June 07, 2022

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1 big thing ... Scoop: CNN evaluating partisan talent

Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

CNN's new boss Chris Licht is evaluating whether personalities and programming that grew polarizing during the Trump era can adapt to the network's new priority to be less partisan.

Why it matters: If talent cannot adjust to a less partisan tone and strategy, they could be ousted, three sources familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Details: Licht wants to give personalities who may appear polarizing a chance to prove they're willing to uphold the network's values so that they don't tarnish CNN's journalism brand.

  • For on-air talent, that includes engaging in respectful interviews that don't feel like PR stunts. For producers and bookers, that includes making programming decisions that are focused on nuance, not noise.

Between the lines: CNN's tone became more partisan and combative during the Trump era and under the leadership of former CNN president Jeff Zucker.

  • Some on-air personalities, like Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter, have become the face of the network's liberal shift.
  • Licht doesn't want to necessarily shy away from personality programming, especially in prime time, but he wants to ensure that partisan voices don't dominate in a way that harms CNN, a source notes.
  • CNN did not comment.

Catch up quick: Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav haven't been shy about their goal of dialing back on partisan and alarmist programming in favor of traditional journalism.

  • Last week, Licht told employees in a memo that the network has added a "Breaking News” guideline to its stylebook, to address overuse of the breaking news banner across its network and cable news.
  • “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers,” he said in the note obtained by Axios.

Go deeper.

2. Buzzkill

BuzzFeed stock price
Data: Yahoo Finance; Chart: Axios Visuals

Shares in BuzzFeed Inc. fell to $2.23 yesterday, an all-time low since the company went public in December via a SPAC.

Why it matters: The company's market cap, as of business close yesterday, was $302 million, roughly the same amount that it cost them to acquire Complex Networks, and less than the company's combined 2021 revenue ($398 million).

Context: A six-month lock-up provision that restricted some Class A shareholders, including executives, employees and institutional shareholders, expired late last week.

  • That likely led to a large number of shares being sold in the past few days. BuzzFeed warned about a scenario like this in an April filing with the SEC.

3. 📺 Jan. 6 goes prime time

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Nearly every major broadcast and cable news network has announced plans to cover Thursday's prime-time Jan. 6 committee hearing live.

Why it matters: It's the first big-time TV political hearing since former President Trump's second impeachment trial, and TV networks are banking on eyeballs.

📉 By the numbers: Cable ratings across the three major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — are, on average, down 21% in prime time for the first five months of this year compared to the first five months of 2021. Those losses skew heavily toward CNN and MSNBC. Fox's ratings are up in that five-month span.

All three of the major broadcast networks — CBS, ABC and NBC — will cover the hearings live in the 8pm hour with special coverage anchored by top evening news anchors Norah O'Donnell, David Muir and Lester Holt, respectively.

On the cable side, CNN and MSNBC will carry the hearings live.

  • Fox News will have its top anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum cover the hearings live on Fox Business Network, while Fox News will run its regularly scheduled prime-time programming.
  • Fox News prime-time programs will cover the hearings "as news warrants," the network said, and Shannon Bream will anchor a two-hour live special from 11pm to 1am.

What to watch: The House's Jan. 6 committee has turned to former ABC News president James Goldston to make a mountain of explosive material into a captivating multimedia presentation, Axios' Mike Allen scooped.

4. Athletes turned Hollywood production stars

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Religion of Sports, the sports media production company co-founded by Tom Brady, Michael Strahan, and filmmaker and entrepreneur Gotham Chopra, has raised $50 million in a new series B funding round led by Shamrock Capital.

Why it matters: "The market has grown, and that has led to an opportunity for networks to invest in niche programming,"

  • "When you're doing something with an athlete or talent people already know, you don't have to set the back story," said Religion of Sports CEO Ameeth Sankaran.

The big picture: Production companies founded by star athletes are booming in the streaming era, as entertainment networks scramble to find content that will break through.

  • LeBron James' production company SpringHill sold a minority stake that valued it at $725 million last year.
  • Peyton Manning's Omaha Productions has expanded to produce scripted shows for the History Channel and ESPN.

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5. Investments pouring into Hispanic media

Percentage of U.S. demand for streaming content, by language
Data: Parrot Analytics; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

Latina activists and entrepreneurs Jess Morales Rocketto and Stephanie Valencia have raised $80 million to launch a new Hispanic media company called the Latino Media Network.

Why it matters: It's one of the largest capital raises for a Latina-owned and -operated startup in the U.S.

Driving the news: With the capital, the duo has acquired 18 Hispanic radio stations across 10 markets from TelevisaUnivision.

  • The deal, valued at $60 million, is one of the largest single acquisitions of radio stations by a Latino-owned and -operated company.

The big picture: The Latino Media Network raise and TelevisaUnivision deal represent the latest major moment of momentum for Hispanic media.

  • On Monday, The Roku Channel launched Espacio Latino, a new dedicated Spanish-language content hub.
  • Two weeks ago, Candle Media acquired Exile Content Studio, one of the fastest-growing Hispanic content companies in the world.
  • Last month, a startup backed by private equity purchased some of the most influential Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S.

By the numbers: Spanish-language content has consistently been the second most in-demand non-English language TV content with U.S. audiences for the last two years, per Parrot Analytics.

6. Study links Russian media to online hate groups

Links to Russian media shared by online extremist groups, by platform
Data: George Washington University; Table: Thomas Oide/Axios Visuals
Percentage of online extremist groups that posted links to Russian media, by platform
Data: George Washington University; Table: Thomas Oide/Axios Visuals

There is a clear and growing link between Russian propaganda and online far-right extremism globally, according to a new study from researchers at George Washington University.

Why it matters: The findings suggest the influence of Russian media on these communities is organic, which makes it harder to stop.

  • "It's almost like a fog of war," said Neil F. Johnson, a physicist who co-authored the report.

Key takeaways: The findings suggest extremist hate groups that post links to Russian media tend to originate from places with deep racial divides, including North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia and Nordic regions.

  • "The common theme is white frustration, which bleeds into 'Who can I blame?" Johnson said.
  • Hate groups on 4chan and Gab, which are both based in the U.S., share almost as many links to Russian state media sources as the Russian social media network VKontakte.

The big picture: The findings dispel the notion that Russian influence on domestic extremism happens through coordinated bot campaigns.

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7. 🕒 Clock running out on Biden's stymied FCC nominee

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Congress hasn't budged on President Biden's pick for a key tie-breaking FCC seat as the clock ticks down on the chance for a vote, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and I write.

Why it matters: The White House says it "continues to strongly back" Gigi Sohn. But sources tell Axios that Democrats don't currently have the votes after nearly eight months of drama around her nomination.

Yes, but: Without Sohn, some broadcasters think their deals have a better chance.

  • Tegna's $8.6 billion sale to Standard General is an example of a major broadcast deal that's currently being evaluated and could face potential barriers if Sohn were nominated.

State of play: If Sohn doesn't win a vote before the summer recess, Democrats could lose their chance to fill the seat should Republicans take control of Congress in November.

Go deeper.

8. 🌞 Here comes the Sun

A special edition of the New York Sun printed for the company's relaunch party.

The New York Sun has grown its headcount from 30 to 40 since it relaunched in February, its publisher Dovid Efune tells Axios.

  • The long-defunct daily newspaper, now a digital-only venture, has 100,000 free newsletter subscribers and is aiming to reach a half-million subscribers by the end of the year.

Why it matters: The Sun’s resurrection speaks to the power that storied news brands still hold over audiences, even in the digital era.

  • “The Sun has a phenomenal history, but it really has a warm place in the hearts of many Americans,” Efune said.

Catch up quick: Efune bought the company last year from Seth Lipsky, the editor of the paper during its second run from 2002 to 2008. Lipsky continues to serve as The Sun’s editor and has hired 10 people since the brand relaunched, including four new reporters and a few columnists.

  • In addition to advertising and sponsorships, The Sun also sells digital memberships for $12 monthly. Efune declined to say how many paid members the company has attracted thus far.