Axios Media Trends

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January 03, 2023

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Situational awareness: ESPN's Monday Night Football pros knew last night's game was over long before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called it, Variety's Cynthia Littleton writes.

1 big thing: News engagement stabilizes

Illustration of a cell phone and a remote control balancing like a cairn.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

News engagement continued to mostly slow in 2022 relative to 2021, but the drops across various platforms were less precipitous compared to the enormous pullback following 2020's historic year of headlines.

The big picture: It will be difficult for any story to top the unprecedented news engagement levels spurred by the COVID pandemic and the final year of the Trump administration, but the drop-off seems to be stabilizing, especially on digital platforms.

  • 🗞️ That could be due in part to a few major 2022 headlines that captured enormous levels of global attention, including the war in Ukraine, the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the FIFA World Cup.
  • But it's also likely that news engagement is beginning to normalize as consumers return to pre-pandemic news consumption habits.

How it works: Our gauge of news engagement includes cable news viewership, social media interactions with news articles, and monthly unique visitors to top digital news sites.

Details: Data for 2022 shows that while cable news continued to see steep viewership drop-offs, engagement with digital platforms and social media isn't declining as steeply.

  • 📱 Social media interactions with news articles in the U.S. fell 14% last year compared to 2021, compared to a 65% drop between 2020 and 2021, according to data from social intelligence platform NewsWhip.
  • 🖥️ Unique monthly visits to the top five news sites globally across mobile and desktop increased by 1.8% last year compared to 2021, after declining by 8% between 2021 and 2020, according to Similarweb, a company that measures web traffic.
  • 📺 Cable news viewership in prime time fell around 14% collectively across the three main cable networks — Fox, CNN and MSNBC — largely due to a drop-off in ratings at the beginning of the year compared to the beginning of 2021, when the Jan. 6 insurrection captured headlines globally.

Of note: Fox News lost just 1% of prime-time viewership in total for the year, compared to 32% and 21% at CNN and MSNBC, respectively, per Nielsen ratings.

What to watch: News avoidance has been rising globally as some users shun distressing stories about climate change, war and global inequities. But engagement with topics that help users escape real-world problems — like sports, true crime and entertainment — continues to climb.

  • ⚽ ESPN's viewership increased 14% in prime time last year compared to 2021, per Variety.
  • 🚓 NBCU's Oxygen True Crime network grew its viewership by 10% in 2022.

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2. TV's tough 2023 trajectory

Data: MoffettNathanson; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

The transition to streaming has wreaked havoc on the business models of major media firms, driving a new wave of consolidation and threatening the survival of smaller channels.

State of play: Two-thirds of U.S. households pay for a cable, satellite or fiber TV subscription, down from 79% in 2017 and 85% in 2007.

What's happening: Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery and NBCUniversal are all expected to sell or combine with other media entities in the next few years to give their businesses the scale needed to possibly compete with tech giants Amazon, Netflix and Google.

  • Smaller TV companies are also scrambling. Lionsgate is looking to spin off Starz. Paramount is beginning to bundle Showtime with its primary streaming service. AMC Networks is laying off 20% of its staff.

🔎 Between the lines: Most challenges plaguing TV giants stem from the false assumption that streaming would quickly make up for linear TV losses.

  • Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney and Comcast don't expect their standalone streaming offerings to break even until at least 2024 or 2025.
Data: YCharts; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Media giants are having a particularly tough time convincing Wall Street that their streaming bets will eventually pay off.

  • Despite surpassing expectations for new subscribers, Disney's stock cratered to its lowest level in 21 years last quarter, due to widening losses in its streaming division.
  • The few firms that have opted not to enter the subscription streaming wars, including Fox Corp., have fared better with investors.

🏈 The migration of the country's biggest sports rights packages from linear TV networks to streaming will expedite the inevitable collapse of the cable bundle.

  • The NFL last week said its coveted Sunday Ticket package will move to YouTube beginning next season.
  • It's the second major NFL deal to move exclusively to a Big Tech firm, following the NFL's landmark Thursday Night Football deal with Amazon.

👀 What we're watching: Nearly every streamer has introduced an ad-supported streaming tier in an effort to lure more subscribers with a cheaper rate.

  • Some companies are beginning to license more of their programs to other TV distributors after initially hoarding their content to boost their own standalone services.

3. 🎙️ Exclusive: Don Jr. signs 7-figure podcast deal

Screenshot: Don Jr.'s Rumble channel

Donald Trump Jr. has inked a multiyear podcast deal with Rumble, the user-generated video platform that's a growing conservative alternative to YouTube, Axios’ Mike Allen and I report.

Why it matters: The deal brings momentum to Rumble following its debut as a public company last year.

  • Rumble went public via a blank check company merger in September that valued the platform at over $2 billion at the time.
  • The company has made strides in user growth, but continues to burn through cash.

Rumble will exclusively host a new Trump Jr. podcast, "Triggered with Don Jr." — an homage to the title of his 2019 book.

  • The live show will air twice a week beginning Jan. 23, with the possibility of expanding its cadence in the future.
  • Trump Jr. joined Rumble in early 2021. He has since amassed over 1 million subscribers, giving him one of the platform's largest followings.

Between the lines: Rumble has pushed to expand its footprint by inking exclusive deals with personalities with big followings — including Russell Brand, Glenn Greenwald and YouTuber David Freiheit, who goes by the pseudonym VivaFrei.

  • "While other Big Tech companies are ... censoring dissent," Trump Jr. said, "Rumble is building a platform that welcomes it, which is why so many content creators ... are now joining them."

By the numbers: Rumble is much smaller than platforms like YouTube or Instagram. But it has attracted one of the largest audiences of the slew of alternative platforms that rose after the Capitol riot.

  • The Toronto-based company said it averaged 71 million global monthly active users when it reported Q3 results in November. Of those users, 57 million were based in the U.S. and Canada.

Rumble raised money from VC backers including Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance.

4. Punchbowl adds text alerts as outlets seek Twitter alternatives

Illustration of a cellphone with a blinking cursor on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Punchbowl News, the 2-year-old Beltway-focused media startup, is launching a text-based breaking news platform to keep its paid subscribers informed of major developments in real time, without relying on Twitter, according to the company's founders.

🐦 Why it matters: More news companies are experimenting with ways to deliver breaking news to their readers directly, avoiding the pitfalls of third-party platforms like Twitter, which has grown increasingly unpredictable for journalists.

Details: Beginning in mid-January, premium subscribers to Punchbowl News will have the ability to opt into the text-based service at no additional charge to receive critical breaking news updates for major stories the company is covering.

  • The service will be delivered through a platform called Subtext that works with dozens of media companies and thousands of creators to send users real-time news updates.
  • The alerts will be used mostly to inform readers about breaking updates between newsletters. Punchbowl publishes three newsletters per day, five times per week.
  • For now, the company doesn't plan to roll out the text service to readers beyond its paid subscribers.

The big picture: More news companies are moving in this direction.

  • The Verge redesigned its home page and user experience to include an editorially curated Twitter-like feed of content in September.
  • The Information debuted a Reddit-like news feed in July.
  • Platformer's Casey Newton said last month that he won't break Twitter news on Twitter anymore.

Go deeper: Rivals see opening in Twitter's chaos

5. CES bets on post-pandemic bounce

Data: CTA; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: CTA; Chart: Axios Visuals

After two years of pandemic-driven setbacks, the Consumer Electronics Show is aiming for a comeback when it hits Vegas later this week.

  • CES hopes to draw at least 100,000 in-person attendees. But it's unclear when, if ever, the megaconference will return to its pre-pandemic peak of 180,000+, Axios' Ina Fried and I report.
  • This year, "the numbers look very strong," said Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO of MediaLink, a media advisory firm that hosts an array of programming at the event. "[W]e're seeing a strong response all the way around."

CES went online-only in January 2021, just as vaccines were being rolled out in the United States. It returned in person last year, but saw only a quarter of its pre-pandemic attendees as the Omicron variant spread.

  • The vast majority of attendees typically come from the U.S., followed by China, which is enduring a COVID spike after lifting lockdowns.
  • The Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that stages CES, said roughly one-third of attendees will come from abroad.

🖼️ The big picture: As one of the largest trade shows in the world, CES sets the scene for dealmaking across tech, media, manufacturing and gaming industries each January.

  • More than 2,500 exhibitors from 166 countries are expected to debut new gadgets and products.
  • As part of the show's effort to broaden its content, keynote speakers include the CEOs of John Deere, Delta and Stellantis — as well as top executives from Netflix, Riot Games and UnitedHealthcare.

🍿 What to watch: New devices — including better webcams — will reflect a world in which more work is being done remotely.

6. 1 fun thing: Mickey’s legal mousetrap

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

"Steamboat Willie," the "1928 short film that introduced Mickey to the world, will lose copyright protection in the United States and a few other countries at the end of next year," the New York Times’ Brooks Barnes reports.

Why it matters: The situation has prompted fans and copyright experts to wonder how Disney will respond legally to protect its marquee character — Mickey Mouse.

Yes, but: Only an earlier version of the Mickey Mouse character will enter the public domain next year.

  • Newer versions that appear on most merchandise and cartoons today will enter the public domain at later periods.

The big picture: Mickey "is widely credited with bringing about America’s lengthy copyright term in the first place," Puck News’ Eriq Gardner reports.