Greenwald, a weekly column explaining characters and lore by Jason Concepcion, a GoT-heavy podcast featuring Greenwald and editor Chris Ryan, plus additional columns by Mallory Rubin.

So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that when the site was shuttered last year after long-time disagreements between Simmons and ESPN executives, HBO won a bidding war to bring Simmons into the fold. In the process, the company funded Simmons’s Grantland stand-in, The Ringer, which brought on Greenwald, Concepcion, Ryan, and Rubin, reviving, even expanding, almost all of Grantland’s Game of Thrones columns and podcasts, now complete with a disclosure stating that HBO “is an initial investor in The Ringer.” In addition, Greenwald and Ryan launched After the Thrones, a recap show airing on HBO directly following each new episode. (Greenwald no longer writes a weekly column, however.) All told, it’s a stunning investment in fostering discussion about their premier program.

It’s also a savvy choice that makes a show as ambitious as Game of Thrones possible. Considering that the cast list contains dozens of names and that even major characters have been dropped from the show for a full season before their story lines are revived without further explanation, it can seem a little surprising that Game of Thrones has become so popular — it makes more demands of its audience and runs more convoluted plot lines than traditional TV exec know-how would suggest is sustainable. (The show ignores best practices, to use the corporate lingo.) But the discussion offered at The Ringer serves to keep that audience engaged, reducing the barriers to entry that often exist with high fantasy. Perhaps more importantly, the wealth of criticism also helps keep up interest during the week, ensuring that episode premieres retain their status as TV events — something increasingly rare in the era of Netflix and other digital platforms.

But showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have used The Ringer as more than just a way of securing a baseline level of viewership — they’ve also manipulated its criticism to creative ends. For instance, avid fans of George R. R. Martin’s books have long debated a particular fan theory about the true parentage of Jon Snow, one of the protagonists. In the finale of the most recent season, Benioff and Weiss partially confirmed that theory, just holding back from providing one crucial detail. While it also works as a traditional cliffhanger, the full impact of that decision can only be seen in connection with the fan theory; the show is playing off of the debates The Ringer and After the Thrones foster.

In other words, HBO’s investment in these outlets for criticism belies an approach that blends the show itself with discussion about the show to create an overarching viewer experience. It’s not just the plot that entertains, but also theorizing, exploring the world’s mythology, and more that has engaged book readers for decades — and those aspects are now part of what HBO is producing, not just something happening at whatever passes for a water cooler or comic book shop these days. Moreover, these are things that even non-book readers can take part in thanks to HBO’s new investments. Benioff, Weiss, and HBO are blending entertainment and criticism into one giant, all-encompassing amalgamation of content. Something as grandiose and, indeed, as stunning, as Game of Thrones requires it.

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Sports have always thrived on a similar kind of viewer debate. It’s the true source of the narratives that make fandom so compelling. To see Michael Jordan win a championship for his late father on Father’s Day, to watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi battle for the greatest-soccer-player-alive title, to see if the “unapologetically black” Carolina Panthers can give a middle finger to football’s more conservative elements — it’s what draws fans to the games in the first place. “If basketball is entertainment, it’s also a living text that can be debated forever,” Andrew Sharp wrote about the most recent such narrative, NBA star Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors.

Those debates have long lived in the media, whether newspaper columns, talk radio, or SportsCenter, so it’s worth noting that Durant announced his own decision in The Players’ Tribune, a media outlet run by and featuring contributions from professional athletes — or, more likely, their PR agents and ghostwriters. Durant’s announcement follows on the heels on LeBron James’s two similar moves: first, the reviled Decision, in which he revealed he would leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in 2010, and then his celebrated letter in Sports Illustrated, in which he announced his return to Cleveland. All of these attempts work to control the narratives that define sports watching, allowing players to better profit from fan interest. It’s a standard PR approach exacerbated by opportunities arising from new digital media.

Chief among those is, of course, social media. Writing in The Washington Post, Roberto A. Ferdman claims the new technology is key to the NBA’s surging popularity. “Young kids have an insatiable appetite to know what’s going on off the court or field, and the NBA has been much better about feeding that,” ESPN’s Darren Rovell told Ferdman. That’s a more dressed-up way of saying that watching NBA stars live-tweeting free agency negotiations with emojis and (presumably fake) claims that they’re barricading doors to keep away suitors, as various Los Angeles Clippers did last year while DeAndre Jordan was considering leaving the team, enhances the entertainment offered by actual basketball games. (That incident also spawned multiple Players’ Tribune articles.) This shift allows athletes to build their own personal brands — something that has led to reigning MVP Steph Curry’s young daughter becoming a meme and to a cooking show for his wife.

But it’s not just players capturing profit from this conflation of criticism and criticized object. As always, the league and its owners benefit most. The NBA has done a much better job of embracing digital media than other professional leagues, as might be expected given that over a quarter of the NBA’s teams are owned by venture capitalists, according to The New York Times’s Bruce Schoenfeld.

As Schoenfeld explains, “Playing the games and charging people to see them now constitutes only a fraction of the business. Franchises […] service fans in distant cities through audio and video streaming and proprietary content.” That content includes, especially, highlights and clips shared via social media, which is why the NBA partnered with a tech company to launch software that allows teams to create highlights almost instantaneously. It’s a recognition that fans increasingly watch games while posting on social media, and a plot to ensure that it’s the league that controls and profits from Vines and Twitter videos, not the fans, and not any of the popular YouTube accounts dedicated to creating and sharing basketball clips that the NBA has worked recently to shut down. If you are to run a team as a profitable business, it only makes sense that you would insist on efficiently commoditizing the content most demanded by fans.

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It’s impossible to ignore that these shifts are taking place in a terrible time for media, when criticism and journalism of all stripes are ripe for the picking by anyone with the capital to do so. Eulogizing Grantland in the Observer, Fredrik deBoer stated the problem clearly, pointing out that there’s a “race to the bottom in paid commentary that pushes rates down and leads to a world of unstable freelance work” and a “brutally competitive media landscape, one flush with writers trying to make it, many of them young, hungry types who are more than happy to write for pennies.” Revenues are down and layoffs are up, giving these venture capitalists a chance to launch media enterprises with a competitive advantage.

In that situation, working within the confines of HBO’s seed money, or similar opportunities, can seem like an easy decision. It offers a stable funding model in a time when such are hard to come by. As deBoer pointed out, Grantland was known for paying well, supporting writers, and insisting on quality editing, all of which ensured that it was home to some of the best culture writing available during its four-year run. That was made possible by ESPN’s backing, and now The Ringer, flush with ex-Grantland staffers, seems poised to do the same.

But our optimism should be tempered. Funding for these media outlets is always tied to other ventures: it’s rarely journalism that’s worthy of the investment. The Ringer, in fact, may only exist because of the potentially uneasy pairing of Bill Simmons’s commitment to the project and HBO’s desire for his rabid fans to tune in to his new show, podcast, and whatever video projects he concocts. (He previously launched ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series.) In other cases, like Buzzfeed or Vox, it’s data or a proprietary content management system, or the potential for promotional content or branding for the backer. “There’s a lot of cash floating around out there for publications, thanks to the influx of venture capital,” deBoer wrote, “but the faucet won’t be turned on forever, and when things get bad, there will be more mouths to feed than good jobs.”

For proof of how fragile this set-up is, just look at Grantland’s demise: the common explanation was that it wasn’t profitable, despite its acclaim and loyal readers, and Simmons threatened ESPN’s relationship with the NFL, its biggest partner, when he harshly criticized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over various scandals. Even though it was backed by a media company — presumably more committed to quality journalism than others — the two issues were too much. Grantland’s success was fleeting: its best work wasn’t #content enough to drive the revenue it needed, so it could survive only on the margins until it raised the ire of the NFL or any other content producer with the leverage to sway ESPN. Either way, the marriage was fragile. HBO might be less wrapped up in a single partner than ESPN is with the NFL, but it’s still hard to imagine that The Ringer would be able to roll back its Game of Thrones coverage, even if the show’s quality were to plummet in future seasons. The different aims of these different ventures are always likely to diverge.

Whether The Ringer survives likely doesn’t matter much to HBO, either. If the site doesn’t last — say, because their coverage of tech news puts them in Peter Thiel’s crosshairs and The Ringer goes the way of Gawker — HBO can simply shift all those writers to the staff of Silicon Valley, a show that uses over 200 consultants and conducts journalistic research before writing its episodes, as Andrew Marantz detailed in The New Yorker. And if you’re a journalist struggling in the race to the bottom, why wouldn’t you consider jumping ship to a booming industry like television, where your journalism content will be repackaged as entertainment content? What’s the difference? It’s all just #content anyway.

But writers aren’t the only ones suffering from these new media dynamics. As HBO gains control of media outlets, as the NFL’s profitability constricts ESPN’s coverage, as investors control publications with the revenue of promoted content, whatever those producers are selling is diffused into our culture. Without any alternative funding model, media outlets have little choice but to cover what gets them paid. The more that happens, the less we bring our worldviews to bear in critical judgment and the more our worldview becomes a matter of tastes in entertainment, of arranging the pieces of content provided to us into the semblance of an ideology. It’s a world where politics and media literacy are no longer intersecting issues, but one and the same.

I can think of no better way to explain the proliferation of criticism that takes opinions on entertainment as the starting and ending point for political engagement, rendering the real world into something seen through the lens of cultural consumption. Emily Nussbaum wrote about Game of Thrones’s politics in The New Yorker, detailing how your opinion of various characters reveals your political ideals. Nick Schager wrote a related piece about the politics of Captain America: Civil War at The Daily Beast. The labor movement has been abused for decades, yet it’s not uncommon to read defenses of star athletes on the basis of labor rights. Hamilton has become so popular that it’s either as radical as Black Lives Matter or not as revolutionary as you think, but either way it — the play, its structure, its casting — is all you really need to know about American politics today.

Of course, good art often functions on a political register, and good criticism often brings out the political resonance of art (as I’ve sometimes tried to show myself). I don’t even mean to deny that there are lessons to be learned about politics from Game of Thrones, especially given the fact that it’s inspired by actual history, nor that there isn’t good criticism about the show, like Emmett Rensin’s recent Vox article, or the body of Greenwald and Ryan’s work.

But there’s a particular kind of criticism that should inspire reproach. It’s defined not by aim but by method. It’s a kind of writing that uncritically defaults to terms defined by entertainment — as though, if we represent the world well enough, if we find subversive, progressive ideals hidden in sitcoms, then everything will be okay. Our problems will be solved. This criticism doesn’t inspire readers to a better understanding of their world, but rather to increasingly myopic disagreements about whether particular representations are really, truly progressive or not.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising: with their jobs yoked to whatever #content ensures their paycheck, critics are given little freedom to look outside the object they purport to criticize. But that means the consumption of culture takes precedence, and how that culture gets produced, what conditions of production undergird it, are obscured. And that leads us to conflate politics with media literacy — to limit, say, our debate about feminism to a debate about whether the women on Game of Thrones have properly asserted power within the show. Some of the dominant strains of today’s identity politics have taken this sort of approach as gospel, looking solely at techniques of representation in culture, with a politics that is entirely reducible to matters of cultural taste.

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As the producers of culture — the production companies, the artists, the athletes — begin to take ownership of the means of discussion, of criticism, both their products and our vehicles for discourse are altered. The sheer volume of content we consume is growing continually, broken up across a number of different platforms and publications and brands, and as some producers leverage their market power to push their particular content more often than others, the business models for journalism and entertainment begin to weave together. Content becomes #content.

That shift has had real benefits. For all of the frustrating ways people discuss Game of Thrones, it is a landmark television event, and the expanding scope of television shows and films (like Marvel’s fleet of franchises) opens truly exciting creative possibilities. Kanye West, ever among the avant-garde of pop, has shown with his ever-changing album how using digital platforms to bend criticism back into art can lead to fascinating projects. The NBA hasn’t been this fun since Jordan retired. All of these examples are worthy of our interest and merit genuine critical engagement.

But for all of that, we cannot ignore the fact that this new industry make-up has real costs, that it is made possible by content producers taking advantage of journalism’s struggles to assert their control. For just that reason, genuine critical attention becomes more tenuous: our best critics struggle to find stable employment that can support their work, while new and diverse voices that might offer the kinds of novel insight we need can’t find a platform. The question is both whether this market will continue to produce content worthy of our attention and whether we can actually provide that attention in useful ways — or whether it will all become undifferentiated #content to service another company.

It is easy, too easy, to watch Tronc’s bald defense of that kind of profiteering and laugh, but their approach is merely the less refined version of what all those in media are hoping to do today. Tronc is the ugly, unmasked face of our media landscape. If we don’t want that approach to be what determines how we, collectively, engage with our culture, then we must find ways to support a stable, independent press, one that is free to produce commentaries unmoored from a producer’s #content. There is cause for hope with the proliferation of small magazines and indie producers who have found a space in which to operate, and as publishers like Jacobin, The Baffler, and even, perhaps, The Ringer find ways to produce criticism of merit.

But if they can’t insure their stability — well, then, we will all get the Tronc we deserve.

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Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina. He tweets at @themhartman.