Axios Media Trends

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February 25, 2020

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Situational awareness:

  1. Univision announced plans to sell a majority stake to a group of investors led by former Viacom CFO Wade Davis. Go deeper.
  2. The spread of the coronavirus outbreak is being matched by the spread on social media of both unintentional misinformation and vociferous disinformation. Go deeper.
  3. Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein is now a convicted rapist.

1 big thing: Big Tech caught flat-footed by 2020

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech companies are struggling to regulate new types of campaign tactics and civic engagement on their platforms ahead of this year's election.

Why it matters: After the 2016 election, Silicon Valley vowed to do better at stopping election manipulation on their platforms. But unforeseen uses of their platforms have again caught them off guard amid real-time campaigning.

  • Facebook had to clarify its rules around sponsored content for political advertisers last week after it was reported that Bloomberg's campaign was paying top Instagram influencers to post memes on the campaign's behalf. It also had to clarify its rules around whether paid political campaign staffers could post content supporting their candidate.
  • Twitter suspended 70 pro-Bloomberg accounts on Friday for violating its platform manipulation rules. A Twitter official told the Washington Post earlier that week that a heavily edited video posted by Bloomberg would likely be labeled as false under its new manipulated media policy.
  • Internet TV platforms like Roku and Hulu have also become problematic. As The Washington Post notes, campaign finance experts are concerned about the lack of regulation around digital TV political ads.

The big picture: Regulators haven't provided much guidance to make these choices easier for tech companies, and tech companies worry that self-regulation puts them at risk of appearing biased.

  • On the commercial side, the Federal Trade Commission offered updated guidance last fall to its native advertising guidelines, but those guidelines don't address political advertising explicitly.
  • On the political side, campaigns are required to report salary expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. But the FEC, which is now essentially defunct due to a lack of appointed commissioners, hasn't updated its guidelines recently.

This makes it confusing for platforms to know where they are supposed to draw the lines around things like branded content and paid posts on behalf of campaigns and candidates.

  • Some states are taking matters into their own hands by enforcing their own state-wide campaign finance laws, most notably Washington state. But even those rules have proven very tricky to enforce.

Be smart: Efforts to get creative in online advertising are growing more common as campaigns look for new ways to target voters, without having to rely mostly on Facebook and Google.

  • Axios reported two weeks ago that the Trump campaign is experimenting with new ad strategies on different publishers and ad networks, including conservative podcasts.

The bottom line: Without clearer guidance from regulators, it's hard for platforms to know the best solution about how they should be policing political speech and political ads.

What's next: Rep. David Cicilline, who chairs the House Antitrust Subcommittee, is reportedly preparing legislation aimed at removing liability protections from tech platforms that don't take down false political ads, per Bloomberg Law.

Go deeper: Older candidates take the lead on social media

2. Media trust gap remains huge ahead of 2020

Reproduced from Edelman Trust Barometer; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from Edelman Trust Barometer; Chart: Axios Visuals

The gap between Democrats and Republicans in their trust of media and business as institutions remains wide ahead of the election, according to Edelman's latest Global Trust Barometer study.

  • While Republicans continue to more deeply distrust the media, Democratic trust in business has decreased over the past year.

The big picture: Numerous surveys have documented an increasing rift between Democrats and Republicans over the role of the media since President Trump took office.

  • Pew Research Center recently found that since 2014, "Republicans have grown increasingly alienated from most of the more established sources, while Democrats’ confidence in them remains stable, and in some cases, has strengthened."

Go deeper: America's most polarizing brands: News media companies

3. Bernie's battle with mainstream media

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Staff

Bernie Sanders' rise is forcing news outlets to come to terms with ways they should covering his candidacy as a frontrunner, instead of a fringe candidate.

Why it matters: The media finds itself in the same position as it was in the 2016 election, when Donald Trump began to pull ahead in the Republican primary.

Driving the news: MSNBC plans "to seek out more smart, pro-Sanders voices," shifting coverage amid criticism, Vanity Fair's Joe Pompeo reports.

  • The news comes on the heels of MSNBC's Chris Matthews apologizing on air to Sanders after making comments comparing Sanders' Nevada win to the Nazi invasion of France.
  • Other mainstream news organizations, like The New York Times, have since revisited their coverage of Sanders' 2016 campaign, to better understand their coverage blindspots when it came to covering Sanders' "underdog" campaign.

The big picture: The Sanders campaign has long-asserted that the mainstream media is biased against it.

  • Earlier this year, the campaign created “The 99,” an in-house live-streamed show that highlights the campaign's policy initiatives in a way that looks and feels like a news media broadcast. 
  • Sanders' campaign manager Faiz Shakir argued on CNN in August that the campaign has had to create its own outlet because mainstream media is too incentivized by corporate interests to cover issues fairly. 

Be smart: Media companies are an easy target because media has become one of the most polarizing institutions in America, and particularly during the Trump era. But it's usually Republicans that are likely to cry foul over mainstream media bias, not Democrats.

4. Scoop: Sports podcast wars heat up

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Blue Wire, a new sports podcast company, has raised $1.2 million in a seed round, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Blue Wire is looking to build out long-form sports narrative podcasts. The company believes that while sports highlights will continue to be mostly viewed via short video clips, more long-form sports media consumption will eventually shift to podcasts from traditional radio and print.

Details: The seed round comes from Dot Capital, 500 Startups and some individual investors, including Prakash Janakiraman, Co-Founder and Chief Architect at NextDoor, and professional football player Deion Jones through his venture fund Forty5 Ventures.

  • The money will be used to expand the company's content studio, which builds, sells and markets sports podcasts for brands, teams and influencers.
  • It's currently based in San Francisco but is soon be relocating to New York City,
  • It's eyeing a series A fundraising round in the near future. It's hoping to create a company that is modeled similarly to Gimlet, and includes both a podcast production studio as well as a network of its own podcasts.
  • Sources say that the company has already been in touch with bigger sports media companies about partnerships, but for now, it's looking to remain independent.

The big picture: Sports podcasting is becoming an increasingly competitive space as more investment flows into it.

  • Spotify recently acquired The Ringer, a sports podcast company from ESPN personality Bill Simmons, for nearly $200 million.
  • The Athletic began building a sports podcast business last year.
  • SB Nation has built out a local sports podcasting network that includes dozens of local team sports podcasts.

Go deeper.

5. Investors wary of new ViacomCBS strategy

Data: Yahoo Finance; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: Yahoo Finance; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Shares of the newly-combined ViacomCBS dropped a startling 15% last week, after the company announced plans for a new streaming service during its first earnings report as a combined entity.

Why it matters: The company is now worth far less combined ($17 billion in market capitalization) than the two companies were worth separately (around $30 billion) prior to their merger.

Details: Analysts have had mixed reactions to the company's streaming plans, which includes expanding CBS All Access to include exclusive content from Viacom's cable networks, like MTV and Nickelodeon, as well as Viacom's film studio Paramount.

  • Some argue the company's streaming service strategy isn't clear, and that it's confusing as to how the company will balance selling its assets to consumers directly while also keeping its traditional TV business afloat.
  • Others suggest that building off the already successful CBS All Access tech stack and model gives the company a strong start.

By the numbers:

  • 22 million ad-supported streaming monthly active users
  • 11 million subscription-streaming subscribers (Showtime and CBS All Access)
  • $1.6 billion in streaming & digital video revenue

Be smart: The company clearly sees a combined streaming service as a huge pillar of its corporate strategy moving forward. Not only did the company release its streaming revenues for the first time, but it bought sponsored social media posts to promote the numbers shortly after.

6. Ad-supported streaming on the rise

Data: PwC and Digital TV Research; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: PwC and Digital TV Research; Chart: Axios Visuals

A few of the last remaining major ad-supported streaming platforms are reportedly nearing sales to major media companies.

Why it matters: The acquisitions show how valuable big media companies think ad-supported streaming services could be to their overall streaming strategies, as they continue to also invest in subscription streaming offerings.

Driving the news: Fox Corp is eyeing an acquisition of free-ad supported streaming service Tubi in a deal that could be valued at more than $500 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.

  • The Journal also reports that Comcast's NBCUniversal is "in advanced talks" to acquire streaming-video service Vudu from Walmart.
  • Last year, The Journal also reported that Comcast was in talks to buy ad-supported streaming company Xumo.

Be smart: While Netflix remains the incumbent to beat in the subscription streaming wars, there's not yet a dominant player in the free, ad-supported streaming space, according to previously reported data from Magid Associates.

Data: Magid; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Magid; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: Analysts have anticipated that more consolidation would be on the horizon.

  • Viacom bought Pluto TV, a free streaming app, for $340 million last January to compliment CBS' subscription streaming product, CBS All Access.
  • Amazon-owned IMDB launched Freedive — a free, ad-supported streaming video channel featuring hit movies and TV shows — last year.

Go deeper: Free streaming services begin to challenge subscription video

7. Exclusive: Local newsrooms raise $1 million from philanthropy

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Report for America (RFA), a program of the nonprofit The GroundTruth Project, which supports emerging journalists, helped newsrooms raise nearly $1 million in local fundraising donations last year, executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: Support from donors for local news is becoming more critical as the Trump administration looks to severely cut funds for public media.

  • In its most recent budget proposal, the White House again recommended that federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which funds public media like PBS and NPR, be reduced to $0 by 2023.
  • Yes, but: Congress has typically shown bipartisan support for funding CPB, and no budget has passed to date without at least some CPB funding.

Details: Report for America uses a funding match model to pay the salaries of local journalists. It pays half of a corps members’ salary, while encouraging and supporting local news organizations to contribute one quarter, and local and regional donors to contribute the final quarter of that members' salary.

  • In 2019, executives say its partner newsrooms quadrupled the program’s goals for local fundraising in 2019, raising more than $800,000 from more than 1,150 local donors, and nearly $1,000,000 when including partners running public radio campaigns. 

The big picture: RFA estimates that over half of the funding secured is from donors who are new to journalism giving.

  • This is a particular feat given the fact that most U.S. adults don't realize that local news media isn't doing well financially, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last fall.

1 fun thing: Netflix's new numbers

Illustration:Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Netflix said Monday that it will begin putting out daily lists of the top 10 movies and top 10 TV shows in each country.

  • Why it matters: The company says that the lists will help users "easily see what’s in the zeitgeist," but industry onlookers argue that by releasing the lists, Netflix is undermining its all-mighty algorithm, which is supposed to surface personalized content recommendations for users.

Be smart: In typical Netflix fashion, the company offered little clarity around what it will be using to determine which shows are "popular."

  • According to Bloomberg, no outside party verified the lists. The lists are based on viewership in the first 28 days after a show was released, and the numbers include "people who watched at least two minutes of a program -- rather than all the way through."